The Larynx Has To Move

The idea that the larynx should stay down at all times is incorrect. The idea that laryngeal stability is produced by keeping the larynx from moving is wrong. The idea that the larynx should be held down is dangerous. Yet, these ideas are very popular in current classical vocal pedagogy circles. They even show up in CCM circles.

Why would they have become so prominent? Because when voice science came along it was possible to observe that classical singers seem to be singing consistently with the larynx resting rather low in the throat. This observation was accurate. Mostly, that’s what they do. The problem was that the result was viewed as a cause and the response was viewed as deliberate rather than indirect.

Perhaps this was also influenced by the influx of teachers of singing from Germany and Austria to New York during World War II. These teachers brought their Germany vowels with them and the influence of them would have been to have the larynx be more down than not. There were a lot of them on the faculties of Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music and perhaps also other university conservatories in the USA. This is just a guess and could be wrong, but clearly, this observed phenomenon seemed significant and became a very popular idea.

A low larynx makes the vocal tract long. The length makes it larger and the largeness gives the lower frequencies a boost, making any vowel “darker”, “warmer” and “fuller”. That would seem to be a good thing, in classical singing at least. The problem with a low larynx, however, is that it can get to be too low (Vennard called it depressed). This causes all sorts of problems, both functional and musical.

The first rule of singing training is FREEDOM. If you can’t sing freely, something is wrong. Tones that do not allow natural movement in the mechanism are not optimal. There are times when stability is in order but when that stability becomes rigidity, then there is trouble. The larynx, after all, is a sinovial joint and what joint functions well when it can’t move? Keeping the larynx in a depressed position shuts off expression, makes for a wooden sound, causes tension on high notes up to and including them closing off entirely, and generally makes for poor pronunciation. It makes brilliance in the tone nearly impossible.

At first, especially if the voice is organized to be very “forward” and “ringy” a lowered laryngeal position might be good. It would warm up the tone and make it seem to be “rounder”, but after a while, if freedom is not emphasized at all times, the freedom would go away. It would also promote a certain amount of volume, but it could become fatiguing and can absolutely cause the pitches to be slightly flat or even very flat, despite the vocalist’s desire to remain on pitch.

The vowels that come out of the Italian language seem to be the ones that lend themselves to classical singing most readily. They are bright, and they carry well without effort. The language, Italian, sits very differently in the throat, and it doesn’t take as much work to produce sounds that are clear and vibrant.

When Luciano Pavarotti arrived on the opera scene in New York decades ago, one of the most common criticisms of his still young voice was that it was “too bright”. Clearly, his voice was certainly  bright, but not too bright. It was thrilling, and free, and strong, and consistent, and highly expressive. I seriously doubt he was striving to keep his larynx down on purpose. The kind of sound made by Corelli and Tebaldi is hard to find now in classical singing, even in Italians. The late Salvatore Licitra’s voice bordered on woofy and had problems while he was still in the prime of his life and career. If you want to know what this is like, go to the link here.

Ms. Ponselle’s larynx is “low” but she isn’t keeping it down on purpose. It’s also not low when it needs to be and I am certain she never thought about any of that. The larynx remains low because the vowels are consistent and the air pressure is steady and because the registration is balanced. The position of the larynx is adjusted by the tone quality and the volume and nothing else. It tilts a bit and perhaps rises slightly on high notes, and that allows the vocal tract to shorten and widen, and the tongue to adjust in the back of the mouth, for the purposes of both comfort and expressiveness.

If you have been taught to “keep your larynx down” or “never allow the larynx to move”, remember that we don’t feel the larynx nor the vocal folds. If you are busy trying to feel the larynx, you are causing yourself trouble. If you have to work hard to sing high notes, especially if they are soft; if you have to struggle to get the consonants to be articulate; if you can’t easily brighten the sound, if you have to open your mouth very wide and drop the jaw way down to sing a sustained loud tone, be aware, you may be singing with your larynx down too far and have too much pressure on it. If you also go flat, if you have been told that your sound is “muffled” or “too far back”, be suspicious! What you want is to sing with natural sound, vibrantly free and unique, and with great EXPRESSIVITY. Keeping your larynx down (or way up, equally problematic) isn’t good and you can’t fix it by deciding that you are going to just stop. You have to work it free until it finds a balanced place on its own.

Remember, the proof is in the singing. If your teacher sounds woofy, stuck, and boringly the same, change teachers. Keeping your larynx down on purpose is just simply a bad idea.

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2 thoughts on “The Larynx Has To Move”

  1. Excellent post, Jeannie. I like, especially, that you call attention to cause and effect and the nature of Italian vowels. There is a great difference between having an ear for a sound and then feeling what happens when you make that sounds vs manipulating the musculature to make that sound.

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