SOVT Exercises: What, Why, and How can singers use them?

vocal technique Feb 22, 2024

Written By: Chelsea

You've probably heard a lot of "buzz" (pun intended) about SOVT exercises. Over the last 5 years, voice teachers on the internet have increasingly touted the benefits of things like straw work or a lip bubble—but if you don't have any context for what they're talking about, it can be hard to put these exercises into practice.

In this solo blog post (it’s Chelsea, hi!), I'll dive into the nitty-gritty of semi-occluded vocal tract exercises, otherwise known as SOVT, offering insights and tips on how singers can use these techniques to strengthen their voices.

Let’s get started!

What is SOVT? 

SOVT is an acronym that stands for Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract. It’s a fancy way of saying that your mouth is partially closed as you vocalize—the word “occluded” literally means to close up or block off! Some SOVT exercises that you might have heard of are a lip bubble or a lip buzz, straw work, or a tongue trill. The partially closed mouth shape of SOVT exercises creates back pressure on the vocal folds, which helps them vibrate with a lower amount of effort and higher efficiency, and it can also aid in producing a clearer sound.

What is back pressure? 

You may be wondering what back pressure is and how it helps us sing with lower effort, so let's do a quick little anatomy lesson here! Your vocal folds are two tiny bits of tissue in your larynx that form a slit across the glottis in your throat, and when we speak or sing, they vibrate and come together rapidly as air blows through them. This is what produces phonation and creates pitch!

Back pressure refers to how much air is either blowing through or being resisted at the level of our vocal folds. When we blow a lot of air through our vocal folds, we get a “breathy” tone. And when we resist too much, we get more of that pressed sound or feeling. 

When doing a semi-occluded exercise, not all of that air escapes at once, because something's in the way! Typically either your lips, your tongue, or a straw (or some combination of the three!) will act as an obstruction. This makes the air recirculate in your mouth and press back down on your vocal folds from above, creating a massage-like feeling for the voice.

Why do we use semi-occluded vocal tract exercises?

  1. SOVT exercises are like training wheels for your voice! They help you find your ideal vocal coordination to prepare you to move on to other consonant or vowel-based exercises, as well as full songs. Essentially, you can retain the feeling you experienced during SOVT, and apply that same balance to actual singing.
  2. SOVT exercises are great for sick and/or tired voices! When you're sick, complete vocal rest is often not recommended. Counterintuitive, I know! But it’s important to keep those muscles moving, check in with your voice, and keep some blood flow going in that area. SOVT is a great low-effort way to keep tabs on your voice when you’re not feeling your best.
  3. Different SOVT exercises have different benefits for different voices! Every voice is unique, so different exercises will be more or less beneficial depending on your tendencies. For example, singers who tend to stay in a weightier chest-dominant place may benefit from SOVT exercises that allow more airflow, like a lip buzz or a lip bubble.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, singers with a lighter or breathier chest voice might benefit from exercises that resist the air flow more strongly, like straw work using a tiny diameter straw or a closed-mouth blowfish. These can help them find more cord closure and resistance in the voice.

For singers who tend to flip between their registers (which is all of us at some point or another!), a combination of different SOVT exercises can help smooth out the break and find a consistent quality throughout the voice.

(This is something I go into in great detail in my new mix voice course coming out this spring!  πŸŽ‰ I'm so excited to help you identify where your voice shows up in certain tendencies, and knowing how your voice operates can help you unlock which exercises you need for your vocal development. Stay tuned for more course details!)

SOVT Exercises and How to Use Them

The Lip Bubble or the Lip Buzz: These are exercises that you can use on any scale pattern throughout your entire range, and they’ll help you find balance throughout your voice.

Click here for my guided warm-up tracks that can help you experience this lip buzz on an octave and a half-scale–and use code BVC20 to save 20%!

But, there are a few things I see singers do incorrectly that make these exercises ineffective:

  1. They’re not voicing anything underneath the bubble. They're blowing air through their lips, but there's not a lot of tone underneath it. I highly suggest you find an “uh” vowel like in “mother” or “butter” underneath the lip buzz, and voice that vowel as you vocalize. 
  2. The weight of your cheeks can get in the way of allowing your lips to buzz or vibrate freely. I like to suggest putting your fingertips at the level of your jawbone and gently pressing up, just lifting the weight of your cheeks from your lips. You can do this with both pointer fingers, or with your pointer finger and thumb if you just want to use one hand.

Straw Work: If you've never done this before, it can feel kind of bizarre to have a straw in your mouth as you're vocalizing, but it's an amazing tool!

You can use a regular straw (like the straw you get when you go through the McDonald's drive-thru to get your daily Diet Coke πŸ˜‰), or a big smoothie straw if you're going to blow bubbles into a cup of water. There are also companies that make straws specifically for vocalizing—I love the Singing Straw, and I have a 10% discount code for you (CHELSEA10) if you're interested in looking at any of their products!

My friend Whitney Nicole, the founder of Singing Straw, has an amazing YouTube channel with tons of resources, including warmup videos that you can sing along with using her Singing Straws or any straw that you have around the house. Experiment with different diameters of straws to find what works best for you—the smaller the diameter, the more back pressure you’ll create!

The -NG Exercise: Take any word that ends with an -ng (like “sing”, “hung”, or “sung”), and vocalize on that -ng. This makes your tongue lift in the back and touch the top of your soft palate, which provides resistance since your tongue is in the way of air escaping. It also limits the amount of volume you can use and can be a nice way to help you find balance.

Tongue Trill: This is a great exercise if the lip buzz is difficult for you! You practice this the same way you would a lip trill, but with your tongue instead πŸ˜›

Blowfish Exercise: The blowfish is essentially vocalizing through a straw when you don't have a straw. Imagine putting a tiny coffee straw in your mouth and closing your lips around it, then you blow air into your cheeks like a blowfish and vocalize from there. The key is to fill up your cheeks with air and keep your lips practically closed, letting very little air escape out of your mouth when you vocalize.

Think of these SOVT exercises as training wheels for your voice. If you're struggling with a feeling of connection or coordination through a passage of music, especially one that might span a big interval, any of these exercises can help you find the smoothest way to navigate that part of your voice. It's all about retaining the balance that we discover in our SOVT exercises, and then being able to immediately apply that to our singing!

If you're interested in diving deeper into vocal technique or exploring other interesting musical theatre topics, check out the Broadway Vocal Coach Podcast. You can also find us on Instagram and get involved in the conversation—we’d love to know what you think. 

And if you’re a musical theatre performer, but you’re not sure what your next step should be, you’ve come to the right place. Take our Quiz—we can’t wait to hear your story and help you take the next step in your career!

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