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The seduction of nasality.

IN THE EARLY 1980S, I SPENT A SUMMER ABROAD TO STUDY SINGING with a master teacher at a renowned music academy. I was enjoying modest success at the time, singing regularly with regional operas and symphonies, and hoped to parlay this European experience into a contract in a German or Austrian theater. My new teacher was enthusiastic about my prospects, and promised to use his "connections" to help me secure an agent and gainful employment. But first, we needed to address my vocal technique, paying special attention to issues of resonance.

All of my previous teachers had encouraged me to sing with balanced breath support, an open throat, low larynx, and elevated soft palate. The new master agreed with three of these four pedagogic precepts, but informed me that I'd been led astray with regard to my palate. The secret to beautiful resonance, he said, lay in a relaxed, low soft palate. His mantra was: sing with an open nose, but without nasality. The sound was to be placed in the nose, but not go through the nose. This seemed paradoxic to me; if I lowered my palate to let the sound into my nose, I didn't understand what would stop it from passing through my nose. Nonetheless, I dutifully followed his advice. After all, he had sung in virtually every major opera house around the globe--he had to know what he was talking about.

I quickly came to love this new sound. My head buzzed like crazy when I sang, and I finally thought I understood what other singers meant when they talked about the sound being "in the mask." Those pesky pitches in the tenor passaggio were suddenly much easier; singing open vowels on G and [A.sup.[flat]] was a breeze. Unfortunately, the real tenor "money notes," [B.sup.[flat]] through high C, didn't work as well as before, but that was surely a temporary setback. Midway through the summer, my teacher arranged a private audition for a German agent. I thought I sang pretty well, but my teacher informed me that I'd fallen back on some nasty old habits (closed nose). Nonetheless, the manager liked me well enough to arrange an extensive audition tour in the coming fall. Fortunately, there was still time to stabilize my new technique.

That October, I sang auditions in over a dozen theaters. The common wisdom among my peers on the "circuit" was that if a conductor listened to three arias, it meant he liked you and that you would get the job. On several occasions I was asked to sing five arias, so I was confident of success. Still, every audition ended with the same words: "Don't call us, we'll speak with your agent." My final stop was somewhere in north Germany, and once again, the audition panel listened to five complete arias. This time, however, they actually talked with me. They were generally pleased with my performance, but thought I was singing the wrong repertoire. I might be considered for work as a comic tenor, but could not possibly sing lyric roles in their theater: my voice was simply too nasal. The new vocal technique I worked so hard to acquire had substituted nasality for balanced resonance. It felt great to me, but nobody--except my new teacher--liked the sound. As a consequence, I was virtually unemployed as a singer until I regained control of my soft palate, which took another eighteen months. (Why are bad habits always more difficult to change than good ones?) I had been seduced by the siren song of nasality. Unfortunately, this is far from an uncommon occurrence.

At times I think there is an epidemic of nasality among our young singers. Indeed, in a recent round of auditions for our school, every potential freshman I heard displayed symptoms of the affliction. Nasality is rampant as well in juries, master classes, and competitions I adjudicate. While it is rarely an overt element in the timbre of successful professional singers, it rears its head with great regularity among developing singers. Perhaps this is merely a pedagogic phase, the byproduct of a teaching tool used to induce beneficial resonance sensations. But whatever its source, there are several reasons I believe we should not encourage or accept excess nasality in our students.

Nasality impairs diction

Integrity of vowel and consonant sounds is compromised through incorrect nasality. For example, projection of plosive, sibilant, and fricative consonants is dramatically reduced, especially in their unvoiced forms (e.g., /t/, /p/, /s/, /f/). All of these sounds are produced by airflow directed through the oral cavity. If some or most of the air escapes through the nose, consonant intensity will be greatly diminished. Voiced stopped consonants (e.g., /b/, /d/) require firm closure of the velum against the pharynx, which diverts all airflow into the mouth. If the velum is low, as is the case in a chronically nasalized voice, these consonants are converted into their unstopped counterparts /m/ and /n/.

One could argue that nasalization of vowel sounds is of little consequence in a language like English, in which the word mop means the same thing regardless of whether it is pronounced /map/ or /map/. The same does not hold true for languages that require fine control over nasality in the differentiation of vowels, such as French and Portuguese. For example, the French phrase mon mot ("my word," pronounced /mo mo/) will be understood to mean "my, my" if both syllables are nasalized. But even in English, excess nasality can hamper intelligibility by altering the location and intensity of vowel formants. This can be seen in Figure 1, which presents power spectrums of a male singing /a/ with and without nasality. The first harmonic (H1) is of similar amplitude in the two examples, varying only by 4dB. Significant differences are seen, however, in the relative strength of H4 through H7, which are under the influence of the vowel formants for /a/. In particular, H4, which is close to the frequency of the first formant ([F.sub.1]), differs by a full 12dB.

Nasality can reduce projection

The function of resonance and the singer's formant ([F.sub.s]) has been well established for classical singing. As a reminder, the singer's formant enhances vocal projection by amplifying high frequency harmonics. While nasality can give the illusion of increased resonance, it might actually diminish the impact of the singer's formant, as is shown in Figure 1. Two significant differences are apparent:

1. Singer's formant bandwidth. Sample A (non-nasal) shows Fs extending from approximately 2,650-3,500Hz, encompassing six harmonics, beginning with H16. Sample B (nasal) shows [F.sub.s] extending from approximately 2,850-3,600Hz, encompassing only five harmonics, beginning with H17.

2. Singer's formant amplitude. Harmonics within the singer's formant region are stronger in Sample A. In absolute terms, [F.sub.s] is approximately 6dB stronger. The relative amplitude of [F.sub.s] versus H1 is also strikingly different. In Sample A, [F.sub.s] and H1 are approximately equal in amplitude. With the addition of nasality in Sample B, the singer's formant region loses significant energy, dropping an average 10dB below the first harmonic.

Nasality diminishes vocal beauty

This last category moves into the realm of aesthetics and personal preference. I admit it: I simply do not enjoy the sound of nasality in singing, especially in operatic and other classical repertoire. It grates on my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard. I can't remember ever hearing a nasal tone, other than those that are linguistically required, that wouldn't have sounded more beautiful had the nasality been reduced.


There are simple steps we can take to help our students gain control of nasality.

* Make wise choices in the phonemes used for vocalizing. An exercise that begins with /m/, /n/, or /[??]/ might encourage sensations of resonance, but also will ensure that the palate is low and air is diverted through the nose. Balance these vocalises with others that begin with sibilants, plosives, or fricatives, voiced or unvoiced, that require a firmly elevated palate.

* Create exercises to develop voluntary control of the palate. For example, instruct your student to exhale through the nose, intermittently interrupting the airstream by lifting the palate to close the nasal port.

* In cases of chronic nasality, the student is often unable aurally or kinesthetically to determine whether a sound is passing through the nose. In these cases, use an external device to demonstrate the nasality, such as pinching the nostrils to close the nose. If the palate is low and the sound nasalized, pinching the nose closed will make an audible difference in the sound. Strive to produce a sound that doesn't change when the nostrils are pinched. As an alternative, place a small mirror or other smooth, shiny object directly below the nostrils. If nasality is present, the mirror will fog.

* Find a sound that helps the student identify the presence or absence of nasality. If your student cannot sense nasality in open vowels, try using an /u/ that is produced with an unusually small mouth opening, about the size of a drinking straw. This small aperture provides resistance to airflow. If the palate is low, nasality will be exaggerated and should become apparent to the singer.

* Don't allow your male students to fall into the trap of using nasality to negotiate the upper passaggio. While this might provide an easy fix in the short term, proper formant tuning through vowel modification, accompanied by well regulated breath support, will work better in the long run.

Finally, don't give up! Chronic nasality can be among the more difficult vocal problems to correct. Sometimes we work with our students on the same problem for so long that we become inured to it, losing our ability to assess vocal progress. Strive to maintain your objectivity, approaching your students with fresh ears and insight at every lesson. If all else fails, you can join me as a charter member in a new professional association I am tempted to create, which I think I'll call PAIN: Pedagogues Against Inappropriate Nasality.

Dear Reader:

As you probably know, the NATS membership recently elected me President of the Association, beginning July 2008. I am deeply honored to serve NATS in this capacity and look forward to working with you over the coming two years. While in office, I will continue to serve as Associate Editor of Journal of Singing for Voice Pedagogy, but will not contribute my own articles. Several recognized pedagogues already have been invited to write on a variety of topics. If you are interested in making a contribution, or would like to suggest a topic for consideration, please contact me by email at mccoy@


Scott McCoy

Scott McCoy is Professor of Voice and Director of the Presser Music Center Voice Laboratory at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, in Princeton, New Jersey. His multimedia voice science and pedagogy textbook, Your Voice, An Inside View, is used extensively by colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad. A long time member of NATS, he has served the Association as Vice President for Workshops, Program Chair for the 2006 and 2008 National Conferences, and master teacher for the Intern Program. He currently holds the office of NATS President Elect. Deeply committed to teacher education, McCoy is a founding faculty member in the New York Singing Teachers Association (NYSTA) Professional Development Program, teaching classes in voice anatomy, physiology, and acoustic analysis. He is a member of the distinguished American Academy of Teachers of Singing.

Scott McCoy, Associate Editor
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Title Annotation:VOICE PEDAGOGY
Author:McCoy, Scott
Publication:Journal of Singing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2008
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