How The Brain Is Wired

Let’s take a look at what we know about the wiring of the brain (its neurologic pathways) and how it connects with the throat.

We can move the front and outside of the face, head and neck (and shoulders) at will. I can ask you to smile, to frown, to open your mouth, close your mouth and to purse your lips. I can ask you to wiggle your jaw side to side and draw it a little bit down and back. I can ask you to stick your tongue out, and if I give you a mirror, you can make it roll up towards your top teeth without too much effort. I can ask you to look up, to look down, and to pull your head out in front of your body. I can ask you to raise your shoulders, to draw them slightly forward and round them backwards in a curved shape. If I include the belly as being part of the system because of its influence over exhalation, then I can ask you to make your stomach contract in and out (although if you are very out of shape you might have trouble with that).

There are variations of these movements, but mostly, that’s about all we can deliberately do. We can raise the eyebrows and bring them down in a frown. Some people can wiggle their ears or the end of their noses (that is a hoot to watch), and some people can make a groove in the tongue or turn it over (but that is genetic).

So, if I ask you to do any of these things on purpose, or more than one of them, and keep doing it continuously, you may or may not be able to, depending on all sorts of things. If I ask you to sing while doing them, that could make it harder. Nevertheless, sooner or later, if you kept trying, somehow most of these things would begin to be deliberately do-able and sustainable, even while singing.

But, if I ask you to raise your soft palate on purpose, could you? Would you know if you had or had not? I can say that it’s my experience that inexperienced, non-trained singers cannot do this, or, if they can, by accident, they can’t feel it as a response. That’s normal. NORMAL, people. You can’t lift the back of your tongue, either, or make your soft palate into a dome. You can’t widen your pharynx (throat) or even know what “open” feels like. If your throat ever totally closes, you will either be dying in short order or you will already be dead! Open just feels like nothing special. Sorry.

And, if I ask you to drop the back of your tongue, close the vocal folds with more firmness, to move your false folds, to constrict your aryepiglottic sphincter, or make your larynx go up and/or down deliberately, you either have to deliberately squeeze something in your throat and hope that the squeeze does whatever it is I have asked you to do, or think of some other reaction that might cause your throat to respond (vomit? gag? cough?) Basically, there is NO way to do any of these things deliberately without something else happening that you should not be doing.

YET. There are a lot, I mean A LOT, of singing training methods that teach people to do all manner of things that are not directly possible. THINK ABOUT THAT. People are paying money to learn how to squeeze their throats on purpose. They are paying money to make sounds that resemble retching, being in pain, and swallowing a potato, not as a means to an end (which would be not great but perhaps at least remotely understandable) but as an end in themselves. The people who teach these things DO NOT UNDERSTAND the autonomous and semi-autonomous nervous systems and how they work. Some of them are, sadly, getting rich anyway.

Your body has one primary response. You cannot override it, you cannot get rid of it. Your brain’s central cortex is geared to get oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, through your vocal folds, period. It is not possible to commit suicide by holding your breath. And, if you get something in your throat, your body is going to do its very best to get it out by coughing it up, and you can’t make that reflex go away either.

Therefore, any successful training approach has to work IN CONJUNCTION WITH the responses of the central cortex if the throat is to remain maximally functional. BIG STATEMENT HERE, and I know that, but I can’t make the nerves in my body or anyone else’s body do other than what they do and neither can anyone else.

This instruction was given to me by Dr. Daniel R. Boone, great-grand nephew of the original Daniel Boone of our country’s history, and one of the founding fathers of Speech Language Pathology research in America. Dr. Boone generously taught two workshops with me in the 90s — “Voice, Lies and Videotape” and “Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Speaking or Singing But Were Afraid to Ask”. He generously said that I was the only singing teacher he ever understood. That was partly because I had him as a mentor and he was a master.

If you study singing (or professional level speech) long enough, it is my belief (and I can’t prove it) that you eventually do develop neural pathways that are not in “average” non-singing people and that you can indeed learn to feel and move the soft palate or other structures that are inside the back of the mouth. I think you can learn to perceive movements in the back of the tongue and deep within the throat as well. I also think that making any of these structures do something deliberately while singing is a mark of desperation to be used by professionals only because they are out of shape and can only sing in a certain kind of sound (temporarily) by giving the vocal production some “help”. A really well trained, in shape singer, DOES NOT MAKE THE THROAT DO ANYTHING SPECIAL. He or she controls THE SOUND, not the throat, no matter what style is being sung.

The last time I was examined with a fiberoptic scope, I was able to do all kinds of things in my throat by looking at the monitor. This was not news to me. Things do move. They do so because there is no constriction and because I can make all kinds of sounds on all kinds of pitches, not because I am moving my larynx or making my vocal folds do something on purpose.

The distinction here is CRUCIAL. C.R.U.C.I.A.L. People who teach you to put your larynx someplace or do something to your false folds are causing you problems, not helping you learn how to sing. People who teach you to make your gut like a stone wall or scream as if you were in pain are causing you problems, not helping you learn how to sing. People who tell you to send the sound into your masque, or your nasal passages, or your eyebrown or cheekbones or sing from your diaphragm ARE NOT HELPING YOU LEARN TO SING. They are causing you problems. Run away.

You cannot change the way your brain is wired. Work with it, not against it.

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