The Straw: A Singer's Best Friend

Published: January 08, 2022
Have you ever tried singing through a straw?  Today I introduce you to Voice Therapist extraordinaire, Mary Hanson, who will share why straw exercises are so effective, and how to do them properly.
1.     Let’s start super basic - what does phonation mean?  What is a straw phonation?
 Straw phonation is what it sounds like! Really this means that you are “phonating” (i.e., making sound) through the straw. If you put your straw in water, you can think about it as making bubbles with your voice on. Typically, it’s made with an /u/ sound, like we hear in the word “you”. It’s a great exercise for the casual speaker and the professional singer, alike! 
Straw phonation is part of a group of exercises called “Semi-Occluded Vocal Tract Exercises” or “SOVTEs”. Really this means that you have a small opening for the air to escape at the mouth or nose. That small opening creates back pressure, which is super beneficial. 
2.     What are the benefits of straw exercises?
Straw phonation can really be quite magical, and its benefits are endless. However, it really does three main things. It reduces the tension, impact and collision at the level of the vocal cords.  Vibration at our vocal cords can only happen because some of the pressure from our lungs is reflected back once it reaches our lips. When we use straw phonation, we increase the level of back pressure, essentially making the vibration at the vocal cords even more efficient. This efficiency acts as a little massage and reduces vocal fatigue.  
This efficiency also balances the vocal cords in a way that provides extra support for changes in pitch.  Practicing those transitions with a straw can improve flexibility and power of the vocal folds and can translate to when they are not using the straw. That balance also provides singers with the opportunity to expand their range, without tensing as they explore new notes. 
 Lastly, that efficient voicing and balance, gives opportunity to strengthen the vocal cords in a safe way.   
3.     Is there any voice type or condition that should NOT do straw exercises?
There is no one condition, or voice type, that straw phonation is automatically not appropriate for, but the type of exercise that you do, and what you focus on may be different depending on your voice goals! If you are attempting straw phonation and it’s not clicking after a couple minutes of playing with it, and especially if you feel tense or have increased tension with its practice, its best to consult a professional. Straw phonation should only feel beneficial, and a voice professional can walk you through how to best use the tool for your voice! 
4.     Does it matter if you use a glass of water or not - is there a greater benefit each way?
It depends on what your goal is and also the size/shape of your vocal tract! Water will provide more resistance, resulting in increased back pressure. For most, that is beneficial and can help stabilize a tone and create more tension relief. However, for some that can turn a tension relief exercise into a strengthening exercise, and they may not be ready for that yet. I like to trial both with everyone and do what feels best for the person. (*Note from Your Online Singing Coach - I prefer using a glass of water, but it can be messy, so make sure you use a large/tall glass and don’t fill the water too high. ALSO, I have found that glass straws and paper straws don’t work as well as plastic, silicon, and stainless steel).
5.     Does size matter (ha ha) - straw size, that is?
Straw size does matter! In this case, the smaller, the better (generally)! However, that doesn’t mean you should go grab a coffee straw from your favorite locale. A smaller opening means increased back pressure. While this can have more therapeutic benefit for balancing and tension relief, that’s only if you are doing the exercise correctly! It’s generally recommended to start with a larger sized straw and then work your way down to something smaller as you get better at maintaining a clear forward tone and balancing the back pressure from the smaller opening. Its also important to keep your goal in mind, if your goal is purely tension relief, do what feels easy-and that may be a whopping smoothie straw! 
6.     Can you talk us through how to do a straw exercise correctly?
 Straw phonation can look different for various people, as we all have different shaped vocal tracts.  However, there are a few things that we like to think about for “successful” straw phonation. 
The first is lip placement. Its important to ensure that all airflow is going through the straw. You need a good lip seal, but at the same time it’s important to not over-tense the lips, as we want straw phonation to feel open and easy. 
 The next is airflow. You want to take a deep (*low, diaphragmatic) breath and start your voice off gently. You can use a  /u/ sound like in the word “you”. Use a full breath but keep your volume soft. You should have steady airflow flowing through the straw. You can tell you have that good airflow by either feeling for it with your other hand or putting the straw in water (just the tip!) and make sure you see bubbles. Our voices are really just chopped up air! If you don’t see bubbles or feel air, that’s a very clear sign that your phonatory system (your voice box) and your respiratory system (your lungs/air supply) are out of sync. 
 Pick a note in the middle of your speaking range and hold out the note for as long as is comfortable. Don’t go near the end of your breath, as we need the good pressure in the lungs to balance the back pressure from the straw. If you hear the tone sounding wobbly, or feel pressure in the throat, think about the placement of your articulators (i.e. lips, tongue, teeth). Can you adjust them in ways that makes the tone clearer? Feel easier? If you are unable to make the tone feel good and sound stable, don’t push it too much. (*Note from Your Online Singing Coach - pitch glides into a straw in a glass of water 5 minutes at a time delivers incredible bang for your singing buck.  Try it, and I’ll see you when you join the Straw Phonations fan club!)
Mary Hanson is from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin and holds a Master’s degree from George Washington University in Speech-Pathology.
Your Online Singing Coach provides live, private online singing lessons and vocal coaching for singers of all levels.
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