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)

Excess Saliva While Singing, Part I, Vocal Masterclass #10

This two-part series is one of the most popular on my blog. The issue of excess salvia while singing is one I’ve never experienced,  but evidently it is pretty common!

Cate Frazier-Neely

Recently I worked with three singers who experience excessive saliva while they sing. They need to constantly stop to swallow and regroup before resuming phonation. Getting to the bottom of the issue was different for each one! What a puzzle.

In this first of a 2-part “Saliva Series,” I’ll describe one possible reason and my solutions/recommendations solutions for one singer. The next post will be on another reason and possible solution.

“Steven” is a bass with a church job who also sings with an established men’s a cappella ensemble with the name “The Suspicious Cheese Lords.” This organization is paying for each singer to have a private lesson with either Elizabeth Daniels or myself, as we have been their ensemble’s vocal clinicians for the past 7 years. When Steven came in, I asked him to tell me what he wanted to work on and he mentioned the saliva issue, among…

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Singing Through Change: Who We are Writing For

If menopause symptoms were due solely to hormonal changes then the menopausal experience would be more homogenous.

In “Singing Through Change: Women’s Voices in Midlife, Menopause and Beyond, Nancy Bos, Joanne Bozeman and I are writing for a wide variety of singers who:

–Have sung all their lives but don’t understand that singing through the lifespan is like being active in sports. You need to tend things along the way or you can’t play.

Don’t know much about their bodies or biological cycles other than what they hear in media or what their doctors tell them.

–Work with singers through midlife and aging: coaches, teachers, performers, choral conductors, music directors and medical personal.

–Are colleagues, students and medical professionals. We are writing the book we wish we’d had as we moved through our changes.

A very T-A-L-L order? Yes.

That’s why there are three of us writing in collaboration. We are really excited about the very unique way of co-authoring we’ve created! It takes longer than if we each write a chapter, but it’ll be worth it!

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Singing and Teaching From an Undivided Self

We have more academically-educated singers and voice teachers now than at any time in the history of vocal expression, and dare I say it? Very little teaching from an Undivided Self, which means very little useful and true wisdom.

Learning to get to this place this requires TIME.

It’s a sort of alchemical process to find personal, musical and pedagogical ah ha’s! amid the deafening noise of information, data, and a cult of personality. These things don’t work well with singing. Because singing is about first finding silence of stillness and then becoming a channel for bio-electric energy, all human expression and divine connection.

I think many teachers ‘head’ know this–but they don’t FEEL it or EMBODY it.

There is a crying need for a 1:1 Experiential Learning Program outside of academia to allow teachers and singers the time they need to create this alchemical process. To learn to teach WHO they ARE as well as WHAT they KNOW.

I’ve put together what may be the first program of its kind, “The Alchemy of Teaching Singing,” to fill a hole in the Continuing Education of Singing Teachers.

We’ll work with practical and useful steps towards integrating your singing, passions, pedagogical foundations, teaching interests and needs to create your undivided Self.

I’ll also help you honor every facet of your life experience, which creates a space of immense coherence and strength to hold student, learning, and your Self.

THAT’s where the magic happens.

Special thanks to Palmer Parker and his brilliant book “The Courage to Teach.”