Nasality has become a bad guy for a lot of singers. They are constantly told that any amount of nasal sound in their tone will make them sound terrible, especially when they sing high notes! Is it really true, or do nasals have a place in voice training?
What is nasality?
Nasalization happens any time some air is let through the nose during singing. When singing consonants like [m, n, and ŋ] there is no way around nasality, they are nasal to their core. Whenever the mouth is blocked off air follows the path of least resistance and goes through the nose.
[m] blocks off the mouth at the lips, [n] by sealing the front and sides of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, and [ŋ] uses the back of the tongue.
Vowels become nasal when the velum (soft palate) lowers slightly and allows air to exit through both the mouth and nose. This makes nasality a spectrum, and one is able to adjust the percentage of nasality in a sound.
How is this useful?
Experiment with this by sustaining an [ŋ], and slowly lowering the back of your tongue. Thinking about a relaxed schwa [ʌ] as you do this exercise helps relax the front of your tongue and jaw. As the seal between the back of your tongue and soft palate breaks you are left with a highly nasalized schwa [ʌ̃].
Try to create a smooth gradient between [ŋ] and a rich [ʌ]. By starting with the nasal your tongue is placed high and forward, which is super useful in healthy vocalizing.
This exercise is also good for finding healthy French nasals. Native English speakers sometimes struggle to make authentic French sounds, because English doesn’t use nasals to differentiate vowels. In French a nasal [ã] versus a “pure” [a] can change the meaning of a word. You can use the same nasal-gradient exercise to find a healthy French [ã ɛ̃ õ ɔr œ̃].
Singing with nasality is also helpful in finding a thinner vocal coordination. This thin coordination is easier to balance with airflow throughout your range. It is important to learn how to stay vocally thin, especially as you go for higher pitches. Getting too heavy vocally makes bridging to high notes very difficult. Gentle nasals are a superb tool in finding a connected head voice.
Play around with nasals! Being able to control and use them effectively gives so many color choices to use as an artist, and they are amazing in developing healthy technique. Personalized training with a teacher will help you utilize this powerful singing trick.