I never really liked the vocal exercises I was presented with when I started out. Like many self-taught singers I sang along to favourite performers and learned to produce convincing versions of favourite songs, getting a little better all the time, but not really finding my way around my vocal “blind spots” – because of course I was not actually aware of them. I had no success with the singing teachers I tried; my lack of awareness in the muscles of my throat was partly due to chronic verbal self-control – I did not feel able to speak in an uncensored way around my family and friends, and that constant self-editing “contradicted” a deeply-buried natural desire to speak in a straight-forward and truthful manner. The result was evident in my low, throaty voice – people constantly asked me to repeat myself as they found my husky tones hard to decipher. Added to that I was an asthmatic with intermittently blocked sinuses. My habit of breathing only through my mouth most of the time was I now realise another trigger for my constantly tense and retracted tongue root – I had to make the space to take in air through my mouth somehow and so I was unconsciously pulling my tongue downward and backwards to make myself a “breathing space”. Over night my nose would block up completely and I would wake up with a dry throat and congestion in my chest. Unsurprisingly I struggled to produce my higher notes with any richness and power.
Despite all the vocal problems I had exercises did not feel like the right solution - I bought Tona De Brett‘s exercise tapes, because I had seen her on the film The Greatest Rock And Roll Swindle talking about working with The Sex Pistols, and how she thought Annie Lennox was the most vocally accomplished of her students. I adored Annie Lennox, so I bought the tapes! However, I really did not take to those classic exercises – “vee, vee, vee, vee, vah, vah, vah, vah,”, up and down, up and down, I just didn’t get it! It wasn’t fun, it certainly wasn’t recognisable as music, I could not see what the benefit was supposed to be, and of course my rigid, inflexible tongue was unlikely to wake up in response to these rather clinical sounds anyway.
So the first time anyone showed me a really effective exercise I fell completely in love!
Hum, and pinch your nose closed with your thumb and forefinger – notice that the sound stops dead. This is because all the sound is coming out of your nose. Indeed this is the simplest way to define humming – sustainable sounds that come out of your nose. We have three basic hums available for vocal experiments, and this exercise is going to use the hum at the end of “sing” – not a coincidence! So sing “sing” on a comfortable note in the middle of your range, and extend the last consonant so that you are humming with an [ng] sound (hums are also known as nasal consonants). Pinch your nose again, just to check. All the sound is coming out of your nose, so all the sound stops!
Now sing a nice, long vowel, [ee], [aah], any one you like, again somewhere comfortable in the middle of your range, and pinch your nose again. Now there is a very good chance that this will have no effect on the vowel sound you are producing whatsoever – this is because the standard vowels are produced entirely through the mouth. The best way to check is to pinch and release your nose several times in a row, as that will make it easy to notice any subtle changes. If you cannot produce a vowel without some nasal channeling then you really do need this exercise. English can be a confusing language – we tend to call a voice nasal whether it has too much or too little nasal resonance – too much and you sound like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny…
…or Kenneth Williams…
…too little and you sound like Yogi Bear…
or those old adverts for Vicks Sinex!
So now we have two sounds; a muffled sound that comes only out of the nose, and a brighter sound that comes only out of the mouth – between those two endpoints is a narrow but distinct range of sounds that come out through both – known as “nasalised vowels” they are uncommon in English but central to French, so we think they sound funny and we mock the French by doing bad impressions of these sounds – here is a nice clear demonstration from a language teacher;
As she explains so beautifully, the soft palate is lifted for the standard vowel sounds, blocking off the back entrance to the nose, and obviously for the nasal consonants – our hums – the soft palate is lowered to allow all the air to pass out via the nostrils. So, as we shift gradually back and forth between these sounds in between the soft palate is gradually lifting and lowering – hence my name for this exercise, soft palate push-ups.
Once you are able to produce a nasal vowel with confidence – and it is easy to check, all you have to do is pinch your nose like before. The sound will change but it will not stop – of course! If it stops then it’s a nasal consonant, and if it doesn’t change at all, then it is just a normal vowel.
You can easily see the shifting positions of the soft palate in this video (apologies for the sound quality)…
Notice there is much more movement of the soft palate as we watch the MC in action – which makes sense if you think about it as the Opera singer is sustaining her beautifully projected vowels and her soft palate is lifted for most of the time.
So now you have three soft palate positions to glide through smoothly – try this:
- into your easiest nasalised vowel
- into the clear version of the same vowel
- and then back the other way, pinching as you go to make sure you are making the sound you intend to make. As you practise you will develop smoother transitions and the ability to detect the slightest hint of nasality in your own or anyone else’s voice!
Six Great Exercises To Develop & Strengthen & Warm up Your Voice
1.30pm – 5.00pm (including refreshment break – note earlier finishing time) £40
Drakefell Road, SE14,
07976 640737 / 020 7642 1457
Sunday March 13th, 1.30 – 5.00pm, £40.
Of course there are lots and lots of great exercises for developing the vocal skills you need to have a strong, flexible, healthy voice – I have picked out six that are effective, versatile, easy-to-use, and easy to adapt and combine to tackle all the different vocal challenges that come your way once you start to take your vocal development more seriously, whether for singing, acting or presenting.
Splat! – all you need to know about breathing, in a nutshell
Tongue Mobility – release the muscular tension that restricts vocal freedom
Giggle – open your throat, and discover a natural way in to melisma and vibrato
The Sirens – The gentle way to build fluidity and range
Soft-to-Loud – a classic from the classical repertoire
Soft-Palate Push Ups – discover natural resonance and easy power
You will receive detailed notes for all the exercises, including their various applications – so just bring your voice – and your curiosity!
VocalDynamix is designed to help anyone who wishes to develop a conscious, flexible, strong, healthy voice, whether their interest is singing, speaking well as an actor, or freeing their natural voice as part of a healing and/or spiritual process, or any combination of these elements.
One-to-one Singing and Voice training also available:
General rate – £40 per lesson
Ongoing study package of 3 lessons in a 30-day period – £90
Vocal Training Starter Pack: 2 new packages to choose from…
2 private lessons for £65, or 2 lessons and 1 class for £100