The soft palate, also called the velum, is located in the back of the throat, above the tongue. If you feel the roof of your mouth with your tongue, you will notice that it is hard. This is called the hard palate because of the bone located above it. However, if you feel further back, you will notice the palate becomes soft. This is called the soft palate. The command of this tissue is essential for creating great singing.
What does the Soft Palate Do?
The primary functions are to keep food or liquids from entering the nasal cavity, to allow for breathing through the nose, and to produce certain sounds during speech. However, when singing, we must engage the soft palate, sometimes over engage, to create a desired sound. The main reason we engage the soft palate when we sing is to create space.
The Most Difficult Instrument to Play
The reason that any instrument makes a certain sound is because of the shape of that instrument. Think of the sound a trumpet makes versus the sound a tuba makes. They are both from the same family of instruments however create two completely different sounds. This is because of their shape. The same is true for a ukulele versus a guitar. The voice is the same except for one, major difference: the shape of the voice can change at any time. This makes the voice the most difficult instrument to play. Your favorite singers are distinguished so because they have trained their muscles to perfectly make sounds that are pleasing to your ear. This is not an easy feat.
The soft palate is essential in creating these shapes. When we sing, the responsibility of the singer is to lift this area. This produces space in the back of the throat, providing a larger area for the sound to resonate as it exits the mouth. One of the most difficult obstacles for the beginning singer is keeping the soft palate in a lifted position. If a singer fails to do this, the result could be a dark tone or nasal sound.
The Upside-Down Drum
When students first come to me, they usually try to imitate any singer they are a fan of. In order to make the desired sound, the student will usually squeeze muscles in the throat to create what they think is a pop sound. This always ends up with exhausting the vocal cords and in some cases, permanently damaging them. The “pop” sound that beginning singers are looking for is found in resonance and the majority of that “pop” resonance in created in the nasal cavity.
The nasal cavity is located just behind the eyes with an opening in the back (upper throat) and two openings in front (the nostrils). In order to create healthy and powerful resonance, the singer must perform what I call the “The Upside-Down Drum”. A drum makes the sound that it makes because of an object striking the head and resonating the vibrations of sound into the drum’s shell. The voice can be used the same way. When we lift the soft palate, we essentially seal the back opening of the nasal cavity. As sound is produced in the vocal cords and the pharynx (throat), it bounces off the soft palate, which sends the vibrations into the nasal cavity, giving us the resonance that creates a great pop or rock sound. Depending on how the pharynx and the articulating muscles are shaped, this same resonance can also be used for any type of musical genre, such as musical theatre or classical.
Why is Lifting the Soft Palate so Important when Singing?
Thinking back to the drum, if I were to cut a tiny hole on the head of the drum, the sound would not work, not matter how small the cut. The same is true for the soft palate. If the muscles fail to lift high enough and seal the opening in the back of the nasal cavity, the sound vibrations leak in and become resonated only in the nose. This creates a cartoon like sound, called a nasal sound, and is displeasing to your audience’s ear. The only way to seal this opening is to lift the soft palate to its highest height. This accomplishes both nasal resonance and space in the mouth creating a great sound.
What is the Difference between a Nasal Sound and Nasal Resonance?
The biggest difference is between these two productions of sound is space. If the soft palate has not sealed the back of the nasal cavity, the sound goes directly to the nose, a very small space, and only resonates there. If the soft palate succeeds in sealing the back of the nasal cavity, the sound will resonate in the whole of the nasal cavity creating a much bigger sound.
How do I Lift the Soft Palate?
Training to become a great singer is mostly about muscle memory. Try inhaling as you would if you were surprised. This will raise the soft palate. The muscles that raise the soft palate will immediately pull it up. Another technique is to yawn. In order to create a large space to inhale as much air as possible, these same muscles will again raise the soft palate to a maximum height. Make sure each time you try these techniques, you are memorizing the muscle engagement. It will make it easier to repeat when it comes time to crank out an incredible voice.