Okay, let’s recap. You start your notes well. You breathe in using your abdomen, you’ve done exercises so your face is relaxed, you have a nice vocal onset and a tongue that is out of the way.
Now what? Continue the note well! Make it sound as clean and clear as possible!
They key component here is “vocal placement”. By how you use your muscles, you can change where (and how much) the sound resonates inside your skull.
For example, country and folk singers are often “nasal”. They placed the sound in their nose, leading to this overly “twangy” sound.
Opera often does the opposite. They aim for a full sound, placing the note much lower and opening their mouth as wide as possible.
So, what is the best placement? As usual …
There isn’t one “best” way to place your sound. It’s all about control: training yourself so you can place it anywhere you want.
That said, for most people singing is easiest and most relaxed when the sound is placed “forward” or “in the mask”. Studies have proven this. People who speak more from “the back of their throat” tire earlier and mention it takes a lot more effort to speak. With training, each of them could learn to place the sound more forward, alleviating these issues.
I’d always recommend training this as a safe starting point. Once you place your singing or speaking there, you’ll notice how much easier the rest becomes: your diction, your volume control, your tone.
Where is it?
The mask is exactly where the name suggests it to be: at the front of your face, the area around your nose and eyes.
Many people mistake that for the area around the nose. This, instead, is “too forward” and creates that nasal vocal sound.
But having the sound caught inside your throat, or the back of your mouth, is even worse. (As mentioned above.)
It’s about that balance again. You should feel your sound resonating around that mask area and nowhere else.
The role of the soft palate
At the start, I explained a weird little part inside your mouth called “the soft palate”. The only way for sound to reach your mask, is by raising this. When it’s closed, that area of your mouth is shut off, trapping the sound at the back of your throat.
This is hard to change, as you can’t see or feel this muscle. Some people say it helps to “imagine” that palate and “imagine” it going up. But that sounds unreliable and wishy-washy to me!
Instead, I’ll provide exercises below that generally help raise this soft palate.
A quick test
How do you know you’re doing it right? This is a quick test:
- Sing any note. Sustain it for at least a few seconds.
- While doing this, pinch your nose, release, pinch again, etcetera
- If this changes the sound a lot, you’re singing too much through your nose.
- If this doesn’t change the sound at all, you’re singing too much from your throat.
Ideally, most sound comes from your mouth, and a little through your nose. This indicates the sound is placed well inside the mask.
Alternatively, you can grab a tissue and hold it in front of your mouth or nose. If a lot of air comes out, the tissue will obviously flap all over the place.
The million dollar question: how do I place my sound in that darn mask?
Use the right consonants
Most coaches use specific sounds or consonants that people generally place in the mask by default. Make these sounds, alternating with sounds you have trouble placing, and your voice learns to stay in the mask all the time.
Which sounds are great for training this?
- The “-j”. Something like “jajajajaaa” or “jayjayjayjaaaay”
- The “-m” and “-n”. Alternative with vowels, like “momamumime”, and really stress the “-m”. (Stay on it for longer, try to make it resonate as fully as possible). Or sing a melody, but replace all consonants with this.
- Combine all that! “Njanjanjanjaaa” or “Njeeeng njaaag njoooong”
You’ll probably notice a stark difference between where you feel the sound on an “-n” as opposed to an “-eh”. (For most people, the “-eh” sound is hard to place right, while the “-ee” sound is often too nasal.)
It’s important to not “tense up” or “close” on those consonants. That’s why you shouldn’t just train them “on their own”. (Like saying “hmmmmmm”. Humming is also dangerous for that reason, although it’s otherwise quite good training.)
Instead, always alternate with vowels. The vowels should stay nice and open. If you find yourself tense, make the vowels longer.
Over time, this helps train any sound to be forward.
Besides that, you can …
Most people automatically sing falsetto with the right placement. It’s a very fragile vocal register, which means you often can’t sing it any other way.
Falsetto is a great warmup in general, because it requires such precise coordination.
Don’t know what that is? Don’t worry, it’s explained in a later chapter. It’s generally your highest register, and males often use it to imitate a female voice.
This one is more “vague” than my other exercises. (Hopefully you noticed that I heavily prefer exercises where you can clearly test if you’re doing it right.)
But it helped me and many others.
When singing, instead of thinking “up” or “down” when changing your note, think “forward”. It might help to actually learn forward on those notes.
If you feel your placement isn’t great, try to “project” your voice more. Imagine you’re singing towards something far away. It can help to place an object in the room, like your phone, and imagine you’re speaking to someone further than that.
This achieves two goals:
- You’ll place the sound forward and in the mask.
- You’ll prevent your larynx from rising and falling with notes (and the muscles around it tensing up)
The lip roll
This exercise was mentioned in the relaxation chapter. I just wanted to add a comment here: when doing this, the sound should definitely be in the mask. You should feel this buzzing around your eyes and maybe the top of your nose.
If it buzzes in any other place, you’re actually training the wrong way. Additionally, lip rolls make it much easier to slip into falsetto. So if you have trouble doing that, do it through lip rolls first.
Raising the soft palate
In many theatre schools, they teach you the “hot potato” method.
Imagine there’s a hot potato in your mouth—a big one! This means you don’t want it to hit your cheek/tongue. You need to make space for it and don’t want to swallow it.
With that mindset, sing.
When opening your mouth this way, the soft palate raises.
For most people, this immediately makes them sound more “opera-like” or with a “dark” tone. That’s a sign you’re doing it right. But I am against doing this exercise too much, or too forcefully, as that adds tension and moves placement away from the mask.
The idea is that you get the sensation of your soft palate lifting. That you feel how that feels and what happens then.
And as always: when performing, don’t think about any of this. Trust your exercises and habits, then let loose!
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