This spring, Karen Sussman, M.A., CCC, voice therapist and singing instructor, had the pleasure of presenting at Winthrop Hospital Otolaryngology Grand Rounds with laryngologist Tova Fischer Isseroff, M.D. Ms. Sussman’s presentation was entitled Developing a “Choice Voice”: How Voice Therapy Helps Your Patients. In our blog, we’ll be presenting video segments from this informative presentation. You’ll find practical tricks and tips to relax tense vocal muscles, produce a clearer tone, and even improve your breath control.
In this segment, Ms. Sussman presents the concept of the Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract (SOVT) exercise. This concept refers to partially closing off the front of the vocal tract (i.e., the “mouth” end, as opposed to the “voice box” end), which creates resistance in the front of our vocal instrument. By using resistance techniques such as a vocalizing into a mini-straw, or with closed lips creating a trill or flutter (the “motorcycle sound”), or by humming or using a hand placed over the mouth, or blowing bubbles into water, we can create a rich, resonant voice, free from vocal strain. This concept is based on an aerodynamic principle. Normally when we “phonate” (i.e. make a vocal sound, involving the vocal folds or cords coming together and vibrating), air pressure comes up from the lungs and impacts the underside of the closed vocal folds (also known as vocal cords), setting them into vibration. Virtually all of the resistance (created by the vocal folds closing) is at the back end of the vocal tract, where the larynx (i.e., the “voice box”) is. This could cause the vocal folds to come together in a very direct and sometimes forceful way.
When semi-occlusion (partial closure) is placed at the front of our vocal instrument, let’s say by phonating through a small straw, we create resistance at the lips. This frontal resistance creates a “back pressure”; this reflects some of the air pressure from the lips “backward” toward the vocal folds. This back pressure has the effect of “balancing off” the upward air pressure coming up from below the vocal folds. Simply stated, resistance at the “front” of your instrument (i.e. the lips) creates relaxation at the “back” of the instrument (i.e. the larynx). This helps the vocal folds to come together in a more “squared off”, less forceful way when we speak or sing. (See the diagrams below, courtesy of Voice Science Works). This reduces vocal strain, and even promotes healing of vocal fold pathologies.
Another benefit of SOVT exercises is that the resistance creates a “buzzing” effect in the front of the face, specifically the area around the lips and nose that singers call “the mask.” You’ll know you’re placing your tone correctly when you feel that buzz in your mask. When it drives you crazy, you’ll know you’re doing a wonderful job! Using semi-occluded vocal tract exercises, achieving this buzz becomes easier. With the sound waves bouncing forward and backward, it creates a “self-sustaining oscillator”. This is like pushing a swing at the exact right moment: it seems to keep going all by itself. So the vocal tract becomes a very efficient sound generator and resonator. The benefit for you: you get a full, rich, resonant speaking or singing voice that really carries, while using less effort. In other words, work less, get more out of it! Words to live by!
One final benefit of SOVT exercises is that the resistance gives your respiratory system something to work against. So, in effect, you are working on improving your breath control even without conscious effort. You may not be able to cancel your workout at the gym, but at least you’ll be working your abs! (A future blog will talk about breath control techniques).
We can see that SOVT exercises are a Win-Win-Win: vocal relaxation, correct tone placement, and proper breath control. Three for the price of one, when you learn these fun and simple techniques. This segment features straw and imaginary straw phonation warm-up exercises, using a variety of feedback devices to increase awareness of airflow and “buzz”. Then you will see how SOVT exercises are used in carryover to make words and sentences sound clear and resonant. Watch this video to see SOVT exercises in action!