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Closing your mouth to "open" your sound.

THE AUTHOR HAS WRITTEN ABOUT VARIOUS types of Semioccluded vocal tract postures (SOVT) in two previous articles in the Journal of Singing. In the first article, acoustic and physiologic reasons were provided for why teachers of singing and choral directors might consider using the nasals more sparingly, and several benefits of using the lip buzz and raspberry were given. (1) In the second article, the authors performed an experiment using flexible endoscopy where each type of SOVT was used alone and as a lead-in to three different vowels. (2) A video link of the experiment was posted on the Internet, and the link was made available for readers to view as they read the article. The focus of this article will be more practical in nature. After a brief recap of the different types of SOVTs and the science behind why they work, specific explanations of how to employ each posture in the studio or practice room will be provided, including sample exercises.


To begin, SOVTs can be divided into three categories. Table 1 (adapted from the second article cited above) provides detail on each of the categories and includes examples commonly used by singing teachers. Scientifically, a number of benefits accrue to using SOVTs. First, the singer produces a relatively high vocal output, but does so with low vocal fold vibration amplitude. These postures encourage the vocal folds to cut off the air flow very quickly each vibration cycle. (3) This rapid turning off of the flow helps produce strong higher frequencies in the spectrum of sung tone. (4) Having these strong high frequencies present in the spectrum (where the ear is more sensitive) is a key element in developing a sound that can be heard in a large hall or over an orchestra. Additionally, the SOVTs help singers turn off the flow rapidly without a lot of vocal fold vibration amplitude. (5) The result is more sound, especially in a key area acoustically, with less risk of tissue damage. Second, some SOVTs may encourage a narrowing of the outlet of the larynx, which may help the generation of the singer's formant cluster when strong high frequencies are already present in the voice source spectrum. (6) SOVTs have also been cited as a means for a singer to match his or her impedance at the glottis with the input impedance of the vocal tract. (7) Third, better breath management may result; a singer can use more thoracic and abdominal "support" without using a pressed phonation, as will be discussed in greater detail immediately below. (8) Fourth, reduced phonation threshold pressure is required; the higher pressures above the glottis reduce the pressure needed to start and maintain phonation. (9) Fifth, sensations of "head voice" are encouraged. This is a result not only of the sympathetic vibration of oro-facial tissues and sinuses of the face and skull, but also to an acoustic coupling of the vibration of the superior surface of the vocal folds with above-glottal pressures. (10) Finally, research shows a greater ratio of activity by the thyroarytenoid muscle relative to the activity of the cricothyroid muscle occurs during and after using the SOVTs. (11) This is like what has also been found when "covered" singing is compared with "open" singing. (12)

The following positive attributes of SOVTs may have more practical application for teachers of singing.

1. The downstream resistance (flow resistance beyond the glottis itself) gives the singer's respiratory system something to work against without resorting to a pressed, hyperadducted production (as might occur when singing while lifting or pulling or pushing a heavy object). (13) One method that has been effective in the author's studio is to have the student stand, inhale comfortably, and phonate on a middle voice pitch on a /v/, /m/, or lip buzz. This can then be coupled with the student placing one hand upon the abdominal wall and one hand on the side to feel the balance of muscular forces--ideally, the feeling is neither excessively "up and in" nor "down and out," but rather some balance (i.e., appoggio) between the two. The semioccluded postures seem to hold great promise for helping students discover that balance.

2. Singers may feel sensations of vibration or "energy" or "placement" in the mouth or face, particularly while doing the voiced fricatives, the nasals, the lip buzz, raspberry, and rolled r. One means for discovering this is to have the student phonate on a middle voice pitch on a /z/, /n/, or a raspberry with the hands placed lightly on the cheeks. The goal is to relate (and transfer) the sensations of forward vibration and vocal tract freedom experienced with the SOVTs with sensations occurring while singing on vowels and words.

3. Singers often may be able to let go of habitual tensions in the tongue, lips, and jaw, particularly while doing the oscillatory and transitory semiocclusions. Having a student perform a lip buzz, raspberry, or rolled r while attending to the freedom and movement engendered by the activity is one means for addressing these tensions. More will be said about tongue tension below.

4. Doing a number of these postures requires the singer to be more extroverted, to sing with less inhibition and more abandon, and to do something silly. The late Barbara Doscher encouraged the author to learn how to do a raspberry by asking him in a lesson how long he had been married. At the time, the answer was about six months. Doscher replied, giggling, "Well, someday Cathy [the author's wife, who was observing the lesson] is going to say something that you think is really dumb, and you're going to want to be able to turn towards her and go 'thpppppp!!!' [demonstrated a raspberry]." The author and his wife can report after twenty-five years of marital happiness that though the author quickly learned how to do a raspberry, he has never found occasion to heed Doscher's advice.

5. The higher mouth/pharynx pressure found in many of these postures cannot be generated easily without the palate being raised; however, this is not true of the nasals.

6. The voiced fricative /z/, the nasal continuant /n/, the raspberry, the rolled r, /j/ glide, and the voiced plosive /d/ all front the tongue. This tongue fronting can be used to assist vowels (especially back vowels) that follow the pilot SOVTs. For example, the teacher and student could experiment with /za/, /na/, raspberry as a lead-in to /a/, /ra/, /ja/, /da/, or any of the other back vowels on a comfortable pitch in front of a mirror in order to determine which SOVTs are most effective at encouraging a more forward tongue position during the vowel.

There are a number of possible uses of the semioccluded postures in voice pedagogy. The following paragraphs provide a variety of suggestions.

Diagnostic with a new student. Have the student attempt a lip buzz, then a raspberry. If necessary, try each one unvoiced first, then voiced. Difficulty with either posture can indicate unsteadiness in the breath energy. Only a steady optimal flow (and sufficient but not excessive pressure to drive the additional tissue in vibration) will work. To encourage a steady air flow, speech pathologist colleagues of the author have suggested that the student suspend a Kleenex or other facial tissue horizontally by its corners close in front of the student's mouth. Have the student watch the tissue while he or she does the lip buzz or raspberry (providing an external focus of attention), with the goal being to keep the tissue paper "flapping in the breeze" at a constant height. Trouble with the lip buzz or raspberry can also indicate possible tensions in the facial area and the tongue. Starting a raspberry unvoiced, then (without breathing) switching to a voiced raspberry and back to an unvoiced raspberry can help reveal whether the tongue engages unnecessarily at the onset or release of phonation.

The author has been asked at master classes, "How do you teach someone to do a lip buzz when he or she has never done one?" Starting with something related to the task yet already familiar to the student is the author's recommendation. If a lip buzz is desired, start with chanting /blablablablabla/ on a single pitch. Then, having the student sing in alternating model/imitation fashion with the teacher, gradually start to sustain the length of the initial /b/: /blablabla/, /bbbla/, /bbbbbla/, /bbbbbbbla/, etc. Another strategy is to have the student lightly touch his or her mouth on its corners with finger tips in order to maintain a slightly loosened yet puckered mouth shape. Gentle massage of the cheeks near the molar area can also help establish/maintain a lip buzz in a tight lipped person. One final intervention would be to start with humming and chewing at the same time. By moving the jaw and lips in a chewing motion while phonating, the student can begin to experience what it is like to make singing-type sounds without overly tensing the articulators.

Educational. The author teaches pedagogy at the university level, and he finds the following helpful in dispelling unusual misconceptions about voice production that are not grounded in physiological reality about "special resonators" or "placement in the sinuses." For those students who are convinced something other than the vocal tract and the nasal cavity contributes to the sound the outside world hears, have them hum the semioccluded posture /m/, then while trying to maintain the /m/, have the students pinch their nostrils closed with thumb and index finger. The sound rapidly stops. This simple demonstration helps students to understand that if a resonator has no opening to the outside world, it does not contribute to the sound heard by listeners.

Warm-down. The gentle nature of hum chewing, lip buzzing, raspberries, or singing pitch glides on vowels into a straw makes them very effective in facilitating cool-down after a performance, practice session, or lesson. This is particularly important for singers who sing in more athletically-oriented styles such as demanding CCM, opera, or music theater. The author often encourages his students to do several cycles through a "circuit training" set of the four SOVTs just mentioned as a warm-down after lessons or choral rehearsals.

Respiratory awareness. The downstream resistance these postures provide can help singers get a better sense of breath energy connection. Using a voiced fricative, a nasal, or a straw is good for establishing a more gentle connection, and is especially helpful for those singers who are hyperfunctional, while using the lip buzz or raspberry (both of which involve putting more tissue into motion with the airstream) seems best for the singer who needs to take a more assertive approach with singing. Thus, singers who "push" benefit from learning how to do the more gentle postures, and those who "peep" benefit from learning how to do the more extroverted ones. In a favorite vocalise from the author's studio, the student performs an arpeggio on a lip buzz in a medium range (Example 1). Such a sweeping, triplet rhythm arpeggiated pattern is best; it gives the singer a "running start." The author recommends having the student perform the arpeggio on a lip buzz at several different pitch levels. After that, the SOVT arpeggio can be coupled with large body movements. For example, have the student perform the pattern while doing a trunk twist with floppy arms. The trunk turns make the singer more aware of the external and internal obliques while releasing excess tension in the rectus abdominus.



Maintaining a steady airstream during difficult passages. The author advocates having a student perform the phrase exclusively on a lip buzz or raspberry, then have him or her sing it on the text. The singer then alternates the SOVT phrase with the actual text until the transfer is secure. The goal is that the airflow is as consistent in the singing as it was in the semioccluded posture.

Addressing hard onsets and punched releases. The author has found using unvoiced to voiced to unvoiced semioccluded patterns to be successful with students who have unhealthy onset or release habits. This can be tried with fricatives in a comfortable pitch range, such as /[integral]--3--[integral]/ or /s-z-s/ or /f-v-f/. The author's most favorite are the raspberry (unvoiced-voiced-unvoiced-voiced-unvoiced) and the lip buzz (unvoiced-voiced-unvoiced-voiced-unvoiced), again using a comfortable pitch at first.

Injured singers. Colleagues from the South Texas Voice Center at the UT-Health Sciences Center at San Antonio often come to the author for singing lessons while they are in recovery from an injury. To be clear, the author is not a speech pathologist, and what he does with singers is not therapy. These are singers who are undergoing voice therapy with the team's SLP at the same time that the author is working with them, in collaboration with the speech pathologist. One thing the author frequently does with these singers is gentle agility oriented exercises while using semioccluded postures. For instance, using a straw on an /u/ vowel, hum/chew, raspberry, or lip buzz, he would have the singer do a pattern similar to that in Example 2. The pitch changes in the pattern may provide some gentle stretching and release of the vocal fold tissue, while the semioccluded posture should reduce impact forces and provide beneficial sensations for the singer to remember and associate with easy vocalization. The alternation of direction (descending patterns alternating with ascending patterns) helps the singer acquire a better balance of intrinsic muscle function. Example 3 shows some similar patterns. Any of these patterns can be coupled with a gentle head turn to facilitate easy function in the extrinsic muscles.

Further applications. After a singer achieves easy function on the semioccluded postures, the next step is to use the semioccluded posture, such as a raspberry or Coffin's standing wave exercise, only as a pilot to a vocalise or a musical phrase; the goal is to alternate trials with and without the pilot posture to assist in the transfer of vocal production and sensation from the semioccluded pilot posture to the sung portion. The singer is then gradually weaned off the pilot semiocclusion entirely.



A sample dialogue with a student in a lesson might sound like this.

Teacher: Can you lip buzz this pattern for me [demonstrates a 5 4 3 2 1 descending scale from [C.sub.4]-[F.sub.3]]?

Student: [sings pattern].

Teacher: Great! Now, buzz for a second on the top note, then transition without any break in the sound into the same 5 note scale on /joioioioio/ [demonstrates].

Student: [sings pattern].

Teacher: Good. Now do it without the initial buzz here [changes key]. That's right. Now try again with the buzz here [changes key]. Right! Now sing it without the buzz here [changeskey].

As the dialogue indicates, the progression of tasks begins with a semioccluded posture that varies over time (the buzz) followed by a trial using the buzz as a pilot into a transitory occluded posture (the /j/ glide). Then trials using the buzz and not using it are alternated to assist in the transfer of the "forward" sensations, air flow/air pressure balance, and breath management (Example 4).

This can also be tried with a phrase from a song. For instance, in order to work on the last series of melismas in Purcell's "I'll sail upon the dogstar," Berton Coffin's "standing wave" SOVT posture might work well. This involves singing with your mouth open as you normally would to produce a vowel, but doing so while completely sealing your mouth with the palm and web of your hand. The key is to not merely hum, but to actually sing the vowel shape desired. Different vowels can be chosen depending upon a variety of reasons, including the student's vocal issues, the phrase's text, the second formant of the vowel, and the pitch level. Back to the practical example, a teacher might have a tenor student sing an /ae/ vowel into his hand on [D.sub.4], then release his hand from his mouth to seamlessly transition into "and whether I'm a roaring boy," which begins on the same vowel and same note in the tenor key of the song. Again, for aiding in transfer, alternating trials with and without the semioccluded posture and gradually weaning the student off using the SOVT are recommended.

To promote a lighter vocal production in the lower bridge of a female voice, a straw could be used as demonstrated in Example 5. A teacher might say:

"First, glide around on /u/ while singing into the straw; just a gentle siren--not too high. Next, use the straw as a lead in to /udi-budi-budi-budi-bu/ on 5 3 1 3 5 3 1, followed by vocalizing it without the straw. Now glide around on the /u/ into the straw, then use /u/ into the straw as a pilot into the exercise, and finally do it once without the straw."



In this sequence with a student, the teacher begins by having the student use a semioccluded posture throughout the pattern, then uses it as a pilot into a pattern, then segues into using transitory occlusions (the pattern of plosive consonants followed by vowels with low first formant frequencies).

When using the semioccluded postures as pilots into a vocalise or phrase, they need not be used on a static pitch. For instance, a student could lip buzz an 8 5 3 arppeggio pattern as a lead-in to singing 13 5 8 5 3 1 on an /e/ vowel (Example 6). Here the semioccluded posture is also a running start, respiratory-wise, for the singer, so that he or she does not under- or oversing. The legato is hopefully assisted through a steady airflow being established at the start, and the occluded posture and initial descending direction help keep the singer from being too weighty on the bottom note.

As always, there are some cautions about any pedagogic intervention. This is certainly the case for the use of SOVTs in singing training. First, although theoretically it may be more beneficial to start with the most occluded postures (very small straws, for example) and go toward those that are like normal vowels (such as the glides), in the voice studio teachers often must begin with what is most familiar to the student, which may only be the glides, plosives, and nasals, before gradually moving toward more flow-resistant postures. One has to start with what the singer can do before guiding him or her toward new skills. Second, it is important to remember that SOVTs are just one means to an end, and that they are not a cure-all for every problem. As the old saying goes, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail. They should not be used with every vocal problem, and should only be used judiciously and then removed. Finally, the author strongly recommends that singers rotate what they do quite often, that is, do not get in a rut of always using a hum or a lip buzz.


(1.) John Nix, "Lip Trills and Raspberries: 'High Spit Factor' Alternatives to the Nasal Continuant Consonants," Journal of Singing 55, no. 3 (January/February 1999): 15-19.

(2.) John Nix and C. Blake Simpson, "Semi-occluded Vocal Tract Postures and Their Application in the Singing Voice Studio," Journal of Singing 64, no. 3 (January/February 2008): 339-342.

(3.) Anne-Maria Laukkanen, Ingo Titze, Henry Hoffman, and Eileen Finnegan, "Effects of a Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract on Laryngeal Muscle Activity and Glottal Adduction in a Single Female Subject," Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica 60, no. 6 (November 2008): 309-310.

(4.) Barbara Doscher, The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994), 125-127.

(5.) Ingo Titze, Eileen Finnegan, Anne-Maria Laukkanen, and Sanyukta Jaiswal, "Raising Lung Pressure and Pitch in Vocal Warm-Ups: The Use of Flow-Resistant Straws," Journal of Singing 58, no. 4 (March/April 2002): 330, 335-337.

(6.) Ingo Titze and Anne-Maria Laukkanen, "Can Vocal Economy in Phonation be Increased with an Artificially Lengthened Vocal Tract? A Computer Modeling Study," Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology 32, no. 4 (2007): 154-155; Ingo Titze and Brad Story, "Acoustic Interactions of the Voice Source with the Lower Vocal Tract," Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 101, no. 4 (April 1997), 2243; Johan Sundberg, "Articulatory Interpretation of the Singing Formants," Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 55 (1974), 838-844.

(7.) Ingo Titze, "Voice Training and Therapy with a Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract: Rationale and Scientific Underpinnings," Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 49, no. 2 (2006): 448-459; Brad Story, Anne-Maria Laukkanen, and Ingo Titze, "Acoustic Impedance of an Artificially Lengthened and Constricted Vocal Tract," Journal of Voice 14, no. 4 (December 2000): 455-469.

(8.) Ingo Titze, "Phonation into a Straw as a Voice Building Exercise," Journal of Singing 57, no. 1 (September/October 2000): 27.

(9.) Ingo Titze, "The Five Best Vocal Warm-up Exercises," Journal of Singing 57, no. 3 (January/February 2001): 51; Ingo Titze, "How to Use the Flow-Resistant Straws," Journal of Singing 58, no. 5 (May/June 2002): 429-430.

(10.) Ingo Titze, "The Use of Low First Formant Vowels and Nasals to Train the Lighter Mechanism," Journal of Singing 55, no. 4 (March/April 1999): 41-42; Irene Bele, "Artificially Lengthened and Constricted Vocal Tract in Vocal Training Methods," Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology 30, no. 1 (2005): 35.

(11.) Laukkanen et al.

(12.) Ingo Titze, Anne-Maria Laukkanen, Eileen Finnegan, and Henry Hoffman, "Laryngeal Muscle Activity in a Tonal Scale: Comparing Speech-like to Song-like Productions in a Mezzo-Soprano," Journal of Singing59, no. 1 (September/October 2002): 53-54.

(13.) Ingo Titze, "Lip and Tongue Trills--What Do They Do for Us?" Journal of Singing 52, no. 3 (January/February 1996): 51.

John Nix, Tenor, is Associate Professor of Voice and Vocal Pedagogy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Mr. Nix has been a faculty member at The University of Colorado-Denver and Eastern new Mexico University, and worked for four years at the National Center for Voice and Speech with Ingo Titze. He holds degrees in Arts Administration from Florida State University, in Vocal Performance from the University of Georgia and the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Certification in Vocology from the University of Iowa. At Colorado, he studied voice and pedagogy with the late Barbara Doscher and Alexander Technique with James Brody. Current and former students have sung with the Santa Fe Opera, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Chautauqua Opera, Opera Omaha, Arizona Opera, Nevada Opera, San Antonio Opera, The Soldiers' Chorus, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and include faculty members at universities in Montana, Texas, Wyoming, and New York. He has won research grants from The Grammy Foundation and NIH, and was awarded the 2006 Van Lawrence Award by NATS and The Voice Foundation. He has published more than 25 articles and edited or contributed to 5 books.
O golden month! How high thy gold is heaped!
The yellow birch-leaves shine like bright coins strung
On wands; the chestnut's yellow pennons tongue
To every wind its harvest challenge.
In yellow, still like fields where wheat was reaped;
And yellow still the corn sheaves, stacked among
The yellow gourds, which from the earth have wrung
Her utmost gold.
  To highest boughs have leaped
The purple grape--last thing to ripen, late
By very reason of its precious cost.
O Heart, remember, vintages are lost
If grapes do not for freezing night-dews wait.
Think, while thou sunnest thyself in Joy's estate,
Mayhap though canst not ripen without frost!

                            Helen Hunt Jackson, "A Calendar
                                     of Sonnets: September"

The month of carnival of all the year,
When Nature lets the wild earth go its way,
And spend whole seasons on a single day.
The spring-time holds her white and purple dear;
October, lavish, flaunts them far and near;
The summer charily her reds doth lay
Like jewels on her costliest array;
October, scornful, burns them on a bier.
The winter hoards his pearls of frost in sign
Of kingdom: whiter pearls than winter knew,
Oar empress wore, in Egypt's ancient line,
October, feasting 'neath her dome of blue,
Drinks at a single draught, slow filtered through
Sunshiny air, as in a tingling wine!

                          Helen Hunt Jackson, "A Calendar
                                     of Sonnets: October"

TABLE 1. SOVT categories and example postures.

Type of
semiocclusion  Definition

semiocclusion  Semioccluded postures that can be maintained
               consistently for several seconds without any
               appreciable change in vocal tract shape.

semiocclusion  Postures where a regular cycle of pressures are
               built up behind an occlusion, then released;
               the cycle of pressure changes is not unlike that
               which takes place at the glottal level, although
               at a much lower frequency than occurs at the
               vocal folds.
semiocclusion  Postures that are very short in duration; can feature
or occlusion   a brief complete occlusion of the vocal tract.

Type of
semiocclusion  Examples

semiocclusion  (a) singing vowels into a straw or tube
               (b) sustained phonation of voiced fricative consonants,
               such as /v/, /z/, /[??]/, /[eth]/
               (c) sustained phonation of nasal consonants,
               such as /m/, /n/, /[??]/, or the Coffin "Standing
               Wave" exercise (phonating a vowel with
               one's hand completely over the mouth)
semiocclusion  (d) lip buzz
               (e) raspberry
               (f) rolled /r/
               (g) phonating into a straw that is partially
               immersed under water

semiocclusion  (h) semi-vowels /j/ and /w/
or occlusion   (i) voiced plosive consonants /b/, /g/, /d/
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Title Annotation:semioccluded vocal tract postures
Author:Nix, John
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2016
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