Singing, Covid-19 and Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises (SOVT)

My heart goes out to all who are struggling in multiple ways this summer. And to those of you whose lungs have been compromised by Covid, even months and months after the initial sickness.

Vocalizing through a straw can help work your lungs, body and mental focus and while this is not new knowledge, I’m reporting my personal experience of SOVTs and Covid.

I know, personally, how difficult it is to make yourself do a few of these. I had no lung or breathing issues during the two weeks I was sick with Covid. The lung issues did not crop up until two months afterwards. It can be exhausting and discouraging if you are a singer with normally healthy lung function BUT, start by doing only 10 seconds at a time throughout the day as you are able–you are doing yourself a favor. This is a real act of self-care. If you are a stranger to SOVT exercises, look up “lip trills” and “straw phonation.”

I can advise this because I am a singer who had Covid, who is also a singing voice specialist and voice teacher: I used myself as a guinea pig. I’ve worked my way up from a weak “pffft” to the following more advanced exercises used by Celine Dion and Michael Jackson. It took about 4 weeks. And was a pain in the patoot. Literally, the first time I tried a 1–5—1 pattern with a straw in water, I had to take a half hour nap afterwards.

You may be interested to know that semi-occluded vocal tract (SOVT’s) exercises have been used by voice teachers and pedagogues for a very long time, “…and were particularly popular in Scandinavia dating as far back as the 1800’s.” (Marci D. Rosenberg, clinical SLP/Singing Voice Specialist, ASHA Journal)

They are not new. However, voice science shows us how they work and why they are good tools for many singers. Straw phonation, a kind of SOVT exercise, became popular through the extensive work of Dr. Ingo Titze–look him up! But the early singing master teachers used other kinds of SOVT exercises hundreds of years ago. They are used more now than ever.

Most patterns start 1–3—1 or 1—5—1 and move to 1—8—-1

Celine Dion’s voice teacher was Joanne Raby, who had her regularly do a combination SOVT and Messa di Voce at the same time. While the term “messa di voice” means “placing the voice,” it has more to do with the coordination needed to sing soft to loud to soft again. This requires a delicate balance between changing sub-glottic aerodynamic pressures and fundamental frequency, while consistently producing a voice of optimal singing quality.

To hear Celine demonstrate these variations to Ellen Degeneres, check them out HERE. There are variations over two octaves but you can adapt them to whatever you can do now, and then systematically add pitches or new patterns as you feel stronger.

About 20 years ago, a recording of Michael Jackson taking a phone lesson with his teacher, Seth Riggs appeared and is now on Youtube. This short recording featured lip trills over the interval of a 10th. Phone lessons were common before the widespread use of the Internet. This pattern is commonly used but is also a measure of coordination of the above skills.

1-3-5-8-10-8-5-3-1

This can be done with “ung” closing to the “ng” or “lip trills” or using straw phonation. However, as always, it’s not the exercise itself that contains the magic! It is in how it is done, and should have the guidance of an exceptional teacher (or singing voice specialist if you have diagnosed vocal fold pathology) to make sure it is working for you as efficiently and easily as possible. Sometimes all you need is one session, with an occasional tweak. Remember, your body is always changing and adjusting in ways you might not be aware of.

My choice for straws are biodegradable and made from avocado pits, such as the ones from Avoplast . I can feel and hear a difference between these and the aluminum and plastic varieties because these are partially made from natural fibers, like the cane reeds of many reed instruments.

“SOVT exercises lengthen the vocal tract and narrow the opening, creating increased acoustic back pressure that helps the vocal folds vibrate more easily.” (Voice Science Works)

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