Q&A - How to keep the larynx low
I understand that the larynx needs to remain in a slightly lowered position than normal speech for singing, which is generally achieved through deep inhalation. Some students really struggle to keep it stable as they ascend the scale. I think it just comes with time as your technique develops. Hence students must not go too high too soon. What is your opinion, and do you have any suggestions as to how this is achieved?
It is true the larynx should not rise while singing. But this has been confused to a certain degree into the belief that it should be low. It definitely should not be high. But how do we define what we mean by low, or slightly low.
What I mean is through a lack of coordination many people have a problem with the larynx rising when they vocalize. And as a natural reaction to that we have been told that the larynx should be low.
But these are all relative terms. When we use relative terms we are at risk of confusion because everyone is coming from a different history. For the person whose larynx rises when they sing it is accurate that we want the larynx to be lower. But how much? How low qualifies as “low”?
Then what about the singer who doesn’t have a problem with their larynx rising? When they are told that the larynx should be low, they then start trying to lower it because that is how it is “supposed” to be.
But when they deliberately lower the larynx they start throwing the musculature out of balance and create new problems. This happens in other areas of the vocal instrument as well. We are told that such-and-such should be a certain way, regardless of the condition it is starting from.
This is why we need to emphasize the fact that we are looking for balance. If we use this as our guide for every aspect of the vocal situation, rather than trying to do this or that because we are told that is correct, we will be much better off.
Whenever we are trying to figure out a solution to a problem we are best served by looking into the problem. Not looking for a solution. If we thoroughly understand the problem then the solution will reveal itself. But if we just go off looking for a solution without thoroughly understanding the problem we will be distracted from what is actually happening.
I feel the issue of the larynx position falls into this situation. We experience the larynx rising when we sing and it is uncomfortable. We are also told that it is not correct. So we go looking for how we can keep it “low”. But do we really understand what is happening when the larynx rises. Or do we just believe that it should not happen.
Why does the larynx rise when we sing? If we can identify the reason this happens we will find out how to remedy it. Let’s think about this for a minute. Do some experimenting as well. Feel what happens when it rises.
There is muscular activity involved in the act of producing sound with the larynx. There is also air pressure involved. Depending on the individual situation either of these can cause the larynx to rise. The muscles involved in swallowing often get involved in the phonating act. These will cause the larynx to rise. Even if these muscles don’t “help”, if the laryngeal muscles are too relaxed the air pressure needed to feed the vibration can cause the larynx to rise. If we investigate this we will find that in order for the larynx to not rise it needs a stabilizing force from the muscles that position the larynx.
So now we come to the inevitable question of “how”? How do we keep the larynx in a slightly lowered position? Well, it is not accomplished in the manner we are led to believe by “breathing the larynx down” or “feeling the beginning of a yawn”. These are just different variations of the same thing. They are attempts to deliberately control something that needs to happen naturally to be effective.
I have written about the answer many times, and maybe it will make more sense in this context. We keep the larynx from rising by using it. These other “techniques” may change the position of the larynx, but they don’t change the condition of the larynx. The larynx rises because it is not appropriately active while phonating. It is not actually being used. It still makes sounds. But it is not providing a balanced opposition to the air pressure to create a complete vibration.
We can’t keep the larynx from rising by holding it down or by “opening the throat”. It must stay down by doing its job. When the larynx is freely and truly functioning there is no tension in a negative sense. There is tautness, stretch and stability. This doesn’t happen when there is relaxation or a “feeling of nothingness” that we are often encourage to strive for. It does happen when we use the larynx as it is designed to be used.
The activation of the larynx when stimulated to phonate energizes the muscles in and around the larynx. These muscles stretch and pull in opposite directions to suspend the larynx in the neck to keep it stable in order to effectively resist the air pressure from the respiratory system. This air pressure is necessary to set the vocal folds into vibration. But if there isn’t a coordinated action by the muscles of the larynx it can seem like the air pressure is a problem. Problems appear when there is a lack of balance.
Another aspect to this situation is the fact that the larynx descends relative to the intensity of the phonation. If we are singing a gentle, intimate song like a lullaby the larynx will not take as low of a position as it will when singing a full intensity operatic aria. This is how the larynx behaves when being used naturally. It responds to what is needed.
I think we have gotten the impression that the larynx, as well as other parts of the vocal situation, should be a certain way and that is how they should always be. The vocal instrument is alive, unlike any other instrument. It has the ability to be flexible. It needs to have a natural response to our intention. It should not be fixated or static. It should be dynamic.
What this means is the nature of the expression should determine things. As I said above, the larynx position will be determined by the intensity of the expression. This is because as the expression increases in intensity there is a natural increase in air pressure. In order to keep a balanced relationship with this increase in air pressure the larynx will need to stabilize to a deeper position.
This counter-balancing needs to happen to not over-burden the vibrating vocal folds with more air pressure than they can handle in that position.
The simple answer to how we do this is to think of the larynx when we sing and not the mouth or the throat. This concept goes against much of what we are taught and what most people do. I have said many times that people tend to, unconsciously, associate the voice with the mouth because that is what they observe when others are speaking or singing. But if we remember that the voice is a musical instrument it can help us stay organized.
There is nothing in the mouth or throat that can produce tone. Tone production is accomplished through the vibration of the vocal folds which is amplified through the resonance of the pharynx. So we should focus our attention and skill on the coordination of the vibration in the larynx.
I associate this with the absurdity of a violinist trying to play their instrument anywhere other than on the strings. Or a trumpet player playing inside the bell. But essentially this is what singers are trying to do when their attention is at their mouth or the pharynx. They are trying to play their instrument inside the resonator.
Thinking, consciously or unconsciously, above the larynx in the mouth, throat or even head, will cause the larynx to have an insufficient stabilization and result in rising.
I hope this helps give a broader understanding of the situation. Thanks for your question.