Fine Tuning the Sacred Machine - Part 1

  • 07/6/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
There are those individuals who were merrily singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star just shortly after they were able to draw their first fiery and terrifying breath of life and continued to devour other childhood favorites as they passed the myriad carefree days of childhood, sung their hearts out to Rogers and Hammerstein while they trod the boards of their high school auditorium stage, and although they knew how to sing in the strictest sense of the word and were able to carry a tune they may also have harbored the desire to alter, form and perfect their precious singing voices as they grew into adulthood. Refining one's voice and forming it into a smooth and powerful musical tool can take time and infinite patience, in addition to some insightful knowledge from seasoned experts in the field. In this series of articles we will discuss numerous facets of singing including identifying and controlling nasality, defining and developing the falsetto voice, working to acquire vibrato, practicing and applying specific target note identification, and forming and defining style in one's singing. Each area involves distinct and detailed exercises which can help the aspiring singer to fine tune their singing machine and improve their overall singing skills.

Simply defined, nasality describes the quality of being or sounding nasal, or from a more physiological perspective “...uttered with the soft palate lowered and with passage of air through the nose...” (Websters Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., Springfield Mass, 1999,p 773). Nasality or hyper-nasality (too much nasality) is often viewed as undesirable in the human singing voice although the relative degree of acceptable nasality is most certainly subjective as many find a certain amount to be desirable in terms of vocal timbre and richness. Consequently, there is no standard by which we have to ascertain with any degree of certainty the exact amount of nasality acceptable, or desirable for that matter, in the singing voice. This issue is often determined by a vocal coach whose opinions are, of course, drawn from their own experiences and judgments based upon information coming through their ears. One can see then that pinpointing nasality and its place, or lack thereof, in the aspiring singing student's voice is a delicate matter and determining its presence in the human voice is a highly subjective and personal process.

This is a good time to delineate between nasality, which is essentially talking through the nose and nasal resonance which is finding the balance between having some nose in your voice, but without your sound becoming nasal. Consider this quote taken from an unknown Italian opera singer “Put some nose in the sound without the sound being in the nose.” Although the quote may seem a little cryptic and confusing, it's simple highlighting the importance of striking a balance between too much and too little nasal quality. Cut-off nasality has a flat lifeless quality to it while hyper-nasality can give the singer a muted and undesirable twang. Again, this issue is most certainly subjective as some of the most successful singers of our time including Bob Dylan and Tom Petty have made long and illustrious careers with singing voices that could definitely be described as extremely nasal in quality.

So how do you determine if your voice is not nasal enough, too nasal or just right? Again, nasal quality and the amount of nasality present are certainly a personal issue and will inevitably need to be determined by the individual but...there is a way to gain control of the degree of nasality and the overall tonal quality of your voice. Here is a great way to tell if you are prone to hyper-nasality in your singing:
1. Pick a phrase that has no m,n or ng sounds in it (those are the primary nasal sounds in the English language) in other words, no words like “sing, never, long etc etc). A good phrase might be “she sells seashells” or “I love you baby.” Speak or sing the chosen phrase in your normal relaxed voice and without pushing the voice. Pay attention to the amount of vibration that the phrase is producing in your face, nose, and mouth.

2. Now plug your nose making sure that no air can leak out and speak or sing the same phrase again. Now once again, pay attention to how much vibration is being produced as you repeat the phrase.

3. If you notice an increase in the amount of vibration in your nose, then you have nasality in your voice. A slight increase in vibration from unplugged to plugged likely indicates a small amount of nasality which as mentioned can be quite desirable. A larger jump in nasal vibration likely indicates a greater presence of nasality that may approach hyper-nasality.
Nasal Resonance
As mentioned previously, there is a difference between nasality and nasal resonance and indeed, there are a number of factors that can help you to move towards the latter and away from the former.
1.Nasal Health - Because the nose is central to tone production, the relative health of your nose is of the utmost importance. If you are prone to congestion and/or allergy problems keep in mind that a stuffed-up nose will give your voice an increase in nasality even when you're not vocalizing m,n and ng sounds. Consequently, people with sinus problems often have an increase in the amount of nasality in their voices. Other unhealthy habits can also adversely affect nasal health including habitual dehydration and smoking (see “Singers Hear my Plea!” located in the articles section of the site).

2. Breathing - Most of us are bludgeoned over the head with the idea that the diaphragm is the central organ by which air must pass in order to sing correctly. But the diaphragm is also integral to the production of nasal resonance as well and the production of a smooth and balanced voice. Resonance in the voice is created by vibrations in various areas including the mouth, pharynx (cone-shaped passageways leading from the nasal cavities to the esophagus and larynx), nasal cavities and of course, the diaphragm(s).

And yes, there are multiple areas of the human body that contain diaphragms including the upper or pelvic diaphragm. This is the most commonly known diaphragm and can be described as a sheet of muscle located directly under the ribcage. When people think about the diaphragm this is usually the area that is indicated. But another important area known as the pelvic diaphragm is also integral in the production of sound and nasal resonance. This smaller diaphragm is also a sheet of muscle but this region is located directly beneath the pelvis and can serve as a powerful source of sound and singing power.
Exercise 1
This is a great way to locate the pelvic diaphragm and learn to draw breath from deep within the body, rather than simply singing from the head, neck and throat.

First things first, make sure that you stretch out your body adequately before you do this exercise. If you don't have a stretching routine you can always research proper stretching on-line and/or refer to my voice and performance series on the site for more insight into this phenomenon. Simply stated though, you need to make sure and stretch the whole body beginning the legs, hamstrings, calves and work your way up into the back, neck and head. The looser and more relaxed your body becomes the easier it is to breath properly with nasal resonance. The tighter the body is the more likely air will be forced through the nose increasing the level of nasality! This is an important note and shouldn't be taken lightly by the aspiring singer. Okay, so you're stretched out and ready to go, right? Good! Now, stand upright with one leg slightly bent, which leg you choose to bend is acceptable as the exercise works with either. Now bring the other leg up and press it into your chest and hold it there for 15-20 seconds. Breathe as you do this and pay attention to focusing your breath and breathing deeply into the groin and the lower back. The air should move freely and over time you shouldn't have to force it at all. You should feel expansion in the pelvic region, hips and lower back as you breathe and as you do this exercise more and more this area will become the source of great vocal power as you learn to tap into it. Now switch legs and do the exercise again paying attention to the deep flow of air from your pelvic diaphragm.

There are a couple of things to avoid as you do this exercise though and the first and foremost is to make sure and press your leg all the way up into your chest. This process opens up vital passageways which will allow you to deep breathe. Secondly, DO NOT HOLD YOUR BREATH! The idea here is to retrain yourself to breath from deep within the body, rather than focusing your breathing from the head space, throat and nasal cavity.

Ultimately, the goal here is to change the way you breathe to form an automatic type of breathing response that is more conducive to nasal resonance and balanced tone in the singing voice. Most people have formed bad breathing habits including shallow and nasal breathing. This exercise can help you to reform new and healthier habits which will improve the overall tone of your voice and help you to move from nasality to nasal resonance or a more balanced sound.

*Note-I feel that this is a good time to mention the importance of visualization especially when attempting to do the above exercise and relearn proper breathing technique. Visualizing the breath moving from the lower regions of your body, up into the lungs and vocal region can help to develop an innate sense of how the body breathes most effectively and most efficiently as well.

Tone Placement
In addition to locating and breathing from the pelvic diaphragm it's also helpful to recognize the value of tone placement in the process of voice development and nasal resonance. Tone placement is equivalent to focusing the tone you're singing in a particular part of the mouth cavity. Ideally, the tone should be placed behind the upper front teeth or slightly further up behind the bridge of the nose. To locate the area in your mouth, you can run your tongue behind your upper front teeth until you locate a ridge. This spot identifies the upper dental ridge which is the center of the mouth's natural sounding board, and the area at which words and tones should be placed to get the maximum and most resonant sound.

Exercise 2
A great way to locate the upper dental ridge and find the optimal spot in your mouth for sound placement is too make your hand into a fist in front of our mouth. Now form your hand into the shape of the mouthpiece of a horn or saxophone, or other wind instrument and speak or sing through it. You should feel vibration in the upper area of your mouth directly behind your front teeth. Experiment with this technique and pay attention to the fact that you can consciously move the sound around to different parts of your mouth and nose, giving your voice different qualities as you move. With some practice, you can manipulate the placement and control the tone of your voice.

Dragging the Vowels
As stated previously, the primary nasal sounds in the English language are m,n and ng. But many have the tendency to produce the vowels before and after with a nasal effect as well or what is sometimes known as “positive nasality.” This tendency can contribute to the overall hyper-nasality of an individual's speech and singing voice as well. Having a certain degree of awareness about this tendency, as well as spending some time focusing on isolating vowel from consonant sounds can help to improve this problem.

Exercise 3
This exercise can help to you to recognize any tendencies you might have towards nasalization of vowel sounds, and help you to isolate vowels from the nasal sounds of m,n and ng. Practice saying the following phrases and pay attention to where in your head (dental ridge, behind the bridge of the nose, in the nose etc) the vowel sounds are being placed:
A. the candy man can
B. I long for the Congo
C. throngs of shameful songs
D. owing to an early spring
Did you notice a tendency to pronounce vowels as if they were nasal sounds? It can be challenging to isolate consonants from vowels but the more you try this exercise the more you will hopefully come to realize just how much of your speech may be placed in the nasal region, rather than in the dental ridge. This is an excellent way to assess just how nasal your speaking/singing voice actually is and make the necessary corrections that you desire.

It might be helpful to go through some of the above exercises and record your responses, perhaps even enlisting another to listen to it and provide constructive feedback as well. Often times it can be challenging (and even unproductive) to listen to our own voices and assess any anomalies objectively due to a phenomenon known as habituation.

Habituation is the tendency for the brain to become overloaded by one particular sound or sensation and simply fail to recognize that stimulus any longer. This is the same process that occurs with the droning sound of an air conditioner in the background of your office, or the sound of a dripping faucet. Sensory neurons in the brain simply become over stimulated and cease to respond in the same fashion as they did when the sound was initially presented. The same process can occur with the sound of the human voice especially since we have heard our own voices so many countless times and may likely be unable to detect any subtle variations like increases or decreases in nasality and tone.

Nasality, hyper-nasality and nasal resonance are terms that can only truly be defined by the individual and as there are countless shades and variations in between what is to be considered desirable and undesirable , it is undoubtedly up to you to develop awareness of your voice, foster flexibility in your breathing style, and practice proper technique until you have acquired the voice that you've longed for since you were a tiny child humming nursery rhymes.