Riding the Semi-Autonomous Nervous System

You can blink, swallow, cough, and breathe on purpose but when you are not doing so, those things happen on their own through the wiring of the nervous system. We can intervene, but we cannot stop ourselves from doing these things.

The “fight/flight” mechanism, which connects to the old limbic brain, kicks in when we are stressed. It makes the breath shallow, it brings the circulation to the central organs deep within the body, it makes the limbs cold and makes us clammy and sweaty if the “threatening” situation continues. Since most of us live with a low level of stress all the time (if there is anyone who does not, I haven’t yet met them) we all encounter a certain amount of activity from this biological reaction. If it becomes chronic, it can effect how we breathe and even how we stand.

If the throat constricts to restrict air (which it does in the case of this F/F response) the larynx can rise in the throat. If the constriction continues, the larynx can continue to stay in a raised position and that, in turn, can make the head project out over the body, forcing it forward. It’s hard to breathe with chronic constriction so the body tries to relieve this strain by pushing the head out. It isn’t efficient, but it does have some effect. This tension will also creep up into the back of the base of the tongue, making it tight and immobile. The voice becomes “pinched” and “strained” and can sound squeezed and choked off or muffled.

Another factor that effects us in a similar way is emotion. “All choked up”, “Cat got my tongue”, “Can’t spit it out”, “Swallowed my words”, “Speechless”. These phrases exist because if we are in certain emotionally powerful situations, the throat can literally close, making it almost impossible to breathe or speak. If you are in a constantly volatile emotional situation but can’t or won’t express what those emotions are, you can end up with chronic constriction in your throat with all of the same effects on your voice as described above.

In fact, keeping the throat free and open is, in our society, something of a miracle. We have so many reasons why we have to suppress what we feel or what we are experiencing. Some people probably do manage. Perhaps these expressive souls are more uninhibited than the majority of us. Perhaps they just don’t let things get to them!

If you sing, however, you have to address these patterns, whether you want to or not, because if you allow them to remain your singing will be compromised. If you begin training without allowing the throat to relax and unwind, the training will sit on top of constriction that may have been buried in your throat for decades, perhaps since childhood. You might still sing but your freedom will be compromised and your authentic vocal personality will be too.

Of course, most singing training addresses these issues from the outset because all teachers of singing realize that these conditions exist and are impediments.


Find me a teacher who understands these biological and psychological response patterns and knows how to undo the long-term consequences of same. One in a thousand, maybe.

If you begin training by telling a student to “bring the sound forward” and you insist upon “good breath support” in a young inexperienced student and that person has chronic throat constriction which they do not realize they have you will tie the student in a vocal knot and get absolutely nowhere, no matter what exercises you use. Then you will blame the student for not trying hard enough or being resistant.

On the other hand, if you do know about these patterns, you will allow the person to slowly relax, learn to move the muscles of the tongue, neck and eventually the throat, and let the musculature soften so that it can let go and release the tension and accompanying anxiety that is held there. It takes time and requires great patience but it can be done. In the end, the person will not only sound better, she will feel better, both physically and psychologically. They go together, particularly in those who sing.

You cannot fight the body. You cannot work against the nervous system. You must learn to make friends with it and ride on it so that you can sing freely. There really is no other way.

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