Lifting the soft palate while singing: why it is important and how to do it
Aggiornamento: 1 nov 2019
Lifting the soft palate is a crucial phase in singing. If you take singing lessons, or have taken some in the past, you may have heard phrases like: lift the soft palate, imagine an egg in the mouth, try to smile inside, etc.
Why is it important to lift the soft palate while singing?
It's really important to lift the soft palate while singing if we don't want the sound to become nasal. In fact, a low palate represents a sort of obstacle to the resonance of the voice, which, instead of channelling directly into the oral cavity alone, it also ends up in the nasal cavity. The result is a shrill and whiny tone, the loss of intelligibility, and the poor sound projection.
The prof. Franco Fussi explains it well in his article “La voce nel naso” ("The voice in the nose") when he states that "the sensation is that of a sound that stays "inside" the singer. This is because, as we said before, nasalization adds frequencies of anti-resonance to the sound, greatly reducing the intensity of the corresponding harmonics of the sound produced, with a significant decrease of "lift" of the emission (dull voice, in the back) and also creating a vocal distortion with loss of intelligibility. You can read the whole article "La voce nel naso" clicking here.
Instead, having a lifted soft palate allows the voice to correctly resonate through the oral cavity, acquiring projection and therefore power from the audibility point of view, in addition to a great enrichment of harmonics and an improvement in the tonal quality.
How does one lift the soft palate while singing?
To answer this question, and to understand how to lift the soft palate, first we need to look at the role played by the soft palate in the swallowing phases. I don't want to bore you with useless anatomy notions, but if you keep reading you'll discover something interesting about the voice use, especially on a practical level.
When we swallow, the larynx rises, the epiglottis extends to form a kind of bridge over the larynx itself, and by covering the airways in order to protect them, it allows the food bolus to pass directly along the esophagus towards the stomach. What does the soft palate do in this phase? The soft palate is lowered towards the larynx so as not to allow food to end up in the nasal cavities.
To better understand this process I suggest you watch the video below. Pictures explain more than a thousand words. When viewing the video, pay particular attention to the movement of the soft palate in coordination with that of the larynx. Look carefully because then I'll ask you a question.
Interesting video right? Now let's see if you managed to identify the movement of the soft palate in accordance with that of the larynx. What is the position of the soft palate, when the larynx rises to let the food pass? Exact!!! The soft palate is completely lowered. It is worth noting that during the initial swallowing phase, during the pharyngeal stage, the soft palate rises when the food bolus passes. In this position, you can see in the video that the larynx is still in a neutral or stable position. In the next phase, when the bolus passes the soft palate, the larynx rises towards the epiglottis. In accordance with this upward laryngeal movement, the soft palate is completely lowered in order to facilitate the thrust of the food into the esophagus.
At this point you'll want to ask me: what does all this have to do with singing?
Theodore Dimon, in his book “Your Body, Your Voice - the key to Natural Singing and Speaking” on page, 81 and 82, clearly explains how a low or neutral larynx and an open throat, are closely connected with the raised soft palate. On page 82, he clearly explains that when we sing with a lowered soft palate, this is associated with a high larynx and narrow throat. In this condition, the voice also resonates in the nasal cavities, and appears to be forced and shrill due to the raising of the larynx and constriction of the throat. A narrow throat also negatively affects breathing, simply because it prevents its free use. The other way around, a raised soft palate is associated with a lower or neutral larynx and an open throat, and creates optimal conditions at resonance, tonal, muscular and respiratory levels, with great results on the projection and power of the sound. In a nutshell, singing becomes an easy and natural act.
So how do we lift the soft palate?
You will agree with me that there is no button that … Baaaaaammmm “Lift soft palate”. But we have just discovered something interesting. If the larynx is low, the soft palate is high and viceversa. These two organs move together in the opposite way. As we have seen, this mechanism is primarily a defense process of our body that causes the larynx and soft palate to move towards each other during swallowing, restricting access of food both to the upper respiratory tract (low soft palate) and to the lower respiratory tract (high larynx). When, on the other hand, we yawn or take a deep breath, this movement is in reverse, that is, the soft palate is high and the larynx is lower.
But we are not there yet. Because when I yawn or take a long breath, I'm obviously taking in air, I'm breathing. While singing is basically an expiratory act, we emit sounds on the air that goes out, not on the air that comes in.
Can we then influence the movement of the soft palate starting from the position of the larynx? Sure!!! Because if we can keep the larynx low or neutral then the soft palate will be high. The method of singing of the mixed voice or mix that I imported from the United States is based precisely on the mechanisms of the larynx, or rather on making sure that vocal production happens with a neutral or stable larynx. Neutral or stable larynx = raised soft palate!
How can I influence the position of the larynx? It is enough to know how to articulate the vowels correctly in addition to some other trick, such as the use of so-called temporary sounds, to become familiar with the right vocal sensation that tells us that the larynx is stable and consequently the soft palate is raised. The idea is to teach the voice how to emit a correct sound, through personalized exercises, built by the singing teacher based on how each student uses the voice itself. Through constant training, a real reprogramming of the neuromuscular memory of the voice happens. This reprogramming, I'll repeat it, happens through a training that consists mainly of exercises. To learn more about the subject, read the article "Learning to sing: exercises vs songs" by clicking here. When the voice memorizes correctly what it has to do with the exercises, then that correct sensation will basically be transferred automatically also to the songs.
In my method, the correct vowel articulation plays a key role for the correct vocalization with a stable larynx, with consequent raised soft palate. Theodore Dimon himself on page 82 of his book, indicates how darkening the vowels a bit allows us to obtain a stable larynx and the so-called "coperto" sound. For example, I often notice how many singers hyper-articulate vowels horizontally, disregarding the fact that this encourages the larynx to rise and the soft palate to lower. An “A” articulated towards a broad smile, as often suggested, doesn't encourage larynx stability. On the other hand, an “A” pronounced with a neutral mouth with vertical rather than horizontal projection, encourages a stable laryngeal position and a raised soft palate, with the beautiful result of having a qualitatively better sound from the timbric and harmonic point of view: the so-called "round" sound.
So what is the correct way to pronounce vowels while singing? And how do these influence the correct or incorrect use of the voice?
Stay tuned on my blog, because here I will let the great Italian opera singers and one of the world class leading experts in vocal technique talk.
In the meantime, if you want a practical demonstration of how this method works on your voice, you can contact me and book a voice lesson.