5 Things To Know About the Soft Palate for Singing

“Raise the soft palate.”
~almost a bazillion voice teachers, across time

There is much to know about the anatomy of vocal tract for singing and voice teaching.  The soft palate is one of those structures that both mystifies and intrigues us, and (at first) isn’t easy to control.

Just this week I went tête-à-tête with a client about whether her soft palate was lifting or lowering during a particular sound.  Turns out the soft palate was lifting, but she was 100% convinced it was lowering. Once she saw what was happening by looking in the mirror, the conversation was settled.

How can that be?  How can we be so convinced that the soft palate is moving in one certain direction, to only find out that it is doing the exact opposite?

(Don’t get bent out of shape one way or the other, y’all – we have ALL experienced soft palate confusion.  Either that, or we haven’t sung a note in our lives.)

Here are 5 things to know about the soft palate that may help you on your vocal journey.

1. Learn where the soft palate is and what it looks like

The following video is a graphic and bizarre look at the soft palate.  But, before we head off into *strange,* find the soft palate in your own vocal tract.  Take the tip of your tongue and run it along the roof of your mouth, starting at your teeth and moving backwards.  You will reach the edge of the “hard palate,” and run right into the soft palate.

The soft palate dips down and can be seen at the back of the throat when you open your mouth.  The uvula is that little dongle that hangs down from the soft palate, just in case you needed to know that.

Another name for the soft palate is the velum.  In case you needed to know that, too.

Honestly, the following video originally inspired this post.  Be warned: it is not a pretty video.  It’s quite bizarre, but it’s also an unforgettable demo.

I shall put it after the “read more” tab below so you have time to prepare yourself for this little bit of weirdness.

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What is Voice Habilitation?

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change this world.”
-Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society

I first heard the word habilitation in 2012 at the Summer Vocology Institute in Salt Lake City, UT.  It came up in association with the treatment of injured voices and was the topic of much discussion that summer. (It continues to be the topic of much discussion, it turns out.)

Most of us are familiar with rehabilitation as a medical term, but what about habilitation?  It carries a different meaning than rehabilitation and, in the opinion of vocology experts, deserves a conversation – both for the sake of voice practitioners and consumers alike.

As defined by the text Vocology,

“habilitation is the process of enabling, equipping for, or capacitating.  Voice habilitation is therefore more than repairing a voice, or bringing it back to a normal state.  It includes the process of building and strengthening the voice to meet specific needs.” (Titze, Verdolini Abbott, 2012 pg.11)

Rehabilitation vs. Habilitation

Let’s look at habilitation and rehabiltation back to back.  Merriam Webster online defines the verb habilitate as:

Habilitate (v) : to make fit or capable

When compared to the verb rehabilitate, the nuance between habilitation and rehabilitation becomes more evident:

Rehabilitate (v) : to restore or bring to a condition of health or useful and constructive activity

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A Singer’s View of Voice Problems

“The only thing better than singing is more singing.”
~Ella Fitzgerald

I was diagnosed with nodules when I was in my Masters’ degree – for classical voice performance. When I was in the ENT’s office, I realized that I didn’t know anything about how my voice worked. Not really.

Sure, I’d been taking voice lessons since I was in high school, sung in choirs forever, and I had even taken one semester of vocal pedagogy. But that didn’t teach me about my voice. I just hadn’t been paying attention.

So here I was in this chair – alone – crying. I barely heard what the ENT was saying. I just didn’t know what this meant for me – for my singing career that hadn’t even started yet. I heard him say that this was most likely caused by “vocal misuse and abuse.”

This is, as I know now, an unfortunate standard line still used in too many clinics. I was doing everything that teachers and coaches and conductors told me to do! How was I abusing my voice?

I went on immediate and complete vocal rest, found a speech therapist, and dropped out of the lead role in the opera. (And then had another night of crying about that.)

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Time and Healing the Voice

When I was cleaning my office the other day, I found a fortune.

You know, one of those little white slips of paper that we all look forward to inside a Chinese fortune cookie?  It was under a chair, and looked as if it had never been touched let alone folded inside a cookie.  Strange.  How did THAT get THERE?

It read: “Time heals all wounds.  Keep your chin up.”

Because this little piece of paper was a random fortune found under a random chair, it got my attention.  I have been thinking about time and healing for weeks now.

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Speaking Up About Voice Problems

“Whether you are in the midst of a big upheaval or riding the smaller rapids of everyday life, I want you to know you are not alone, not now, or at any stage of the journey.”
-Elizabeth Lesser, Broken Open, p. xxiv

My client leaned in a little closer like she was going to tell me a secret.  “Do you know how many people have had voice surgery??”  Her tone was hushed and her eyes were wide.

In all actuality, she was sharing a secret.  She works in the music industry and knows more than a few singers who aren’t able to talk about their “voice issues” because they might get labeled, judged, or out-right attacked. Having voice problems makes people “bad” in the public eye, and you hear echoes of judgement from every corner of the universe.  It can be subtle, but it’s there.

People have suffered in secret for far too long because of the stigma(s) attached to having “voice problems.”

This mentality of being “wrong” or “stupid” or “bad” because you have a voice challenge needs to stop.  Now.

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