Marty Heresniak, B.M., M.M

voice teacher

79 Hudson Heights
Ithaca, NY 14850-5308



National Association of Teachers of Singing

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Alternative Teaching Materials
The Studio Teaching the Singing Impaired
Lessons & Classes Marketing the Private Studio
What's New Horse Hockey and Hogwash!
Workshops Learning to Manipulate
the Physiology of Stress
Writings A New Way of Listening to Vowels
Carl Gutekunst Are We Forgetting Something?

Marty Heresniak, M.M.

The article has been accepted for publication
in the Journal of Singing
and waits in the publication queue.
There is no definite date of publication as yet.

In a session comparing the approaches of singing and speech professionals at the 1997 NATS workshop “Teaching the Beginning Voice” at the University of Minnesota, the late Jean Westerman Gregg mentioned how all vowels, including the semi-vowels /r/ and /l/, are formed with the velopharyngeal port open, allowing the sound to pick up resonance as it travels through the nasal passages. After the session I asked about her assertion, with which I agreed, but which had recently been contradicted by a Journal of Singing article that stated all singing is done with the velopharyngeal port closed:
Jean answered simply, “Hogwash!” She asked me to supply her with appropriate volume and page and she later wrote to refute:

In the mid-1970s my mentor, Carl Gutekunst(3), complained to me that a new view of voice was beginning to be seen in print. He had considered writing to refute the new view, but thought it unnecessary as “no one could possibly believe such nonsense.”

William Vennard posited “that the closures of the naso-pharynx should be complete.”(4) Over the next sixty years the position of the velum became a more and more one-sided argument with the preponderance of singing literature holding to a closed velopharyngeal port during singing. In fewer than twenty-five years after Carl’s comment to me the ideas had gone from nonsense no one could possibly believe to the dominant vocal paradigm and accepted ‘scientific truth.’ It is comforting to recall Max Planck’s observation that easily extends to areas outside of physics: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”(5)

Publications through the last one hundred years show all opponents have not died off.
    “The communication between the nose and the pharynx may be entirely cut off by the soft palate, when under certain conditions it is raised and pressed against the posterior wall. This position of the soft palate gives the voice that peculiar and objectionable quality known as throatiness...”(6)
    “The fear of nasal twang and failure to distinguish between it and true nasal resonance has been the stumbling block. They are very different, — one is to be shunned, the other to be cultivated. The first is an obvious blemish, the second is an important essential of good singing.”(7)
    “ . . . tonal vibrations . . . travel upward past the epiglottis through the pharynx into the naso-pharynx and nasal cavities. Here the overtones are partially absorbed and the fundamental strengthened, adding a dark, rich, ringing quality to the voice.”(8)
    “...our results do not agree with observations ... and do not support the view ... that the velopharyngeal opening should be closed in classical singing.”(9)
    “It seems likely that singers can enhance higher spectrum partials by a careful tuning of a velopharyngeal opening. ... singers may gain a boosting of the singer’s formant by means of a velopharyngeal opening.”(10)

There are three main arguments given for constant closure of the velopharyngeal port.


It is often argued, especially in the speech language pathology disciplines, that the failure to close the velopharyngeal port, such as one would encounter with a cleft palate or other such conditions, is abnormal. This, in the absolute denotation of the phrase, is true. Under normal conditions the soft palate should be able to achieve complete closure. The lack of this ability leads to a focus on closure or lack thereof. It is faulty logic, however, to extrapolate that if failure to close is bad, constant closure is good.


For decades the singing world has extolled the virtues of a raised soft palate. Elite singers were found to produce better tone when the soft palate was raised. A pattern was perceived. Was it a true pattern or was it thanks to “the human mind’s tendency to find a meaningful pattern where none exists”?(11) Humans “are pattern seeking primates,” finding “patternicity” even where it may not actually be present.(12) The neologism apophenia refers to this perception of connections in random information. “Patternicity” can lead to “agenticity:”(13) if we observe a pattern enough times we begin to assume that there is some causal effect, that one part of the pattern, or even an unseen, hypothetical part of the pattern, is responsible for the end result. Patternicity, apophenia, and agenticity are recent rewordings of the classic logical fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Simply stated, just because B always happens after A does not mean B is caused by A. When a Neanderthal noted that birds always sang in the last hour before dawn, he may have assumed the birds sang the sun into rising.(14) Singing the sun up might be a lovely plot device for a superb Marcel Camus film, but we know it is not the way things really work.
    “Unfortunately, what may have begun merely as an astute observation of a natural, unconscious occurrence has acquired the irrefutable status of ‘vocal gospel.’ We can understand how this might have happened:
      “(1) Astute voice teacher (such as Garcia II, Marchesi, Vennard) closely observes outstanding natural singer in action.
      “(2) Astute teacher notes vocal production, reports it through written description – for example, ‘When A sings, the back wall of the pharynx is large and wide, with the velum (soft palate) high, resulting in a rich, full tone.’
      “(3) Reader of report thinks, ‘Aha! In order to have a rich, full sound, I have to be sure my soft palate is high.’
      “(4) Reader instructs student, ‘Lift your soft palate!’ Student dutifully attempts to raise the back wall of the pharynx through conscious muscular effort. Tension (inadvertently) results.
      “(5) Description becomes gospel, unquestioned, imposed, but not felt. Passed on from generation to generation, the misunderstanding is perpetuated.”(15)
Was the originally perceived pattern actually a pattern or was there another something happening that was concomitantly, incidentally, making the vocal tone better for which the high palate was the observable evidence? What caused those originally observed soft palates to be raised and why were they raised? Was the raising a conscious act or was it an unconscious result of some other act? Was that other act a conscious or unconscious act? Was it appropriate, or, indeed, wise, for later singers, readers, and pedagogues to attempt to replicate the sound through working to raise the soft palate by conscious action?

When the palates of those original elite singers were raised, which part(s) raised? Did the entire soft palate have loft? Did the trailing edge and uvula raise, approaching the back wall of the throat? Did the forward part of the soft palate somehow raise separately and independently of the trailing edge and uvula? How and when did “raise the palate” become synonymous with “close the palate?”


The main objection to an open velopharyngeal port seems to be the assumption that this always leads to a buzzy nasality. “Nasality (more properly hyper nasality) refers to the unacceptable voice quality that results from inappropriate addition of the nasal resonance system to the vocal tract.”(16) It ain’t necessarily so. While a buzz will always be found to be produced whilst the velopharyngeal port is open, an open velopharyngeal port does not guarantee buzz. We’re talking squares and rhombi here.

Firstly, let us unmuddy terms. Nasal tones, nasal vowels, nasality, nasalization, and nasalance are often tossed about with variations of meanings and often at cross-purposes. Some consider an annoying buzz-saw whine to be nasality — a definition seemingly based on sound perception. Others consider nasality to be any sound produced with air flow passing through the nasal passages — a definition apparently based on anatomical positioning. Since the differing definitions of the same term exist in various literatures, allow me to offer amendments to them both — with definitions based on muscle use. The buzz-saw whine is active nasality. The open nasal passage sound is passive nasality. The former is a problem. The latter is a gift.(17)

Active nasality is present when the vocalist intervenes — consciously or unconsciously — so that the velum, the soft palate, is not allowed to remain soft. The muscularization of the velum leads to a partial occlusion of the nasal airway and turbulence of the air flow against the drum head of the tightened palate results in the buzz of active nasality. Let me restate that: the buzz of active nasality is produced by the vocalist’s intervention.
    “[Passive] Nasalization, or tone vibrations passing freely above the roof of the mouth as well as into the mouth, is caused by the use of the open nasal port. ... The vocal student must never confuse [passive] nasalization with [active] nasal[ization] twang. [Passive] Nasalization is beauty through freedom of resonation of all cavities and bony structures above the roof of the mouth strengthening the fundamental tone. ... [Active] Nasal[ization] twang is the disagreeable quality caused by blocking of the nasal passages.”(18)
Considered in this light, the old sayings, “. . . sing with a(n) [passive] open nose, but without [active] nasality . . .”(19) and “[passive] nasal resonance and [active] nasal tone are different things”(20) make better sense.

The mechanism that causes active nasality is nearly the same as that which causes a snore. One can inhale through the mouth, through the nose, or through both together. Inhaling through both together can be a silent, relaxed breath or a snore (a.k.a. nasal snort or velopharyngeal fricative). When the head is vertical the snore is produced if the muscles of the velum are tense and slightly raised, allowing the Bernoulli effect to take over and vibrate the velum. Relax the velum and the snore disappears. (The opposite is true if the head is reclined.)

Consider a toy kazoo — a tube narrower at one end, with a tissue paper membrane covering a hole in the side. When one sings into the larger end the airflow is constricted by the narrowing tube and some of the air escapes past the tissue paper membrane, resulting in the well known kazoo buzz.

In this author’s studio, students with active nasality issues are shown a kazoo. No matter the pitch or volume of the note, the kazoo buzzes. Air passing the brittle membrane will buzz. Dip the kazoo in water, moistening the tissue paper, and nothing you do will produce that buzz. When the membrane is softened a pure singing tone is produced. In the same manner, sending a tone through the nasal passages past a tightened soft palate will produce a buzz of active nasality. When the soft palate is allowed to remain soft the pure singing tone will pass through the nasal passages with increased resonance, but without the buzz. Any tightening of the palate toward a stiffness that will cause a buzz of active nasality is unwanted, unnecessary, and completely caused by the vocalist whether directly or not, whether consciously or not.

As Jean Gregg indicated in our first meeting, outside the singing world the velopharyngeal port remaining open during vowel production is common. Indeed, “anyone feeling that one must ‘train’ the velopharyngeal port to stay open or closed is not taking into consideration that this action has been an automatic function since birth.”(21) We raise and close the soft palate with every swallow. We lower and release the soft palate with every inhalation through the nose. A laissez faire approach is desirable.

“The role of the velopharyngeal mechanism is to vary the degree of acoustic coupling between the oral and nasal cavities.”(22) Singing with the velopharyngeal port completely closed for all vowels allows no such variation of acoustic coupling.


The delineations of active and passive nasality extend to other aspects of vocalism. There are those who look to do more to sing – the actives, and those who look to get out of the way and allow the singing to happen – the passives.

In the former method, actions are prescribed to achieve a result. “Open the mouth three-fingers wide.” “Hold the lips forward to produce that vowel.” “Raise the palate for resonance.” “Close the palate to eliminate [active] nasality.” “Squeeze the dime.”

For those who work in the latter world, all attempts to make singing happen are anathema, even to the point of speech patterns, as instructions are given with passive verbs. It’s “let yourself sing, not make yourself sing.”(23)

It should be no mystery that this author is firmly in the passive camp. To fix an active nasality brought on by tension in the soft palate by adding even more tension to close the velopharyngeal port seems just preposterous. “The voice teacher’s task then is to teach the student to allow the vibration to move in its normal pattern rather than trying to place it, which usually results in tensing muscles somewhere in the vocal tract . . .”(24)

In the passive vocal camp spontaneity and naturalness of production are valued. “Don’t plan to sing. Sing.” (25) Singing ‘bubbles up’ from the bottom of the torso ‘like a chuckle.’(26)

Research in the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior comparing spontaneous and volitional laughter notes that “many vocalizations in the human repertoire predate speech and exist today through evolutionarily modified vocal production systems widely shared with other species.”(27) Findings and acoustic data suggest that such spontaneous versus volitional utterances may actually be produced by different vocal systems with different underlying neural and physiological control pathways. The ‘positive affect and cooperative intent’ of spontaneous social laughter could function in a ‘signaling arms race’ in opposition to the ‘strategic and/or deceptive’ uses of volitional laughter. Discussions of an honest signal in the field of ethology (the study of animal behavior) including comparisons of the social, voluntary smile and the genuine, Duchenne smile approach this same concept from a different perspective.(28)

Bryant and Aktipis further posit that spontaneous laughter is generated by vagally controlled laryngeal muscles and offer the possibility that cortically controlled speech systems evolved to mimic the former’s features.(29) All these volitional/spontaneous and active/passive issues assume a co-evolution of perceptual abilities to hear the differences.

If, in laughter, “voicing onsets and offsets provide plausible cues of laryngeal musculature activity that could, in turn, give perceivers informations about the controlling neural pathways,”(30) — and, therefore, underlying messages — then a like path could apply in singing, allowing the singer to transmit “the kinds of perceptions that precede words”(31) with his or her very impulse to voice.

If the singer adopts cortically controlled systems as the basis of technique, the spontaneity, emotional presence, and naturalness of tone may be less available or totally absent. This is a terrible sacrifice to achieve direct control. “We call this cognitive control. We're using cognition to control our behavior. Unfortunately, this is also the first part of our brain that goes offline when we get stressed out, which isn't that helpful”(32) — especially in performance.

Oh, so many years ago, this author was an overly conscientious freshman voice major sitting with too-straight posture and trying ever so hard to get the tone right as I sang “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” in a lesson. It wasn’t good. There was a knock on the door, a shouted “Come in!,” and a wonderful graduate student waltzed in needing a quick signature. I continued singing, but, without thinking, added a “Hello, Mary!” to my phrase. Mary and Carl both leapt at me, shouting, “Yes, that’s it!” I didn’t know what they meant. After all, I hadn’t done anything, I’d just sung “Hello, Mary!” without thinking. For the first time I had accessed the spontaneous, natural, reactive part of voicing and let it happen.

“The conditions of the vocal instrument are not right until there is this automatic response. When there is such response there will be no rigidity, no muscular contraction, and the tone will have the element of freedom.”(33) I shan’t get into how much time it took for me to find that access again.

“The vocal mechanism is plastic and when free from tension, rigidity, contraction, it responds automatically and assumes the form necessary to produce the vowel and quality the student has in mind. This is indirect control and is the only safe method of procedure. In good singing all things involved are responding without conscious direction. ... In the tones of a perfect singer there is no evidence of directed effort.”(34)

“One must never lose sight of the primary use of a structure and force it to be used in a manner inappropriate or counter to such function, as the result can be muscle tension and possible tissue damage, which does not promote longevity in a singing career.”(35)

Is it, perhaps, that when one stops focusing on the make or the do or the try and just lets, the cortical systems give up their micro-managing strangle hold and let more primitive voicing take over? Is it, also, perhaps, those who prefer the closed palate sound have not developed — or somehow lost — the co-evolved perceptual abilities to hear the differences of volitional/spontaneous sounds? Expansion of current research and a willingness to explore the possibilities in the field will be required.


Most are familiar with active nasality through the four nasal vowels in French: un bon vin blanc. It is not just an opening of the velo-pharyngeal port that gives one French nasal vowels, there is an active engagement of the velum. Those of us who studied French in middle or secondary school may remember the difficulty in learning to form those odd sounds. The quality of the musculature that allows us to produce the snore is nearly the same quality that produces the French nasal vowels. Relax the velum and the buzz of active nasality disappears while the velum remains open.

Sometimes active nasality is appropriate. As does French, Thai and Tamil have active nasality as a component. Active nasality is a concept “officially” unfamiliar to English speakers. However, even that ain’t necessarily so. Anyone who says English has no active nasality has not heard a native Long Island or Rochester (NY) speaker. English does have active nasality, depending on the speaker’s region. Just speak “It ain’t necessarily so” aloud. It’s all a matter of degree.

Exaggeration of regional accents for effect is a staple of comedy. Regional active nasality has been brilliantly portrayed by Maggie Wheeler, as Chandler Bing’s on-again/off-again girlfriend Janice Litman on “Friends” (Oh! My! God!), and by Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker on “All in the Family” (Songs that made ‘The Hit Parade’). Neither actor had active nasality in normal speech.

There are things a vocalist – actor, singer, speaker, parent reading a bedtime story – does to change the quality of the voice. Wheeler and Stapleton manipulated the velum to produce a comic active nasality. Sylvester Stallone manipulated it in a different way to produce the hollow, pseudo-adenoidal, closed velopharyngeal port sound of Rocky (Yo, Adrian! It’s me, Rocky.).

Problems arise when the conscious vocal quality changes become habitual and, eventually, unconscious. Regional accents, including those incorporating the buzz of active nasality, are nothing more than habitual vocal patterns. As with its raising, the soft palate may be tightened either by direct conscious action or as the result of another action. That other action may be conscious or unconscious. If the other action has become habitual, the consciousness of it may have been forgotten over time. It may feel as though it is ‘natural’ but it is merely habitual. Habits can be changed. The vocalist can learn to disengage the muscles that tighten the palate. As familiar as that tension may seem, it is not a friend.

It is the responsibility of the voice pedagogue to develop strategies to help clients/students both to change habits and to modify habits for effect when appropriate. An accomplished vocal artist has different styles and differing techniques at ready command. Whether it be the full-blown tone of Tristan or the more focused timbre of The Evangelist, the comic active nasality of Alcindoro or the pompous bluster of Dulcamara, the breathless innocence of Tuptim or the brassy zeal of Mama Rose, every accomplished singer should be able to make technique and resonance changes to adapt basic tone to the demands of style and character.


A lack of awareness of just how we function can be a root cause of error in that function. Becoming aware is an underlying tenet of disciplines espoused by Gautama, Alexander, Feldenkrais, Trager, and many others.


Some unfortunate souls live their entire lives with tension in the velum and never know it is there. They are making it happen, but are completely unaware. One of the best ways to discover the presence/absence of palatal tension is to have the student produce simple reflex responses. “The colloquial ‘yes’ used universally it would seem when one is too lazy to answer with the word is nothing more than phonation of the /m/ followed by /hm/ and is always done with great ease by everyone.”(36)(37)

Jean was half correct that everyone can produce the colloquial /mm̥m/ easily, but she means, I believe, easy production at the laryngeal level. The majority of the students with an engaged-palate buzz have great trouble discovering how to voice with a released palate. Open the mouth and /mm̥m/ should become /ʌhʌ/. Clients with the habitual buzz of active nasality, however, have a great deal of the negative /œ̃ʔœ̃/ in their affirmative /ʌhʌ/. Their habit is so ingrained they don’t even realize that they can stop doing it.

When certain of such subjects are instructed ‘just breathe’ with a closed mouth and with attention to the feeling of air passing over the velum many find they have already engaged the velum. For some the soft palate hardens when they change to an open mouthed breathing. Most will feel a velar engagement as soon as the thought of voicing occurs, even before the larynx begins to phonate. It can take months of quiet practice, breathing with close concentration, for these subjects to learn to be able to breathe and, later, phonate without their habitual velar engagement.

It is only when this rehabituation is achieved that Jean’s further statement can become true. “It might seem that because the mouth is closed during humming, and sound emits through the nares (nostrils), that a[n active] nasal sound might be produced when you open the mouth for a vowel if any of the nasal consonants are used as vocalises. Such statements have been inferred in recent articles which have appeared in this journal. However, if humming is used correctly, this could not be further from the truth.”(38)

At the opposite end of a spectrum in velar awareness are those who don’t know how to achieve a volitional closure. I sometimes introduce flow resistant straws(39) in the same early lesson as humming. I find it surprising how many students are unaware of the velopharyngeal port. They do not have a natural inclination, in fact, they have trouble finding the ability, to close the port when singing through the straw. They can, of course, automatically close the port when executing plosive consonants, but they can’t find the port with a volitional action.

A great majority of the population, including professional voice users, is likely to be unaware of conditions or movements of the velum. It seems the velum has few proprioceptive nerves to tell us where it is in space or what is its general degree of engagement.
    “The physiologist contends that, when the soft palate is raised, it shuts off more than half the resonating cavities. The teachers and all the eminent singers declare, from personal observation and sensation, that not only does the soft palate rise for the higher tones, but it must do so but without voluntary action.”(40)

    “In producing a low tone the soft palate is relaxed and hangs low down and far forward. As the voice ascends the scale the tension of the soft palate is increased and it is elevated and the uvula shortened, thus decreasing the opening behind the palate, but never closing it. In fact the larger the opening that can be maintained the broader and better the tone. The author was himself unable fully to appreciate this until he had become able to sense [emphasis MH] the position of the soft palate during vocalization.”(41)

Many vocalists approach the art with little awareness of their tongues. With all the taste function packed into such a small area, the tongue also seems to have few proprioceptive nerves to give an idea of where it is in space. Usually one can sense the position of the underside, the ‘shiny’ part of the tongue pretty well, but the top side, the ‘velvety’ surface with all the taste buds, doesn’t usually report in on its location until it is touching something – the roof of the mouth, the alveolar ridge, teeth here and there, or the tip at the inner surface of the lower front teeth where it rests for all vowel formation. A sensation of the general position of the tongue is sometimes completely absent, usually very indistinct.

This lack of awareness of the tongue position is germane in consideration of the velum as the tongue and soft palate are so linked in their functions. Swallowing is one of the earliest and most basic human actions with the tongue moving up and back as the velo-pharyngeal port closes. For a student with active nasality apparent in the tone a tight tongue may be causing the palate to think it’s time to swallow. Swallowing is, of course, the absolute opposite of the positioning wanted in singing.

“Contrast the conditions which should be present in singing
with those present in swallowing.

“For singing: the soft palate is away from the back wall of the throat,
the larynx is against the back wall of the throat.

“For swallowing: the soft palate is against the back wall of the throat,
the larynx is away from the back wall of the throat.”


The buzz of active nasality can come into play at different times and for differing reasons. It can be present due to a general personal proclivity toward tension, a misguided manipulation of vocal quality, systems interference, a postural/spinal misuse, linguistic co-articulation, or varying combinations thereof. As discussed previously, these different reasons may also be direct or indirect, conscious or unconscious, spontaneous or olitional, and varying combinations thereof, too.


Leonard Rose’s statement “the goal of all technique is the release of muscular tension”(43) applies just as readily to singing as it does to cello. Muscle engagement is, of course, required to produce tone, but anything more than the minimum engagement necessary is too much. Energy is used to perform the task at hand. Energy flows. Tension blocks energy flow. “Tension is the enemy of beauty.”(44)

Over-wound personalities are often prone to tensions with or without being aware of them. Too often one can be trapped in a cycle of tension leading to increased effort which results in decreased quality which leads to more tension to correct the fault.(45) “If muscles are tight you have ‘used up your choice.’”(46) The psychological reasons behind a singer’s tensions are not within the singing teacher’s bailiwick, but patient work with the muscular results of psychological causes may help to alleviate the source.


Resonance, the “selective amplification and filtering of complex overtone structure by the cavities of the vocal tract after the tone has been produced by the vibration of the vocal folds,”(47) is a determinant in vocal beauty. The quality of a tone can be manipulated by adding or subtracting available resonators.

Perhaps the most usual cause of active nasality for the singer is an attempt to manipulate the instrument to a desired sound perception. The voice teacher may have asked for a particular sound or a modification of resonance. Whether it is an instruction to produce a classic “pear-shaped tone” or to “raise the soft palate,” such attempts all encounter the disadvantage of a wholly mechanistic direct “make it happen” approach to singing. “There is little use for direct control in voice-training, and it should be avoided wherever possible.”(48)

Smile and the velum reacts. Laugh and the velum reacts. Encounter a surprise and the velum reacts. Try as you might, no attempt to act on the velum will reproduce these automatic reactions. Conscious actions to manipulate the velum will never achieve the grace, the fluidity, nor the muscular balance of the unconscious reactions the palate will automatically undergo when other actions call the tune.


There are sundry conscious and unconscious tasks involved in producing voice. Singers are aware of the conscious actions taken in producing voice, but should not allow these actions to interfere with the unconscious reactions occurring automatically. Mastering this concept is one of the main goals of technical training.

In all vocalism there is a tendency for multiple systems to fire together when one could do the job quite well. If one system fires or is overused it can cause a cascade of other systems engaging when they are not needed for the task at hand. “Since these structures are so closely connected, tension in one structure often can lead to tension in others. On the other hand, releasing one structure can trigger releases in others.”(49)

“The singer’s worst enemy is resistance. This is what is meant by the terms interference, rigidity, tension. These all mean muscular contraction where it should not be.”(50) Systems which can interfere with the soft palate to cause active nasalization are a tight smile, a tight tongue, a tight jaw, or manipulation of facial sneer muscles.

An overly tight smile can engage the jaw and tongue in addition to the facial muscles. Just as an easily produced spontaneous smile can cause a positive loft to the velum, there seems to be a connection between the active, volitional use of the exterior facial muscles and negative tight reactions of the internal velum muscles. As with most such interconnections, one can eventually learn to countermand this.

As mentioned earlier, tension in the tongue can cause the body to think swallowing is on the agenda. “The muscle under the chin (Hyoglossus) should remain relaxed while singing.”(51) Both a tightening of the hyoglossus or pushing the sides of the tongue into the upper teeth for an /i/ vowel (in lieu of merely touching to the side teeth) can cause an unwanted – and likely unnoticed – tension in the velum.

The jaw, especially when it is held in place by engaged masseters or over-opened in the unfortunately enduring “two (or three) fingers in the mouth” vocal/choral instruction, can produce unwanted tension in the velum as well.

Often, as Vennard mentions(52), a sneer — or the more usual attitudinal annoyance whine — can happen concomitantly with the palatal engagement that causes active nasality, but they do not have to happen together. One person’s habitual whine can be passed along as a familial vocal peculiarity eventually to become a regional twang. With many clients this whining tone becomes so habitual that, even when coached in how, they have trouble letting go. But, ah, we do become enamored of our tensions.

Many others seek volume and resonance with jaw tension, an over-opening of the mouth, and an engaging of the masseters whilst the mouth is open. All three of these unintended and, we must hope, untaught, additions of muscular engagement can cause the nearby soft palate to engage as well.

Systems interference is best solved by training systems in isolation, analyzing the problems, finding the sources of the inappropriate tensions, finding the minimum expenditure necessary, and re-synthesizing the new whole.


One of the first things on the postural check list is to determine if the singer stands with the knees locked. Knee locking is quite often tied to active nasality. Other postural anomalies, from a forward head through a raised chin to any body or ligamental locks (similar to the emergency checks that can come when walking on ice) can influence the velum and cause (albeit unconscious) active nasality.


Linguistic co-articulation can trigger active nasality, especially in those with a tendency toward habitual tensions. Co-articulation happens when the formation of one phoneme is accompanied by an inappropriate second phoneme. In the phrase “hat in hand” many will add the buzz of active nasality to the first and third syllables, even though the pronunciation of the two does not require it. The /t/, /n/, and /d/ phonemes are lingual/alveolar and the back of the tongue need not engage at all. It seems to be an unnecessary function of the /æ/ vowel that causes a co-articulation of the lingual/alveolars with /ŋ/ flavoring. The flavoring does not cause the back of the tongue and the palate to meet as they would in a full-on /ŋ/, indeed some may not even notice the tightening of the back of the tongue, but the approach toward /ŋ/ is enough to engage the soft palate, enough to turn on the active nasality.


In the world of singing there are no monoliths. There is no one way, no unerring text. Differing vocal styles are like different tones of voice, reflecting variations in intent, emotional content, social context, and aesthetic sensibility.

Many speak of the soft palate as though normal, non-pathological openness doesn’t exist. Closing the velum to eliminate active nasality results in a hollow, dark vocal quality appropriate for characterizations that require ominous, imperious, or comically pompous tones. “Isolating the velum from the rest of the oral cavity requires practice and concentration, because the action requires the denial, or avoidance of reflex — the habits that are natural and omnipresent constituents of language.”(53) Why anyone would want to train the voice against what is otherwise natural and omnipresent is beyond my comprehension. Only release of the palatal tension will give a naturally full, open sound.

Over the past fifty years the pendulum has swung in favor of singing with a completely closed velum. But pendulums swing both ways. At the same time the closed palate paradigm was beginning, dodecaphonic serialism — music meant more to be seen rather than heard(54) — was in nearly full control of the music composition world. That pendulum has returned to music composed with aural beauty in mind. With any luck the singing world will swing away from the artificial darkness and depth of current fashion that risks losing the honesty of the performance signal and return to the beauty and fullness of naturally open tones.

I expect some will consider my opinions heresy. Some established the new ideas. Some are, as Max Planck observed, the new generation that grew up familiar with the ideas.
    “I know that most men — not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever, and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic problems — can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty — conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives.”(55)
Like pendulums, confirmation bias also swings both ways. Studies of ‘elite singers’ can be skewed before they start if those chosen to participate are all active or all passive singers. “The best way to opinion poll is to poll people who already share your opinion.”(56)

I cannot but hope singing will return to the sheer animal joy of voicing that allowed sound vibrations to “enter every nook and cranny possible”(57) and once filled the best concert halls. As “human speech ability evolved after our split from the common ancestor, and is implemented by direct neural connections between motor cortex and laryngeal motor neurons — connections not shared with our closest primate relatives — ”(58) I choose to believe that somewhere under all the impositions of vocal quality manipulation there is still a beauty to be found in easy, free, and natural voice production. “[Passive] nasalization through an open nasal port when the passages through the naso pharynx and nose are free, never results in a[n active] ‘nasal twang’ but is the technique for its cure.”(59)
    “Much has been written on the education of the soft palate in singing, and a great deal of it in our opinion is unnecessary. Speaking generally, the soft palate should be kept in a negative state; that is, there should be an absolute lack of tension of the muscles composing and surrounding it, that it may properly perform its real function, that of tuning the resonating cavities of the mouth and nose; in other words, the veil of the palate may be considered a portière which, at the summons of the resonators, may be drawn over the opening of the cavity of the mouth or nose, and so apportion the sound waves to those cavities which are best calculated to re-enforce the fundamental tone and develop and make rich the voice in overtones.”(60)
Or, more simply, “It would probably be best to let the velopharyngeal mechanism do its thing without interference.”(61)


(1) Miller, Richard. “What Does Humming Accomplish?” in column “Sotto Voce,” Journal of Singing, Volume 52, No. 3, pp. 49-50.
(2) Gregg, Jean Westerman , “On the Velopharyngeal Port,” in column “From Song to Speech,” Journal of Singing, Volume 56, No. 1, September/October 1999, pp. 43-46.
(3) Carl Gutekunst, 1895 (Moberly, MO) - 1985 (New York, NY), trained with Percy Rector Stephens and taught at Columbia University until mandatory retirement, then for twenty years at Ithaca College. Carl was a member of the American Academy of Teachers of Singing, past-president of the New York Singing Teachers’ Association, and one of those active in the founding of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, for which he served as treasurer in 1947.
(4) Vennard, William, Singing: the Mechanism and the Technic, New York, 1967, p. 93, §342.
(5) Planck, Max, Wissenschaftliche Selbstbiographie. Mit einem Bildnis und der von Max von Laue gehaltenen Traueransprache., Johann Ambrosius Barth Verlag, (Leipzig 1948), p. 22, as translated in Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, trans. F. Gaynor (New York, 1949), pp. 33-34 (as cited in T.S.Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Original: “Eine neue wissenschaftliche Wahrheit pflegt sich nicht in der Weise durchzusetzen, dass ihre Gegner überzeugt werden und sich als belehrt erklären, sondern vielmehr dadurch, daß ihre Gegner allmählich austerben und daß die heranwachsender Generation von vornhereinmit der Wahrheit vertraut gemacht ist.”
(6) Curtis, H. Holbrook, Voice Building and Tone Placing, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1909. p. 70.
(7) Fillebrown, Thomas, Resonance in Singing and Speaking. New York: Oliver Ditson, 1911, p. 52, available on Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 4 March 2016.
(8) Westerman, Kenneth N., Emergent Voice, Ann Arbor, Kenneth N. Westerman, 1947, plate description opposite p. 1.
(9) Birch, Peer, Bodil Gümoes, Hanne Stavad, Svend Prytz, Eva Björkner, Johan Sundberg, “Velum Behavior in Professional Classic Operatic Singing,” Journal of Voice, Volume 16, No. 1, pp. 61-71, 2002.
(10) Sundberg, Johan, P. Birch, B.Gümoes, H. Stavad, S. Prytz, A. Karle, “Experimental Findings on the Nasal Tract Resonator in Singing,” Journal of Voice, Volume 21, No. 2, pp. 127-137, 2007.
(11) T.S., “Planet Hunting – Bode’s Law Lives!” in The Economist, Aug 24 2010: London. Retrieved from on 26 August 2010.
(12) Shermer, Michael, How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God, second edition, 2000, New York, Henry Holt and Company, A W.H.Freeman/Owl Book.
(13) Ibid.
(14) McInerny, D. Q., Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, New York: Random House, 2004. pp. 125-126.
(15) Nelson, Samuel H., and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller, Singing with Your Whole Self: The Feldenkrais Method and Voice, 2002, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. p. 11.
(16) Baken, R.J., PhD., Clinical Measurement of Speech and Voice, 1987 Boston: College Hill Press (Little, Brown & Company). p393.
(17) Now that I have defined my terms I shall be inserting clarifications of [passive] nasality and [active] nasality in others’ quotes so everyone is on the same playing field.
(18) Westerman, op. cit., p 73.
(19) McCoy, Scott, “The Seduction of Nasality,” in column “Voice Pedagogy,” Journal of Singing, Volume 64, No. 5, May/June 2008, pp. 579-582.
(20) Clippinger, D. A., The Clippinger Class Method of Voice Culture. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Oliver Ditson Company (Theodore Presser), 1933. p. 49.
(21) Gregg, Jean Westerman, “On the Velopharyngeal Port,” in column “From Song to Speech,” Journal of Singing, Volume 56, No. 1, September/October 1999, pp. 43-46.
(22) Zemlin, Willard R., Speech and Hearing Science. 1981. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.
(23) Clippinger, op. cit., p. II.
(24) Gregg, Jean Westerman, “Misconceptions About the Use of Humming as a Vocalise,” in column “From Song to Speech,” Journal of Singing, Volume 57, No 5, May/June 2001, pp 49-51.
(25) Lunkley, Bruce, a comment made to a singer in a master class at NATS workshop “Teaching the Beginning Voice” at the University of Minnesota, summer 1997.
(26) Gutekunst, Carl. A phrase repeated often enough in lessons that this author could never forget the wording though he can’t state a specific date or first use.
(27) Fitch, W.T. (2006), “Production of Vocalizations in Mammals”, in K. Brown (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, (pp. 115-121), Oxford: Elsevier as paraphrased in Bryant, G.A. & Aktipis, C.A., “The Animal Nature of Spontaneous Human Laughter,” Evolution and Human Behavior, (2014), j.evolhumbehav.2014.03.003
(28) Huron, David, “Understanding Music-Related Emotion: Lessons from Ethology,” in proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition and the 8th Triennial Conference of the European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music, July 23-28, 2012, Thessaloniki, Greece. Retrieved 21 November 2017.
(29) Bryant, G.A. & C. A. Aktipis, “The Animal Nature of Spontaneous Human Laughter,” Evolution and Human Behavior, (2014),
(30) Ibid.
(31) Pollan, Michael, The Botany of Desire, New York, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002. p 167.
(32) Brewer, Judson, “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit,” TEDMedTalk, November 2015, judson_brewer_a_simple_way_to_break_a_bad_habit Retrieved 04 March 2016.
(33) Clippinger, op. cit., p. 8.
(34) Clippinger, op. cit., p. 1.
(35) Gregg, Jean Westerman, “Misinterpreting Research Results or ‘A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing,’”: in column “From Song to Speech,” Journal of Singing, Volume 58, No 1, September/October 2001, pp 49-51.
(36) Gregg, Jean Westerman, “On ‘Bel Canto’ Vocal Technique,” in column “From Song to Speech,” Journal of Singing, Volume 52, No. 1, September/October 1995, pp. 59-63.
(37) In her /mhm/ Jean Gregg veers from standard IPA practice. If we took exactly what she writes, the lips would open for the /h/ between the two /m/s, but I think we all know what she means: a voiced nasal /m/ stops voicing, a puff of air exits the nose, and the voiced nasal /m/ resumes. I believe the appropriate transliteration should be /mm̥m/ with the middle m with a ring below indicating a voiceless bilabial nasal, known in my studio as a ‘nose h’.
(38) Gregg, Jean Westerman, “Does Humming Produce a Nasal Sound?,” in column “From Song to Speech,” Journal of Singing, Volume 55, No. 5, May/June 1999, pp. 41-42.
(39) Titze, Ingo, “How to Use the Flow-Resistant Straws,” Journal of Singing, Volume 58, No. 5, May/June 2002, pp 429-430.
(40) Laeis-Baldwin, Adèle, Laeis-Baldwin System of Practical Phonetics for Singers and Speakers, New York, The Phonetic Publishing Company, 1923, p 27.
(41) Fillebrown, Thomas, op. cit., p. 11.
(42) Gutekunst, Carl, mimeographed student worksheet on basic vocal principles produced for his classes at Ithaca College, circa 1968. From the author’s private library.
(43) Rose, Leonard, comment in a radio interview rebroadcast on the date of his death, November 16, 1984. Original broadcast date unknown.
(44) Day-O’Connell, Jeremy, a repeated admonishment to the Cornell University Chorale, 1999-2000.
(45) Gilman, Marina: comments in a workshop presented at the Voice Foundation Symposium, Philadelphia, 31 May 2007.
(46) Slabotsky, David, comments in his workshop at The Art of Teaching Symposium, Royal Conservatory of Music, Toronto, June 28, 2006.
(47) Daniel Boone, Stephen MacFarlance, and Shelley Von Berg, The Voice and Voice Therapy, 7th ed. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc, 2005. p 285.
(48) Clippinger, op. cit., p. 1.
(49) Malde, Melissa, “Mapping the Structures of Resonance” Journal of Singing, Volume 65, No 5, pp. 521.
(50) Clippinger, op. cit., p. 8.
(51) Clippinger, op. cit., p. 13.
(52) Vennard, op. cit., p. 143, §507.
(53) De’Ath, Leslie, “Phonetic Transcription – What It Doesn’t Tell Us,” Journal of Singing, September/ October 2013, Volume 70, No. 1, p 61.
(54) To paraphrase Ned Rorem.
(55) Tolstoy, Leo. “What is Art?” p. 124 (1899). In The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893), he similarly declared, "The most difficult participants can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him" (ch. 3). Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett, New York, 1894. Project Gutenberg edition released November 2002. Retrieved 2009-08-24.
(56) Stephen Colbert,
(57) Vennard, op. cit., p. 94, §348.
(58) Jurgens, U. (2002) “Neural Pathways Underlying Vocal Control” Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 26, 235-238 as paraphrased by Bryant, G.A. & C.A. Aktipis, op. cit.
(59) Westerman, op. cit., p 38.
(60) Curtis, H. Holbrook, op. cit. pp. 76-77.
(61) Gregg, Jean Westerman, “On the Velopharyngeal Port,” in column “From Song to Speech,” Journal of Singing, Volume 56, No. 1, September/October 1999, pp. 43-46.