You know the clichéd image of the heavy-set opera singer who narcissistically sings, “Me! Me! Me! Meeee!” before she goes on stage?
Well, she’s not as egocentric as you might think. The “me-me-me” vocal warm-up is just one example of a semi-occluded vocal tract (SOVT) exercise according to Shelagh Davies, speech-language pathologist.
Semi-occluded may sound complicated, but it simply means narrow. Singers have been using narrowed vocal tract exercises for hundreds of years, because they automatically do good things to your voice.
“Some people have said it feels like magic,” says Davies, “SOVTs have an immediate effect on the voice.”
SOVTs come in many forms, some of which are quite fun and a little bizarre.
Bubbling is all the rage with voice scientists and therapists. It involves singing through a straw into water.
Not only will this watery SOVT exercise bring out your inner child, but it will also fix all kinds of technique problems almost instantly.
Stick the end of a straw into a mostly full water bottle and vocalize through it. To get started at an easy level, vocalize at a speaking pitch for 4-5 seconds, repeating about 10 times. Take a break and repeat. Don’t let air escape through your nose or the corners of your mouth. Davies explains that afterwards you will feel the vibrations of your voice in your face, and an open sensation in your throat. While you are bubbling, you will be able to feel the movements of your breathing mechanism, since it has to work harder. “I start all my clients with bubbling, because it is the easiest one to get right,” says Davies.
You can also try it without water. The world’s leading voice scientist, Ingo Titze, made an excellent tutorial video on vocalizing through a straw to reset and free the voice:
Other SOVTs are lip trills, tongue trills and raspberries (you were an expert at these when you were four). Vocalizing on closed vowels such as “ee” and “oo” or closed consonant sounds such as “vv,” “mm,” “nn” or “ng” are also effective SOVT exercises.
The opera singer’s “me-me-me-me” warm-up is semi occluded, because the “ee” vowel requires your tongue to be raised in your mouth, thus narrowing the opening that the air must pass through.
Different types of SOVT exercises work better for different people.
“These only work if they are done right,” Davies says, which means some singers are better to try these with the help of a knowledgeable teacher or therapist. “They have trained ears and can hear things you may not be hearing.”
Davies explains that if you feel any tickling or tightness in your throat, you will need to change the way you are doing it. Your voice should feel better or at least the same while you are doing any vocal exercise.
“When the SOVT is working well, the voice will become clearer, louder and it will feel like it has become unstuck,” says Davies. “Singers can sing higher and lower with an SOVT than on an “ah” and their high notes feel easier”
Explaining the Magic
Instead of mentally grappling with abstract instructions, an SOVT helps you feel the exact thing you’ve been trying to do.
“If I say, ‘open your throat,’ that has no meaning in the body” says Davies. “You can easily get stuck in your head.”
With the right SOVT, a singer can more easily experience the sensations of an open throat. Once you know what something feels like, you can then incorporate it into your normal speaking and singing.
Back to Singing
Davies explains that you must learn to generalize the experience of the SOVT into your singing.
To do this, she suggests singing a phrase from your song through the straw a few times, then sing the same phrase on an “oo” or an “ee” sound.
Now sing the phrase with the regular words.
As you do this, you will want to try to preserve the feelings of openness, resonance and breathing movements that you experienced with the SOVT.
Back pressure. The magic of SOVT exercises is that the back pressure essentially decompresses the vocal folds. The backpressure coming from the narrowed passage presses down from above on your vocal folds. This makes your vocal folds do several healthy things. Firstly, your vocal folds are pushed slightly apart, which is important for singers who habitually tighten their throats when singing. Secondly, the vocal folds close with full tissue contact all the way along their surfaces, preventing air leaking through when it shouldn’t. Thirdly, the back pressure from the vocal tract meets the air pressure from the lungs and they almost cancel each other out. Therefore, the vocal folds vibrate with much less air pressure – it is easier to produce sound. Finally, they barely touch as they vibrate, making SOVTs very gentle on the voice.
Shelagh Davies says you can use an SOVT to warm up your voice and get it in the right place before you sing. Therapists and teachers use SOVTs for training, vocal rehabilitation and for safely exercising the voice when it is not in tiptop shape.
Shelagh Davies is a Registered Speech-Language Pathologist and a Clinical Assistant Professor and researcher in the Graduate School of Audiology and Speech Sciences, University of British Columbia. She has over 20 years of clinical experience and is internationally recognized for her work with the voice and its disorders. As a singer and public speaker herself, she is familiar with the joys and challenges of performance. See shelaghdavies.com
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Kathy Alexander is VP of Curriculum for Singdaptive. She was a staff writer for 6 years at VoiceCouncil Magazine and works for the University of Victoria as a practicum supervisor. Kathy is also a singer, vocal coach and choir director. Career highlights include guest appearances in Europe with Quannah Parker jazz fusion band in Norway, and back on the West Coast with Vision TV’s Let’s Sing Again, The Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra and the Victoria International Jazz Festival.
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