The Gag Reflex

Very few singing teachers understand the gag reflex. It is one of the strongest reflexes in your body and it is a core ingredient of behavior of the throat.

Functional training provokes movement in the vocal mechanism. If it does not, then it isn’t really functional training at the deepest level. If you want someone to sing in a better way than they do naturally, you must provoke change in the way the throat works. It isn’t the student who does this, it is the teacher.

The constrictor muscles which swallow thousands of times a day work best for singing when they are not engaged. If they are active, we perceive the sound as being “swallowed”, “muffled”, “throaty”, “back too far”, etc. It is a kind of Kermit the Frog vocal production, but we also heard it in Yogi Bear and back before Yogi, in Mortimer Snerd (find him on Google!) Cher sang that way for years, and others have managed to get by with some kind of constriction, but, ideally the sound should be produced without it so that it is free.

If you are working to teach someone to belt effectively and not just yell or shout, you are sooner or later going to encounter the swallowing muscles and the gag reflex. The belt sound raises the larynx and puts pressure on the vocal folds. The goal of training should be to minimize constriction not cause it. The compression on the folds coupled with the reflex for the throat to tighten because of that pressure runs right into the swallowing muscles. That behavior will put the student in a situation where anxiety comes up. It is a biological anxiousness. If you are about to choke, you get nervous.

Still, most people don’t acknowledge this fear. They think they are neurotic or silly and ignore it. Unfortunately, in the studios of most teachers, students are often chastised for “not being committed” to the sound or the text or the meaning. They are told “You are afraid of xxxxxxxxxx!” (the high note, to breathe, the emotion, the text…..pick one). In point of fact, the body is reacting, not the mind. The body is gearing up to avoid choking.

We cannot control the gag mechanism. If you get something stuck in your throat, you will cough hard as the body tries to expel it. If you don’t get rid of it, you could choke to death. I think that is a valid reason to be anxious, don’t you ? You cannot override the body’s primary directive: get the oxygen in and the carbon dioxide out. The body will go to great lengths to be sure this happens. If the larynx comes up very high through constriction, the head will come up and thrust forward to keep the airway open. Belters with no technique can actually end up singing looking straight up to the ceiling. Happens all the time. Keeping the head in a level position while belting requires a certain amount of technical savvy.

Teachers who do not understand this will either criticize the student, work on “breath support” and “resonance” to solve the problems (not very helpful), or force the student to push through, causing vocal fatigue or even damage. Conversely, the teacher, in order not to push the student, could instruct her to “back off” and that will temporarily eliminate the problem but the voice will never get fuller or stronger and the belt sound will always lead to a big crack at the top of the range. When you understand this reaction, you will be able to guide the student through the “scary place” in a way that works. They MUST go through it if they are to sing with emotional freedom and authenticity but going through it can be quite unpleasant (as the sound isn’t lovely and the feeling is frightening. It should not be harmful, however, in any way). That’s why a teacher is very necessary.

The fight/flight mechanism is connected to this reflex. It operates when we are frightened. We breathe very shallowly or even hold our breaths. The hands and feet get cold and clammy, and the circulation goes to the core. The throat closes. We essentially freeze like a deer in headlights. Since performing can be very frightening, learning to adjust to the fear so that the throat does not close involves encountering the swallowing muscles and the gag reflex. You must learn, through diligent practice, to slow down the rate of inhalation/exhalation, lowering the heart rate, and harness the emotion through directed action.

If you do not understand this, read “Psyche and Soma” by Cornelius Reid. Then find a teacher who does and work with that person until you have worked through this “anxious” behavior yourself. Walk the talk.

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4 thoughts on “The Gag Reflex”

  1. So are you advocating this gag reflex as an aid to open throat? If the muscles just above the hyoid in front are pressed forward, you have the beginning of a yawn, beginning of a gag and an open throat…..would you agree and do you advocate this position?

    1. You can’t advocate for a gag reflex. Releasing the swallowing muscles allows the throat to open. This is done indirectly through vocal and breathing exercises. Your throat is “open” if you are not dead. Open is relative. In a yawn, the larynx rests low. In a swallow it rises. You can sing in either position but trying to deliberately move anything in the throat on purpose is always wrong. It happens in response to other stimuli.

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