What is the deal with the Soft Palate? There are three major holding blocks on the voice that Krisitin Linklater identifies in Freeing the Natural Voice: the Jaw, the Tongue and the Soft Palate. Jaw tension really limits the speaker’s ability to open their mouth, and their ability to articulate with freedom and ease; Tongue tension limits articulation, too, but even more importantly affects vocal quality and the ability of the speaker to move the feeling/sound of the voice forward into the front of the face. The Soft Palate affects voice quality too—a lifted soft palate creates more space of the sound, which helps make it brighter and louder and more resonant in the front of the face. A dropped soft palate allows for sound to move into the nasal passages, which allows for nasal consonants, [m, n, ŋ] in English. It also allows for a nasal vocal quality, which is generally considered a negative for more ‘everyday’ speech, but can be a real asset in a voice actor’s toolbox.
Now it is possible for some people to have actual anatomical and physiological issues with their soft palate. People born with cleft palate, even those who have had reconstructive surgery, can have issue with getting a closure of the “velo-pharyngeal port”—the velum (aka the soft palate) is the port (or doorway) to the pharynx (the top of the throat at the back of the mouth and nose). Being able to close the soft palate fully allows for the normal articulation of the oral consonants, most notably the oral stop-plosives, [p, t, k, b, d, g] in English.
One biggish problem for people who are learning about the soft palate is that we don’t usually feel it when we are speaking.. Every time we say a word with a nasal consonant, we have to drop the soft palate, and then raise it back up. Generally we anticipate this action, so on the vowel sound before there is likely to be some nasality creeping in as we set up for the nasal consonant. So if we say a word like man, it is likely that there will be some nasality from the [m] left over on the start of the ‘a’ [æ], and then there is likely to be some nasality creeping in before the [n]! It is possible to say in with less nasality, but it sure isn’t easy, especially at speed.
Let’s do an exercise to feel the soft palate lift. There’s a similar exercise touched on in the “Soft Palate Lifting” exercise, if you care to look—it focuses on the ng-k combination. But the same process works for all the oral stop-plosion consonants. Here’s how to do it:
With your jaw relaxed, make a /n/ sound, and sustain it for a few seconds, and the make a /d/ sound but don’t release it. That is don’t say “duh”. The difference between /n/ and /d/ is merely the opening or closing of the soft palate. So, to make the /d/, all you’re doing is lifting your soft palate, which stops the sound. In fact, the difference between unreleased final /nd/ and /nt/ is essentially NOTHING. (It may affect a preceding vowel, of course, but those consonants, if unreleased, are the same!)
Now try it with /m/. Can you figure out what the corresponding consonant that goes with /m/ is? Made in the same place with your two lips? That is right, it’s /p/ or /b/! So sustain the /m/, and then chop it off with an unreleased lift of the soft palate, aka /p, b/. Can you feel the soft palate pop up, in spite of the strong sensory distraction of the vibration of your lips?
Finally, let’s review it with the “ng” consonant, /ŋ/ and its cognate, /k, g/. The problem with this one is that, because your soft palate is in contact with the back of your tongue, when you draw your soft palate up, you also have to draw your tongue up. This is nothing new: we’ve been saying this sound combination ever since we were young children in common, everyday words like language, link, bank, finger, etc. But it is harder to feel the movement of the soft palate when it isn’t moving in isolation.
Now, it might be worth mentioning that there are other nasal consonants in the world’s languages that one might explore. For example, the n-like consonant that is made with the middle of the tongue on the hard palate, as in the teasing “nya-nya” sound, or used in Spanish words with the n-tilde spelling, the “enya” /ñ/ as in señor—in the IPA this is [ɲ]. You could easily do the same exploration in this position or place as a phonetician would say. The stop that is associated with this is also a non-English sound, made with the middle of the tongue on the roof of the mouth/hard-palate. To do it, make the palatal /ɲ/ followed by the stop (whose IPA symbol is /c/) merely by lifting your soft palate.
Feeling your soft palate move is, I think, a really important first move for those who are trying to get more movement in their soft palate for vocal quality purposes. Best luck with your explorations!