Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Dispelling Vocal Myths: Part V "Sniff to Raise the Palate!"

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Dispelling Vocal Myths: Part V "Sniff to Raise the Palate!"

Article excerpt

DID YOUR TEACHER SAY THIS TO YOU? Or your choir director? Have you said it? It's OK. We all say silly things, for very good reasons. We tell our adolescent children "Don't go outside without your coat. You'll catch your death of pneumonia!" even though we know it isn't really true.

This is the fifth in a series of articles aimed at clarifying misconceptions about vocal production that can cause technical problems or reduced efficiency in singing. One of the reasons to call these misconceptions "myths" is that they seem to be passed down from generation to generation, like old wives' tales. We repeat them without stopping to think about whether they actually make sense. Unfortunately, this causes confusion for singers, who try to base their technique on conflicting information, or images that are at odds with physical reality.


When I gave my first "Dispelling Vocal Myths" presentation for a breakout session at the NATS 2006 National Conference, the general consensus in the room seemed to be that while everyone in attendance knew that "sniff to raise the palate" is incorrect, it's a phrase that still gets used. (Those in the room who believed the phrase, or used it, wisely didn't let on.) This phrase is illustrative of the nature of vocal myths, and why teaching of singing is so hard.

Truth #1: Sniffing Lowers the Palate

Let's review of the anatomy of the velopharyngeal closure mechanism (this information should be available in any voice pedagogy textbook).1 The hard palate is a bony structure, part of the maxilla, that you can feel as you run your tongue backward from your upper teeth. Once you've reached the place that feels soft, you've reached the soft palate, also known as the velum. The posterior, inferior (back, lower) end of the velum is the uvula, which many of my patients seem to know as "the hangy thingy." The uvula itself is an indicator of the movement of the soft palate, or velum, but it doesn't actually have much to do with your voice quality. (It vibrates during snoring, so it may have something to do with the quality of your sleep.)

Remember that we divide the pharynx into the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and laryngopharynx. Those are important distinctions for swallowing and other considerations which we won't discuss now. The velum separates the oropharynx from the nasopharynx, although the structure is continuous.

At rest, the velum is in a position to allow air to flow through the nose and the mouth simultaneously, through both the oropharynx and nasopharynx, and down into the larynx, trachea, and finally the lungs. If you close your mouth to breathe, the velum is lowered to allow passage of all the inhaled air. So, if you sniff, you lower the palate. If you raise the palate and inhale, you will snore or snort. By the way, when singers refer to "the palate," they are almost always referring to the soft palate, as the hard palate is bone and cannot be manipulated to change the sound. However, when we talk about articulation and refer to a palatal consonant, we are referring to the hard palate.

If you say or sing a nasal continuant "m," "n," or "ng," all the air will pass through the nasopharynx and exit out the nose. Your oropharynx will be occluded, either at the lips for "m," the alveolar ridge for "n," or the velum for "ng." All the other sounds of English, vowels and consonants, are produced with air passing through the oropharynx, and out the mouth. In those sounds, the velum should be raised so that it presses against the posterior wall of the pharynx, and closes off the nasopharynx. This is known as velopharyngeal closure, or closing the velopharyngeal port. Since the soundwave depends on the moving column of air, your "voice" comes out your nose on the nasal phonemes, and out your mouth on the non-nasal phonemes.

Of course, there can be many variations on those non-nasal phonemes. If you say a sentence that contains many nasal phonemes, the velum may not have time to close the velopharyngeal port completely for the vowels between the nasal phonemes, and those vowels will be produced with both oral and nasal airflow. …

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