Violations of Bodily Function

In keeping with yesterday’s post, it’s important to look at the body because if you sing you also have to look at bodily function. You might think you can override it, but you cannot.

The primary thing your body is going to do is breathe, or try to. It only takes about 5 minutes, maybe less, without air, to die. No one has ever committed suicide by holding his breath. We drown because we must breath. Further, while you can live without water for days and food for weeks you cannot override those processes either. People do die of both thirst and starvation. Will power aside, you can’t cause those behaviors to go away. Similarly, if you are on a desert island with no food, you will lose weight, regardless of genetic predisposition towards weight gain or any other factor.

If the vocal folds are in the throat to protect the lungs from foreign bodies (which is what science tells us is true) then all the theories about breathing for singing cannot violate that function. If you squeeze your throat for any reason, it will inhibit your ability to inhale easily and deeply, and that, in turn, will inhibit your ability to FEEL both emotion and sensation. If you keep squeezing your throat, over time that squeeze becomes chronic, and you get used to it. You don’t know your throat is squeezed. Your inhalation becomes shallower, your ability to relax decreases and, generally, you get used to a level of tension in your throat and breathing system that may never go away.

The throat closes when we are stressed. When we experience trauma, we go into shock. In shock, the body almost stops breathing, the blood flows to the core and away from the extremities and the throat closes (although not completely). If we are nervous, especially on a regular basis, then we are living with low-grade fear and that produces low-grade tension, particularly in the throat. In our society, who doesn’t have tension? Who doesn’t have some kind of low-grade tension, not just in the throat but throughout the body?

So, when people sing, it isn’t at all uncommon for them to sing through tight throats. It would be typical for someone who has had no training and isn’t particularly experienced vocally to sing with tension and consequently feel and sound pretty unpleasant. What if it were possible to get all that tension to let go? Would it be that you would automatically sound better if that were the case? How can we conclude otherwise?

The training process for singing, done properly over time, is supposed to (yes, supposed to) get rid of unwanted, unconscious tension until the throat itself is free to allow air in and out easily and without strain. Then training can help the muscles that make and affect sound to be both stronger and more responsive over time. This is done through vocal and breathing exercises, although most people put the emphasis on breathing just because that’s what they have been taught. If good strong breathing was the only requisite for singing, anyone who could breathe deeply and with control (like a deep sea diver who goes under water without a tank of air) would sing well. That’s not the case at all.

What if, however, you decided that you were going to use yourself as an example of singing, without any regard at all to the idea that “beautiful singing” was a good goal? What if you decided that ugly singing was the goal? Or that harsh, mechanical singing was the goal? What if you didn’t care about musical values or expressivity or authenticity? What if, you just decided to use yourself as an example of singing and then proceeded to decide that what you do others should also do? What if, in fact, you never really checked with anyone else before you went ahead and started telling others to do what you do, even if, unconsciously, you were singing over a constricted, swallowed sound?

Welcome to Voice Teacher Land.

If you behaved in that manner, you would be like many of the people who are out there teaching singing, based exclusively on their own vocal production. And, you would also be like all the other people who learned to mimic the sound of their teacher, regardless of how awful it might be, because you, too, had a constricted throat to begin with and the instruction felt familiar to you, somehow or other, in a way you couldn’t quite explain.

If you layer vocal instruction that deliberately manipulates the larynx over deeply buried chronic life constriction hiding within the throat muscles, you are building a crooked bridge on a faulty foundation. If you tell people to drive over that bridge as if it were straight you are asking them to create a “suspension of belief” and a kind of “circular thinking” and that is typical of both teachers of singing and singers when it comes to what is taught. This is what my teacher said to do so it must be right because, after all, he is my teacher, so  I do what he said. 

Methods that ask singers to deliberately manipulate or hold onto the muscles within the throat (aryepiglottic sphincter, false folds, pharynx, larynx) are violating bodily function. They inhibit breathing, they interfere with freedom, they restrict emotional authenticity and they prohibit truthful vocal quality from emerging. They are, simply put, wrong. No matter what a teacher of singing thinks he or she has discovered, if it violates what the vocal folds are programmed to do, it will never, ever be correct. 

If you are going to sing, first you have to get freedom of movement in the vocal system, including the muscles that are engaged in breathing. Then, you have to gradually build strength while maintaining flexibility over a wide range of pitches on various vocal qualities in all kinds of vowels at many levels of volume. Then you have to be able to add consonants for intelligibility. Then, you must have something to say as an artist. THEN you are singing as if your body was meant to do its job and also sing at the same time. Only then.

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2 thoughts on “Violations of Bodily Function”

  1. “If you layer vocal instruction that deliberately manipulates the larynx over deeply buried chronic life constriction hiding within the throat muscles, you are building a crooked bridge on a faulty foundation.”

    What a great statement! Great post as usual.
    -Michelle

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