Occlusive Exercises – Spiral Learning, Part 2

Occlusive exercises are those that greatly reduce or close the mouth opening to allow for a different kind of action of the vocal folds. These include:

  • Lip trills or bubbles – phonating while flapping the lips together
  • Tongue trills – Latinate “rr”
  • Nasal consonants – humming
  • Stemple vocal function exercise – “knoll” sound on a sustained pitch
  • Vocalizing through a straw
  • Singing into one’s hand

As I said in a previous post in 2010 most of these haven’t done much for me, but they are good to have as tools for students who may benefit from what occlusives are good at, which is reducing subglottic pressure due to the back pressure of the occlusion. However, as I have revisited some of these concepts I have found one that I really like. It is an adaptation of one of the Stemple vocal function exercises. I started using it almost two years ago. I did it for a few weeks, left it, and have come back to it recently.

I call my favorite occlusive “small V”. I sustain a “V” on each of five pitches. I use D3, E3, F#3, G3, A3 for myself and C3, D3, E3, F3, G3 for baritones. I have women do it an octave higher. I call it “small” because after I start the “V” I bring my lips together slightly so that I can feel and hear an escaping air sound along with the phonation. Keeping both the pitch and the air sound steady for as long as you can on each pitch is challenging at first, especially as the lungs become emptier.

Here is the procedure:

  1. Take a full breath.
  2. Start a “V” on the lowest pitch (see above) and then bring lips together slightly.
  3. Keep the sound on your lips and the pitch as steady as you can.
  4. Time each repetition.
  5. Sustain the sound as long as you can with no breaks in the sound. Recovering from pitch wavers is OK as long as you don’t stop the phonation.
  6. Do it twice for each pitch.

My timing is usually 45-50 seconds for each breath, so the five pitches twice each takes a bit over 10 minutes. These timings are similar to what I got with the supervised Stemple exercise, so I think the amount of occlusion is about the same. I can shorten this by doing fewer repetitions and still get a benefit.

What benefit? There are several that you can read about elsewhere, but for me personally, my regular singing right after this exercise is more efficient, with the tone being more clear and strong with less sense of effort. I feel that it helps me find the best balance between too much and too little air flow. It helps to reduce my tendency to blow a lot of air through my folds, which dulls the tone. I think I also get a psychological benefit because I slow down, concentrate, and listen very carefully.

The “V” falls apart if I push too much air at it, and for the 50 seconds of the exercise, my rib cage and/or diaphragm is prevented from pushing too hard. I get in touch with the combination of the larynx asking for only the air it needs and the feeling of suspension of the breathing process. Without needing to get into arguments about whether breath controls larynx or larynx controls breath, I can say that they work together better after this exercise.

Many exercises have seasons in one’s life. I will revisit others occasionally. I sometimes am surprised by new benefits from old exercises, and at other times find that a long-used exercise is no longer needed.

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