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Getting Young Men Out of the Throat or Out of the Nose

Hello!
 
My name is James. I am the music teacher at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, MA and I am a first year teacher. 
 
I have several singers in my Chorus who place the sound primarily in the nose, at least it seems to my ears. I have tried several "exercises" to help them. Dr. Dehning's "Singer's in the Nose, Singer's in the Well, Singer's in the Bell" from Chorus Confidential had some minimal success. We did a vocal exercise, starting on a hum and opening up to an [a] ... again, minimal success. I tried having them imagine they were smelling a rose, hoping to elevate the soft palate, but that did nothing. I know high school men have a brighter sound because of their age, but I guess I am looking for a little more "space" in the voice. Does anyone have any techniques or strategies for adding a little depth to the tone?
 
Then I have a singer who I am working with for our Spring Musical who has the opposite problem: he centers the sound in the back of his throat; he also talks this way, too; similar to a "Kermit the Frog" type sound. With him, I have tried using some imagery to help him move the sound forward, with some success. For example, I had him imagine that the sound is being produced right in front of his mouth rather than inside it. I also had some success having him sing on an [i] vowel. Does anyonbe have any techniques or strategies for getting the sound out of the back of the throat?
 
Thank you for your help!
 
Peace,
 
James
on January 31, 2015 9:53am
Have them feel like they are blowing their nose while singing. Obviously it can't be done but the sensation allows the air to flow through the mouth.  Have them sing while holding their nose.  "N" and "M" will be in the nose but the other sounds should not.  Demonstrate how you can sing while holding your nose. 
 
For the opposite singer, have him say the work 'awful' holding the 'aw' for a while and then the word 'father' holding the 'ah' longer.  Have him think about what it feels like inside while he is saying these words and then have him sing in the area that the 'ah' is produced.  Remind him that what it sounds like to him is not what anyone else hears, because he is not going to like what he hears.  When the sound is so different to their own ears, I ask my students if they want to please one (themself) or a hundred (everyone else), to get them to sing differently than what they hear. 
I think the nasal problem is harder to correct than the singing in the throat.  Good luck.
on February 1, 2015 5:56am
Try vocalizing using the initial consonant "B."  For example, scale passages on Boo, Boh, Bah, Beh, Bee.
It's harder to "nazalize," and opens up the back space.  In the words of the old grandfather in Little Big Man, 
"Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn't." 
on February 1, 2015 6:31am
Remember that singing as an art form is an extension of speech.  Be careful that you're not leading to a fake, overly rounded, mashed-potato sound.  The nasal resonators are important to good and healthy singing.  Naturally you don't want somebody to sound like they have a clothespin on their nose.  But for a young singer-- light and bright and "in the front" is a good thing.  You don't want "rounded-off"-- and leave the soft pallate alone unless you want to sound like Dudely Doright.  Just ask for an open face--  have him speak the text.  Compare to good speech.  Call out "Hey!>>>>"  or "Help!>>>>> or "Ahoy!"  (I bet it's not nasal then.   If the singer becomes paranoid about being "nasal" he'll back away from his voice and never find it's real resonance.  It's better to go through a slightly "nasal" stage--  have him feel wider across the cheek-bones.  Tell him to have the feeling of raising his HARD pallate (not soft) in the front.  In fact, raising his soft pallate might be why he's singing with a nasal sound.  Smelling the proverbial rose can close off the throat-- (although it's sometimes helpful to suggest having a face like somebody's  baking bread).  The phrase "This is the house that jack built."  has no nasal sounds-- you can hold your nose and say that one.  But the old Italians --- bel canto and all that-- say that the voice should lean into the resonance (front of the face) and at the same time lean downwards into the support.  I am a professional singer and teacher and taught master classes in the U.S. and Europe and had the good fortune to work with many great singers.  With young singers we are forever realligning voices that have been rounded-off or pulled back. BTW-- have both of your singers with what seems like opposite problems feel like their exhaling while singing  (like you do when you're going to clean your sunglasses and you breath to fog them up.)  Have them "fog up their glasses for cleaning" then tell them to do that while singing.  Thanks for your work with the kids-- 
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on February 1, 2015 6:37am
Dear James, congrats on your appointment!
You describe two of the most common technical problems young male singers have. Don't fear, though. 
Re: nasality, we often give kids the exact opposite advice from what the physiology requires. This is a strange, but consistent paradox in our pedagogy, and helps to explain why some students just don’t *get it*. Generally speaking, the more dropped the soft palate, the more likely a nasal tone will result (show your students a video like this to help clarify where the soft palate is, and its range of motion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTOhDqhCKQs). This is not the only requirement for nasality, but is a significant contributor. And nasality is not universally bad. Recent research suggests that some classical tenors use degrees of nasality to bridge certain registration events, and MT singers certainly employ this technique for color and registration. However, all the exercises that make intuitive sense to draw awareness to the area (sniff the rose, hmmmm, Ng, &c.) also drop the soft palate, enabling nasality. A young singer would have to be pretty savvy to understand that between drawing awareness to the area and the onset of singing, a third (unnamed) step has to take place where the palate is retracted/raised and the nasopharynx is (at least mostly) closed off. The fact that very little sensory feedback is generated when this is done well further problematizes the young singer's work. Pinching the nose while singing is a great way to check if nasality is present, but in the uncoordinated body is likely to cause pharyngeal gripping in service of heroically trying to get the sound out of the nose. I like to tackle this issue from the other side and functionally train the soft palate. First, see if your student can do the following: breathe in, close mouth, exhale through nose. Explain that the soft palate is relaxed and all air is flowing out of the nose. Now repeat and ask your student to gently stop the flow of air suddenly at the back of his nose as he exhales. There should be a little "stopper clapping shut sound."  If this works, have him repeat and add slowly opening the mouth, followed by exhaling air only through the mouth. Then transition to speaking/singing a long tone with the mouth open, the soft palate retracted, and the nasopharynx closed off. If speaking, your student will notice that it sounds like he's talking with a stuffed up nose. The same approach will not sound stuffy while singing, because acoustics are paradoxical (and awesome).  Once your student understands that raising the soft palate means feeling kind of stuffed up, he'll be able to call that back when he sings. 
 
The other thing you can do (and I'm working up a walk-through article about this) is visualize the soft palate directly and work toward mindfully isolating its motion. I know some parts of the singing body are hidden from view and best trained indirectly. The soft palate is not obligatorily one of them (IMO). Have your student take their iPhone, launch the camera app, switch to video, rear facing camera, and turn on the flash (not auto). Note you don’t have to press record. The screen should be showing the rear camera's view in real time with the led continuously on. Have your student stand in front of a mirror, shape the vocal tract like a dropped-jaw [a], bring the iPhone to the mouth, and point the camera directly to the back of the mouth. He will likely have to tap the screen to force refocus on the soft palate. Once he can see his own well-lit soft palate in the mirror, Have him practice gently inhaling and exhaling through the mouth, inhaling and exhaling through the nose and mouth simultaneously, and making gentle singing sounds. He will likely be shocked that he has almost no direct sensation of when the soft palate moves and when it doesn’t. However, with a small amount of work (and the aid of the visual feedback), he should be able to cultivate enough awareness to begin to consciously retract, then relax the soft palate at will; I make my students learn how to do it in a regular rhythm. This awareness will allow him to actively retract the soft palate and close off the nasopharynx to help correct the nasal tone. I should mention again, just for clarity, that soft palate retraction need not be universal in good, resonant singing. Some beautiful timbres can be produced with a dropped or semi-dropped palate, and other sounds (mmm, nnn, ng, &c.) must pass through the nose as the mouth is closed off. Drawing his awareness to where the palate is and how to move it serves to give him more options for a better sound overall. I am not advocating a rigid, soft palate up no matter what approach.
 
The Kermit the frog issue is almost certainly caused by laryngeal raising. Keeping the larynx stable will not only round out the sound, but also bring in the brilliance that you want him to feel toward the front of his mouth. Is it a problem below the pitch G3 or so? Or does it become especially problematic as he ascends from around G3 to around C4 (and then all hope is lost for the next fourth or so)? If there is a part of his voice that works well (probably pretty low) do this exercise there first and then try to slide up in increasingly larger intervals without bringing in the frog. This is a series of exercises that works by hacking a body reflex. By inhibiting the swallowing process, we remove the ability of the laryngeal elevators to easily contract, and retain the integrity of the pharynx as a resonator. Of course, breathing well for singing is a very important part of the solution as well, but this will allow you to attack from multiple angles.
  1. Close the teeth, close the lips.
  2. Swallow. Evaluate the effort level. Notice that the chewing muscles at the back of the jaw slightly clenches to aid swallowing
  3. Open teeth enough to slip pinky finger between top and bottom incisors. Notice that the tongue retracted and put tongue back in a neutral position. Notice that space between the front teeth causes uniform space between back teeth as well. 
  4. Try to swallow. Evaluate effort level. Notice that you had to bite down a little on your finger.
  5. Repeat 3
  6. Try to swallow, this time just feather grazing the finger with your teeth. No biting allowed, total ease in the muscles of chewing. Evaluate effort (if you were able to swallow at all?)
  7. Repeat this entire series with another finger on the adams apple to notice the different in laryngeal height, and how easily the larynx rises if the jaw tightens.
  8. With this easy positioning of the jaw in space, begin long tones (without engaging the muscles of chewing) in a low, comfortable range. Do portamento slides to increasingly larger intervals. 
 
Good luck!
 
Ian Howell
Vocal Pedagogy Director
The New England Conservatory of Music
Boston
on February 1, 2015 12:37pm
James, the answer is simple.  I have placed former students in many of our country's leading conservatories.  They will all testify to my methods.  Your warm-ups MUST be geared toward tone at all times.  A particular exercise might be to shape a vowel or to emphasize dental consonants.  But it must also be about correct tonal placement.  A voice cannot be resonant, that is, sympathetic vibrations cannot occur in a head whose voice is incorrectly placed. You have read others' suggestions herein.  They are all good.  There is an easy answer.  The great Barbara Doscher penned the greatest book on vocal pedagogy: "Functional Unity of the Singing Voice."  Google it.  But that book, as slender and thin as it is, takes much study.  The results of it are tall, wide, and thick.  But the simple, quick way is to have the young men stand correctly, open their mouths, and stick their thumbs into their mouths (like a baby) almost to the point of gagging.  Tell them that they should not allow their thumbs to touch their mouth's skin.  Once their thumbs are in place, have them sing an "ah" on a pitch they all can sing in unison (not octaves).  Notice the lack of nasality.  Notice the lack of throatiness.  Notice the slight onset of head voice.  Have them notice the sensation of how their voice sounds, how the air is traveling, and the sensations in their heads.  As they continue singing that unison note, have them ever so slowly withdraw their thumbs.  If the sound starts hedging towards throatiness or nasality once again, re-insert the thumbs while continuing their singing of that unison note, breathing as they must.  Eventually, the thumbs will be removed while they remain singing that unison note.  Having studied with Dr. Doscher and having read her book, I used her techniques with my students with some success.  Then, I saw an All-State High School Guest Conductor use this thumb technique.  The results were immediate and rewarding.  I began using this technique.  Again, I heard immediate results, and, from that point I began using Dr. Doscher's techniques to build on that success.  I use it with those Honors Choirs I teach.  They students laugh.  The teachers laugh and question the maneuver among themselves.  Any parents in the audience laugh.  I laugh.  The choir does the maneuver.  The laughing stops.  The musical tone begins and it develops and the audience at the concert is on its feet shouting "bravo."  It's simple, James.  Thumbs in the mouth.  Read Dr. Doscher's book: it is all about physiology and not imagery.  Let me know if you use this technique and your observations of its results.  Remeber that warm-ups are essential and key to any choir's results.  Please feel free to view my profile.
on February 2, 2015 8:42am
Hi James,
 
Sometimes both problems can be caused by tongue tension.  If the tongue is being pushed down in the back, you can get a throaty, muffled sound; if it is being pulled up in the back, you can get a nasal sound.  Encouraging the student simply to leave the tongue relaxed, "fat and floppy," and forward in the mouth will sometimes help with this.  Along the same lines, take your index finger and point it at the bottom of your tongue, alternating [a] and [i].  If the tongue is over-working, you will feel muscles pushing downward on your fingertip.  If the tongue is moving freely and easily without extra work, there will be no pressure on the finger.  I would encourage your "throaty" student to try this, alternating [i-a-i-a-i].  He will probably feel downward pressure on the [a], and he can probably be taught fairly quickly to eliminate it if you encourage him to do less with his tongue and leave it relaxed in a forward position.

Other easy things to try if you are in a choral setting and unable to work with the student privately:
- lip trills
- tongue trills
- singing while holding the nose closed (to correct nasality)
 
Many good ideas on this thread.  Thank you for your question!
 
Jay Lane
 
 
on February 2, 2015 9:51am
All of the various exercises and approaches are but tools--  success depends on how the tools are used and the skills of the person guiding the process.  The same tool that can create in skilled hands can destroy in others-- or when misapplied, misunderstood, or carried to an extreme.  We always have to be careful to use our tools wisely-- and not let them become gimmicks.  I told a young student once "You look so lovely and normal until you start to sing-- then you look like you pull everything up like a cone and hold it inside and your face goes dead. "   She giggled and looked at her mother with a "knowing" look.  Her choral director had the group sing everything "in a cone."  It probably had a good purpose as used-- but not a good result for the kid who "listened to well" to the directive.  Once she let the ice-cream cone melt and reactivated her face (and expression) she no longer sounded like a tiny voiced boy-soprano and out came the voice of a talented young soprano.  She went on to get a full scholarship to an excellent school.  Perhaps beyond the basics or breath and resonance there is no "one way"-- only tools to get to the best sound to serve the art.
I feel most fortunate to have worked with wonderful teachers-- Giorgio Tozzi, Tito Gobbi, and Birgit Nilsson among others.  I also studied conducting with Maragret Hillis, founder of Choral America.  She firmly believed in a chorus of individual instruments making music together rather than a going for one unified  "choral sound" from the group.  Ultimately just singing well with voices ringing and on the breath will result in the best choral sound; and, in the process will serve the singers the best for a lifetime of music making.
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