“Raise the soft palate.”
~almost a bazillion voice teachers, across time
There is much to know about the anatomy of vocal tract for singing and voice teaching. The soft palate is one of those structures that both mystifies and intrigues us, and (at first) isn’t easy to control.
Just this week I went tête-à-tête with a client about whether her soft palate was lifting or lowering during a particular sound. Turns out the soft palate was lifting, but she was 100% convinced it was lowering. Once she saw what was happening by looking in the mirror, the conversation was settled.
How can that be? How can we be so convinced that the soft palate is moving in one certain direction, to only find out that it is doing the exact opposite?
(Don’t get bent out of shape one way or the other, y’all – we have ALL experienced soft palate confusion. Either that, or we haven’t sung a note in our lives.)
Here are 5 things to know about the soft palate that may help you on your vocal journey.
1. Learn where the soft palate is and what it looks like
The following video is a graphic and bizarre look at the soft palate. But, before we head off into *strange,* find the soft palate in your own vocal tract. Take the tip of your tongue and run it along the roof of your mouth, starting at your teeth and moving backwards. You will reach the edge of the “hard palate,” and run right into the soft palate.
The soft palate dips down and can be seen at the back of the throat when you open your mouth. The uvula is that little dongle that hangs down from the soft palate, just in case you needed to know that.
Another name for the soft palate is the velum. In case you needed to know that, too.
I shall put it after the “read more” tab below so you have time to prepare yourself for this little bit of weirdness.
Did you catch that? Dude just put his tongue behind his soft palate. Do NOT say I didn’t warn you about *strange.* At least you’ve either been entertained or grossed out.
2. The soft palate is connected to the other structures of “the voice” by 5 sets of muscles
In Scott McCoy’s book Your Voice: An Inside View, there is a diagram of the muscles and structures associated with articulation and how they are interconnected. (p. 145) The soft palate (and pharynx) are connected to the tongue, jaw, hyoid bone, and larynx by these five sets of muscles:
- Middle constrictor
- Superior constrictor
- Pharyngeal constrictors
This would not be important to mention if it were not for the fact that these complicated sounding muscles tend to be in competition with each other, which affects our ability to control the vocal tract. To spell them out helps accentuate that there is a lot going on at the back of the throat, AND that everything is connected to everything else.
To get technical with it:
“when the levator palati [muscle] tenses to lift the soft palate, the palatoglossus muscle must remain relaxed and pliable to avoid the consequential elevation of tongue and larynx. Control at this level is truly a learned behavior, often acquired only through extensive trial and error. In the initial stages of voice training, few students will be able to differentiate between contraction of the anterior and posterior bellies of the digastric [muscle] – let alone between the adjacent geniohyoid and genioglossus muscles! Time, patience and practice, however, should eventually lead to appropriate control.” (McCoy, 2004, p. 144)
Amen. Like any athlete, singers are training muscle groups to work in extraordinary ways.
3. The soft palate directs sound
When the soft palate is “down” air and sound waves (originating at the vocal folds) can go behind the soft palate, and/or into the mouth. The yellow arrow shows the air and sound going behind the soft palate toward the nasal cavity:
Sound and air directed into the nasal cavity produce a more “nasal” sound. Singing on an “NG” directs all the sound and air into the nose.
“the velum, assisted by the extent of tongue elevation, determines the character of the nasal phonemes by the postures it assumes in relation to the oral cavity.” (Miller, 1996, p. 80)
When the soft palate is “raised,” or “up,” the sound and air are directed into the oral cavity or mouth. The below picture shows an arrow for sound and air going into the mouth, but also with the possibility for them to enter the nose and mouth simultaneously.
“In the articulation of certain sounds, the nasal cavities are joined with the mouth and the pharynx as part of the resonator tube.” (Miller, 1996, p. 283)
4. People will disagree about the soft palate in singing
Ego’s tendency is to see things as right or wrong. Voice teachers’ egos are no exception, although I know that seems implausible. So, for now, expect differing opinions about correct and incorrect ways to use the soft palate in singing.
In speaking about which soft palate positions are “correct,” McCoy says:
“In the end, these options (raised, lowered, or midpoint position of the soft palate in singing) are best seen as aesthetic choices, for each yields a distinctive vocal timbre that is subject to personal preference.” (p. 140)
One of my favorite voice videos is of this gentleman singing Wagner in an MRI. You can see the velum (soft palate) moving so clearly, and the vowels are lovely to behold. Lest we get stuck in our opinions, technology and science show us the real inside view.
Here’s another MRI video comparing vocal styles. Soft palate differences? Yes, oh very much yes:
5. Saying “raise your soft palate” is not helpful (at first)
Learning to control the soft palate is a long term project. Remember the quote above? It takes “time, patience, and practice.” (McCoy, 2004, p. 144) My client was absolutely convinced that her soft palate was raising when it wasn’t. It took another set of ears to help sort it out, which is both an argument for voice lessons and evidence that we don’t always realize what’s happening in the vocal tract.
Until we each learn what it feels like to raise the soft palate, as well as what it sounds like to raise (or lower) the soft palate, we can’t just “raise the soft palate” on command.
Learning how to manipulate the soft palate is another post for another time. For now, experiment with your sound by plugging your nose and singing an “o” vowel. See how nasal you can make it, then see if you can make the vowel sound clear – as if it’s coming out of your mouth instead of through your nose. Now you are moving your soft palate!
We can pick this conversation up again anytime, because there is more to talk about. But until then, here’s a link to VoiceScienceWorks.org page on the Vocal Tract. Scroll down for info on the soft palate.
McCoy, S. (2004) Your Voice: An Inside View. Princeton, NJ: Inside View Press.
Miller, R. (1996) Structure of Singing. Boston, MA: Schirmer.