In another article, I discussed the concepts of ring and placement in the voice, advocating for the concept of ring as a healthier one for singers. I also discussed specifically the “ng” ring as an excellent way to bring a healthy nasal resonance into the voice without having to do a great deal of excess work. It is the excessive work that the majority of singers are prone to do when asked to “place” the voice in the mask, between the eyebrows, etc., that is the main problem, because it affects other important aspects of technique. The ng ring brings in nasal resonance in a much more passive way, allowing the singer to make less effort, be able to maintain more of his or her normal technique and encourages the development of chiaroscuro in the voice. Because this is such an important topic, I wanted to take the time to explain in more detail exactly how to carry out this exercise and to apply it to repertoire.
Below is the ng exercise itself:
1 – 3 rest 3 – 5 rest 5 – 8 (hold)
ng cough off ng cough off ng
8 (hold) 5 – 3 – 1
(pop) ah – – – – – – –
This is a historical exercise from the Swedish-Italian School. Above, the “ng” means a ng hum. This raises the middle-back of the tongue into the correct position and can be vocalized with the mouth open. Say the word, “sing” and keep holding the ng at the end.
The exercise consists of a broken arpeggio ascent, a reiteration of the 8 at the top and an arpeggio descent. There is a rest between the two sets of thirds. During that rest, Caruso’s cough off should be performed. That is a quick exhalation of remaining air inside the lungs using a strong, sudden inward motion of the abdominal wall and ribs to push the air out in a second or so. The abdominal wall should then release outward, as the back and ribs expand, so that the new breath simply falls into the body.
The pop indicated before the “ah” is a sudden excursion of the soft palate from its low position during the ng hum to an expanded, high position during the ah. If done quickly, it results in a small popping sound and sensation. The pop is important, because it allows the singer to momentarily feel the soft palate, which is normally difficult to do, and thereby have more control over its functioning.
This is a challenging exercise with many different layers to it, so even with more advanced students, I often work it gradually in stages. That allows the student to grasp one concept before s/he moves on to the next concept incorporated into the design of the exercise. The ng is the first thing to learn. For students with whom this is unfamiliar, singing the ng first on arpeggios and then practicing the first half of the exercise with the rising thirds and the fourth on ng is a great way to start. From there I discuss the soft palate, its position during the ng hum and have the students play around with popping the soft pallet while speaking. Then, I have the student try to pop the soft palate on the “ah” after doing the rising thirds on the ng hum, as in the exercise. I encourage the students to take advantage of the hold after the pop to try to gently expand the height of the palate even more. After experimenting with popping the palate, I then have the students do the complete exercise, descending on the arpeggiated ah with a raised soft palate and while keeping the ring from ng nasal resonance in the voice. Once the entire exercise is comfortable for the singer, I ask the singer to incorporate the cough off where the breaths are positioned after the ascending thirds.
When attempting this on your own, take your time to feel comfortable with one concept before moving onto the next. There is no prize for learning a vocalese quickly and it is much better for your voice and your long-term vocal progress to learn the exercise well and be able to get the maximum benefits from it.
There are several key aspects to remember when working on this exercise. The ng hum has one huge advantage over the more common “mm” hum in this application. Simply put, you can do it with your mouth open or closed. Therefore, it is easier to adapt the mouth position to the range of the voice and makes it much easier to take the ng hum higher in the singer’s range. However, too open or too closed mouth position can affect the ability of the palate to raise properly, so experiment with a moderately open mouth at first. I have found with most of my singers that it is much easier for them to successfully pop the palate when they do not drop the jaw/open the mouth position for the highest note. In other words, the mouth position is already opened on a previous ascending third and remains so for the ascending fourth before the pop. I usually suggest that a singer start with one mouth position and keep it throughout, only closing it slightly towards the end of the descending arpeggiated ah, if needed. But always feel free to experiment until you find what works best for you.
On first trying it, singers perform the ng hum differently. Some automatically can generate the right amount of nasal resonance, while others need to be encouraged to buzz a little bit more in the lower eyesocket area. Touching that area lightly while doing this exercise can help provide the necessary feedback. The buzzing should be both audible and able to be felt, but no effort should be coming from the vocal cords or the throat at any time. Practicing the ng hum on sirens is also very helpful for some singers as a benchmark.
It is important to raise the palate when doing this exercise and not bring the tongue down from its ng position. This is easy for some singers, but certainly not for all. Since it is difficult to feel exactly what is going on, when practicing alone ,a singer should use the mirror to help master this exercise. By carefully watching the tongue at the moment of the pop, the singer can better isolate the components and help ensure that palate is what is doing the work.
It is definitely possible to raise the palate too high for healthy vocal production. The soft palate should never feel stuck or tight. But many singers tend to have it a little too low in general. So, be willing to experiment and try to raise the palate gently and in an expansive manner to create a wonderful, open dome-shape inside your mouth. It should feel like the palate position during the “beginning of the yawn”, that old pedagogical standby. Manipulating the palate with tension and effort will not produce the required results. If possible, also thinking of the palate widening from left to right is a wonderful adjunct to the high soft palate and will definitely help your technique. A qualified teacher with good ears might be needed to help you find the best .palate position for you.
Once you are holding ah on the highest pitch with an expanded soft palate, you have a great window of opportunity to incorporate that high soft palate position into vowel singing. Pay close attention when singing the remainder of the exercise and whether or not you are able to maintain the higher soft palate position. That is the work – to combine ring and resonance from the raised palate consistently in the singing voice.
The ng hum is an absolutely wonderful way to work with repertoire. Sing the ng instead of words when starting to work on a piece or every day as a way to encourage a natural ring in your voice. Open more for the top notes and less for the bottom notes as a general rule. Then sing the piece on vowels while maintaining the ring and high soft palate. Go back and forth between the two, if necessary, before moving on to the text. This approach helps encourage healthy vocal habits
By training correct nasal resonance in the voice and raising the soft palate, vocal protection is brought into your technique. With vocal protection, less stress is placed on the vocal cords during phonation – crucially important for healthy singing. Ring gives the unusual sensation that the distance between notes in your range has shortened. This is a truly wonderful thing! High notes are easier to reach and require less effort. Singing becomes easier using ring as your guide. It is like riding along a monorail – all you have to do is follow the track and you won’t go astray.
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