How The Voice Works
Click “Read More” to see a diagram of the Larynx depicting every detail.
“Before we can sing from the soul, we should have a basic knowledge of how the voice works and a solid technique with which we can express anything we desire, in any way we desire.”
Role of the Larynx
What is the larynx, you ask? Feel the front of your neck. Swallow! That’s it! The lump that you feel rising and falling in the front of your neck is your larynx. Within the larynx reside the vocal cords, or vocal folds, tiny soft membranes that are connected towards the front of the larynx and continue back.
When air ascends up the trachea from the lungs, the cords are set into vibration. When they approximate, or close, the back ends of the vocal folds come together. Sound is created when the vibrations from airflow hit the cavities of the mouth, sinus, head and chest. The resulting resonance gives us the TONE.
In singing, the larynx should remain relatively inactive. It will rise and fall ever so slightly when adjusting to pitch, but should stay out of the way! You may have heard singers with a “twangy” sound or a “shallow” sound. This is a result of the larynx rising too high. You may hear singers with a “hollow” sound, or a sound like they have a mouth full of food or a hot potato in the back of the throat! This means that the larynx is pushed down. When singing properly, the larynx will feel like it is at “Speech Level.” There is no sensation of strain – no sensation of muscles being used by the throat to produce the sound. When the larynx remains inactive – stays out of the way – the vocal folds themselves can do their part to produce a proper tone.
If the vocal cords, or vocal folds, are sitting horizontally in your larynx, how is pitch made?
Have you ever seen someone play the guitar? How is the pitch made?
Have you noticed that as the pitches ascend, or get higher and higher, the guitarist places the fingers of his left hand on the string and “shortens” the length of that string as he strums with his right hand? The same with the violin! The violinist does the same as he bows with his other hand!
Have you ever looked at the strings of the piano? The lower notes have longer, thicker strings. The higher notes have shorter, thinner strings.
With the voice, the higher the pitch, the more the vocal (membrane) cord stretches and thins. When the cord thins to its maximum, something amazing happens! It “shortens.” Only the front end of the cord is used to produce the tone! The cords can then vibrate at a faster rate. BUT, for this to happen, there must not be any strain in the muscles around the cords and the muscles of the neck.
Vocal cord approximation: Closure of the cords
If your tone is breathy, your vocal cords aren’t closing properly. It’s as simple as that!
There are many reasons why this may be the case, so it is advisable to seek a doctor’s advice. Have a laryngoscopy and see exactly what the cords are doing, and why. You many have abused your voice by screaming, or by singing when sick and your cords were swollen. You many have abused them by singing improperly. You may have abused them so badly that you have polyps or nodules and have damage so traumatic that you need surgery.
When I was a young performer singing in Germany, I came down with a terrible flu, affecting my entire upper respiratory system. The doctors told the theater that I should be in bed! Unfortunately, we had a premiere that night of an operetta called “The Merry Widow” and they had let my understudy go to perform in another city. They were stuck! The doctors told the theater management that if they made me sing, I would not be able to emit a sound for at least 3 weeks. I wouldn’t be able to rehearse the new production opening in a month, nor would I be able to perform any other operas! Well, they were in a bind and made me perform. I tried to be as careful as I could, but I ended up on vocal rest for 3 months afterwards! I was not even allowed to speak! (Boy, was that hard!) I was young and didn’t realize that could have damaged my voice permanently. I was so grateful that my voice was restored and vowed never to take that chance again, even if it meant breaking my contract!
Crossing the Bridges (or passagi) seamlessly
In Italian, a vocal bridge is called a passagio, a passage. From what and to what, you ask? From one vocal register to another. From chest voice to head voice, from head voice to super head voice and from super head voice to whistle tone! The amount of head voice and chest voice you blend on any given tone is referred to as the registration of the vocal cords.
If you speak emphatically or scream, chances are that you’re using your chest voice. If you sing a scale VERY loudly and continue singing up the scale, at some point your voice will break into a yodel. This is your chest voice breaking into head voice without any transition. In proper singing, the bridge or transition or passagio must be seamless, smooth and imperceptible.
To cross from one bridge to another, you must mix head voice into the sound. You “lighten” the registration as you ascend.
VOCAL CORDS make their adjustments horizontally. Resonance is vertical.
The tongue and lips are not only good for kissing, but also for articulating words! In singing, we must articulate without constriction, no squeezing or straining the neck muscles or raising or lowering the larynx! Again, the larynx should remain in neutral position, relaxed, neither too high or too low.
To increase breath capacity and regulate the rate of exhalation
1. Stand with your legs a bit wider than shoulder with apart.
2. Bend your knees to protect the back.
3. Bend over and exhale completely.
4. Ask a friend or colleague to put his or her hands on your lower back at your waist.
5. Now, inhale very slowly with a narrow air stream, as if you were sucking through a straw.
6. Feel the air pushing your friend’s hands apart, and your waist getting very wide.
7. Once you achieve this feeling of the expansion in the lower back (the stomach will also protrude a bit as you expand), begin to inhale slowly to the count of 5.
8. Hold the breath for 5 seconds, and then exhale for a count of 10.
9. Gradually increase the count until you inhale for 10 beats and exhale for 25 beats!
You can do it! There are reports of divers who have held the breath for over two minutes!
In singing, we want to delay the inward movement of the ribs as long as possible. Feel your ribs and waist staying “down and out.”
Commonly asked questions:
What should I do if my larynx rides up and constricts my tone?
A quick way of releasing the larynx so it can gently return to speech level or neutral position is to imitate Sylvester Stallone’s speech and say, “Yo! I’m Rocky!” Stallone has a naturally low larynx in his speech production. If you sound like a Munchkin from “The Wizard of Oz,” your larynx is too high!
Commonly overlooked obstacles to vocal health:
Have you ever woken up in the morning and have a scratchy voice? Or woken up with lots of mucus? You may be allergic to the world! The culprits may be:
Food Allergies: You may have negative responses or allergies to various foods including dairy or wheat products, producing excessive mucus in the body. If you wake up with reflux or swollen vocal chords, try eliminating suspected foods from your diet one at a time and see if your symptoms are alleviated.
Environmental Chemicals and Pollutants: Hidden chemicals and out-gassing from chemicals used to manufacture many products may be negatively impacting your ability to phonate easily. Did you know that many household cleansers contain ammonia? Did you know that many products such as new carpeting, paint, antiperspirant, new clothes, shampoos, air fresheners, mouthwash, disinfectants, glues, mail polish, plywood and many more contain formaldehyde? Check labels and be vigilant about your exposure to toxic chemicals.
Drinking: “How can I party without drinking?” you ask! Consider this! Alcohol dilates your blood vessels. This means that your vocal membranes are thickened or swollen. To your vocal cords, it’s as if you are sick. For vocal health, minimize alcohol consumption. If you must drink, try not to talk!!! Also make sure that you drink lots of water.
Smoking: I know, I know! You want to continue smoking! Know that you’ll pay a heavy vocal price!
Eat Right for Your Type, Dr. Peter D’Adamo
The Total Health Handbook, Dr. Allan Magaziner