For many of the years I was studying voice, including in college and grad school, I heard a lot about placement of the voice. The idea, as I grasped over time, was that the voice was supposed to be placed “in the mask”, preferably between the area between the eyebrows. Holding my hands around the perimeter of this facial mask was supposed to help, as was thinking in a concentrated manner about putting the voice there. It was up to the student to find the particular magic spot that would suddenly open up his or her voice to a sense of wonderful resonance and to maintain it during singing. This was the only way placement was taught, no matter what the individual student needed or any potential bad side effects this concept might have.
While this idea of frontal placement works for some people, it certainly does not work for all singers and it can have bad side effects. Having to place anything to do with the voice can potentially cause holding and tension. Specifically trying to find a magic spot high in the face makes it very easy for the larynx to get pulled up too high as a part of the process, causing a major loss of color, warmth and ease in the voice, as well as starting a possible avalanche of resultant technical problems. By trying to put the voice in a small frontal spot, it is also much harder to maintain an open expanded oro-pharyngeal space. I know I vacilated for years between having frontal placement and having back resonance in my voice – I couldn’t seem to merge the two. In general for a number of singers, it is a very difficult concept to master successfully and balance out with the other requirements of an excellent, solid technique. But it is still very widely taught by a number of voice teachers.
A much better way of conceiving and learning this important aspect of vocal technique is that of “ring” in the voice. Ring is what placement is designed to bring about – a very small amount of nasal resonance occurring consistently during singing. But it is possible to teach ring in a very healthy way that does not necessitate placement at all. The key is using the “ng hum”, the sound at the end of the word, “sing”. Because the soft palate is down and the back of the tongue releases forward as the middle of the tongue arches up to form the ng, humming different pitches on an ng gently and passively encourages the air to go through the nasal port behind the soft palate into the nasal cavities, instead of out of the mouth. This gives the singer the buzzing sensation in the mask that the concept of placement tries to achieve, but without any of the excess tension that gets in the way of a wonderful vocal technique. By then raising the soft palate, the singer trains the voice to maintain that ring while singing on vowels. In truth, a very small amount of the air stream with sound vibrations from the vocal cords is still going up behind the soft palate into the nasal cavities to excite them, make them buzz and create overtones, while the majority is coming out through the mouth.
I have found that many singers can benefit from a rudimentary introduction to the ng hum, so I start them off with simple arpeggios just on ng. This allows them the opportunity to get used to the new coordination of the soft palate and tongue and sensations in the nasal cavities. The ng hum has a special benefit, in that it can be done with the mouth closed, all the way open and anywhere in between. Most singers automatically sing the ng with their mouths closed at first and need to experiment with opening the mouth while maintaining the ng.
Once they are used to sustaining the ng hum successfully, I use the wonderful exercise described in detail here with my students. This exercise is a complex one that starts with the ng hum and opens into singing normal vowels by popping up the soft palate. After the palate pop, the goal is to maintain the same ring as in the ng hum on an “ah” vowel with a raised soft palate and open oro-resonance. This actively encourages the very merging of ring and back resonance that so eluded me as a young singer. When combined cleverly with other exercises, the ng hum can also help train ring into the voice while maintaining a relaxed, lowered larynx, an opened pharynx, breath resistance, etc. It is also an excellent practice to utilize the ng hum on repertoire as a wonderful way to build the healthy habits of ring and ease into the music.
Using the ng hum creates a balanced amount of ring for some singers right away, while others have to work to allow a little more air through at a time to find the right amount and certain singers need to learn to use slightly less air in the nasal cavities. Once a good balance is achieved, the ng hum is a fabulous tool that can be used to reinforce ring, help keep a streamlined, effortless approach to singing while still maintaining the necessary open resonance spaces in the oro-pharynx and practice repertoire healthily.
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