Working Out? Working In!

The idea that vocal exercises are physical exercises is relatively new. That there is no “magic button”, no “find your voice by doing this”, is not one that most singing teachers generally accept. If you rely on breathing exercises or “placement” or “resonance” exercises to fix things, or you are a “vibration in the front” person, and things don’t get better using this as the primary approach, you are likely to blame the student for not trying hard enough, not caring, not hearing, having poor support etc., etc.

Register balance is a question of stabilizing vocal function that begins in the larynx. The vocal folds themselves must balance. That this is so is shown in the research done on my voice 20 years ago in Stockholm. A look at the EGG readings shows that the open/closed quotient in the folds was consistent and defined in each of the three vocal qualities examined: belty chest, mix, and “legit”/classical head. The airflow parameters, the acoustic parameters and the overall vocal quality was also consistent and different in each. Without understanding what’s going on in the larynx, you can’t really fix much of anything.

Further, since this function is well below anything that is conscious, the only tools one has to effect change is the sound itself, and the musculature above the larynx, most especially in beginners or non-skilled singers, the external muscles. The mouth/lips, jaw, face, head, neck, front of the tongue and torso/abdominal muscles can be monitored and controlled deliberately. The pitch, volume and the vowel itself are also deliberate choices. It is with these tools, and ONLY these tools, that we can “get at” the vocal folds over time.

The path of creating change deep within the larynx is complicated by unconscious constriction and deliberate constriction, most of which is also not understood by teachers (let alone singers). “Focus”, “point”, “ring”, “ping”, “zing”, “buzz” and “masque” are words that are euphemisms for TIGHTEN. It is necessary to develop great strength at the level of the vocal folds in order to resist significant amounts of air pressure from below in order to generate a high decibel level in order to carry over an orchestra. You cannot strengthen any muscle in the body without making it work. Muscles must be made to tighten (contract) and stretch (loosen) in order to have increased muscle tone.

It is therefore necessary for the vocal folds to be made very strong and how do you accomplish this if you are taught that it is FORBIDDEN to ever do anything that involves your throat? If there is no “good” constriction, you end up singing like Peggy Lee or Perry Como (a “crooner”). That’s great as long as you have a good sound system, but not so great if you want to sing over an orchestra without a microphone. Hence, classical vocalists constant return to “breath support” as a fix-all.

Constriction from pushing too hard to reach a note, from yelling, from forcing the voice in any way, is always a bad idea and can cause vocal and musical problems. This is usually just lack of skill and experience and can be eliminated with training. Constriction from emotional issues, however, is something else entirely, and matters.

If you “can’t spit it out”, if you “bite your tongue”, if you “didn’t speak up”, you “swallowed your feelings”, “got a lump in your throat”, “were unable to speak”, if the “cat got your tongue” or you “held it in”, you had to tighten your throat, suppress your breathing (hold your breath) and force your throat to stop moving to hold back your communication or emotion. If you do that enough times, over and over, the muscles in your throat will freeze up, stop moving and refuse to move, causing you to have “vocal problems”, sometimes severely. This is not the same as having a biological illness, diagnosed by a medical specialist, or losing your voice because you were screaming out the words to a heavy metal tune. This is an emotional/psychological problem that becomes physical and is very real. It is a psycho-neuro response and it will be absolutely resistant to going away until and unless the person with the problem addresses the unexpressed issues and deals with them. Sometimes, even after the emotions have been faced, the muscles have been so long in the constricted position that re-training is very frustrating and difficult. If, however, the singer is to go back to singing in a free manner, re-training is the only way out.

That we have to work on the voice to keep it balanced, healthy, responsive, functional and free is a new idea for many people, but it is a fact. Breathing must come along for the ride as well. There are no short cuts, no magic bullets and no “this always works” fixes, just discipline, patience, dedication, courage and will-power. Sounds like the rest of life, no?

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