Undoing Stuck Throats

There are all kinds of ways to sing. Depending upon the voice, the artist and the style, there are an unlimited number of ways to make vocal sound. Not every sound that is pretty and musical would be “good” and not every sound that is ugly or unmusical would be “bad”. Unless you had pretty sophistically tastes, knowing what was OK and what was not in every style, you may not even know the difference, and if you did, that would be an unusual capacity to have.

Please play along with me here. The idea is that we ware going to talk about an American Songbook vocalist, someone whose voice would typically be mellow, sweet and flexible. Perhaps this gives us a ballpark about the kind of sound and singing we are discussing.

If someone has only sung American Songbook material, and has not had any formal vocal training, and has never had any vocal problems but is musical and has a decent voice, it could be that she could sing at a relatively successful professional level for her entire career in just that fashion. But, if such a person decides she wants to “improve” her singing or vocal technique, what kind of options are available? Go study with someone who teaches opera? Go study with a speech coach? Go take yoga classes? Where would such a person go?

Suppose they found YOU, and you were a teacher who had some kind of awareness of how to work with jazz vocalists. Suppose you had given the vocalist several lessons and found that, in every way, this person couldn’t really change very much about what she was doing. Suppose you just couldn’t get anywhere in terms of addressing vocal technique. What would you do? Send her to another teacher? Tell her she was hopeless and advise her to stop taking lessons? Assume she was untalented and recalcitrant?

If this woman persisted, did not want to give up, did not want to study with someone else, and really seemed to be cooperating by practicing every week just as you had asked, what could be going on that would make things just not change?

A lot.

Almost all of what we hear as singing is anchored in muscular activity. The vocal folds are ligaments, the rest of the soft tissue in the throat is muscle. Only the larynx is cartilege and the hyoid bone is bone. The front of the roof of the mouth and the jaw are bone, and of course, the teeth are hard enamel.

Healthy muscles have good “tone”. That means that they can expand and contract through a range of movement easily and that the joints of the bones that the muscles interface with can also move easily and well. This is only possible if the muscles are moved, over time, through a range of movements that are challenging, taking the muscles just past where they are comfortable, using a small amount of exertion to coax them into new responses. We all know that you can’t get better at a physical activity without making the muscles move.

In a throat, that means that all the structures that effect sound have to be stretched and strengthened. That would include the muscles of the face, the mouth, the lips, the jaw, the tongue, the back of the mouth (soft palate), and the throat (pharynx) and the larynx itself (vocal folds). It would also include the postural muscles of the chest, the upper back, the middle back, the intercostals (ribs), and all of the abdominals.

If the muscles have not moved much, they can literally be stuck together. The fascia or connective tissue may not do what it was intended to do, which is slide between one muscle and another, allowing both muscles to move independently. The “stuckness” means that when one muscle moves it cannot help but drag its nearby neighbor along and that, of course, makes for much difficulty. If, however, a small amount of provocative movement is done for enough time, repeatedly, the muscles will finally free themselves from each other, and then each muscle will be released to stretch and contract, allowing them to develop “tone”. Such stretching and moving may not be exactly pleasant when it is first begun, but it doesn’t have to be painful either.

If the tongue doesn’t move much, the jaw doesn’t open (drop down) much, if the mouth cannot make and hold various shapes, if the head doesn’t align with the neck and the neck with the torso, the larynx will not be able to release. If the muscles of the body are still, and the inhalation is shallow, the larynx cannot float freely in the throat, and the sound will be nearly impossible to “support”. The way to cause movement in stuck muscles is with exaggerated behaviors. You have to go outside the comfort zone. You cannot do this quickly unless you want to hurt something. Muscles take time to respond. There is a reason why dancers, gymnasts, musicians, weight lifters, and athletes take years to gain the skill and physical process they require. Understanding that your leg needs to reach to your head is great, but it takes years of stretching for hours and hours to make that possible.

Training someone to sing with “new” vocal technique means taking the vocalist to an unfamiliar place. A good singing teacher coaxes a sound out of the vocalist that has never before been uttered, such that the vocalist will exclaim, “Gosh, I never heard myself make that sound before. That was weird”! Other than that, what’s left is to sing what you already sing, higher/lower, louder/softer, and maybe get more precise in pronouncing or using the words. Massage helps, but not all the vocal muscles involved can be reached manually. Visualization helps, but it is vague and gives little feedback when dealing with the throat. Singing material that you don’t usually sing can help, as long as it isn’t too far away from home base for too long.

In the end, you have to stimulate movement and response. You have to take our vocalist away from what she is used to doing in her American Songbook rep and get her to make new sounds, new shapes, new positions and gradually work with the new freedom in her style. If you are lucky, her singing will be more itself. She will sound “enhanced” but not really “different”.

Undoing a stuck throat is very important, very tricky, time consuming, and often frustrating for both teacher and vocalist. It is, however, also very rewarding, very necessary, and often full of lovely surprises.

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