Voice, Breath and Shofar Blowing
Updated: Sep 16, 2022
We're fast approaching the time of year Jews gather in synagogues to hear the blowing of the shofar. If you have a voice or resonance disorder or are recovering from a respiratory illness such as covid-19, blowing a shofar can be quite challenging. Here are answers to your questions about overcoming voice, resonance, or respiratory challenges so you can learn to play a shofar!
What is a shofar?
The shofar is a musical instrument most commonly made from a ram's horn. Rather than being made from metal or wood like most instruments, shofars are animal horns primarily made of keratin protein, similar to what makes up our fingernails. The horns are sometimes harvested from live sheep and goats, but most come from dead rams. Each shofar grows naturally, forming uniquely sized instruments with varied resonant frequencies. Historically, shofars were played as alarms to warn of incoming armies. In modern times, shofars are most commonly played ceremonially at Jewish religious services, such as on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
How do you play a shofar?
Playing a shofar is similar to playing a less-comfortable, irregularly shaped trumpet that has a smaller mouthpiece. There are no keys to change the pitch, like how a trumpet has keys you press to change the note. Instead, all sound control comes from the player's airflow and position of their lips, facial muscles, tongue, and teeth. Players hold their corners of their lips tight, compressed around a shofar opening to create a small central hole for sound to pass through. This lip compression involves sustained high muscle effort. The sound source is a bubble-like vibrating lip buzz you sustain with solid breath support.
What techniques can be used to troubleshoot shofar blowing?
Playing a shofar is powered by the breath, and requires a strong sustained flow of air. If your breath support is inadequate, try focusing on using diaphragmatic or low torso breathing. When breathing in, imagine expanding your ribs 360 degrees outwards. This may feel like a bulge right where your stomach and ribs meet and in your back, or like your ribs flaring outwards on all sides. Some people like to imagine filling up an upside down balloon with air, or roots stretching down below them that need to be filled with air. Other people need to focus on on using all their air, not prematurely stopping when you have plenty of air left. Good posture, diaphragmatic bracing and anchoring your torso muscles can also help. Think of your body as being actively engaged, as if you were a super hero about to stop a train.
If you're having trouble sustaining a buzz, try practicing lip trills while simultaneously humming up and down your pitch range.
We want an open, unconstricted vocal tract. If there is excess tension in your throat, try throat and laryngeal relaxation exercises. Pay attention to having your true vocal folds open, your false vocal folds retracted, and producing wide twang. See if lowering your larynx helps with decreasing excess tension.
If you're continuously practicing without using these techniques for healthy voicing in an open vocal tract, you may experience vocal fatigue. This fatigue is often a result of high effort voicing through constricted false vocal folds, or even an entirely constricted epilaryngeal region, like is used for mad cat twang.
If these techniques aren't effective, or you're concerned you have a voice disorder, you can try working with a vocally specialized speech language pathologist on other techniques such as an incentive spirometer, manual circumlaryngeal massage, and laryngeal re-posturing. As always, please seek out medical providers for your own care, we're only here to offer our thoughts and ideas, which are not medical advice.
-Tallulah Breslin, MS, CCC/SLP (she/they)
Gender & Identity Affirming Voice Training @Harmonic Speech Therapy