Mix it up Monday: Nasality
Nasality is a common issue that you will encounter in the voice studio. While nasality is rarely desired in classical singing (French nasal vowels being the obvious exception), in some CCM styles it is considered acceptable. Whereas there are fairly standardized expectations of what certain voice types will sound like in classical singing (i.e. the German fach system), in CCM styles there are no standardized fachs. Individuality is what is important in CCM styles and for some singers, part of that individuality is a nasal quality. For example Rufus Wainwright and Britney Spears
The voice becomes nasal when tone escapes through the nasal cavity
instead of the mouth. This happens when the soft palate is in a lowered position.
A low soft palate.
To fully eliminate nasality, you need to completely seal off the nasal cavity. There are many different ways to help a student do that.
- W. Stephen Smith describes an indirect approach in his book “The Naked Voice.” Smith suggests that the soft palate will rise when air flows through the voice freely. While inhaling through a yawn has been a common tool for addressing this, Smith suggests that it can trigger depression of the posterior tongue which constricts the larynx. Instead he suggests thinking of inhaling through the upper half of a yawn. Furthermore, he believes that when air is freely flowing and the tongue and lips define the vowel without entanglement, the soft palate will naturally rise (Smith, 2007, p. 110).
- In his book “Solutions for Singers,” Richard Miller suggests using the centuries old technique of pinching the nose shut when singing non-nasal vowels. If the singer feels a sensation of the sound being cut-off when pinching the nose shut, then the soft palate is falling. When they achieve a sound that is unaffected by pinching the nose, then the soft palate is elevated. Once they find this position, have them release the nose and continue to sing the vowel with a raised velum (Miller, 2004, p. 112).
- Roger Love, author of “Set Your Voice Free,” believes that nasality is often exacerbated by an elevated larynx. Love suggests that when the larynx rises, it narrows the back part of the throat and sends air toward the nasal cavity. Love uses a sound he calls the “Yogi Bear/Dudley Do-right”to teach a low laryngeal position. After the student has mastered this sound quality, he has them monitor the vertical position of their larynx by placing their fingers on their Adam’s apple. When they sense the larynx rising, he instructs them to add more Yogi Bear/Dudley Do-right (Love, 1999, p.100-103).
- Gillyanne Kayes, author of “Singing and the Actor,” uses a series of exercises to teach soft-palate movement when addressing nasality (discussed in this previous post). To help students experience an elevated soft palate she uses an exercise called “Finding the Seal.” In this exercise she has the student make a /p/ with their lips and build up breath pressure behind the closed lips (the cheeks will puff out like a blowfish). She then instructs them to alternate holding the breath pressure behind their lips and exhaling through their nose. As they continue to repeat the exercise, she tells them to focus on sensing what is moving in the back of their mouth. What they feel moving is their soft palate (Kayes, 2004, p. 59).
No matter how you choose to address nasality, it is important to know that it is a soft palate issue first and foremost. There could be contributing factors such as a high laryngeal position or a lack of airflow, but at the end of the day if the soft palate does not rise, you will not be able to reduce nasality. It is also important to remember that if you are working with a CCM singer, they may want that nasal quality even if you dislike it. One of the easiest ways to learn what vocal qualities they like is to ask them to create a Spotify or YouTube playlist of their favorite artists and share it with you. This will give you an idea of their tonal goals and help you assist them in achieving those goals.
If you have other ideas on how to address nasality, please share them below. Thanks for reading!
Kayes, G. (2004). Singing and the actor. New York: Rutledge.
Love, R. (1999). Set your voice free. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Miller, R. (2004). Solutions for singers. New York: Oxford University Press.
Smith, S. (2007). The naked voice. New York: Oxford University Press.