Apr 14 2014

Q&A: Vocal Cord Resistance

I would like to inquire about resisting the breath with the vocal cords. I’m having difficulty with the image you give of resisting with the larger muscles first then without. Could you explain it in a more detailed way or in another way, I would like to pursue its study.
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This is a subtle concept and easy to over-do.

The reality is what you are asking is a fine skill that really requires personal guidance. But what I can tell you is some basic principles.

Resistance is a fundamental characteristic of any vibrating material. If you look at reeds, strings, drum heads – they all have the property of resistance. They have stiffness or tautness to provide resistance to a force.

It is this resistance to a force that causes them to vibrate. So for the vocal folds to vibrate they must have the property of resistance to the force of air pressure from the breathing system.

They create this property through stretching into elastic tautness. This elastic tautness resists the pressure of air in a balanced relationship so they vibrate, causing sound. Then the sound vibrations are amplified through the property of resonance of the vocal tract.

So as you can see the vibration of the vocal folds are the originating source of the sounds we make. And the vibration is dependent on the quality of resistance provided by the tissue of the vocal folds. This is why it is an important point of understanding.

The challenge is this resistance disappears when we exhale because the vocal folds open to allow the respiration to happen. Another challenge is there are several larger muscle groups around the larynx that can provide resistance to the air pressure. If these get involved they will interfere with the free functioning of the voice.

The key things to understand about the vocal folds is they are quite small, so they aren’t very noticeable. This is why a listener hears a good singer and thinks that it is just breath doing the singing. Another thing is the vocal folds adjust by thought, not by direct manipulation. So generally if we directly manipulate them we most likely will be bringing in larger muscles that interfere.

The best way to experience the different conditions is to vocalize three different ways. First, vocalize on a sigh. You should feel a free flowing of breath through the vocal tract with some vibration of the vocal folds creating some amount of sound.

Second, vocalize on a groan like you are in pain. You should feel the airway squeezing some and a sense of tight phonation. The vibration may get distorted and be like a vocal fry.

The third way to try is vocalize on a hearty laugh. Like the proverbial Jolly Man. You should notice that there is a generous bounce reflexively happening in the abdomen, which is why it is called a “belly laugh”. This is the reflexive breath compression.

Happening in coordination with the laugh reflex of the breath compression, there is a reflex of the vibration of the vocal folds. This reflex is the natural, automatic resistance of the vocal folds to create the natural vibration that originates the sound of the voice.

The purpose of exploring the over-resisting of the larger muscles that you asked about is to experience resistance. Because when it is balanced and reflexive we don’t feel the resistance. We don’t feel it because it is balanced.

And because of that most people end up just breathing out through the resistance. And never really find the balance that will free the voice and allow the comfort and enjoyment that we all are looking for.

This brings up an interesting issue that applies to all aspects of our coordination. It is well documented that what we are after is a condition of balance in the parts of the body involved in vocal function.

But what needs to be understood is what balanced means to our sensations. Like I said above, if something is balanced it will not be noticeable. So it stands to reason that if something is noticeable it is very likely not balanced.

This is at the heart of your question because this is why I have instructed people to experiment with doing too much – so we can notice it happening.

How can we learn to do something if we can’t experience it? And by definition if something is balanced it won’t really be experienced by itself.

This is really a major challenge to our development as skillful voice users. And this characteristic can be identified in all of the areas of our instrument.

For example, an open throat. If we have a feeling of an open throat that is very noticeable over the other aspects of the resonance system, then there is a possibility that it has gone too far and is out of balance. This is the problem with yawning to open the throat. This is why I often say an open throat is one that is not closed.

Another example is placement. It is correct for there to be the impression of resonance around the face. But if that resonance has become very noticeable there is a chance it is out of balance with the rest of the areas of resonance and may be the result of closing off another area to emphasize that one.

The sensations of resonance, when balanced, are rather subtle. Just like the sensation of glottal vibration, balanced breathing and every other aspect of vocal coordination. This is why, when balance is found, there is often a reaction by the singer that they are not doing enough.

And to the observer a balanced singer appears to be relaxed. But unfortunately for the singer it is not accomplished by relaxing, but by coordinating.

If you find this discussion interesting please Like and Share on Facebook and Twitter. And leave a Comment below. Thanks.

 

  1. Leaving a comment, as you asked. =) I always enjoy the discussions! Thanks for the blog.

  2. Bernard Keeffe

    May I add to you advice? I found that a happy sort of cry – “ah” when you see a lovely view or you find a long-lost book. But start with a gentle attack – this will make the link between the diaphragm and the larynx. You will feel the same connection lifting a heavy weight The muscles of the larynx are very strong – you couldn’t lift with their support.

    And when you have practiced the Ah, turn it into a sustained sound, still keeping the link with the diaphragm. These are autonomic actions – they happen within the body automatically Tightening the diaphragms muscle without the sound is pointless. There is a true link only when they function together.

  3. Bernard Keeffe

    I made a mistake – I meant to write:
    The muscles of the larynx are very strong – you couldn’t lift a heavy weight without their support.

  4. Thank you, Bernard, for your insights. The automatic reflex is exactly what we are going for. Although I would warn against going so far as lifting a heavy weight. It is fine for getting the feeling initially but we would want to moderate it for actual singing. Otherwise we risk getting stiff and rigid. We want to stay flexible.

  5. Carl-Johan Falk

    Hi!
    I just stumbled over your page and I read it with great interest.
    I’m in need of more breathing exercises. I’m a father of two small children with all what that includes of carrying and so on, so I think these exercises would need some help from more physical exercises.
    Do you have any suggestions?

  6. Thanks for your interest, Carl-Johan. I am of the opinion that exercises are not the answer to our challenges. Understanding the nature of the instrument is. Exercises are only there as a way to provide necessary repetition to master aspects of coordination that will overcome our challenges. My advice is to keep researching here to best understand how your body works as a musical instrument. Any one part without the others will never be satisfactory. So breathing without a thorough understanding of vibration will ultimately fail. In the near future I will have even more specific resources to help with that process. Make sure to sign up and join the Community to be notified and have access when they become available. Thanks again.

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