WHY CLOSE THE VELOPHARYNGEAL PORT?
There are three main arguments given for constant closure of the velopharyngeal port. Let me discuss each in turn.
THE NON-CLOSURE IS A PROBLEM
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 ability to close the palate, whether from cleft palate or other issues, is a vocal pathology and leads to a
focus on closure or its absence.
It is faulty logic, however, to extrapolate that if failure to close is bad, constant closure is good.
THE RAISED SOFT PALATE IS A BOON
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 thanks to “the human mind’s tendency to find a
meaningful pattern where none exists”
or was it a true pattern? As Michael Shermer observes, humans “are pattern seeking
primates,” finding “patternicity” even where it may not actually be present.
The neologism apophenia,
attributed to Klaus Conrad, independently refers to this perception of connections in random information.
Shermer goes one step further, positing that “patternicity” leads to “agenticity.” 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. Watch Michael Jordan shoot baskets for long enough and you might
start to believe sticking one’s tongue out will result in higher leaps. Watch untrained singers long enough and you might
start to believe raising the shoulders by contracting the levator scapulae will result in greater breath capacity.
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.
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.
When the palates of those 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?”
“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.”
MAKE VERSUS LET
Was the perceived pattern actually a pattern? Does a raised soft palate actually produce a better vocal tone? 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 the soft palate to be raised and why was it 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?
THE BUZZ OF NASALITY IS A PROBLEM
The main objection to an open velopharyngeal port seems to be the assumption that this always leads to a buzzy nasality.
It ain’t necessarily so. The things that you’re liable to read in the Journal of Singing, they ain’t necessarily
«20» Elsewhere, too, misconception is put forth: “Nasality (more properly hyper nasality) refers to the
unacceptable voice quality that results from inappropriate addition of the nasal resonance system to the vocal
«21» 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, people.
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 both exist in various literatures, allow me to offer amendments to them both — with definitions based
on volitional or spontaneous 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.«22»
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.”
Considered in this light, the old sayings, “... sing with a(n) [passive] open nose, but without [active]
and “[passive] nasal resonance and [active] nasal tone are different things”
«25» 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 the mouth and nose together. Inhaling through the mouth and nose together can
be a silent, relaxed breath or it can be 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
Consider a child’s 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 voice 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.
One problem with achieving soft palate softness is that, unlike with the kazoo, dunking one’s vocal tract in a bucket of
water doesn’t really help. A kazoo membrane is naturally stiff. The soft palate is naturally soft. 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.”
«26» 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 to the velopharyngeal port is desirable.
“The role of the velopharyngeal mechanism is to vary the degree of acoustic coupling between the oral and nasal
«27» Singing with the velopharyngeal port completely closed for all vowels will allow neither such variation nor
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. There
seems to be an undeclared war between these two camps of the voice pedagogy world.
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.”
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 . . .”
In the passive vocal camp spontaneity and naturalness of production are held in high regard. “Don’t plan to sing.
Singing ‘bubbles up’ from the bottom of the torso ‘like a chuckle.’
The difference in the two
camps is readily apparent in those donning a Santa suit. Actives focus on the sound they want and manipulate the
vocal tract to get a large, hollow, reverberant — but somewhat scary — sound of a phony Santa. Passives allow
themselves to be subsumed by the character, finding the requisite sound in the good will of Mr. Kringle as
the relaxation and naturalness of a chuckle come out in every “ho ho ho”.
Recent 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.”
The findings and acoustic data suggest that such spontaneous
and 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.
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.
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,”
and, therefore, underlying messages, a parallel path
can apply in singing, allowing the singer to transmit “the kinds of perceptions that precede words”
«35» 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”
«36» – especially in performance.
Of course, in the end, “technical correctness alone is not enough; once this is achieved, emotion must return, or one
may be left with nothing beyond an arid virtuosity.”
“To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it.”
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
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.”
When his European master teacher got him to open the soft palate Scott McCoy complained that he found only a comic, active
nasality and soon abandoned the work.
Had he stayed on the path long enough he might have fired his phony Santa and
learned to let the velum alone rather than to try to make it do his bidding. He might have found the
openness, the release, the freedom of singing as though a chuckle were bubbling up. At another time he wrote of a
student’s vocal success and that “he had not tried to do these things — they happened spontaneously. ... Most singers
have moments of similar vocal serendipity. For whatever reason there are one or two pitches or vowels that simply
sound better than everything else.”
I offer that the reason is likely precisely what McCoy reports:
they happened spontaneously.
Despite some measurable improvements achieved with their use, certain drugs have toxic side effects. So, too, despite
the measurable effects of a closed soft palate the practice holds a toxicity to the spontaneity, naturalism, and tonal
beauty of voice.
“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.”
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? Expansion of current research and a
willingness to explore the possibilities in the field will be required.
LINGUISTIC, REGIONAL, HABITUAL, OR JUST FUNNY?
Most are familiar with active nasality through the four nasal vowels in French. 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 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 are languages which 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.
“An aspect of habitual velopharyngeal performance would be the case of a speaker who displays audible [active] nasality
on all segments phonetically able to carry it.”
Regional accents, including those incorporating the buzz of active nasality,
are nothing more than habitual vocal patterns. Habits can be changed.
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 is habitual, the consciousness of it may have been
forgotten over time. It may feel as though it is ‘natural’ but it is merely habitual.
The vocalist can learn to disengage the muscles that tighten the palate. This can be especially problematic when the
habitual tightening is due to a learned regional accent, or, even more so, a personal proclivity toward tension. That
tension may seem familiar. It is not a friend.
It is the responsibility of the voice pedagogue to develop strategies to help clients/students both to change their
habits and to modify them 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.
LACK OF AWARENESS
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
Jean Gregg 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 asked to ‘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 a 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 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.”
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
in the same early lesson as humming (if humming builds the voice, straws are
the vocal weight machines). 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. Often we have to start with them holding the nose closed to see what the straw-alone sound
should be. From there we experiment until they can find the muscles to use for port closure.
A great majority of the population, including professional voice users, is likely to be unaware of conditions or movements
of the velum. Experiment with me. Whisper “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Do you have any sensation in the velum? Most people do not.
Now, consider the leading edge of the velum, where it connects to the hard palate (as opposed to the trailing edge which
ends in the uvula). Repeat the whispered “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Do you feel anything?
Now put a thumb in your mouth as though you were about to suck it. Touch the leading edge of the velum with the tip of
your thumb. Repeat the whispered “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Did your thumb feel what happened? The leading edge arches whilst the
trailing edge remains unaffected. The effect is much more noticeable for those who speak with the velo-pharyngeal port
passively open, but should still be noticeable for those who actively hold it closed.
It seems the velum has few proprioceptive nerves to tell us where it is in space or what is its general degree of
engagement. If, as the story goes, Caruso was upset when tests showed his velum was closed on high notes, I am not
surprised. He was, no doubt, not doing anything to make it close, and was not getting the appropriate feedback to know
that he was letting it close.
“The exact action of the soft palate in the production of tone is a subject of heated controversy between physiologists
on the one side and singing-teachers (with the backing, be it said, of high scientific authority) on the other.
Up or down? ‘that is the question.’ 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.”
“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.”
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
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.”
REASONS FOR THAT BUZZ
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
(including an annoyance whine/regional twang), 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 volitional, and varying combinations thereof, too.
Leonard Rose’s statement “the goal of all technique is the release of muscular tension”
«52» 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.”
Over-wound personalities are often prone to tensions with or without being aware of them. In August 2005, after
presenting my poster paper “Learning to Manipulate the Physiology of Stress” and working personally with several
attendees at the International Congress of Voice Teachers in Vancouver, I was discussing the sessions with a fellow
presenter. Her reaction to my work was, ‘Oh, that breathing and relaxation stuff doesn’t work for me: I’m a Type A
personality and I just don’t work that way.’ When I heard her perform it was obvious she didn’t.
Too often one can, like my Type A colleague, 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.
“If muscles are tight you have ‘used up your
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.
MANIPULATION OF VOCAL QUALITY
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,”
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 this or that 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,” these 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.”
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. 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.
One of this author’s most memorable encounters with the “make” of closed palate singing was in the early 1980s.
After time away to pursue my music degrees, I returned to the Mid-Hudson Valley where I enjoyed access to many a
concert as classical music critic for the Poughkeepsie Journal. At one concert of a fledgling opera company made up
of New York City singers on a try-out-up-the-river basis, I met the opera ladies with whom I had over-achieved in my
high school years. During the concert we heard a young contralto who had “an empty, cavernous sound which, while big,
[was] not exciting or vital.”
During intermission my opera ladies crowded around me, as I had studied all this and must be the expert. Carmen asked,
‘What on earth is she doing?’ I explained the rise of the closed-palate technique and how “it cannot be done without a
certain amount of rigidity which is sure to show in the tone-quality.”
‘But,’ gasped Aïda, ‘it’s hooty and ugly, doesn’t
she want a beautiful voice?’ ‘I,’ said Despina, ‘would think she’d want to sound human.’
There are sundry conscious and unconscious tasks involved in producing voice. Consider young baritones who raise their
chins for high notes. The vocal folds find the pitch quite well on their own: the chin raising is unnecessary and
detrimental to the task. “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.”
“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.”
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 or volitional 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
use of the exterior facial muscles and the 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.”
Both a tightening of the hyoglossus or pushing the sides
of the tongue into the upper teeth for a /i/ vowel (in lieu of merely touching the sides of the tongue 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.
Often, as Vennard mentions,«64» a sneer — or the subset of systems interference and more usual cause, an attitudinal
annoyance whine — can happen concomitantly with the palatal engagement that causes active nasality, but they do not
have to happen together. This can be a case of ‘Don’t talk like that, your voice will get stuck and you’ll talk like
that forever.’ 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 has become so habitual that, even when coached in how, they have
trouble letting go of the tightness.
Consider a child who has first learned ‘But, Mommy, I want it!’ The words are usually delivered with accompanying tight
facial contortions, a locked jaw, and a threat of tears. It is possible to sneer and wrinkle the nose without active
nasality, just as it is possible to produce active nasality without sneering or nose wrinkling. Chances are Mommy got
the verbal message without the accompanying tension habits. But, ah, we do become quite enamored of our tensions.
As with the whining child, so, too, many singers seek volume and resonance with jaw tensions, over-opening of the mouth,
and engaging 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 in systems isolation, analyzing the problems, finding the sources of the
inappropriate tensions, finding the minimum expenditure necessary, and re-synthesizing the new whole.
Often a newcomer to my studio will present with mild active nasality. During the intake lesson I will hear the voice and
how it is used in speech and in various singing styles as well as in both seated and standing postures. One of the first
things on the postural check list is to determine if the singer stands with the knees locked. Knee locking as a symptom
of other postural problems 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 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. There is, however, an unfortunate
tendency for teachers of singing to speak almost exclusively of classical and operatic styles as though other styles don’t
exist or don’t matter. Differing vocal styles are like different tones of voice, reflecting variations in intent,
emotional content, social context, and aesthetic sensibility.
Too 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.”
«65» Why anyone would want to train the voice against what is otherwise
natural and omnipresent is beyond any comprehension. Only the complete 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 do
swing both ways. At the same time the closed palate paradigm was beginning, dodecaphonic serialism — music meant more to
be seen rather than heard
— was in nearly full control of the music composition world. That pendulum has returned to
music composed with beauty in mind. With any luck the singing world will swing away from the artificial darkness and
depth of current fashion 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.”
Like pendulums, confirmation bias 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.”
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”
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 — ”
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.”
“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.”
Or, more simply, “It would probably be best to let the velopharyngeal mechanism do its thing without interference.”
«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. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19138/19138-h/19138-h.htm#CHAPTER_VII. Retrieved 4 March 2016.
«8» Negus, V., “The Mechanism of the Larynx,” St. Louis, MO: C. V. Mosby, 1929, as quoted in Miller, Richard,
“Quality in Singing Voice,” in Transcripts of the Fourteenth Symposium Care of the Professional Voice, Part II:
Pedagogy and Medical, pp 193-202(d). Van L. Lawrence, MD, ed., 1985, The Voice Foundation.
«9» W.A.A. [W. A. Aiken, Esq., M.D.], “Singing,” in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, third Edition,
Vol. IV, p. 766, H. C. Colles, M.A.(Oxon.), ed., 1935, New York, The MacMillan Company.
«10» Westerman, Kenneth N., Emergent Voice, Ann Arbor, Kenneth N. Westerman, 1947, plate description opposite p. 1.
«11» Estill, Jo, “The Control of Voice Quality,” in Transcripts of the Eleventh Symposium Care of the Professional
Voice, Part II: Medical/Surgical Sessions: Papers, pp 152-169. Van L. Lawrence, MD, ed., 1982, The Voice Foundation.
«12» Robison, Clayne W., Barry Bounous, Ross Bailey, “Vocal Beauty: A Study Proposing an Acoustical Definition and
Relevant Causes in Classical Baritones and Female Belt Singers,” The NATS Journal, Volume 51, No. 1,
September/October 1994, pp. 19-30.
«13» Hollien, Harry, Oren Brown, Rudolf Weiss, “Another View of Vocal Mechanics,” Journal of Singing, Volume 56,
No. 1, September/October 1999, pp. 11-12.
«14» 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.
«15» 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.
«16» T.S., “Planet Hunting – Bode’s Law Lives!” in The Economist, Aug 24 2010: London.
Retrieved from http://economist.com/blogs/babbage/2010/08/planet_hunting?fsrc=scn/fb/wl/bl/bodeslawlives on 26 August 2010.
«17» 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.
«18» McInerny, D. Q., Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, New York: Random House, 2004. pp. 125-126.
«19» Nelson, Samuel H., and Elizabeth Blades-Zeller, Singing with Your Whole Self: The Feldenkrais Method and Voice,
2002, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press. p. 11.
«20» With apologies to Dick Sjoerdsma and a tip of the we-no-longer-wear-them hat to George, Ira, and DeBose.
«21» Baken, R.J., PhD., Clinical Measurement of Speech and Voice, 1987 Boston: College Hill Press (Little, Brown &
«22» 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.
«23» Westerman, op. cit., p 73.
«24» McCoy, Scott, “The Seduction of Nasality,” in column “Voice Pedagogy,” Journal of Singing,
Volume 64, No. 5, May/June 2008, pp. 579-582.
«25» Clippinger, D. A., The Clippinger Class Method of Voice Culture. Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania,
Oliver Ditson Company (Theodore Presser), 1933. p. 49.
«26» 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.
«27» Zemlin, Willard R., Speech and Hearing Science. 1981. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.
«28» Clippinger, op. cit., p. II.
«29» 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.
«30» 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.
«31» 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.
«32» 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),
«33» Bryant, G.A. & Aktipis, C.A., “The Animal Nature of Spontaneous Human Laughter,” Evolution and Human Behavior,
«34» Bryant, G.A. & C.A. Aktipis, op. cit.
«35» Pollan, Michael, The Botany of Desire, New York, Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2002. p 167.
«36» Brewer, Judson, “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit,” TEDMedTalk, November 2015, http://www.ted.com/talks/
judson_brewer_a_simple_way_to_break_a_bad_habit Retrieved 04 March 2016.
«37» Sacks, Oliver, Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, New York, Vintage Books (Random House), 2008, p. 313.
«38» George Santayana, The Sense of Beauty, as quoted in Clippinger, D. A., op. cit., p. 34.
«39» Clippinger, op. cit., p. 8.
«40» Clippinger, op. cit., p. 1.
«41» McCoy, Scott, “The Seduction of Nasality,” in column “Voice Pedagogy,” Journal of Singing,
Volume 64, No. 5, May/June 2008, pp. 579-582.
«42» McCoy, Scott, “Vocal Virtues” Journal of Singing, May/June 2013, Volume 69, No. 5, pp. 569-570.
«43» 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.
«44» Laver, John, Sheila Wirz, Janet Mackenzie, and Steven Hiller, “Vocal Profile Analysis in the Description
of Vocal Quality,” in Transcripts of the Fourteenth Symposium Care of the Professional Voice, Part II: Pedagogy and
Medical, pp 184-192. Van L. Lawrence, MD, ed., 1985, The Voice Foundation.
«45» 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.
«46» 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.
«47» 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.
«48» Titze, Ingo, “How to Use the Flow-Resistant Straws,” Journal of Singing, Volume 58, No. 5, May/June 2002,
«49» Laeis-Baldwin, Adèle, Laeis-Baldwin System of Practical Phonetics for Singers and Speakers, New York,
The Phonetic Publishing Company, 1923, p 27.
«50» Fillebrown, Thomas, op. cit., p. 11.
«51» Gutekunst, Carl, mimeographed student worksheet on basic vocal principles produced for his classes at
Ithaca College, circa 1968. From the author’s private library.
«52» Rose, Leonard, comment in a radio interview rebroadcast on the date of his death, November 16, 1984.
Original broadcast date unknown.
«53» Day-O’Connell, Jeremy, a repeated admonishment to the Cornell University Chorale, 1999-2000.
«54» Gilman, Marina: comments in a workshop presented at the Voice Foundation Symposium, Philadelphia, 31 May 2007.
«55» Slabotsky, David, comments in his workshop at The Art of Teaching Symposium, Royal Conservatory of Music,
Toronto, June 28, 2006.
«56» Daniel Boone, Stephen MacFarlance, and Shelley Von Berg, The Voice and Voice Therapy, 7th ed. Boston:
Pearson Education, Inc, 2005. P 285
«57» Clippinger, op. cit., p. 1.
«58» Heresniak, MF, “Opera Theatre shows promise,” Poughkeepsie, NY: Poughkeepsie Journal, 15 June 1983, p 16.
«59» Clippinger, op. cit., p. 13.
«60» Heresniak, Marty, “On Learning to Sing.” 1992, republished as “A Philosophy of Voice Pedagogy,” 2000, 2004, 2009,
and 2011. Ithaca, New York, published privately. Retrievable from
«61» Malde, Melissa, “Mapping the Structures of Resonance” Journal of Singing, Volume 65, No 5, pp. 521.
«62» Clippinger, op. cit., p. 8.
«63» Clippinger, op. cit., p. 13.
«64» Vennard, op. cit., p. 143, §507.
«65» De’Ath, Leslie, “Phonetic Transcription – What It Doesn’t Tell Us,” Journal of Singing,
September/October 2013, Volume 70, No. 1, p 61.
«66» To paraphrase Ned Rorem.
«67» 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.
«68» Stephen Colbert, www.colbertnation.com
«69» Vennard, op. cit., p. 94, §348.
«70» 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.
«71» Westerman, op. cit., p 38.
«72» Curtis, H. Holbrook, op. cit. pp. 76-77.
«73» 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.