Muscles and Function

It is impossible to discuss function intelligently without also discussing the muscles in the physical body that affect function. It is impossible to discuss those effects without understanding what the various muscles in the body do and how they do it. If you assume you know, and many people make that assumption, and you have not asked someone who teaches anatomy and physiology, and many people have not asked, you could be incorrect in your comprehension and be teaching from that place.

I have seen this over and over in my decades as a teacher. People have been told all manner of nonsense by “experts” who have “decided” that something is so because they say it is. It takes enormous arrogance to make an assumption like that but if no one challenges you, and mostly no one does, you can go blithely along, telling your students whatever comes in your mind, as if you were Oz, the great and powerful.

The Catholic Church told me that as a child. On matters of faith and doctrine the Pope had absolute infallibility….he could not be wrong. How’s that for stopping objections or even serious questions? Can’t eat meat on Friday? Well, no, because the Pope said God told him. [long pause here]

“My singing teacher told me………….” What follows could be incredibly wrong, but the student accepted it because the teacher said so. Yesterday, someone came in for a consultation (a one time only session) and he told me that he had taken lessons in Hungary and his teacher there had told him that he was afraid to exhale freely while singing, that he was “holding back” his breath. Well……….it’s hard to release your breath if your vocal folds are firmly closed. If you force the air out, it will make the sound breathy, and then you will have to correct that by squeezing something. When I explained that the vocal folds control the airflow, and we played around with breathy versus clear tone, he could see for himself that his breathy sound used up more air and his clear sound limited his ability to use up more air. Simple. No mystery. No nonsense. Yes, he needed better coordination over the breathing process, including more strength in his abs and ribs, but that is a separate and different thing than “being afraid to exhale freely”.

There are times when allowing more air to pass over the vocal folds is useful, even necessary. There are times when it is not a good idea and there are times when it could go either way, depending on what the vocalist was doing. The teacher should know functionally when to apply what, but mostly people apply what they were taught that worked for them. Oh.

The muscles of the throat are complex. They move in many ways. Up, up and back, back, back and down, and down. They involve or connect into the tongue, the side walls of the throat and the inside of the back of the mouth. They interweave with the muscles of the jaw, then the face (inside and out) and with the muscles of the neck on the outside. There is even an indirect connect between the psoas and the hyoid bone, through the fascia, and a connection between the base of the tongue and the back of the head. How these muscles work helps set up the framework in which the larynx settles and moves. They may not directly cause sound, but they can affect the vocal folds that do.

Constriction, or using the swallowing muscles while singing, comes into play in various kinds of singing, but it is typically a result of indirect work. Muscles must contract and stretch in order to have what we call “muscle tone”. If they do not work antagonistically with other muscles, or if one set of muscles is much stronger, then the antagonists will be much weaker. The ideal situation is one in which the vocal folds themselves close firmly, but comfortably, to resist various amounts of breath pressure (from a little to a lot) without taking the throat muscles along for the ride. That position, one of maximum balance and consistency, is the desired goal of functional vocal training. So, “good” constricton would include some things that traditionally have been considered useful to have: focus, point, masque resonance, brightness, ping, ring, etc. If, however, you have too much of any of these, then you could sound instead: tight, shrill, squeezed, harsh, small, tinny, edgy, white, or stuck. How do you know the right amount of these “qualities” to have? As a student, at least, you don’t. Some people have noticed that rock belting can be quite constricted and have then decided that teaching singers to deliberate constrict the throat to get this sound is a great approach. You can hear these people out there in the music marketplace. They sound like someone is torturing them, which is true. They are torturing themselves because some singing teacher told them that was necessary in order to have a career.

Not all singing comes from a balanced use of the system. Some kinds of singing are “extreme”, meaning they are way out of balance on purpose. Those kinds of singing require the vocalist to do things no one’s throat was ever intended to do. Some people become acclimatized to such extreme behavior and some do not. Having training designed to support the body in doing something out of the ordinary would be far better than having no training or having the wrong training. What good does it do to train for a warm flowing tone on a high A if what you need to do is belt the note instead? 

Functional training is about knowing which exercise does what, when to use it, under what circumstances to adjust it, how much and for how long to use it, and what to expect as results if it is done as correctly as possible, with an eye towards the goal of the artist in mind. Since most singing teachers have no clue about what exercises do, and the field itself is only just now thinking it should find out, almost no one has accurate answers. Hence, singing teachers just make them up, ‘cuz they can.

Be careful. Caveat emptor!

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