As a voice therapist, I am frequently asked to name the “best” exercises for the voice. Without hesitation, I always give this “best” distinction to a category of exercises called semi-occluded vocal tract exercises (SOVT). There are several variations to these exercises including: voicing through straws of varying lengths and diameters, humming /voicing on nasal consonants (“m,” “n,” etc), lip or tongue trills, voiced fricatives (“z,” “v,” etc), raspberries (labio-lingual trills), or rounded lip vowels such as “o” (as in “boat”) and “u” (as in “boot”). The really good news is that if you have ever had a voice lesson, you’ve probably been doing this in some form or fashion for years!
SOVT exercises are just as beneficial to healthy vocal folds as they are to injured vocal folds and they are applicable to a myriad of voice disorders. They are extremely “user-friendly” and some variations are even gentle enough to be used with the resumption of voice use following vocal fold surgery.
How do they work? The full technical description of the acoustic and aerodynamic benefits of these exercises is beyond the length and scope of this article. For more information about these benefits, see any of the references listed below. Dr. Ingo Titze has headlined the majority of the research on SOVT exercises. You can watch him demonstrate some of these here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xYDvwvmBIM
In a nutshell, SOVT exercises create a narrowing at some point along the vocal tract, introducing a resistance that generates “oral pressure that interacts with the lung pressure in such a way that optimal vocal fold vibration can be achieved” (Scearce, 2016). Specifically, the vocal folds come together with a neutral degree of pressure (not too pressed or too breathy), again making this a very gentle way to establish voicing.
While SOVTs come in many forms, the “crown jewel” of these exercises is by far voicing through a small-diameter straw, i.e. a coffee stirrer or cocktail straw. Leda Scearce, MM, MS, CCC-SLP, provides a nice summary of the research and mechanics behind this in her book Manual of Singing Voice Rehabilitation: A Practical Approach to Vocal Health and Wellness (2016). She outlines how this particular task helps to facilitate optimal breath support, quickly engages the respiratory muscles, helps the vocal folds to collide more gently during vibration, and reduces the amount of air pressure required to set the vocal folds into vibration (Scearce, 2016). Voicing through a small-diameter straw also elongates the vocal tract, optimizing it to reinforce the acoustics and aerodynamics of the vocal fold vibration and essentially training the vocal tract to do the same thing without the straw (Titze, 2010). For weak vocal folds, this can also help reduce compensatory strain and promote an ideal balance between engagement of the thyroarytenoid muscle (muscle that makes up the bulk of the vocal folds, most actively engaged in chest register) and cricothyroid muscle (muscle responsible for pitch changes, most actively involved in head register) so that maximal vocal fold closure is achieved without excess effort (Scearce, 2016). So not only is this a gentle way to produce voicing, it is one of the best ways to improve the efficiency of voice production while minimizing strain.
What do you do with them? Truthfully, you can do almost anything with them – maximally-sustained single pitches, specific or non-specific pitch glides, messa di voce on single pitches, and any number of arpeggios or scale patterns. For skilled singers not currently experiencing an injury, this could be complicated scales or musical patterns from their current repertoire. For injured or untrained/minimally-trained singers, the vocalization patterns can be less complex, matching the degree of the singer’s current abilities and increasing in complexity as technical abilities improve. You can begin with straw phonation, advancing to lip or tongue trills, and then moving into nasal consonant-vowel combinations or words. That’s one of the beauties of these particular exercises – they are endlessly adaptable to meet the individual singer’s needs. The possibilities are infinite. They are so flexible and user-friendly, in fact, that I consistently use these with all my voice patients – not just the singers.
So grab a straw and voice away! Your vocal folds will be stronger and more coordinated because of it!
Lori Ellen Sutton is a Voice & Swallowing specialist who works in CEENTA’s SouthPark office. She received her bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Mississippi and her master’s degree in audiology and speech pathology from the University of Memphis. Her fellowship was at the Scripps Center for Voice and Swallowing in La Jolla, CA.
Kapsner-Smith, M.R., Hunter, E. J., Kirkham, K., Cox, K. & Titze, I.R. (2015). A randomized controlled trial of two semi-occluded vocal tract voice therapy protocols. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 58, 535-549
Titze, I. R. (2001). The five best vocal warm-up exercises. Journal of Singing, 57(3), 51-52.
Titze, I.R., & Laukkanen, A.M. (2007). Can vocal economy in phonation be increased with an artificially lengthened vocal tract? A computer modeling study. Logopedics Phoniatrics Vocology, 32, 147-156.
Titze, I.R. & Verdolini Abbott, K. (2012). Vocology: The science and practice of voice habilitation. Salt Lake City, UT: National Center for Voice and Speech.
Scearce, L. Manual of Singing Voice Rehabilitation: A Practical Approach to Vocal Health and Wellness. 1st edition. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing Inc; 2016
Titze, I.R. (2010, March 5). Posting on ASHA SIG3 firstname.lastname@example.org