By Jeremy Fisher
Teaching Notes – Teacher nose best
It can be frustrating to hear once-pure voices developing an unpleasant nasal twang. Jeremy Fisher has some suggestions that may help.
“You know your students are perfectly capable of speaking with a clear sound, but they will insist on singing with a nasal quality. Is it the genre, is it the vocal technique, or is it the desire to imitate gone wrong?
Is that nasal singing, or just a bright sound?
Before you correct someone for nasal singing, check that they are actually singing nasally – they could just be singing with a bright sound. Here’s the only foolproof test I know for nasality.
Start by choosing a phrase with no nasal consonants. ‘This is the house that Jack built’ or ‘Alleluia’ or even ‘I love you baby’ all have no n, m, or ng sounds. Say them aloud in your normal speaking or singing voice.
Now hold your nose closed with your fingers (block your nostrils with your fingertips, or pinch the sides of your nose together). Make sure no air can escape out of your nose. Say or sing your chosen phrase again, and notice whether you can feel your nose vibrating under your fingers. If you can, you have nasality – air and sound are leaking into your nasal cavities and trying to escape.
Slight nasality is a common aspect of many English dialects, and for those of us born in the Midlands or Liverpool, this exercise can be quite a challenge.
Learn how your soft palate works
The nasal passages are controlled by a moveable doorway into the nose: the soft palate. Here is one way to find and work three different positions of your soft palate.
- Say ‘ng’ as in the end of the word ‘sing’. All the air is coming out of your nose. You can check this by holding your nose closed with your fingers and saying ‘ng’ again. The sound should stop. The back of the tongue is touching the soft palate, and the soft palate has moved away from the back wall of the throat to allow air and sound into the nose. Do a rapid nose-pinch test (pinching and releasing several times with your fingers) while maintaining the ‘ng’ to make sure that the doorway is open, and the tongue and soft palate are touching. The sound should stop and start with each pinch.
- Now find the middle position. Start by singing a sustained ‘ng’ and notice that the airflow and sound are coming out of your nose. You don’t need to push the air down, it will flow out of its own accord. Very gently and slowly, keep the airflow coming down your nose, and drop your tongue to go onto a vowel (‘eh’ or ‘ih’ seem to work best). The movement is tiny, and you should end up with air and sound coming out of both your nose and mouth. You will hear a vowel, but when you do the rapid nose-pinch test, the sound alters without cutting out. The pitch may also change, even though you are maintaining the same note inside.
- And finally, the third position. You want to raise the soft palate to close the doorway into the nose, so that all the sound is coming out of your mouth.
There are two different instructions that can help here when teaching this.
- Start with ‘close your nose off from inside and sing a vowel’. Some students find this position immediately.
- If that doesn’t work, use the NgGhee ploy. By saying NgGhee you are moving from a totally nasal sound, through a stopped consonant (the hard G) onto a totally oral sound (the ‘ee’). The most important part of this exercise is the stopping of the sound on the hard G. The soft palate has been touching the tongue for the Ng, and then both of them move up together to touch the back wall of the throat. This stops all the air and all the sound momentarily. The tongue then drops back down to allow the air and sound out of the mouth, leaving the soft palate touching the back wall of the throat, closing off the nasal cavities.
Again, do the nose-pinch test – once when you are on the Ng (the sound will cut out), and once when you are on the Ghee (the sound will not change at all).
Be aware that people feel these movements in different ways – some feel a raising, some feel a lowering, some a closing and others an opening. Use the nosepinch test to give feedback to both the student and the teacher.
Once you have experienced the NgGhee ploy, change the vowels (NgGhey, NgGah, NgGoh, NgGoo), using the stopped hard G to find the contact between the soft palate and the back of the throat. Then sing just the vowels, making sure the doorway into the nose is closed.
Now speak your phrase again and then sing it, checking for nasality in singing with the nosepinch test. Experiment with singing the phrase in different vocal ranges or in different musical styles.
Remember, nasality is a choice, not a way of life!”
This article was commissioned for and appears by kind permission of The Music Teacher magazine, published by Rhinegold Publishing. Jeremy Fisher is a performance coach and writer, creator of the Voicebox Videos, and director of the voice training company Vocal Process
Our teaching video on nasality and how to control it is instantly downloadable from this link Nasality and the Soft Palate