Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Over the past few years I have come to believe that it can be very useful to show students the possibilities of their voice during their training. For instance, even though CCM singers primarily sing in mix, it is beneficial for them to know what it is like to sing in full chest and full head register.
Today I want to talk about the soft palate. In CCM styles there is no one correct position for the soft palate. Some singers sing with a low soft palate position, which gives them a nasal quality. Others have a very high soft palate position, which adds depth and “darkness” to the tone. If I can avoid talking about the soft palate when working with a rock singer, I do. However, I also work with a lot of musical theatre singers who have to adapt their voices to fit a wide variety of styles. With those singers specifically, I have found the technique I am sharing today to be very helpful. It gives them a valuable tool to help them quickly transition from legit musical theatre to country or Motown to 80’s rock.
The first position I introduce is the /ng/ position. In this position the the tongue raises up to touch the roof of the mouth and the soft palate lowers, allowing all of the tone to pass through the nasal cavity (figure 1). When singing /ng/, if the singer pinches their nose shut, all of the sound will stop
The next extreme position is the “British /a/.” In this position the soft palate is fully raised, closing the nasal port, and the sound exits only through the mouth (figure 2). If you pinch your nose shut in this position, the sound will not change.
The third and final position is French nasal /õ/. In this position the soft palate is partially raised. Half of the sound exits through the nose and the other half exits through the mouth (figure 3). When you pinch the nose, half of the sound will be stopped and the tone quality will change.
First introduce these positions on a sustained vowel. When the student is comfortable with the positions, vocalize them throughout their range in each position. It is doubtful that your singer will ever sing an entire song in the /ng/ position. However, there are styles that can be sung in French nasal /õ/ and British /a/.
The next step I learned from a voice teacher named Kristy Cates at a masterclass at the Southeast Theatre Conference. Have the singer lift their elbow up so that it is parallel to the floor with the hand flat and pointing straight forward, forearm parallel to the floor. Begin with a very nasal French /õ/. Begin to the lift the hand towards a vertical position simultaneously lifting the soft palate towards a British /a/. You will reach the full British /a/ when the arm is vertical. As you move from horizontal to vertical, try to find a sweet spot that you and the student like. Once you find that spot, try to start there without using the arm motion.
The idea of having multiple soft palate positions is something that I have taught for so long and seen so many variations of that I am not quite sure where it originated or who developed it. I do know that it is discussed in Gillyanne Kayes “Singing and the Actor” along with many other exercises that are valuable to the CCM singer and teacher. If you have other variations of this exercise, please share below. Thanks for reading and be sure to follow the blog to receive updates when there are new posts.