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Dispelling vocal myths: Part V "sniff to raise the palate!".

Did your teacher say this to you? Or your choir director? Have you said it? It's OK. We all say silly things, for very good reasons. We tell our adolescent children "Don't go outside without your coat. You'll catch your death of pneumonia!" even though we know it isn't really true.

This is the fifth in a series of articles aimed at clarifying misconceptions about vocal production that can cause technical problems or reduced efficiency in singing. One of the reasons to call these misconceptions "myths" is that they seem to be passed down from generation to generation, like old wives' tales. We repeat them without stopping to think about whether they actually make sense. Unfortunately, this causes confusion for singers, who try to base their technique on conflicting information, or images that are at odds with physical reality.


When I gave my first "Dispelling Vocal Myths" presentation for a breakout session at the NATS 2006 National Conference, the general consensus in the room seemed to be that while everyone in attendance knew that "sniff to raise the palate" is incorrect, it's a phrase that still gets used. (Those in the room who believed the phrase, or used it, wisely didn't let on.) This phrase is illustrative of the nature of vocal myths, and why teaching of singing is so hard.

Truth #1: Sniffing Lowers the Palate

Let's review of the anatomy of the velopharyngeal closure mechanism (this information should be available in any voice pedagogy textbook). (1) The hard palate is a bony structure, part of the maxilla, that you can feel as you run your tongue backward from your upper teeth. Once you've reached the place that feels soft, you've reached the soft palate, also known as the velum. The posterior, inferior (back, lower) end of the velum is the uvula, which many of my patients seem to know as "the hangy thingy." The uvula itself is an indicator of the movement of the soft palate, or velum, but it doesn't actually have much to do with your voice quality. (It vibrates during snoring, so it may have something to do with the quality of your sleep.)

Remember that we divide the pharynx into the nasopharynx, oropharynx, and laryngopharynx. Those are important distinctions for swallowing and other considerations which we won't discuss now. The velum separates the oropharynx from the nasopharynx, although the structure is continuous.

At rest, the velum is in a position to allow air to flow through the nose and the mouth simultaneously, through both the oropharynx and nasopharynx, and down into the larynx, trachea, and finally the lungs. If you close your mouth to breathe, the velum is lowered to allow passage of all the inhaled air. So, if you sniff, you lower the palate. If you raise the palate and inhale, you will snore or snort. By the way, when singers refer to "the palate," they are almost always referring to the soft palate, as the hard palate is bone and cannot be manipulated to change the sound. However, when we talk about articulation and refer to a palatal consonant, we are referring to the hard palate.

If you say or sing a nasal continuant "m," "n," or "ng," all the air will pass through the nasopharynx and exit out the nose. Your oropharynx will be occluded, either at the lips for "m," the alveolar ridge for "n," or the velum for "ng." All the other sounds of English, vowels and consonants, are produced with air passing through the oropharynx, and out the mouth. In those sounds, the velum should be raised so that it presses against the posterior wall of the pharynx, and closes off the nasopharynx. This is known as velopharyngeal closure, or closing the velopharyngeal port. Since the soundwave depends on the moving column of air, your "voice" comes out your nose on the nasal phonemes, and out your mouth on the non-nasal phonemes.

Of course, there can be many variations on those non-nasal phonemes. If you say a sentence that contains many nasal phonemes, the velum may not have time to close the velopharyngeal port completely for the vowels between the nasal phonemes, and those vowels will be produced with both oral and nasal airflow. And we can choose to produce vowels with varying amounts of nasal airflow, thus creating varying degrees of nasal resonance. But before we talk about the act of volitionally varying the degree of nasal resonance, it is prudent to return to one of the Mega-Truths from my first "myths" article, (2) which helps dispel many of these vocal myths.

Mega-Truth #1: You Can't Feel Your Working Parts

It's important to remember that the velum goes up and down constantly during speech. The velopharyngeal port opens and closes, and we don't feel it. Like the vibration of your vocal folds, you would tickle yourself to death if you could feel the velum making and losing contact with the posterior pharyngeal wall hundreds of times per minute during speech. Food, beverage, and air pass by the velum without much sensation. For many of us, if we touch the velum with a foreign object, such as a toothbrush or rigid endoscope, the gag reflex is swift and powerful, but for the normal palatal activities and sensations, we are blissfully unaware.

This is important to consider when we try to manipulate the velum, especially when we try to "raise the palate." We don't actually feel when the palate is completely raised, even when it is pressing against the posterior pharyngeal wall for very long periods of time. Try hissing for 30 seconds; you'll be aware of your breathing mechanism and the turbulent airflow at the tongue and teeth, but you won't feel that your velum is fully raised and making contact the entire time. I have always been concerned when singing teachers spend time practicing soft palate "acrobatics," ostensibly for improved palatal closure, or better agility of palatal configuration. I worry because trying to feel something for which we actually have very limited sensory reception can lead to all manner of unintended tensions. In the case of the palate, it is indeed capable of subtle variations, but these are more readily learned as a consequence of manipulating the aural feedback, rather than kinesthetic feedback.

Also, there is only so much raising of the palate that can occur, and only so much difference it will make in the voice quality. It is true that every subtle adjustment we make in our vocal tract can have consequences for the sound. On the other hand, those of you who have had your tonsils removed during your singing life were probably amazed that although the sensation of singing was greatly altered, the change in the quality of your voice and resonance was not all that noticeable to listeners. "Large tonsils block the sound" is one of the vocal myths. If removal of large tonsils can have minimal effect on the singing voice quality, then it makes sense not to spend too much effort trying the raise the palate another millimeter, when the velopharyngeal port is already closed.


Singers come to the clinic with a variety of misconceptions about the term "nasal," and often are terrified of "nasality." Even with nonsingers, when we help them discover a more forward sensation (which then decreases muscle tension in the neck), they are convinced that they will sound "nasal" when they feel those frontal sensations. Whatever "nasal" means, it is highly stigmatized.

What Is Nasality?

The language surrounding nasal resonance can be quite simple and straightforward, but in the world of singing, we tend to be nonspecific about the way we use our "nasality" terminology. This creates confusion that can lead to technical singing problems.

In the world of speech science, a phoneme that is produced by directing airflow through the nasal cavity is called a nasal. If the velopharyngeal port is opened appropriately for nasal phonemes, we say there is appropriate nasal resonance. When the velopharyngeal port is opened, even partially, when it should be closed for non-nasal phonemes, we say there is hypernasality. When the velopharyngeal port is closed, even partially, for nasal phonemes, we say there is hyponasality. So, nasality describes the degree to which the velopharyngeal port is open or closed, that is, the degree of nasal resonance, and the prefixes hyper or hypo describe the appropriateness of the nasal resonance.

In popular parlance, nasal can mean: 1) congested or stuffed up, as when you have an upper respiratory infection; 2) whiny and twangy, as in some country singing styles; 3) excessively bright and forward, as in some music theater character roles; 4) hypernasal; or 5) hyponasal. Singing teachers may use the term in all the above ways, without ever explaining the actual sound or production to which they are referring. In fact, they may not actually differentiate between hypernasal and hyponasal in their own minds. A student may be told by his singing teacher that he is too nasal, when the teacher is referring to a sound that is excessively constricted and tight, or insufficiently warm/round/open. He may then go to his choir rehearsal and be told, "Tenors, stop being so nasal!" when the director is referring to a sound that is indeed hypernasal, which is acoustically quite different. Our same tenor may come to his lesson and say, "I have a cold; you can hear how nasal I am."

It would be helpful if the teacher would respond by explaining that he is actually hyponasal, or de-nasal. If the nasal port is actually so congested as to prevent air from passing, the nasal phonemes "m," "n," and "ng" will sound like the plosives "b," "d," and "g." (They have the same place, but different manner of articulation.) Anyone who has sung or taught "Adelaide's Lament" from Guys and Dolls knows how to create this effect. And, in fact, the consonant changes required to make Adelaide sound like she has a cold are very different from the vowel and timbre changes required to make her sound "Bronx-y." Remember, vowels are non-nasal phonemes, so nasal congestion from URI or allergies does not affect them. And it has to be very severe nasal congestion to create a completely denasalized nasal consonant. It is very common to have someone say "I have a cold; I'm sure you can hear it," and reply, "Well, no, not really." The sensation of nasal and sinus congestion can be very strong, but the acoustic changes minimal.

Returning to our hapless tenor, it would be helpful if the choral director would say, "Tenors, I hear inappropriate nasal resonance. I suspect some of you are producing a vowel with the velum inappropriately lowered. Let's work on how to keep your soft palate raised throughout the duration of the vowel." (3)

A Quick Nasality Check

How do you detect actual hypernasality? Most of you know this, but the technique may not be used often enough in singing lessons and choir rehearsals. Plug your nose. (If you're a speech-language pathologist, you say, "Occlude the nares.") Sustain a vowel, and in the middle, pinch your nose shut with your fingers. If there was any nasal resonance in the vowel, you'll hear an immediate difference. If there's no difference, the velopharyngeal port was already completely closed.

Now experiment with a very bright, brassy, "belty" vowel, such as in music theater or gospel style. Was there nasality? Maybe or maybe not, but it was probably not the degree of nasality that characterized the timbre for you. The sensation of singing the vowel may have been very forward; you may have felt it "in the mask." But that doesn't mean it had inappropriate nasal resonance; the velopharyngeal port may have been completely closed. You can experiment with all kinds of pitches and timbres, opening and occluding the nares, and develop your own sense of the difference in quality that occurs with nasal coupling. Then remember that your students' experiences may be different from your own.

Good Nasality Versus Bad Nasality

It is also important to recognize that a certain amount of nasal resonance is considered desirable in some instances, beyond just singing in French. LeBorgne cites literature indicating some use of nasality in belting, as well as reminding us of the "utility for stylistic or character choices." (4) Western classical singers have been shown to use nasal resonance for formant tuning, register transitions, and even simply for preferred voice quality. Sundberg et al. showed that a slight opening of the velopharyngeal port seemed to increase the singer's formant, and suggested that singers can effect these changes with careful, subtle adjustments of velopharyngeal opening. (5) Recently, Perna demonstrated that tenors increased their nasalance (a measure of the ratio of acoustic energy from the nose alone to the acoustic energy from the mouth and nose combined) when negotiating register transitions. (6) It is doubtful that these qualities are perceived as hypernasal, or even "nasal," by listeners, (7) but the nasal coupling may have its usefulness. In fact, Perna suggests that insisting on a completely raised palate at all times may be detrimental for some singers as they ascend in pitch. (8) On the other hand, McCoy argues against using such a strategy. (9) In any case, it is likely that these palatal adjustments will be subtle, and will be highly individual. (10) It is my contention that as we find more and better ways to study the various muscle configurations for the entire singing mechanism, we will continue to find that wide variability is the norm, and that there are many ways to "skin the resonatory cat."


There are so many versions of this:

* Sing with your resonators, not your throat.

* Put the sound in your sinuses.

* Put the air in your sinuses.

* Use the resonance from your sinus cavities.

* You can't sing when your sinuses are full.

* Resonate in your cheekbones.

* Sing it in the mask.

This last two are old, standard, tried and true recommendations. Why are they different from the others? Let us return to Mega-Truth #1--You can't feel your working parts. While it is true that we can't directly feel the raising and lowering of the palate, our sensation of sympathetic vibrations is exquisite. Titze tells us that as we sing, we probably do achieve "acoustic pressure maxima at specific locations in the vocal tract." (11) The bony structures in the skull that surround the sinus cavities will vibrate in sympathy during voice production, (12) and there is research showing increased vibration with a more "resonant" production in speech. (13) We can feel these vibrations, and we love the sensation, partly because when we feel it, we are concomitantly told that the sound is good. So the image of the sound in the sinus cavities is completely understandable. But to pretend that the sinus cavities provide some kind of resonance that actually enhances the vocal output is a myth.

Truth #2: The Sinuses Are Not Resonators

Those sinus cavities are closed systems; the air can't escape. Any sympathetic vibrations in bones or skin are not intense enough to disturb the air around your face and send little sound waves travelling from your cheeks to the ear of your listener. As McCoy describes it, those vibrations are your "private resonance." (14) Many other sources acknowledge the belief of singers that they achieve resonance in their sinus cavities, but remind us that these are illusions, and do not affect the sound. (15)

The trouble with the sinus/cheekbone myths is that singers try harder to "place" the sound somewhere into the skull or the face, thinking it is actually the source of sound. If some sensation is good, more is better. My clinical experience shows me that this can lead to pressed phonation, constriction of the oropharynx or laryngopharynx, or actual hypernasality. It can lead some singers to believe they cannot sing when they have nasal congestion. It can lead other singers to believe that if they sense vibrations in what they believe to be the sinuses, that they will sound nasal. Singers, especially novice singers, need to understand the difference between sympathetic vibrations in the sinus regions of the face and inappropriate nasal resonance.

The American Academy of Teachers of Singing (AATS) introduced a paper at the NATS 2014 National Conference in Boston entitled "In Support of Fact-Based Voice Pedagogy and Terminology." In this paper, the authors warned that many of the sensation-based instructions given by teachers are based on sensations that may be unique to any given teacher. They assert, "Pedagogic preoccupation with creating vibrations in specific places may undermine the singer's efforts to develop an efficient vocal technique." (16)


It is likely that the vast majority of the time that the "sing it in the mask" instruction is given, it is actually a useful image. The sensation of forward, or facial, resonance is centuries old for a good reason, most likely because it diverts the attention away from the larynx. As I have stated in previous articles, trying to feel the vocal folds themselves can be a deterrent to efficient vocal production. Speech pathologists almost universally find that focusing on forward resonance helps patients reduce extraneous muscle contraction in the strap muscles, or excessive glottic resistance during phonation.

The "raise the palate" instruction by itself may be important, especially for beginning singers. "Sniffing" may actually improve the gesture of inhalation, or a pharyngeal posture that may be too constricted or even overly enlarged.

Rachel Ware surveyed 520 singing teachers regarding their use of imagery and scientific fact, and found that the overwhelming majority find it most useful to combine imagery and imagination with voice science and mechanics when teaching singing. (17) She proposed the phrase "Anatomically Informed Imagery" to describe a pedagogic approach using images that are in concert with actual anatomic or physiologic fact. From the viewpoint of a voice clinician, I can tell you that vocal instruction that is at odds with reality can lead to devastating consequences in the development of a vocal technique. Therefore, I wholeheartedly support both the AATS paper and Ware's contention. But we must remember that we do not have direct sensory access to much of our vocal mechanism. This has given rise to the use of imagery, and the preponderance of myths. I believe that images that have nothing to do with actual anatomy, and cannot be believed as fact, can be useful. In my studio, I ask to students to "pretend you're a giant kelp" (rooted in the seabed, but moving gracefully with the movement of the waves). None of my students has ever believed he actually should be a giant kelp, but he understands my point. I also say to patients, "Pretend the air is going to your belly button," and then explain that it really isn't, but feels like it is, because we can't actually feel the diaphragm or lungs. In that case, an anatomically incorrect image, with the proper caveats, is useful. In my pedagogic and clinical experience, we can use imagery of all sorts. But what we must do is examine every one of our images, and make sure that it doesn't promote a myth.


(1.) See Vocapedia, the website sponsored by NATS and launched this past summer. There are many resources there, including online resources with animated graphics that may help you understand the mechanism better.

(2.) Deirdre Michael, "Dispelling Vocal Myths. Part 1: 'Sing from Your Diaphragm!'," Journal of Singing 66, no. 5 (May/June 2010): 547-551.

(3.) I certainly did not learn about the velopharyngeal closure mechanism in my choral conducting classes in the '70s (nor in my undergraduate voice pedagogy course). I think many Music Education majors in today's college music programs do not learn basic vocal anatomy as part of their curricula. While we sometimes tend to vilify choir directors, it may be more important to help them transcend the shortcomings of their coursework, as many of us have done for our own.

(4.) Wendy LeBorgne and Marci Daniels Rosenberg, The Vocal Athlete (San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing, 2014), 101-102.

(5.) Johan Sundberg, Peer Birch, Bodil Gumoes, Hanne Stavad, Svend Prytz, and A. Karle, "Experimental Findings on the Nasal Tract Resonator in Singing," Journal of Voice 21, no. 2 (February 2006): 127-137.

(6.) Nicholas Perna, "Nasalance and the Tenor Passaggio," Journal of Singing 70, no. 4 (March/April 2014): 403-410.

(7.) Jori Johnson Jennings and David Kuehn, "The Effects of Frequency Range, Vowel, Dynamic Loudness Level, and Gender on Nasalance in Amateur and Classically Trained Singers," Journal of Voice 22, no. 1 (November 2006): 75-89; Peer Birch, Bodil Gumoes, Hanne Stavad, Svend Prytz, Eva Bjorkner, and Johan Sundberg, "Velum Behavior in Professional Classic Operatic Singing," Journal of Voice 16, no. 1 (March 2002): 61-71.

(8.) Perna, 409.

(9.) Scott McCoy, "The Seduction of Nasality," Journal of Singing 64, no. 5 (May/June 2008): 579-582.

(10.) Birch, 70; Richard Miller, The Structure of Singing: System and Art in Vocal Technique (New York: Schirmer Books, 1996), 63-68.

(11.) Ingo Titze, Principles of Voice Production (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994), 167.

(12.) Ingo Titze, "Acoustic Interpretation of Resonant Voice," Journal of Voice 15, no. 4 (December 2001): 519-528; Jean Abitbol, Odyssey of the Voice (San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing, 2006), 190-191.

(13.) Chen Fei, Estella Ma, and Edwin Yiu, "Facial Bone Vibration in Resonant Voice Production," Journal of Voice 28, no. 5 (March 2014): 596-602.

(14.) Scott McCoy, Your Voice: An Inside View (Princeton, NJ: Inside View Press, 2004), 28.

(15.) Willard Zemlin, Speech and Hearing Science: Anatomy and Physiology, 3rd Edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988), 220; LeBorgne and Rosenberg, 87-88; Clifton Ware, Basics of Vocal Pedagogy (Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 1997).

(16.) American Academy of Teachers of Singing, "In Support of Fact-Based Voice Pedagogy and Terminology," Journal of Singing 71, no. 1 (September/October 2014): 12.

(17.) Rachel Ware, "The Use of Science and Imagery in the Voice Studio--A Survey of Voice Teachers in the United States and Canada," Journal of Singing 69, no. 4 (March/April 2013): 413-417.

Deirdre D. ("D.D.") Michael is an assistant professor in the Department of Otolaryngology in the University of Minnesota Medical School. There she is codirector of the Lions Voice Clinic, where she treats patients with voice and airway disorders, and directs treatment, educational, and research activities. She specializes in treating singers, actors, music teachers, and other professional voice users. She is also a frequent lecturer and collaborator in the Department of Speech, Language, Hearing Science, and in the School of Music.

Dr. Michael received her BA in music and psychology from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. She received her MA in Speech-Language Pathology and PhD in Communication Disorders, with a specialization in voice science, from the University of Minnesota. She has been a voice and piano teacher for over thirty-five years, and a speech-language pathologist since 1991. She is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences for voice and singing science, most especially the Annual Symposium: Care of the Professional Voice sponsored by the Voice Foundation, and the biannual International Conference on the Physiology and Acoustics of Singing. She also lectures regularly at colleges around Minnesota and Wisconsin, in the areas of voice science, vocal health and voice treatment. Her educational goals are to make voice science accessible to singers, and to educate medical residents on voice disorders and the special needs of singers. Her areas of research and publication include perceptual characteristics of voice, acoustic measures of voice quality, and various aspects of normal and abnormal speech and singing production. She serves NATS locally as a collaborator and adjudicator, and nationally, making appearances in workshops and conventions in 1997, 2000, 2006, 2009, and 2010. She serves as the chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of NATS, also chairing the Vocapedia website committee.

Dr. Michael maintains a private voice and piano studio, and is active in a variety of local teaching and music organizations. A soubrette soprano, she continues to sing in a variety of musical styles and venues.

Took his heart
And hung it
On a wayside wall.
He said,
"Look, Passers-by,
Here is my heart!"

But no one was curious.
No one cared at all
That there hung
Pierrot's heart
On a public wall.

So Pierrot
Took his heart
And hid it
Far way.
Now people wonder
Where his heart is

Langston Hughes, "Pierrot (Heart)"
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Title Annotation:Voice Pedagogy
Author:Deirdre, Michael
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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