SOVT for You and Me

There is an acronym whizzing through the ethers of the vocology cosmos causing some people to delight and others to raise their fists in the air.  Introducing: SOVT, which stands for semi-occluded vocal tract.  Voice nerds use it to describe vocal exercises, as in “SOVT exercises.”  You see it in scientific journals and hear it on the streets, depending who you hang out with.  It is an attempt to codify the language around voice, and for this reason I’m rather elated it exists.

This post stands as a tiny, little tutorial on SOVT and SOVT exercises.  Once you get the gist, you can identify any number of vocal exercises that employ its benefits.  I’ll list a few of the most common SOVT exercises, pin links to free resources that explain it, briefly describe a few of its incredible benefits, and list videos just in case you like your coffee pixilated.  (SOVT exercises are a sort of get-up-and-go drug, afterall.)

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Holding the Jaw, Part 1

One of the most powerful tools I’ve found for addressing jaw tension and teaching jaw-tongue muscle independence is holding the jaw.  I learned this tool from Thomas Blaylock, and he learned it from Joseph Kline.  It allows the voice to phonate without engaging the masseter or swallowing muscles.  In fact, there is a laundry list of skills you can learn while holding the jaw and doing vocal exercises.  It works.

To hold correctly, gently open the mouth so it feels open and relaxed but not hyper extended.  Then, using the index finger and thumb of one hand, keep the jaw in that place. From this position, you can teach vowel integrity, vowel modification, and efficient airflow.  At least, that’s what I’ve found with holding the jaw.

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The Power of “I Am Enough”

Turn right onto Worth Street, and you end up at my house.  This is not a joke.  I really do live off Worth Street.

And this gives me great pause, makes me think, because the concept of worth, even feeling worthy of being here on this planet, is too often impaired or ignored or decapitated.  We (might) have a collective problem in this department, Houston.

Tonight I get to meet with a group of beautiful, rambunctious, super-charged women to talk about their desires and how to live more authentically.  We meet every two weeks and discuss books or ideas that teach us how to be more alive.

Tonight’s theme is about having the courage to say “I am enough,” and exploring how we would make different decisions in specific areas of our lives if this belief were true.  There is a video out there on the ole’ YouTube by Marisa Peer, a fairly famous, non-trad therapist, who suggests that the biggest disease affecting humanity is the single thought, “I’m not enough.”

So, she is asking all of us to turn this around and start saying the opposite: “I AM enough.”  Marisa also suggests that we go ahead and lie to ourselves if this doesn’t feel real.  Go ahead, lie away.  Keep saying “I am enough” and watch what happens in your life.  Write it on your bathroom mirror, put it on a sticky note in your car, plaster it on the walls of your cubicle, she says.  Go ahead.  This is a “won’t hurt, might help” kind of suggestion.

So . . . where are we going with this idea?  It will help us with our voices too.

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It Doesn’t Have To Be Like This

Dear Singers,

It doesn’t have to be like this.  Your voice CAN feel better.


That could be the end of this post.  Just a short little love note.  But, this love letter deserves some explanation.  You see, there is this idea out there that (often) nothing can be done to improve a voice.  I’m here to help dispel that myth and share some resources on getting help if you need it.  Over and over I have heard singers say things like, “this is just how my voice is going to be” and I’ll say it again . . . it doesn’t have to be this way!  There are things you can do to strengthen, tone, and coordinate your vocal mechanism in exactly the same way you would train other parts of your body.  Chances are your voice will do more than you think it can, and with some foundational technique work, will give your more than you expect.

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The Three Mechanical Parts of the Voice

Many moons ago, in an auditorium not so far away, I caught a lecture that changed my life.  Dr. Tom Cleveland (an unbelievably compelling human being and voice pioneer) of the Vanderbilt Voice Center gave a talk during one of the music school’s special lunchtime learning programs at the Blair School of Music.  My student, who’s lesson was scheduled at that hour, didn’t have a choice about going.  We were going.  Something inside my soul knew it was important.  How important, exactly, hit me about midway through the talk.  Not days or months later, but exactly during that monumental, way-too-short hour.

He talked about a lot of things, showed video clips of the vocal folds in action, imitated the sound of the vocal folds without the vocal tract, told funny stories, talked about the voice center, referenced his research, and MADE A MECHANICAL VOICE OUT OF A BELLOWS, A DUCK CALL, AND A PIECE OF TUBING.

Wait.  What??  Stop, please.  Dr. Cleveland!  Did you just create a voice out of supplies from your shed??  Did that thing just sing vowels to us??  What is happening, and how do I make my whole life about this duck call/bellows/vowel-tube trick?

In that moment everything changed.  Ba-bam.

Do you remember back in the day when the internet wasn’t fast OR filled with information?  Well, this happened during those days.  Finding out more required asking a lot of questions of a lot of people, and trying to find someone to teach me about voice science that could also handle the fact that I sing jazz.  Back in those days, it felt like the classical singing camp had some kind of lock-down on information regarding the voice, which was a strange realization.  Fortunately, there was a woman at Western Michigan University named Diana Spradling who was a huge (huge) voice nerd and jazz voice teacher.  She graciously gave me lessons and showed me a spectrogram.  (Clouds parted, sun rays from heaven entered.)  It was like finding the holy grail.  A jazz teacher who loved voice science!

But – I digress.  Back to the mechanical voice situation.

Dr. Cleveland showed us that the voice can be understood in three parts: the power source, the vibrator, and the resonator.  The lungs and respiratory system provide the airflow and pressure, or fuel for the voice, the vocal folds cut up the column of air by vibrating and thus create a sound source, and the head acts like a container that resonates the sound.  This very simple model gives us a place to start addressing interactions between the three systems, and how they work in concert.  To this day, I tell every single student this 3-system story if they allow me even 1 minute to do it because if they know about it, they can begin asking empowered questions about it.

The Voice in 3 mechanical parts:

  1. Power Source – Lungs
  2. Sound source (or vibrator) – Vocal Folds
  3. Resonator – Vocal Tract

Got it.

Next: a video to show YOU how to make a voice using a duck call and a piece of tubing.  Stay tuned.

Here is a link to the American Academy of Otolaryngology’s description of the 3 mechanical parts of the voice: Click here and enjoy!


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