Against the pedagogical use of the nasal consonants
Contre l'utilisation pédagogique des consonnes nasales

© John Nix 1998

Two messages from John Nix to Vocalist, sent on October 15 and 19 1998.
Deux messages de John Nix, envoyés à Vocalist les 15 et 19 octobre 1998.

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[more on the ng and other nasal consonants]

Since I jumped into the fray on this subject, I thought I might include a bit of explanation for why I am not too keen on the indiscriminate use of the nasal continuant consonants.

As I said before, they have their advantages and their disadvantages. The sensations they can create can be very useful (if used appropriately) in training beginning singers. There are a number of voice teachers and choral directors, however, who use the nasal consonants almost exclusively in vocalizing/warming-up their students. I know, because for three semesters during one of my earlier degrees, I studied with one.

Exercises we did included "myna myna myna myna myna," on a five note descending pattern, or "ma ma ma ma ma" on a 5-8-5-3-1 pattern, or "ming ming ming ming ming," on a five note descending pattern, and so on. After three semesters of this, I had a very bright, somewhat thin, nasal sound, and I was singing wide open in my upper voice - or what was left of it. I have spent a number of years undoing some of the muscular habits I developed during those three semesters.

As a teacher, I have also spent a great deal of time dealing with young singers who have been raised on a strict diet of nasal continuant consonant vocalises - my personal unfavorite that I have seen a local choral director use is "zingamama-zingamama-zingamama- zingamama-zing-zing-zing-zing-zing," on a 5-4-3-2-1-3-5-3-1 pattern.

What are some of the scientific reasons why I believe we should exercise caution in using these consonants?
Here is an excerpt from my forthcoming article on the subject :

The open velar port found in all nasal consonants creates an acoustical environment within the vocal tract which limits the projection and intelligibility of a singer's voice.
It is widely accepted that the first formant of a vowel contributes more to the total intensity of a singer's sound than any other formant. Yet acoustic research by Smith (1951), Delattre (1954), House and Stevens (1956) and Hattori, Yamamotto and Fujimura (1956) indicates that nasalization lowers the intensity of the first vowel formant. Pickett agrees, and goes on to say that "if the normal oral tract F1 is low in frequency the zero [antiresonance inserted into the spectrum by nasalization] can cancel the F1 resonance, leaving a flat spectrum." Both the [i] and [u] vowels have low first formants, and are thus greatly affected by nasalization. When one sings rapid alternations between nasal consonants and vowels (such as "minga-minga-minga-minga-ming"), the lead and lag of the velar port causes the vowels to be completely nasalized. A singer practicing this and similar exercises is therefore practicing singing with impaired projection, contrary to what he or she might think, based upon the sensations felt.
Delattre (1954), House and Stevens (1954) and Fant also noted that vowels preceded by nasal consonants are more heavily damped (reduced in intensity) than those preceded by other consonants. Reduced first formant intensity and damping mean less projection of the voice.
Intelligibility also suffers because of nasalization. Other formants besides F1 are affected by nasalization to the extent that the normal vowel spectrum is altered. Alteration of the spectrum results in a distorted sound, imparing accurate vowel recognition.
Use of the nasal consonants in any fashion is questionable in upper register vocalizing for women. As was just mentioned, nasalization lowers the intensity of the first formant. Lowering the intensity of the first formant is a self defeating strategy with regards to vowel projection and discrimination, particularly at higher pitches, where the fundamental must be reinforced by matching the first formant of the vowel to the fundamental frequency.

Here is a bibliography of some of the sources I used - you may also wish to check them out for yourself if you are really interested in this subject. I highly recommend Stephen Austin's study and Pickett's book.

Austin, Stephen F. "Movement of the Velum During Speech and Singing in Classically Trained Singers." Journal of Voice 11:2 (1997): 212-221.

Doscher, Barbara M. The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1994.

Doscher, Barbara M. The College of Music, The University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado. Lesson observations, April 1992-May 1996.

Fant, Gunnar. Acoustic Theory of Speech Production. 'S-Gravenhage: Mouton, 1960.

Gregg, Jean Westerman. "What about humming with the ng?" Journal of Singing 54:4 (March/April 1998): 55-57.

McIver, William and Richard Miller. "A Brief Study of Nasality in Singing." Journal of Singing 52:4 (March/April 1996): 21-25. I do not necessarily agree with the conclusions reached by Miller and McIver in this study. I think they saw what they wanted to see in their data and tended to overlook some of the other results.

Pickett, J.M. The Sounds of Speech Communication: A Primer of Acoustic Phonetics and Speech Perception. Baltimore: University Park Press, 1980. A must for anyone really interested in this subject.

Scherer, Ronald C. The Wilbur James Gould Voice Research Center, The Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Denver, Colorado. Lecture given to the 1994 NATS Intern Program Participants, June 25, 1994.

Vennard, William. Singing: The Mechanism and the Technic. New York: Carl Fischer, 1968.

Best wishes,

John Nix
Adjunct Voice Faculty
The University of Colorado at Denver

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Lindsey asked :

« John, can the bad effects of the nasals be alleviated by being sure to open into a clear, proper vowel after the nasal? I'm sure you are quite right in your paper when you state that the vowel formant is all screwed up after a nasal, if I may state it so indelicately. But could this effect be alleviated if you instruct the student to open into a full, open, clean vowel? »

Research shows that we have a "lag" of about 0.1 secs of nasal singing (i.e. phonating with the nasal port still open) following the occluded portion of a nasal consonant. To take the [m] consonant as an example, the palate stays down for a little while (as I said above, on average, this lasts about 0.1 secs) after we open our mouth at the end of an [m]. We also anticipate nasal consonants by allowing our palates to lower and the nasal port to open about 0.1 secs before we actually form the nasal consonant.
These figures are averages only, cited from Pickett's text. If one is singing a word like "Mom" on a short note value, the palate tends to stay in its lowered position (the "lag" and "lead" conspire!) and the entire vowel is nasalized.

I agree that it is important to stress to singers that they should not linger on the nasal consonant and that they should instead get to the vowel as quickly as possible, and sustain it as long as possible. However, if the student has been trained in a methodology which overuses the nasal consonants, they may have muscular habits which prevent them from producing the much desired full, open, clean vowel. They may be so used to singing with the palatal depressors overworking and the palatal elevators underworking that they can't get their palate to respond following a nasal.

Lindsey also wrote :

« For myself I find it pretty easy to produce a good vowel after a nasal. But that might be a much more difficult for a beginner. Do you have any suggestions for how to gain the benefit of the nasals without compromising the vowels that follow them? »

My paper is on using alternatives to the nasals rather than the nasals themselves. I recommend rapsberries and lip trills, which give much of the same "in the mask" sensations that the nasals have, but do not have the palatal muscular habit drawbacks and acoustical shortcomings that the nasals have.

I have also found that using the unvoiced plosive [p] is effective when used in moderation with students who have droopy palatal habits (and myself, for that matter). To create the oral pressure necessary to produce a [p], the palatal depressors release and the elevators take over, closing the nasal port briefly. To see for yourself, close your mouth and let air stream out your nose - you can even put your index finger under your nostrils and feel the air passing out of your nostrils and over your finger. Now immediately say the [p] consonant; the air stops flowing out of your nose and comes out of your mouth. I stress, use this in moderation, and gently! When singing and using the [p] in exercises, you want the Italianate [p] - one which is immediately followed by phonation, not the American [p], which tends to feature a small amount of air after the consonant and before the onset of the vowel.

Hope this helps clear this up.

John Nix
Adjunct Voice Faculty
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