Do you have a palatal leak (aka Velopharyngeal Insufficiency)?

Do you have a palatal leak (aka Velopharyngeal Insufficiency)?

What a pain in the nose. Or the back of the throat. I will come out and admit it: I had this problem (and still do from time to time).

What is it? It's when, after playing for a while, you can't keep air from leaking out your nose (instead of going through your instrument). There is very little written online about this problem, and even less about solutions that don't involve surgery.

I went through a year or two of doctors sticking cameras up my nose and into my throat to watch me play (I'd post the videos but they're gross). I even went so far as to evaluate surgery.

Luckily I didn't have the surgery, because when I contacted Julianne Kirk Doyle, a clarinet professor at SUNY Potsdam in New York, she had what ultimately was the solution.

Here is her story, and the solution that worked for her, for her students, and for me.

I first experienced the air leak on my Masters Recital at Eastman. I played a fairly taxing program, was not in the right resonant part of the stage (thought I wasn't projecting) so ended up overplaying on a reed that was a little stiff, and on the last page of the Rigoletto fantasy, the soft palate went...just air leaking out my nose and I couldn't do anything about it. After that happened, for days it felt like I had gotten chlorine up my nose. Upon reflection, I realized the importance of proper breathing and fundamentals as they pertain to playing and revisited how I approached some things.

I also started taking yoga and learning to control the palate through breathing and eventually while at rest as well as while playing. This is been an endurance key for me when I feel in certain environments and with certain reeds, that my palate might go (for the record it hasn't since 2003!) Often when we are playing, even while resting for a couple bars, we keep the tongue high and soft palate engaged, tight and ready to go. I have trained myself to drop and relax the palate while resting, even for just a couple beats or in bars of rest. The only way I can describe this is to touch your upper gumline behind the front teeth with the tip of the tongue and then lower the rest of the tongue and inhale through the nose. You can also just drop the tongue and that also opens and relaxes the palate. You can even do this with the tongue up, if you notice when you fall asleep at night, where does your tongue go? It actually goes up against the roof of your mouth (I learned this from a vocal colleague) so its a natural position, but often in clarinet and voice, we over compensate/engage it.

I have a couple of tests I use with my students is to sensitize them to any throat tension - this can be what ultimately causes the soft palate to go as well as faulty embouchure and low tongue position - I call it a domino effect. Some players tend to support the sound from the throat rather than from the lower abs/air support, I did this for a LONG time and had no idea I wasn't supporting right. My oboe colleague refers to support as "being stuck in a sit up" and we have the students in tech classes use the "Tssssssss" sound while supporting from the abdomen. While you do this, your throat shouldn't be tight, but your abs are. With Bb, we so badly want to get a full sound that is centered and projected, but instead of raising the tongue or having just the right embouchure and support, we can compensate with the throat closing, even just a little bit (which I notice when I'm out of shape) can cause the soft palate to weaken. Kind of like you are trying to grunt (those guys at the gym that try to lift too much weight)

Test for throat tension

- Play a full range scale normally, just be aware but don't try to change anything (I don't tell the students that, just have them play normally)

- Plug the bell (with your calf or a cloth) and finger middle line B (on Bb clarinet) or the lowest note on the bass that closes all the keys

- You should be able to get overtones by doing this, how low can you go?

- Just as a vocalist vocalizes "do, mi, sol, mi do" we can slide from partial to partial with minimal effort. If we can do this, the throat is open.

- If nothing comes out, throat and/or embouchure are too tight.

- Play the full range scale again - do you notice a difference? Is the sound fuller? throat looser? soft palate? What do you notice? How is your support?

Exercises to use

- Kroepsch Book 1 - C Major (and all other keys eventually)

- My theory is if a student can play everything in the Kroepsch book with no issues, then voicing, support, etc is all where it needs to be

- Play each exercise with only air first on a "Shhhhh" syllable and really be aware of the velocity of air behind your fingers, do you hear your fingers?

- Quiet relaxed fingers and good steady air should be accomplished before adding the sound

- Add the sound, it should feel the same as it did with just the air, just more resistance but not uncomfortable

If the soft palate starts to go at anytime, STOP immediately and rest, evaluate why it went. The nice thing about the Kroepsch is they are short. I do a full key each day as part of my warm up in this process.

I had a freshman last fall who is a fabulous player, far ahead of all his peers, but the soft palate problem kept him from playing more than 10 minutes consecutively and when he got into performance it always seemed to give out. We did a lot of rebuilding and looking at support and tension, when he would get expressive, he tried to give nuances from his throat, not with the air speed.

We experimented with embouchure and got him on a mouthpiece that better enabled him to do what he wanted to do. He was on an M13 but working really hard to get the darker color in his head. He changed to the M15 and it was perfect. The M30 was too dark for him and caused him to over work the tongue/soft palate.

We also lightened his reed strength by maybe 1/4-1/2 a strength. We also video his lessons and performances so he can see if there are any physical motions that cause him to be out of balance therefore tensing things up. He leaned forward a lot causing him to tighten the throat, etc.

Long story short, his goal by the end of fall semester was to play the Burgmuller Duo on an area recital with no issues - mission accomplished! From time to time he has little problems, but very few and now knows how to handle the leak if it comes up.

Some folks have gone and had surgery to rebuild their soft palate, or injections into it (like botox), we had a student get one of these treatments in 2007 and its worked for her so far - but I think those are going to only be temporary remedies if the fundamental elements aren't where they need to be. Like any muscle, we can learn to control it with a little sensitization.

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