The soft palate and open throat – how open is too open?

One of the greatest moments in film of late is from the Florence Foster Jenkins film. Jenkins is having a lesson from Maestro Carlo from the Metropolitan opera and he tells her to “raise the soft palate”! She immediately sings with what sounds like a much more hilarious ‘quack’ in the back of her throat.

Here’s the scene for a bit of fun:

 

What are people saying about open throat and the soft palate?

A considerable level of debate has sparked of late on the topic of ‘open throat’. Some teachers are preaching the “open throat like a big yawn” approach and others are now saying you should not lift the palate in order to preserve nasal resonance.

I’m going to answer this debate from the perspective of a classical singer (who sings opera, art song, folk song and sometimes Jazz, soul and gospel) and a ‘classical belter’ (e.g. roles from musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Oklahoma, Sunset Boulevard, West Side Story, Wicked etc). This means that pure pop and other contemporary style singers may think differently for parts of this.

First, I will address ‘open throat’. I believe this phrase is not often used correctly. Here’s why:

  • I want you now to yawn, or try and mimic a yawn. Think of a super wide space at the back of your mouth. Imagine air just filling all the spaces of your mouth and throat.
  • Try to sing like this.

Immediately you will notice a ridiculously dopey sound, or even an overly compressed sound. If you feel just above your Adam’s apple, you may notice a large bunching of the tongue. This is NOT open throat. On the contrary, you are actually falsely depressing the larynx with the tongue AND you are blocking some of the tube-space in the throat.

If you imagine putting half of your hand over a trumpet then blowing, that’s what you’re basically doing.

The open throat is achieved when the respiratory tube is open as if you were acting primitively. By primitively I mean this: Imagine dropping something and in without pressurizing anything,  saying “oopsies!”, or seeing something cute and going “aawh!” or doing a very cheeky and naughty laugh “hmm hmm hmm”, or a dog-like sob “hnnnnnn”. THIS is open throat.

Always remember this; that the true open throat is a primitive open throat. 

The primitive open throat is the easiest state in which the throat feels while phonating. 

Yes, below this we have a support mechanism. We have the larynx remaining in an optimal position for phonation and we have vowel modifications – these are the things that will create size, range and dynamics in the instrument. Fundamentally however, the tube that is our pharynx is open in a simple, graceful way.

Exercizes for the ‘open throat’

I have two very easy exercizes to emulate this for breathing in and breathing out. The first is one from Pavarotti:

Inhaling the open throat (Inalare di voce)

The first purpose of the exercize isn’t as relevant for the purposes of the article: As Pavarotti states, there is a sense of ‘support’ that exists around the diaphragm area when you start the ‘hold’. This is just the feeling of the diaphragm being properly contracted and held.

What I want readers to notice however is the simplicity of the intake of breath. It’s relatively short, easy and not overly audible. This is the foundation of the open throat when breathing in. The idea is to maintain this sensation when singing.

Exhaling/Singing open throat

To emulate this on the way out, imagine that you are bringing a very hot potato towards your mouth and you are blowing on it. Make sure it’s close to the mouth but not inside it – if you imagine the food inside your mouth, the tongue may retract.

There, that’s the basics of open throat. It is no more than this. Don’t be persuaded that ‘more is better’. The throat is at its most open state when it is primitive. An overly-opened throat will result in a shallow, high breath (very audible), and a depressed larynx.

The soft palate

The topic of greater debate is whether the soft palate lifts and how much it lifts.

From my experience, the soft palate does lift. This is when singers are performing classically and/or musical theatre.

Here’s a slightly gross anecdote: I have a particularly long tongue and I have been able to turn it far enough to test whether the soft palate is raised during singing or not. It is definitely raised in my case, but NOT to the extent some people believe.

An exercize for doing it wrong

This time, try just focusing on stretching the back of the throat very wide and high, like a yawn, but a very wide yawn. You should feel a stretching sensation on each side of the back of the mouth. I don’t know about you, but whenever I, or anyone I know of does this, the tongue becomes a fiddly mess and the voice becomes trapped and ugly. You have to force the tongue forward for it to not bunch up in the throat, and this is unnatural.

How do I lift the soft palate and how do I know it’s lifted?

Funnily enough, if you do the Pavarotti/hot potato exercize, your soft palate will inevitably rise. The sensation of a lifted soft palate feels like the ‘beginning’ of a yawn – a funny, slightly lifted feeling somewhere behind the eyes, it should NEVER feel like the full yawn.

An additional way of lifting the palate correctly is by smiling ‘with your eyes’. Imagine seeing something rather amusing, but you don’t want to look overly excited. See if you can smile on the inside of your mouth like the Mona Lisa. My only issue with this exercize is that it is a little bit abstract. The two emulations above achieve the same effect more obviously.

Who lifts the soft palate?

Here’s a clip of a classically trained singer performing for an MRT. You will notice that above the big, white tongue, you’ll see a smaller, white flappy thing just above it (the soft palate). It is indeed lifting during phonation:

So as far as classical music and a lot of musical theatre goes, the soft palate should indeed lift. But caution is needed, hyper extension of the soft palate will just contradict what ‘open throat’ really is.

Lowering the soft palate

On the other side of the spectrum, we have a lot of teachers advocating for a lower soft palate in some instances, especially in contemporary music. In particular, Tristan Peredes – who has made some very enlightening criticisms on a lot of singing programs. Justin Stoney has also opposed the idea of the raised soft-palate. I have noticed in myself and other colleagues that in order to gain the typical ‘pop’ sound, deliberately letting the palate drop makes these affects just as achievable, and with a tone that is more suited to the music. We’ve all heard that opera singer attempt to sing a pop song, and it’s really not great unless they make a few tonal changes.

To achieve this, I find that it’s easiest to mimic someone like Fran Drescher (The Nanny), Bernadette Rostenkowski (The Big Bang Theory) or Peter Griffin (Family Guy), then try singing as those characters. Then slowly start to add a bit more ‘hot potato’ and ‘open breath’ (the Pavarotti exercize) to the process until you get something you like. If you’re not a great voice-imitator, don’t worry, you’re just aiming for the nasally sound that these characters have.

Unfortunately I am no doctor, and there is not necessarily ‘one right way’ as determined by scans and scientific data around this. However, with more deliberate reliance on nasal resonance (which is translated to sympathetic vibrations as a result of a relaxed, ‘open’ throat in classical singing), it would appear that the voice is better suited to singing straight-tone, quieter/breathy tone and edgy tone suited to contemporary music.

Conclusion

My final word on the matter is this: Whatever you do, if it sounds good and it feels healthy and unstressed, it’s probably right. Your throat is probably open. Any ‘more difficult’ stuff comes as a result of intelligent vowel modifications and further grounding of the instrument; strength training if you must. Singers are getting wound up in a lot of rhetoric these days that sometimes the simple, primitive aspects of singing and the ‘open throat’ are getting lost – and this is coming straight from the mouth of someone who uses this rhetoric!

May your singing be ever succulent, sincere, scary, slight, somber, silly, sassy and/or whatever else it needs to be!

Michael O’Connor-Potts

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