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voice problems

I have an adult voice student who has never had lessons, but has a great voice. Although he has been singing a lot in the back of his throat. He has a tenor range, good tone, but everything sounds in the back of his mouth. I've had him do nasal exercises, lip trills, singing an "M", but I'm not sure what else to do for him. He also thinks when he opens the back of his mouth that his sound is there, but when he sings up front, he tends to push his sound where he's straining his voice. Any advice?
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on July 14, 2012 4:37am
Sounds like his breathing is wrong. Get him to breathe on his ribs, relaxing his shoulders and keeping his head down (ie don't let him raise his chin).
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on July 15, 2012 7:13am
Teach him how to position his tongue for brighter vowels.  For a long E and EH the tip of the tongue rests on top of the bottom front teeth... the sides of the tongue touch the top fourth teeth back creating a type of bowl with the tongue.  This will automatically push the tone forward.  Also, give him breathing exercises stressing not to push doing the same thing with vocal warm ups.  No pushing!  Don't vocalize more than five notes either way.  It's not necessary.
Janet Marks
Director of Music
St. Joseph Catholic church
Columbia, SC
on July 15, 2012 9:17pm
Tongue tension (in the back) is probably a contributing factor, and the swallowing muscles may well be involved as well.  Try stretching the tongue before singing (just stick it out and down, then allow it to go back in slowly), and then sing a very simple vocalise while keeping the tongue relaxed.  The tongue will probably gradually retreat into the back of the mouth as the tension returns, and then you can stretch it again to release it again.  It can help to think of the back of the tongue being "fat and floppy."  For more info on these areas you can look into the McClosky Technique's "Six areas of relaxation."  Good luck!
on July 19, 2012 8:48am
Ben, I wrote you an in-depth reply under your post "adult voice student" under "Vocal Pedagogy."
on July 20, 2012 8:51am
(Related to & expanding it bit on Jay's reply) I don't know if you student also experiences tension w/ his "backward" tonal placement, but I  had a former student who came to me with tension caused by retracting (thus arching) her tongue. (!) She thought it nicely "colored" her sound. (!!) Well, it did: it darkened it, garbling both her clarity & resonance. It also affected the ease and clarity of her consonants a I recall, and hampered her upper range.  Generally, it made basic production much more labored.  And (I guess because the tongue is such a strong muscle), it produced tension which she felt and complained of during her first lesson.  (At least she knew & accepted that something was wrong....)  Among other techniques, I remember having her do some vocalizing on a repeated "thah, thah, thah" but having her place the tip of here tongue just a little in front of her teeth (just temporarily, not as a permanent practice!), thus flattening and relaxing her tongue and her total production. Complementary to that (w/ mirror) I had her imagine a very relaxed jaw (as if "numbed on Novocaine").  This worked very well for her.  As it changed her sound (making it truly her natural voice), she had to get used to her "new voice".  Recording her voice helped her "ears" to accept that what felt like a new sound was much nicer.  Admittedly, she was a committed & talented student, but a permanent, habitualized change happened for her in just a few months. (She went on to win regional NATS the next semester in fact.) Also, be sure your guy knows that a relaxed tongue, the tip of which should rest comfortably at the base of the bottom teeth is standard practice for singers.  Good luck.  I'm sure you'll get some other helpful replies.  (as I hope is mine)
Tom Brown
Austin, TX
on July 22, 2012 8:54am
Present him with the idea that he can use a combination of the back and front.
this is the old Italian balance of 'chiarro-scuro',   bright and dark.
Physically this should lead him to better technique in other areas, since he will have to adjust them in order to produce the balanced tone.
Useful phrases:
"Keep some bright in your low notes"
 Balance front and back resonance"
"Use space behind your high notes, but never lose the front focus (bright)
"Imagine a target:  the outer circle is the back space, and the bull's eye is the frontal ring/focus/bright'
"Every tone on every vowel must have a balance of both"
Even shaping dynamics and shaping a phrase can help connect other areas of technique, so be sure to use all these 'product' ideas for getting a certain tone, in context of a singing line, and don't let the work become tedious in trying to make perfect single  notes.
Find phrases or songs which are condusive to good balanced and supported tone -- there is not much any better for this than Caro mio ben in key of Eflat!  Also Water is Wide, Sally Gardens, and sometimes faster tempo which demand moving the tone forward to get the agility.
Good Luck!
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on August 14, 2012 8:44pm
At a guess, that sounds similar to the set of vocal baggage I had when I walked into voice lessons a few years ago. Some things that were helpful for me:
- I agree with what everyon'e saying about tongue tension. It's a killer. Help him get some awareness of his tongue, when it's tight and when loose. Try a "tongue sling"--make a cup out of your two hands to rest your chin in, and relax your tongue into that. Remember to let the tongue be relaxed esp. while singing [i] (ee) vowels -- this often seems counterintuitive to people. A good way to check in with your tongue while singing is to gently grip your chin/under your chin as if trying to give yourself a double chin--kind of forces you to relax your tongue, and if the tongue is doing anything it's not supposed to, you'll feel it right away.
- no specific advice on how to teach this, but it's very important that he learn to separate the tongue from the soft palate. It's a frequent problem that singers think they're lifting their soft palate when instead (or in addition) they're terribly tightening their tongue. Maybe practice stretching the soft palate to feel where it really is, or just spend some time feeling around for that sense of lift and space WHILE focusing on keeping the tongue relaxed and flat, just behind the front teeth.
- good rule of thumb -- tongue should always be relaxing just behind the front teeth. Maybe even try vocalizing a little bit with the tongue slightly sticking out. Try bright, light, baby-ish [e] or [ae].
- I might even disagree with Jolyne and folks who said to remind him that you can use BOTH light and dark in your sound. I mean, you certainly can, but it might be more prudent to get him as far away from his bad habits as possible before encouraging him towards a more chiarro-scuro sound. (Because he's probably not darkening his sound all that healthily, anyway.) So maybe encourage him to sing very brightly for a while. Lots of cheekbone lift and life in the eyes. Maybe light happy songs will help with this?
- maybe a stylistic shift? Have him sing some stuff where he doesn't worry about coloring/darkening the tone. I don't know if pop will help much with this, but... does he know much folk music? Or a children's song where technique isn't a concern? (Shapenote music, for instance, has its own share of technique pitfalls, but it's also the brightest and forward-est idiom I know...) Even just some warmups focused on totally brightening the sound: the above mentioned baby-[e]-tongue-extended, or a really bright and nasal "nyaaaah" ([ae]) where you're trying to be as nasal as possible. Maybe have him sing [ae] instead of [a] for a bit. When he gets the hang of a nice bright [ae] (usually doesn't come with as much baggage as [a]), spend some time feeling just what the difference is between the two vowels; it's not much! Have him work on singing an [a] that has more or less the same feel as the [ae], and likely he'll be singing a very different [a] than the one he thinks is correct.
- a vertical finger on the soft palate just behind the front teeth will help soft palate lift. Try doing this while concentrating on keeping the tongue down and relaxed.
Of course, no guarantee these will work for your student, but if I'm guessing at the situation correctly, then some might be useful, as they're what worked for me.
[a] as in father
[ae] as in brat
[e] as in paid
[i] as in heed
on August 15, 2012 7:11am
How do you do this? Isn't the hard palate just behind the front teeth? My gag reflex seems ner to engaging when I try to put a finger back there.
"a vertical finger on the soft palate just behind the front teeth will help soft palate lift. Try doing this while concentrating on keeping the tongue down and relaxed."
on August 15, 2012 8:42am
Yikes, you are totally correct! I misspoke when I said you put the finger on the soft palate. It is the hard palate right there, isn't it? The way I do this exercise, anyway, is to put a vertical finger right behind me front teeth (on the hard palate, oops)--and I find it does help me keep my soft palate raised and make good space in my mouth. It's not at all about pushing up the soft palate (in fact, you're not even touching it!) as much as about reminding yourself to have a lot of vertical space. When trying this yourself, you should experiment with putting a finger in different places, and see what specific spot in your mouth works best for you -- i.e. reminds you to have lots of space without making you gag. Does that help at all?
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on August 15, 2012 10:51am
I agee with Maria that the tongue and the soft palate need to be taught to be independent of one another.  The reason is that the "palatoglossus" muscles attach the back of the tongue to the soft palate, and so over-raising the soft palate will end up pulling up the back of the tongue--and the hyoid bone and larynx, too!  Then the student will have an over-dark sound and a strangled feeling in the throat when theywere just trying to make space.  In my experience, I have found that beginners have a lot of trouble controling their soft palate while their tongue is still tense.  So I generally start by releasing the back of the tongue, and leaving the soft palate ALONE.  You don't get the ideal sound right away, but you get a much freer sound, and then you can refine it as the student's bodily awareness grows.
on April 12, 2013 2:09pm
Interfering with the tongue is a very dangerous undertaking. Everbody's tongue is different and oral proportions similarly. Does the student SPEAK with a tense tongue? NO? Then there's the clue. For those who would prescribe 'normal', 'correct' tongue poitions I would say observe Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann.
on April 13, 2013 9:02am
Your student may be focused too much on what his voice sounds like in his head. Record his voice for him (perhaps without asking permission; with the intention of destroying the recording or not) and play it back. Ask him "does this sound like the voice you are hearing?" and his response may surprise you and him. Singing based on what he hears in his head could result from a bit of healthy fear. Once he trusts that the inward and outward cannot be the same, then move him into feeling sensations such as the expanding diaphragm, raised soft palate, tongue touching the back of the front teeth. He should stop listening and start feeling.
There are many wonderful vocalises and exercises listed above. Do not be surprised if your student does not hold the progress made between lessons. He is a Tenor. As one, I can tell you that at times our personalities are congenial and bright and an asset. At other times, however, we are stalwarts of consistency, even incorrect consistency, and thus our personalities are a detriment. This stubbornness is not a value judgment on your teaching skills so much as it is a tenet of our persona. It may take one "AHA!" moment, or a prolonged period of agonizing drilling to make any significant changes. Stay with it, and help the student find his true voice!
Carter L Collins,
Music Ed. Voice Major, Mississippi College
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