The Nasal Passage and Sound Colour in Singing: Better Man Than He by Sivu

This anatomy and physiology resource for singers and singing teachers is a real piece of art! The music video for “Better Man Than He” by British singer-songwriter Sivu is created with MRI-images of Sivu singing. The video gives you a fantastic glimpse into the complicated movements of the vocal system during singing!

Inspired by the video, I wrote a little “anatomy lesson” for all you singers and singing teachers. In this lesson I’d like to zoom in on the soft palate, uvula and nasal passage. These parts, how they move, and how that in turn affects the sound, sometimes tend to create confusion in singers. So let’s study them with the help of this marvelous music video!

 

 

THE HARD PALATE, SOFT PALATE AND UVULA
The “roof” of the mouth is a bony area called the hard palate. It extends into a soft, non-bony area: the soft palate. The soft palate forms a muscular arch and ends in the uvula, a small piece of soft tissue that hangs down from the end of the soft palate. The soft palate and the uvula are movable.

NASAL PASSAGE
The doorway between the mouth and the nose is called the nasal passage, or nasal port. This doorway can be opened or closed with the uvula. When we swallow, muscles draw the soft palate and the uvula upward, which closes the nasal passage and prevents food or liquids from enter in the nasal cavity.


FINDING THE SOFT PALATE / UVULA AND NASAL PASSAGE IN THE VIDEO
At 0:15 in the video, look at the tongue. It is a big muscle filling up almost the whole oral (mouth) cavity. On top of the tongue there is something hanging down, touching the lower back part of tongue. This is the soft palate relaxing. Notice how the “tube” of the vocal tract reaches straight up towards the nasal cavity, when the soft palate and uvula are drooping down. The nasal passage is now open, allowing the air/sound into the nose. Your nasal passage is open for example when you say “ng” (as in “sing”). In fact, ALL sound comes out through the nose when you say “ng”, because the soft palate is down and touching the tongue, blocking the sound from entering the oral (mouth) cavity. Try this: say “ng” and pinch your nose. The sound and breath stops.

OPENING AND CLOSING THE NASAL PASSAGE
When Sivu proceeds to singing “lo-lo-lo…”, you can see the soft palate pulling up and back onto the back wall off the pharynx. The uvula closes the nasal passage, which in turn stops the sound from going into the nose. If you could pinch his nose now, the sound would not change at all, because all of it is coming out through the mouth.

Now Sivu continues singing the lyrics “you can end this anytime you want to”. Notice the soft palate/uvula moving back and forth, opening and closing the nasal passage. This is what is happening all the time when we speak or sing. When we speak or sing words that contain nasal consonants such as “n”, “m” or “ng”, the nasal passage is open. If the nasal passage would be closed all the time, we could not produce nasal consonants and it would sound rather strange!

When we sing (or speak) vowels, we have a choice: the nasal passage can be either closed or open.

The nasal passage is open for example at 03:03. Notice how the soft palate is relaxed and hanging downwards. You see both cavities, the oral (mouth) cavity and the nasal cavity, are open. The sound now comes out of the nose as well as the mouth, and becomes nasalised in character. Remember the nose pinching test? If you sing a vowel sound with an open nasal passage, the sound will not stop but it will change sound color.

Can you follow it so far? 

Here’s the video one more time, to make it easier for you to read the lesson and play the video as you read on:

 

THE NASAL PASSAGE AND SOUND COLOUR
Some singers use an open nasal passage to affect the sound colour.

At 01:14 when Sivu sings “doom”, the nasal passage is open. If you listen to the vowel sound in the word “doom” you can hear that it is nasal.

Compare this to when he sings “lo-lo-lo…” at 0:17, where the soft palate has pulled up, and the uvula is closing the nasal passage. Now the sound cannot travel up to the nasal cavity, and it is coming out only from the mouth. When the nasal passage is closed, the sound becomes more powerful and the sound colour darkens.

How much the sound should be nasalised in singing is an artistic choice.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
You might think, “So if nasality is an artistic choice, why would I bother practicing singing with a closed nasal passage?” Remember, if ALL your vowels are nasalised because you are unable to close the nasal passage with the uvula all together during singing, we are not talking about a “choice”!

It makes a lot of sense to practice closing and opening the nasal passage, because this will give you more control over your instrument and more options in sound. If you cannot close your nasal passage when you are singing, you could lose a considerable amount of resonance. The oral cavity is bigger than the nasal cavity, so it is a more efficient resonator. There are also other benefits of gaining control over the nasal passage, such as breath efficiency.

I hope you enjoyed this anatomy lesson!

Although I chose to use the music video as a teaching tool, please do also watch it for pure enjoyment. Enjoy the music and singing of Sivu, marvel at the artistry of director Adam Powell who created the music video, and the wonders of the human voice!

©2013 Katja Maria Slotte

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How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 5)

THIS BLOG POST IS THE LAST ONE IN THE SERIES ‘HOW SONG INTERPRETATION CAN SAVE YOU FROM YOUR NERVES’. HERE YOU CAN READ THE PREVIOUS POST.

We have arrived at the last post in this series, inspired by my interest in song interpretation work and my fascination in how it can relieve performance anxiety. In the previous four posts we have gone through some of the tools I like to use when working on interpretation with singers. It’s time for a little wrap-up, in the form of three pieces advise for your interpretation work.

 

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Photo credit: Tal Bright via Photopin.com

Be in the moment 

Know your story, your Sender, Receiver, goal, and so on. But allow the story to unfold itself in the moment.

Try to not fix an ending to your story, that would only make your performance boring. Keep it open. Play with it.

In real life, do we ever know exactly what is going to happen next? No we don’t. So go from moment to moment, just as you would in a real-life situation.

 

Don’t try to ‘get it right’

When you work on interpretation, don’t focus on the performance. Don’t focus on ‘getting it right’. Focus on the story. The moment you try to ‘get it right’, it becomes difficult.

And needless to say, all the voices in your head saying “I wonder what they think of me” have to be turned off!

 

Forget about technique

Yes, I wrote that!

It is important that you remember singing technique is something we practice in order to become free to sing whatever we want to express. When we work on song interpretation (and when we perform), the story is important. Not technique.

If technical issues are hindering you from giving your story or performance the expression you would like to have, then of course you need to work on those. Technique needs to be practiced into a habit, so that we can use it while we perform. But that’s another story.

Singing technique is just a tool to help you express what you want, and to keep you healthy while singing.

Singing technique can help you express whatever you want. But if there is no expression in the first place, there is no singing technique in the whole world that can help you!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte

How Song Interpretation Can Save You From Your Nerves (part 4)

THIS BLOG POST IS #4 IN THE SERIES ‘HOW SONG INTERPRETATION CAN SAVE YOU FROM YOUR NERVES’. HERE YOU CAN READ THE PREVIOUS POST.

In this series of blog posts we are examining some tools that will help you create a concrete structure for working on song interpretation. The title of the blog derives from my fascination with the connection between interpretation work and relieving performance anxiety.

Today we will examine how to make the song interesting by adding some interaction and drama to it. We will also talk about how creating an imaginary setting for the song can help us feel more focused and less nervous in the performance situation.

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Image by Alfred Schmidt (1958-1938) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

WHY are you singing the song?

What is your goal? What do you want to achieve? What do you wish the outcome to be?

This is an essential aspect of song interpretation. Knowing what the song is about and to whom you are singing is not enough. We need to have a reason to sing the song. The reason is somehow connected to the Receiver.

Here are some examples of objectives:

  • Comfort someone.
  • Convince someone they should stay with us.
  • Tell someone they should reconsider their decision, because they might end up getting hurt.
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Photo credit: Emagic via Photopin

Using interpretation tools to create a safe performance setting

Remember the singer I told you about in blog post #2 of this series? She was working on ‘Help Me’ by Joni Mitchell. This singer was used to perform with a loud rock band. Now she was making the shift to acoustic repertoire. She loved singing her new repertoire, but the smaller setting made her very nervous. She felt vulnerable, like ‘there was nowhere to hide’. We needed to create an imaginative song setting that felt safe for her.

She had concluded the song was full of emotions you feel when you are having a crazy romance. When choosing a Receiver, she could have chosen to sing the song to the (imaginary) character she / her song character fell in love with. But she had concluded the romance didn’t only feel wonderful, but also scary and not that stable. So it felt better for her to choose a Receiver she felt very safe about.

To whom are you singing and why?

I am telling this to my best friend, because I know she will understand me, she has been there herself. 

In this case the reason for singing the song is: singer is looking for comfort, understanding, sympathy, perhaps even good advise. Or, like we put it in the session: “It’s girl’s talk that we are having over a glass of Cava.” Which brings us to the next point.

WHERE are you?

Where is the story taking place? What happened just before you start singing?

Creating a setting for your story will help you stay in the story from beginning to end. Some singers do not know ‘what they should do’ during an instrumental interlude. This makes them often feel nervous. Watching others perform, you can clearly see that they have trouble ‘getting into the song’. In both cases, you could solve the problem by making sure there is a clear objective, and by focusing on the Receiver and the setting.

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Photo credit: Stefelix via Photopin.com

Communication is a two-way thing

While communicating, we are always looking to evoke some kind of response (or feedback). Feedback is an essential part of the communication process, and included in most communication models.

The Sender and the Receiver in the story need to communicate too, in order for the story to remain interesting. When you sing your song, imagine how your Receiver would react to the things you say. You can imagine verbal reactions, and also actions, like turning away, standing up and walking towards the door, and so on.

Focusing on the Receiver and the goal can save you from your nerves

If you have a clear picture of what you are singing, to whom, and why, it helps you take your focus away from external things such as worrying about what the audience thinks about you. When you are completely in the story, the music can flow through you.

If we return to the singer working on ‘Help Me’, she found focusing on the interaction between her and her (imaginary) Receiver a very helpful tool. Whenever she felt she got ‘out of  the story’, she could imagine a reaction or response from her Receiver. This would help her continue. Having a Receiver to focus on made her feel calmer and more more centered in her performance.

An exercise

We will end today’s blog post with an exercise.

Read the lyrics of the song All Of Me. Read them out loud.

(Yeah, I was referring to the Jazz standard. And there is another song called All Of Me, written by John Legend. You can use those lyrics too.)

Then, try to answer the questions we have gone through until now:

  • What is the song about?
  • Who is the Sender?
  • Who is the Receiver?
  • Where are they? What has lead to this moment?
  • Why is the Sender singing? What is his/her goal?
  • How could the Receiver react?

Post your answers here, so we can get inspired and learn from each other!

©2012 Katja Maria Slotte