“Singers have been using narrowed vocal tract exercises for hundreds of years, because they automatically do good things to your voice” -says Kathy Alexander.
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 is not as egocentric as you might think.
The ‘me-me-me’ vocal warm-up is just one example of a semi-occluded vocal tract (S.O.V.T.) exercise according to Shelagh Davies, speech-language pathologist.
Semi-occluded may sound like a complicated word, 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, “S.O.V.T.s have an immediate effect on the voice.”
Try It Out
S.O.V.T.s 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 S.O.V.T. exercise bring out your inner child, but it will also fix all kinds of technique problems almost instantly.
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 S.O.V.T.s 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 S.O.V.T. 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.
Find Your Own
Different types of S.O.V.T. 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 S.O.V.T. 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 S.O.V.T. than on an “ah” and their high notes feel easier”
Explaining The Magic
Instead of mentally grappling with abstract instructions, an S.O.V.T. 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 S.O.V.T., 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 S.O.V.T. 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 S.O.V.T.
– Kathy Alexander, staff writer for VoiceCouncil Magazine You can see more of Kathy’s work here.
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.
Kathy Alexander is a writer, singer, vocal coach and choir director. She has appeared in Vision TV’s Let’s Sing Again, The Sooke Philharmonic Orchestra and the Victoria International Jazz Festival (main stage). You can see more of Kathy’s work here.