“Relaxation” is a big word in training singers. This is so because it is typically too much muscle activity that causes vocal problems. Squeezing, tightening, pressing, holding, swallowing, choking, and generally constricting the sound is problematic because the vocal folds don’t do well this way. It also restricts airflow making it harder to breathe fully and connect to the body in a useful and direct way. Frequently the singing itself causes the problems but it can also be caused by using the speaking voice poorly or a combination of both things. This is called “hyper-function” meaning too much is going on.
There is, however, “hypo-function” which means that too little is happening. If all the muscles involved in producing voiced sound are barely responding — if they are atrophied, or underdeveloped — you can have just as much trouble, maybe even more. Who ever talks about “too little” happening? Instead, what gets attention is the counter tension that is caused by the lack of “tonicity” in the appropriate vocal and breathing muscles. If one group of muscles that should be working does not work the counter muscle groups will be tighter than they should be as a compensation. Asking for “relaxation”, however, in the case of someone who is hypo-functional is usually a waste of time.
A normal, viable voice is capable of getting a little louder and a little softer, going a little higher and lower and making a few different kinds of sounds without much fuss. This has nothing to do with musical function. It may be that the individual can’t stay on a specific pitch or make a nice resonant vowel sound consistently, but beyond that, the voice is neither particularly wonderful nor particularly bad. A hypo-functional voice, however, will have trouble being loud, being heard in a noisy environment. It will not be able to go up very high or down very low in pitch nor will it be able to sustain if used for a long period of time. Generally, it will be under-energized, dull, fuzzy and “flat-sounding” (not in pitch but in quality). This kind of voice needs to be encouraged to MOVE, not to relax.
It is, in many ways, much easier to help a hyper-functional voice because relaxation for this kind of speaker or singer is the best prescription. Any kind of “yawn-sigh”, “cooing”, soft easy sound making will help as long as it isn’t too high or too loud. Massage of external muscles, balance of posture and released easy breathing will be productive, as will small movements of the jaw, tongue and face. Of course, register balance is always in order, as it will help release deep laryngeal tensions, but working from the outside in is an easy way to begin and, in due time, this can assist finding a better balance of chest and head.
Hypo-function is much less direct. Movements have to be stimulated but not too quickly or too severely because doing so will cause vocal and physical fatigue. Further, those who are not used to making a normal amount of volume or doing extended movements of the muscles that are involved in voiced sound, don’t usually feel comfortable with either, which is likely part of what may have lead to the problem in the first place. I have also found in years of personal experience that such individuals may be shy or may just have grown up in an environment where “being loud” was considered rude and unacceptable. Sometimes hypo-function is caused indirectly because the person may have been ill while younger or perhaps was in a home where someone else was not well and had to be quiet for their sake. Finally, as various exercises begin to generate enough response in the muscles so as to create genuine movement and change in the system, the vocalist and the teacher will also encounter the tight muscles that have not been able to do their job because they were restricted by the muscles nearby being immobilized or collapsed.
Good vigorous vocal use is athletic. What does that mean, really? How can a voice be athletic? It can be athletic if it is making a high level of volume over a wide range of pitches with sustained duration because this will require vigorous breathing (use of the ribs and abdominal muscles) as well as muscle tone in the vocal folds, the pharyngeal space, the jaw, the lips, the tip of the tongue, the face, and muscles inside the back of the mouth. Relaxation in such a state is really “dynamic poise” meaning that everything is capable of moving freely without loss of stability and power but can function well in a simple and small way as well. Since most of the inner muscles are not directly controllable, getting to this kind of vocal equilibrium takes a while to accomplish.
Relaxation is a good thing but having a vital, energized voice is not just about being vocally “relaxed”. When the voice is balanced and comfortable, relaxation becomes responsiveness and expressiveness, and these behaviors help foster vocal health and stamina.
This isn’t a topic that most people address, let alone understand how to approach. If you need assistance, come to one of the Level I Somatic Voicework™ trainings. You can find the info on my website: www.thevoiceworkshop.com