Why bother about the soft palate?

26 Apr 2018

Article by Katharine Watts, singer and studio teacher, Auckland, New Zealand
Reprinted from the journal of NEWZATS (NZ Association of Teachers of Singing)
and from Katharine’s website www.wattsandwatts.co.nz

The soft palate is a vital part of the singer’s mechanism for free voicing and resonance. We can’t sing high quality vowels, or sing up through the range, without working the soft palate.

How can a singer locate the soft palate?
This is difficult because of the scarcity of sensitive nerve endings in the area. Hence teachers use a wide range of strategies to help students with the sensation.
Perhaps the easiest way: use a small torch and a mirror. Have a look inside the mouth – try saying “ah” as for the doctor. See what moves.
Yawn and notice what is stretching in the roof of the mouth. Yawn with more vigorous inner stretch, as in a really deep yawn. Feel the work around the second palatal arch.
Release the jaw, open wide and trace the roof of the mouth with a forefinger. Arrive at “the squishy bit” - my term when with junior students! Leave the finger in contact with the soft palate and yawn, laugh, sob – feel the rise-and-fall movement.
Use a diagram of the profile of the mouth and throat – find the hard and soft palates – the hard palate is the firm ridge behind the top teeth, the soft palate is the flexible area above the rear of the tongue, with the uvula hanging from it.
Books with photos of the interior of the mouth are great – I have a children’s book with what I call “Mrs Watts’ favourite gory picture of the mouth”. It shows a wet and glistening mouth with palatal arches clearly visible!
Blue Tree Publishing (www.bluetreepublishing.com) produce an excellent medical DVD entitled Speech Articulation, with accompanying charts/software. This shows the soft palate moving to meet the throat wall as each vowel is produced.

What is the function of the soft palate?
The soft palate is part of the swallowing mechanism, and moves in conjunction with the tongue, larynx and pharyngeal wall.
The soft palate is highly mobile when you do any of these natural things: yawn – sob – laugh vigorously – exclaim. For all these the palate lifts.
As we inhale the soft palate lifts. This allows the vocal tract to be balanced and relaxed, and wide open, so there is not too much resistance to the air we are inhaling. This means our inhale can be quiet and not full of effort.

For singing:
The soft palate is in constant motion as we sing. A scan of a singer’s mouth shows us a wavelike movement as the tongue and palate move in a synchronised fashion, changing position with the vowels and consonants we are pronouncing.
For classical singers, this mobility helps us create the clear consonants and high quality vowels which suit classical style.
For actors and more contemporary singing styles, fine control of the soft palate is important for creating clear, attractive, resonant and carrying sound, or for special vocal effects. In modern styles this works together with a higher tongue position.
The soft palate is the gateway to the nose passage, so if it is dropped and flabby, the air exits partly through the nose. The sound will be either nasal or very dull.
If the soft palate is raised, sound exits through the mouth, and vowel sounds are clear and resonant.
Only three sounds in English are made with the soft palate dropped and the nose open: “n”, “m” and “ng”. All fine vowels should be formed with the soft palate raised and the nose closed. (NB A half-open soft palate position also occurs.)
A mobile soft palate also makes it possible to sing high. This function is linked with the tilted position of the larynx and the longer vocal tract which enable us to move easily up through the range. As we prepare high notes the soft palate contracts.
This position also helps us to sing softly and intensely. We can compare the feeling with the lifted and stretched soft palate we feel in an intense sob.

Exactly when do we raise the palate?
The soft palate should lift as we inhale to voice. At first we have to activate this consciously. Later this becomes an automatic, habitual part of our set-up for voicing.
Thereafter as we sing, we maintain the stretchiness and mobility of the palate, depending on the demands of the sounds and pitches we are singing.

How do we practise? Mobilise the soft palate by using:
Articulatory strategies:
Saying “hng-ah, hng-ah” repeatedly. Saying “ing-ing-ing-ing”. Feel the rise and fall of the palate. Speed this up gradually till it’s very vigorous.
Saying k – k – k – k or g – g – g – g energetically.
Pronouncing the consonant “b” very vigorously. Feel the built-up air pressure in the mouth.
Singing scales with the vowel prefixed with a helpful consonant: k, g, y, ng.
Saying melodramatically “ah-haaaa!” or “oh-hoooo!”

Visible/imaginative/emotional strategies
Inhaling deeply through the nose, or waving an imaginary rose under the nose and deeply inhaling the perfume. Feel the doming upward of the soft palate.
Sipping breath in as if through a straw. Use a real straw if it helps!
Exhaling through a straw, then blocking the straw with your finger while continuing to exhale. The back pressure of the blocked air gives a strong feeling of increasing the internal mouth space.
Sucking the back of your hand, or your thumb, really hard. Feel the soft palate lift high.
Yawning in front of a mirror. Note the rise and fall of the palate.
Thinking “shock horror!” Children are familiar with this one.
Gasping “Oh no!!”
Laughing or sobbing vigorously.
Modelling the sound on that of a highly-trained actor in classical drama.
Many other natural triggers work for soft palate lift, like imagining taking a mouthful of very hot food and shrinking away from the heat.

What can a teacher observe to check on a student’s palate mobility?
The energy and vitality will show in the student’s face.
The cheekbone area will be lifted, reflecting the movement in the palatal arch area.
The eyes will be bright and somewhat smaller.
Carrying quality
Fine quality vowels

Discovering how to manoeuvre the soft palate successfully is often the key to a student’s awareness of the free, efficient and resonant sound they can make. So let’s put this discovery to full use!