Episode 50 – Using SOVT Exercises

Semi-occluded Vocal Tract Exercises are not some strange ritual being practiced on a commune in Oregon – no, they are perhaps one of the best and most foolproof ways to get your voice working correctly.

Semi-occluded (partially blocked) vocal sounds create healthy backpressure in the voice, which presses down and helps the vocal cords align properly and hold back the air to produce great sounding waves of vibrating air.

If it all seems a bit confusing, John will explain how and why they work in the episode.


The Oovo Straw is a handy device to aide in SOVT exercises.


Episode Transcript

Episode 50 – Using SOVT Exercises


“S-O-V-T-D-A-Y-Night! S-O-V-T-D-A-Y-Night!” Bonus points if you know what that song is. And extra bonus points if you know the movie where the song was used, where it was followed with this line, “Heed! Pants! Now!” Yes. If you know that one, you know what I’m talking about. “Piper Doon!” It’s Mike Myers in So I Married An Axe Murderer. I love that movie for a couple of reasons – Mike Myers is really funny in it. But the Scottish character of the dad is, and I kid you not, it’s literally my dad. I grew up with a crazy Scottish dad so that movie holds a warm place in my heart.

But SOVT – Semi Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises. Semi occluded partially blocked vocal tract. Why would we want a partially blocked vocal tract? Usually, having a partially blocked vocal tract in our body is not something that we want. But with the voice, it can actually be a good thing.


Listen, singing is hard. We all know that singing is hard. Singing being hard keeps voice teachers in business and gives them jobs securely. It’s one of the trickier instruments to learn to play because the balance is so particular and peculiar.  And when you go from this lower range to your upper range, these shifts of resonance are basically destabilizing. And the sensations that you think you should have, when you see another singers and you hear their power, you think it feels like group power – it’s not. They are basically getting a balance of the right amount muscle, and the vocal folds coming together with the correct resonance to really make that sound wave so strong and powerful. But they’re not working that hard. When you see great singers and they’re belting away, it doesn’t seem that effortful for them. That’s where people get frustrated because they try and make it feel big, and then it doesn’t sound good and it doesn’t sound big.


So what these SOVT Exercises do is, they’re a bit of a shortcut. They can put us in a state, as we use them, of kind of feeling of what great singing feels like – what it feels like to have your vocal folds actually come together in the right configuration so that they’re not over-pressed and squeezed, and just barely coming together and breathy. And it allows us to kind of increase the amount of muscle we’re using without it tending to jam up, and without risking the cords slamming together. They are also wonderful for vocal rehab. If your voice is really tired, if you’ve been using it a lot, or maybe you’re coming off of a cold, or you’ve come off of a vocal surgery which I hope you haven’t – and you should work with a professional if you have. But these SOVT Exercises can be so very very helpful in getting you into the right place. Even your speaking voice, feeling where your speaking voice should be, is really helped by SOVT Exercises.


Now, some of the main exercises that I used that everybody will know – not everybody, but you may be familiar with it – are lip bubbles and tongue trills. What you do with a lip bubble, you may have seen this where you just get your mouth nice and floppy and you’ll just kind of get an UHH sound under it, and you think “Okay that’s well and good.” I used to do them mindlessly because my voice teacher told me to and I didn’t realize why I was doing it.

But what’s actually happening is, in good singing the sound wave is vibrating air. The vibrating air then travels from your vocal folds where it’s created, through your throat, and then through your mouth and out to the world. Your vocal cords have this job of holding back the air and compressing it in order to create a sound wave. That’s a little tricky for them, especially in high notes. It’s a lot of muscle going on, a lot of balance.


So nature has provided this amazing thing where, when we’re singing right  and our vocal tract aligns with the sound wave in a balanced and tuned way when we get that adjustment just right – you’ll hear it in good singers. Their voices are just kind of booming and ringing. And what happens is, the sound wave gets this boost of energy from the vocal tract, from the resonances of the vocal tracts like amplifiers being turned on. And this vocal energy, not only radiates out the mouth, but it also radiates back the other way and presses down on the vocal folds and helps them resist the air.

The other thing it does is, when we’re singing in the right condition, the air pressure is such that it creates a resistance. It gives a little push back before the air, then moves again. There’s a resistance. It’s lazy, if you will. And that laziness actually presses down on the vocal folds and helps them hold back the air.


Almost everytime that I get a singer in to the right spot, and they feel this condition of the tuned vowels sending the energy back down to the folds, they’ll say “Wow, that feels so easy.” And it’s an amazing place to be. It’s where great singing is done but it’s tricky to find. So voice teachers and voice researchers have developed some shortcuts. And one of the great shortcuts is SOVT – Semi Occluded Vocal Tract exercises.

So the lip bubble is the one keeping your face relaxed, right? Because if you have too much tension, the lips aren’t going to bubble – you want them to bubble slowly. But the resistance of the lips is enough that it kind of recreates that feeling of good singing, pressing energy down on the vocal folds so you don’t have to work as hard, and the folds will hold together. It also does some things with readjusting the resonance values so that the transition is a little more stable. It’s not that hard to go through. Very often, if you try and sing and you’re feeling that crack, if you do lip bubbles, suddenly it’s much easier. That crack will start to go away.


Now, of course there aren’t many songs with lip bubbles as the lyrics – although, I should write one because it’ll be easy to sing. It’ll be popular at karaoke bars. But what can you do is, in the moment that you’re doing that, just kind of feel what the muscles are doing – how relaxed yet resistant they are, that they’re holding back air but they’re not over squeezing, how that transition feels nice and smooth where you feel the sensations going. People will very often say “Wow, I feel the lower notes kind of off the roof of my mouth. But as I sing higher the vibrations seem to go back behind my eyes and it lifts up.” It’s a very real sensation for singers. You need to have an awareness of that, and an anticipation. I won’t dictate the sensation you should feel, but that’s a very very common one. And this Semi occluded exercises can heighten those sensations.


So lip bubbles is a big one. If you can do it, the tongue trills is a good one. Not everybody can trill their tongue and the tongue can get tired after a few minutes, but that’s a really good one. And I think of saying like an UHH under it. We don’t want that high larynx. So as you’re doing this thing, think of UHH sound under it.

Other ones I like – I like the T-H. You can even purse your lips as if you’re saying “knowle.” Some of the Dr. Joseph Stemple’s exercises were utilized this. You’ll just get your protruding lips nice and buzzy.


But my current favorite, and you may have heard about this, is using the straw. What the straw does is, not only does it give you the resistance, because all of a sudden when you start phonating through the straw, you have essentially elongated your resonating tube. Your resonating tube is from your vocal cords, which sits at the top of your lungs or your trachea. And then, from there, the sound it emits goes through your throat, out your mouth, and it’s about six inches or so. But when you phonate through the straw, you’ve now just increased the length of the resonating tube, because the sound now has travelled through the straw as well in order to go out into the world, but you’ve also condensed the space. When you get that space really narrow, you get a feedback of pressure from both the air as well as the sound waves – the back pressure of the air that you’re pushing, and the vibrating air, the sound waves, all push back down the vocal cords. And they do this amazing thing of – it’s like a chiropractor. It’ll pop them into the right position against each other. You need your vocal folds kind of squaring up, if you will. The edges need to come together. And you don’t want too much depth of cord on the high notes because you’ll end up squeezing. But you also don’t want just tiny little margins come together. So the straw is going to help your muscles find that medium, that little ground that you need for the stronger notes.


Now, when you’re first doing this, a lot of people will recommend more of the drink straw. You’re not going to get much pressure on it. But the danger is, if you push too much air and push too hard, it can be a little strenuous. Ultimately, the better one are the stir straws, like the coffee straws. Those are great.


I’m going to do a podcast that really go into the exercises. But all you need to do is play it basically like a kazoo. So you’re just phonating through the straw, and you can just do things. I’ve actually got a straw here with me. You do a siren. And I tell you, just doing that, my voice instantly lighter. Again, it pops the voice into their right place. And if I’m working on a song, and I’ve got a high note, and I know that I’m beginning to over-muscle it, I’ll go ahead and hit the high note through the straw, and I can lean into it. However, because of the back pressure of the air coming back, it creates a cushion on the folds. So my cords aren’t able to slam together as hard as they, otherwise, would because it’s like these big air compressors blowing back down on them. So they’re cushioning them as they come together. And it stops my nervous system from overloading and over-muscling the note, so I can get a feel from it from the straw, and then go back and sing the note again.


If you’re getting vocally fatigue, these SOVT Exercises, especially straw exercises, are fantastic. In a sense, think of it like a chiropractor along with a masseuse. That back pressure is pushing down on the cords and aligning them correctly, getting the muscle to back off but also making sure they come together and getting more of the balance. And it almost like it’s soothing out the puffiness.

I will do these for the students. And the first time they do it, I’ll have them say something – usually a phrase that kind of has an up emotional feel like “Yes that’s right.” so that they’ll go ahead and do that. And then as soon as they talk, they’re like “What just happened? It’s almost like voodoo.” They’re usually surprised. And what you want to do, especially if you’re vocally fatigued, if you kind of feel your voice wanting to do this, just do 30 seconds/a minute on the straw, and then go and say something kind of positive “Yes that’s right.” And where feel your voice is. That’s where your voice wants to be. And doing the SOVT Exercises is a great way to remind your nervous system what that balanced of resonance feels like. And what the right pitch feels like. All of these things are helped by SOVT Exercises.


Now – you can’t see this, unless you’re looking at my Facebook Live, but I’ve got this cool little straw that’s called an oovo straw – O-O-V-O straw. I’ll put a link to it in the show notes. And the people who manufactured this, they were kind enough to send me one. After I played with it for a day, I went ahead and paid for another. It is this little straw that you wear around your neck. But it’s made out of surgical-grade silver, and it’s antibacterial. So as you go on ahead and putting your lips all over this thing and blowing through it when it’s resting on your neck – it’s actually self-cleaning and no bacteria will live on its surface, which is fantastic because part of the problem of the straw exercises is having a straw all through them. In my pockets they get bent, they’ll drop on the ground, I can’t find one, or they’re just actually kind of nasty. They’re made out of plastic so they’re not good for the environment. Actually in many areas, bans are coming on these plastic straws, so we won’t even have them. And the other problem is, I could get a harder plastic straw that I can reuse but it’s going to get nasty and it’s going to get dirty.

But this thing (oovo straw) actually looks like a cool piece of jewelry. I really really like it. It’s very cool-looking, it’s super handy – I wear it around my neck so I always have a clean straw anytime I need it. If you want more information on it, I have no financial connection with the company, I just think that this is a great great invention. I also think I should have come up with it, which is completely annoying, but I didn’t. They did. So I will give you the link over at the website. Just go to johnhenny.com/50. You can see the show notes. I also will have transcripts. I’m getting transcripts of all my shows so you can go ahead and read, if you don’t like listening to my voice.


Yes. Give these SOVT Exercises a try. The other great thing is, they’re pretty discreet, especially the straw. You can be getting in vocal practice without making a lot of sound. Ultimately, yes, you can’t sing with a straw. But it can set you up for success.


Hey, I want to thank you so much for listening. Again, my website is johnhenny.com if you want to read some of my blog posts or listen to earlier episodes. I also have some products for voice teachers and singers.

I do want to say it’s coming up very soon – by the time you’re hearing this it may actually be out – but my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy is about to launch. And this is actually an entire course that I’ve created to learn to be a voice teacher. It will walk you through step-by-step. Show you how to deal with students, there’s student observation, there’s breakdown of how the exercises work, and how to listen to the voice and analyze the voice. There are quizzes all through it, and then a nice big certification test at the end that you can take. So just go to my website johnhenny.com and click on PRODUCTS. There will be information for you there.

Hey, thank you again, and until next time. To better singing! Bye.