Nasality is one of the most important yet misunderstood aspects of singing technique. The good news is excessive nasality is extremely easy to control. Nasality is the routing of air from vocal folds directly through the nose. In the human voice, it all starts with a complex, buzzy sound produced by the vocal folds, which generate many other harmonic pitches, called overtones.
The sound generated by your vocal folds sounds a lot like the tool hunters use to lure unsuspecting ducks to their death. That sound is then routed through theopen spaces above: the throat, the mouth, and the nose. These open spaces become resonators for the original buzzy sound, amplifying some overtones and muting others. Since humans have flexible resonators, we can consciously shape them to some degree. This ability to shape sound provides a tremendous range of sonic possibilities. The sounds we produce are greatly influenced by cultural dictates and what we hear around us.
Few people play with the full possibilities of vocal expression out of fear that they’ll sound weird, ugly or be labeled as mentally unbalanced. Our culture does not particularly promote an individual’s desire to see what they can do with their voice! But singers do have the option of exploring vocal sound and great fun it is, too.
Hyper-nasality can occur in speech as well as singing. This resonation has its particular harmonic characteristics, and can be described as buzzy or intense in character. Not only can you decide whether or not to use nasality, but you can control its amount as well. Too much nasality can sound annoying and unpleasant, but too little nasality may sound dull, or just plain wrong for certain styles like country, rock, or belting for musical theater.
Where It Hangs
The controller for nasality is the soft palate, the soft, crescent -shaped appendage located in the roof of the mouth. When the soft palate hangs down, a gap is created between it and the back wall of your throat. In other words, air gets into your nose and resonates there. If you lift your soft palate and create a seal so no air gets into your nose, then you will have no nasality. It’s that simple! Can you think of what common action lifts the soft palate? Yes, it’s the yawning action, though not necessarily the all-the-way, "can’t see straight" kind of yawn. If you can create a gentle, beginning-of-a-yawn feeling, then your soft palate will lift, create a seal, and you should produce a nice, open, non-buzzy sound.
Yes, Try This at Home
Here’s a simple experiment to try: let your soft palate hang and say with your most nasal voice (think Fran Drescher) "I’m being very nasal." You should sound stunningly nasal if you did it right. Now to compare, feel "yawny" and say "I’m not being nasal." Notice the difference? The yawny, non-nasal sound may strike you as pleasant, elegant and even lovely. So why would anyone want to sound nasal? In certain styles, particularly non-classical styles, nasality is expected. Without it, you may sound dull, too soft, or lacking in emotional conviction. Also, nasality is often linked to an increase in volume. For example, you may choose to sing softly without nasality and increase your nasality as you increase your volume. That creates a double-whammy effect: loudness with more resonant intensity, a combination that can be emotionally powerful and pleasing.
The bottom line: nasality is an important vocal color and not always a bad thing. If, however, you’re experiencing chronic over-nasality, try to feel slightly yawny on every note. Watch out: when you begin experimenting with the sensation of soft palate lift, you may feel a controllable urge to actually complete the yawn. Try to resist that urge. The brain equates soft palate lift with full-blown yawning and gets confused when you begin to actively lift your soft palate. With practice, your brain will get used to the idea that you’re singing, not really yawning!
At this point, I should mention the three so-called nasal consonants. These are sounds that must be routed through the nose: M, N, and NG (as in the word "sing"). For fun, try holding the sound M for ten seconds. In the midst of your humming, close your nose with your fingers. No sound! That’s because the M must come out of your nose. If you have a very bad cold and your nose is so stuffed up that no air can pass through, you’ll notice that your M sounds like B, your N sounds like D, and your NG sounds like K. "I got a code in my dose and I cadt seenk."
If you’re working at reducing nasality, there’s no need to worry about the nasal consonants. Even with intentional half-yawning, your palate will allow for the nasal consonants without even having to think about it.
A Trick Nose
A quick note about what nasality is not: sensations of resonance in the area of your nose do not mean you’re nasal. Only air routed and resonated through the nose qualifies as nasality. This has been a confusing point for countless singers over the years. A classical singer using a fully lifted soft palate on the vowel "ah" may have a strong sensation of resonance on the nose itself or even within the nose. Don’t be fooled by this sensation. There is inherent confusion between actually "singing" through the nose (being nasal) vs. producing a beautiful, non-nasal sound while the singer "imagines" focusing sound through the center of the face. I avoid the phrase "singing through the nose" to reduce the risk of perpetuating this confusion.
I suggest listening to your favorite singers to see if you can hear the changing quantities of nasality and how it’s used to enhance expressiveness and power. In the end, gaining control over your nasality will help you paint a more colorful vocal picture.
Lis Lewis is a vocal coach in Los Angeles. Her website http://www.TheSingersWorkshop.com has all the information a pop singer needs to further their career. Her clients include Rihanna, the Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Jack Black, Jimmy Eat World, and the All-American Rejects.