The Soft Palate: Imagining the Dome of the Sky

Illustration from a 13th century Latin bestiary.
A punctual bird. Illustration from a 13th century bestiary.

Once, I lived in a place where I could set my watch by the twice-daily glimpse of a heron commuting across the sky: west to east at 10:30 every morning; home again at four. I like a punctual bird.

And I like to look at the sky. It’s easy to lose sight of. Maybe you work in an office or a cubicle with no window. Or you are tethered, by work or by habit (or both) to a different sort of window, the one that glows on your desktop or on the the smart phone in the palm of your hand. (And here, in fact, you are.) But take a moment and find a patch of sky and have a gander. No matter who you are, the sky is there for you, and the same sky looks down on us all. Hello.

A couple of months ago, I decided to experiment with practicing in the dark. It was still winter, when the electric lights come on early and stay on late; when one feels a wee bit justified spending too much time at the computer because it’s so cold out; and when, in spite of the long nights, I realized I was essentially living my waking hours in a world without darkness, where, thanks to Thomas Edison’s incandescence (and its descendants), my visual sense could lord it over all the others, all the darn day (and night) long.

Music must be so different to us now in this world without darkness.

I decided to try practicing across the twilight hour, without turning on the lights. I wanted to feel my senses shift roles, and my eyes did not give up their dominance easily. Even as it became too dim to see my music, they turned to the view out the window, to glimpse what light remained in the sky through a latticework of tree branches.

When you don’t turn on the lights at dusk, the room you’re in becomes very small, and for a while, it feels much darker inside than out. The darkening sky, on the other hand, stays big, dome like, present.

A view of the 15th century sky, from Les Echecs amoureux.
A view of the 15th century sky, from Les Echecs amoureux.

I like to think of my soft palate as being part of this dome, that when I inhale, it dissolves into the sky.

Do you know where your soft palate is? It’s part of the roof of your mouth, in the back. If you put the tip of your tongue behind your upper front teeth and move it back across the roof of your mouth, you’ll first feel the bony hard palate, covered with mucous membrane. At the back of where you can reach with your tongue, you’ll feel the beginning of the soft palate, where there is no bone directly beneath the surface. This highly mobile area is important for shaping the sound that comes from our larynx into language, both vowels, as well as some consonants. For example, say [k] as in cat; [g] as in gold. For these consonants, the back of the tongue comes up against the soft palate. If you say [i] as in see or [u] as in true, you might be able to feel the back of the tongue approximate (draw close to) the soft palate.

The soft palate creates a kind of mobile roof to the oropharynx, an area of the vocal tract which plays a crucial role in resonance, by which the sounds from the larynx are acoustically amplified.

In addition to helping shape and amplify language, the soft palate can open and close the passage between the nose and the throat. This happens, for instance, when you swallow, which is why (thank goodness) you don’t get food or liquid up your nose every time you swallow (unless someone tells you something really funny at just the right moment, and you suddenly find yourself guffawing, while coffee drips out your nose). This door to the nose also has to open when we make any kind of humming sound, such as the nasal consonants [m], [n], and [ŋ] (as in singing).

But at the end of the day, as singers and as persons of voice, the most important thing we do with our voices is communicate with others, and sometimes this can be scary. Perhaps it is performance anxiety. Perhaps a difficult conversation, or even a confrontation. At times like this, I like to expand my image of my soft palate dissolving into the dome of the sky to include all the other soft palates in the room.

Give it a try sometime. No one ever needs to know you’ve just recruited their soft palate to be part of your sky dome.