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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What Lives in Your Breathing?

This may be THE most important thing a singer and a voice teacher needs to understand!

And if you haven’t subscribed to Justin Peterson’s History Vocal Pedagogy blog, do it! It is for singers and teachers of Popular and Americana Music as well as Classical Music. Justin invited me to be a guest contributor to his blog and this is a repost. I’ve taken a look at a passage from the writings of Cornelius Reid, who has deeply influenced many functional voice trainers of all kinds of musical genres.

“The willingness with which a singer responds to the energy charge when the throat opens will determine his ultimate potential for mastering a vocal technique that is functionally free.

This means facing up to the fear and anxiety that are ever present throughout the formative stages of training. No other phase of the learning process is quite as important as this. How the singer meets this challenge will determine whether or not his artistic ambitions will be realized…Since anxiety is so intimately bound up with physical contraction and fear of movement, one of the major problems during training is to break down the student’s innate dread of inner expression…”

Cornelius Reid (1911-2008)

I first discovered Cornelius Reid’s trilogy (The Free Voice, Bel Canto in Principle and Practice and Voice: Psyche and Soma) in graduate school. I resonated deeply with each of these books.  Reid’s work, and the work of those who’ve developed his concepts in registration and the role of the psyche in singing since then have formed a basis for the unusual variety and depth of my life’s work.

All teachers of singing need to viscerally understand that histories of vocal pedagogy and of oral musical traditions don’t just change with time. They both have an eternal quality of circling back to embrace roots and then burst forward again in new growth. One feeds the other and around they go, like a wagon wheel moving along the singing trail. They weed out, add to and hold fast – not so much by specific exercises – but by underlying principles, overarching concepts and use of language.  

Recently, the above Reid paragraph struck me in a new way.  He wrote: “The willingness with which the singer responds to the energy charge when the throat opens….”

What?? What does Reid mean by “willingness to respond to the energy charge when the throat opens?” First of all, he refers to the throat opening as a response to the energy charge. The energy charge comes first! Singing doesn’t even start with the breath or “inhalation.” The throat doesn’t initially open by “creating space,” “placement” or even by getting into character or poetic understanding.  It isn’t shaped by “lifting the soft palate,” or “lowering,” “raising,” “tilting” (or whatever-ing) the larynx, or by supporting with the intercostals or transverse abdominals or skilled use of the articulators. 

Reid suggests that the initiation of  things ‘happening’ is dependent upon how much a person is willing to respond  to “The Charge.”

One of my primary voice teachers, Elizabeth Daniels, spoke about “the thing” that happens before you even breathe to sing, and how, if anyone identifies “the thing” they’ll win a Nobel Prize. Daniels’ teacher was Todd Duncan, George Gershwin’s hand-picked Porgy for the premier of Porgy and Bess. Duncan evidently used to say that the way the throat is responding before the breath is taken will determine the freedom of the singing afterwards. And my father, a brilliant and loving full-time church musician, used to say “Cultivate a belly of fire, an open heart and a mind of ice.”  And maybe one of the most unique things a teacher can do in our current day and age is help clear a singer’s charge and free it from static so that functional training can take root.

The “energy charge,” to which Reid refers has not been measured by science, but is the result of the urge to sound, or express, as part of our natural makeup up as bioelectric beings. There are many kinds of energy, or electrical phenomena produced within living organisms and within the earth itself.  

The late Dr. Meribeth Dayme wrote in the third edition of her book Dynamics of the Singing Voice:

J. Diamond (1983) has defined “life energy” as being a vital force that is physical, mental and spiritual in nature: the physical being reflected in the muscular activity and the functioning of the skeletal system: the mental including thoughts and the ability to be centered; and the spiritual that begins as spirit which is signified by the love and humanity within each person. He has also noted that everything in the environment, both physical and psychic–thoughts, feelings, desires affects life energy. 

(Diamond’s trilogy examines this life energy in The Life Energy in Music, vol. I, II, and III. New York: Archaeus Press)

I believe that this is all part of the unencumbered charge to which Reid refers. Or to put it another way, what is The Charge free of? Reid gives us an answer: it is free of anxiety. 

Voice and acting teachers, actors, dancers, singers, and healers have been weaving together somatic re-education, movement, mindfulness, nutrition and wellness, bodywork, rehabilitative tools, and intention for over forty-five years now. These ways of uniting the mind-body split in our culture help to heal and repair our willingness and ability to respond to The Charge. It’s that initial thing that has to be allowed before we release and engage our body’s pressure systems to breathe. Yes, the “charge” is our response to life, music, our mission, our joy, our motivation. But it also must be free enough to allow all the ‘things’ that we observe in voice science (including whatever  latest research has been reported!) and continually define and redefine in vocal pedagogy to work.

The emotions we feel aren’t the same thing as the energy charge that Reid mentions. It seems to me that many singers are vocally reflecting the angst of the times, rather than establishing how to deliver expression of angst without having the throat shaped by anxiety. Teachers, mentors, coaches, producers, conductors and directors should help to create an environment that supports The Charge. But since that is not always the case, part of a singer’s training must develop a willingness to respond with their own charge, within themselves. Each singer, as they mature throughout their lives, carries the responsibility of protecting their own Charge so that functional training can take root over time and release a naturally musical and expressive soul.

Reid’s next sentence is,

This means facing up to the fear and anxiety that are ever present throughout the formative stages of training. No other phase of the learning process is quite as important as this. How the singer meets this challenge will determine whether or not his artistic ambitions will be realized.

This is where we do get a bit of historical pedagogy root rot, because it’s not only in the formative stages of training that this may occur, but can occur at regular intervals throughout our artistic adult lives as we grow, change and navigate life. We can become disconnected from our spirits and learning to listen to our bodies as the Ultimate Wisdom. Sometimes what our bodies are telling us is in direct conflict with what we’ve built in our careers and private lives, and in direct conflict with our motivations. This conflict, by itself, will warp “the charge.” 

His final words of the paragraph are:

“Since anxiety is so intimately bound up with physical contraction and fear of movement, one of the major problems during training is to break down the student’s innate dread of inner expression…”

We’re brought back to the rise of somatic tools, dance, all kinds of advances in healing, to aid release of physical contraction and fear of movement. We cannot solve the student’s anxiety—that is their journey. 

We can only journey through our own limitations, freeing ourselves in huge and tiny ways as we go. And that is how we free the charge in the students and groups with which we work.

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul….

-Walt Whitman, American poet

So, what does this all mean for you?

A Singer Diagnosed with Bi-Lateral Vocal Fold Paresis

It’s time to SHATTER the imbedded pedagogical view that “singing with the wrong vocal technique” causes vocal fold injury. That is true in many cases, but in equally as many cases it is not.

Please listen to my interview on the VocalFri podcast. We get into cool stuff every singer and voice teacher needs to hear.

Thanks for your precious attention and time!