This is my first in a series of myth-busting posts, in which I hope to dispel some common misconceptions about singing.
When voice teachers advise singers to raise their soft palates, they are succumbing to an almost universal human confusion between simultaneity and causality. In other words, they are mistakenly assuming that if action A occurs during situation S, that A must have caused S. For example, a teacher may observe that when singing is well coordinated, the singer's soft palate is likely to be in an elevated position. So far, so good. But if that teacher goes on to assume that good coordination can be induced by raising the soft palate, and advises his students to do this, he is doing them a disservice. Let's examine why.
Although people tend not to think about it in such terms, singing is an activity that involves a precise and delicate coordination of every part of the body. Of course, some muscles, like those of the larynx and the diaphragm, are more directly involved than, say, the biceps. But every muscle in your body, including your biceps, is part of the environment in which your singing takes place, and thus, has a role in your overall coordination for this activity. Any note you sing, then, is the action not only of your "vocal" muscles, but of your entire, intricately coordinated body. To bring about this astoundingly complex coordination by consciously moving individual muscles is futile, but we all try to accomplish all sorts of things in this way.
Truly, any activity must be thought of in terms of whole-body coordination. Our muscles simply do not operate independently, but as part of a system. Teachers in all fields who do not understand this concept cause their students untold frustration and possibly injury. Ballet dancers and students of yoga and Pilates are often told to improve their form by drawing in the abdominal muscles. Weight lifters are encouraged to focus solely on the contraction of the muscles they are attempting to exercise. Many of us have been hounded to improve our posture by pulling back our shoulders. All of these recommendations are well-intentioned, but unsound. You simply can't address a whole-body coordination piecemeal, by moving this part here or that part there. . .at least not without creating unwanted tension somewhere in the system. (Think of how your back feels after 5 minutes of holding your shoulders in place!)
What we singing teachers are really after is the same thing wanted by the teachers of ballet, yoga, Pilates, exercise, posture, and everything else: an efficient, easeful, dynamic whole-body organization to support whatever movements are required in our particular specialty. It would be much easier to teach and to become proficient at any of these activities if we could bring about the needed coordination by consciously moving body parts A, B, and C into the correct alignment. But it doesn't work that way; we have to search for indirect ways of eliciting whole-body coordination. This is the central goal of the Alexander Technique, by the way.
So how on earth do you teach anything? Well, you have to first change your outlook on teaching and learning. Start by expanding your field of awareness (a concept familiar to Alexander teachers) to include the whole person performing the activity. Then, instead of focusing solely on the immediate goals to be attained (end-gaining, in Alexander language), you must keep your primary focus on the overall conditions in the body, what Alexander called the use of the Self. Also, remember that fine-tuning any activity involves not so much learning what to do, but learning how to stop doing whatever is interfering with your overall coordination. This all makes for a very different learning experience, and one that is likely to give the student more episodes of ease and success and fewer of frustration and stress.
In the voice lessons I teach, I set up exercises to spontaneously bring about a better whole-body coordination. (Just how I do this is a topic for a future post.) As conditions improve—in your throat, yes, but also throughout your entire body, or Self—your soft palate and every other part of you will gradually assume its optimal position for every note.
Since while performing you won't have to consciously direct your soft palate into position, not to mention choreographing tongue, lips, throat, jaw, diaphragm, and big toes, you will be able to focus on communicating your emotional and musical ideas. And that is what singing is all about.