How To Sing With The Soft Palate
Learning to control the soft palate effectively is paramount to a healthy singing voice – as one of the only voluntary muscles associated with singing, the diaphragm and vocal chords being involuntary muscles too, respectively, the soft palate can be thought of as the gateway to bright resonance, or as it’s sometimes called “the door to the nose”. Using your soft palate in the correct manner ensures consistent resonance and proper air flow on each of your resonant sounds. In essence ‘closing’ on a vowel sound, and ‘opening’ on a resonant consonant or hum like an “N” or “NG” sound.
Controlling the soft palate when you sing is a super basic skill, but one that is often implemented by the very best singers, and is often brushed off by coaches that have simply forgotten when it was like to be a complete beginner with no understanding of the voice – or worse, keep it as a secret to be revealed only when you purchase their expensive course.
In this singing tutorial, I’m going to demonstrate the importance of soft palate control in singing, along with showing you practical ways to implement this important, yet often misused aspect of your voice.
- A correct vowel features a closed but raised soft palate (no airflow through the nose/velar port)
- An open-resonant consonant sound such as N or M features an open soft palate (airflow through the nose/velar port)
What is the soft palate?
First up, what exactly IS the soft palate? The soft palate is the soft, fleshy ‘flap’ at the back of your throat, attached to the hard palate (ie: roof of your mouth) that among other important tasks, controls airflow to your nose by either opening, or closing. You likely have control over your soft palate already without knowing – every time you sneeze, you actually build up pressure behind a closed soft palate, then let it ‘burst’ through the door and into the nose to dislodge and disrupt a blocked nose. You also use the soft palate when you breathe through your nose, and also when you yawn, which is why some ill advised voice coaches out there have been known to tell people to ‘yawn’ before they sing. This is very improper advice and will do your voice no good, so listen up and learn how to use your soft palate the right way.
How do you control the soft palate?
To illustrate control over your soft palate, lets first try breathing through your mouth ‘only’ – this is a closed soft palate. Now, try the same thing by breathing in through your NOSE only, this is an ‘open’ soft palate. The key to singing is learning to control the open/shut mechanism of the soft palate, while also keeping it raised to create space and allow resonance to balance between the three vocal resonators; the pharynx, the mouth and the nasal cavity.
When you sing a vowel sound, the palate should raise high into the back of the head, while also blocking off airflow through the nose (closed but raised), where an open-resonant consonant sound such as N, NG or M features an open soft palate involving nasal airflow.
What is open throat singing?
Open throat singing is one of those classical singing terms that has unfortunately also been turned into a marketing term to sell expensive singing courses. The term Open Throat is a very literal translation of the Italian opera term, La Gola Aperta – now, if you know anything about metaphors, it’s that they are a figure of speech, not a literal instruction. This is where the confusion about open throat singing comes from, because, singing actually requires closure of your singing mechanism and central coordination of different elements which in effect, all close when you sing. This literal interpretation of a harmless metaphor creates so much confusion in singers who are learning to coordinate their voices that I simply don’t use this term anymore myself. To illustrate my point, here’s three very important aspects of your singing voice that directly contradict the term Open Throat:
- Your vocal chords close (adduction)
- Your soft palate closes (raised against the nasal passage)
- Your vowels narrow (resonance tuning)
- The Supraglottis partially closes (compression)
- The Epiglottis partially closes (twang)
- Recoil of the diaphragm is limited (support)
As you can see, the main elements of your singing voice actually require closure of some degree to create resonance. I often meet with new students and point out that their endeavour to ‘open’ their throats is causing the majority of their issues and hindering their progress majorly, only to discover the release and freedom that is created when you achieve effective closure in the vocal mechanism and learn to direct your resonance properly.
Raising your soft palate is another one of those ill-instructed processes that often cause an issue in beginner singers before they truly understand the mechanism of their voice. A simple singing fact is that if you raise your soft palate by ‘opening’ into the nasal passage, you are singing incorrectly and you will not resonate efficiently – along with creating a nasal tone that will be impossible to tune higher in your range. Keeping your soft palate closed while it raises to alter the resonant space along your pharynx is an important skill in singing, but you should take care not to confuse this with an open soft palate.
Open throat singing is more the intention and application of singing without throat strain, so a more literal interpretation of this figurative metaphor would be to call it “no throat” or “singing without throat tension”. The only element that opens is actually your vowel back into the pharynx when you raise the soft palate in the right way. Learning to control the soft palate correctly is one of the first things you need to do to build a strong vocal foundation and ultimately develop the voice of your dreams.
A great place to start is this free Foundation singing lesson which will show you how to streamline the confusing learning curve faced by many singers into an effective and efficient method of learning how to sing – A strong singing voice requires a strong foundation.
If you have any questions about raising the soft palate to improve your singing, feel free to leave any feedback or questions below!
Kegan DeBoheme is Bohemian Vocal Studio’s resident vocal coach and voice expert. He teaches professional singing and voice technique to students all around the world and enjoys providing tutorials like this one on how to improve your voice.