My friend Toni sent me an email with this eloquently expressed plea for understanding:
“I still don’t anatomically understand why as you go up the register your throat starts closing. I keep telling [my teacher] that I am so longer able to sing that high but she keeps telling me to open my throat. I keep trying to open my throat but it still seems to elude me. The higher I get my throat just starts closing up and I feel like I am straining. What to do? It is really frustrating and I feel that I am in a sort of conundrum. FRUSTRATING!!!!!!!”
Can’t you just feel Toni’s frustration? Probably most singers can relate to this issue, which is one of the central challenges of learning to sing: how to maintain an open throat throughout your entire range and at all volume levels.
Let’s start by clearing up possible misconceptions. First, the feeling of an open throat is largely an illusion. What you are feeling when you sing with an “open throat” is the absence of constricting tension. I’m sure that we all experience that lack of tension differently, but for me, it feels as if a passageway several inches wide has opened up in my larynx. Obviously, there is not room in there for anything several inches wide to take place; the minute muscular adjustments that take place when I sing well — probably on the order of millimeters of movement — create the illusion of a huge cavern opening up.
We get into vocal trouble when we try to create this huge cavern on our own. This brings me to a second misconception: you cannot open your throat. The muscles are simply not under your conscious control. . .you may as well try to beat your heart. That doesn’t mean that you can’t affect their operation; we’ll get to how to do that shortly. But if you try to open your throat, you will just contract some muscles in your throat that produce a feeling of opening. It is highly unlikely that this approach will bring about the subtle adjustments of the arytenoid and other muscles that truly “open the throat.”
Trying to feel your way into an experience involving involuntary muscles is pointless. Until you experience the new coordination, you won’t know what it feels like. I have been hugely surprised at a number of milestone voice lessons to find that singing correctly felt NOTHING like what I had expected — so different, in fact, that I may as well have called the other activity I’d been aiming at something other than “singing.” It’s hard to express the degree of self-delusion that arises in these situations. It’s a little like finally meeting someone you’ve only spoken to on the phone and finding out that they look nothing like what you’d been picturing.
Anyway, if you’ve not yet sung with an open throat, trust me: you can have NO IDEA what it feels like. Trying directly to do what you suspect open throat feels like will get you frustrated. (See Toni’s heartfelt outburst, above.) You must indirectly stimulate an open-throated response from your voice — preferably with the help of a functionally oriented teacher. This process requires the clever use of the vocal registers in “tricking” your vocal organs into a new coordination. Since Nature loves balance and ease, once your system has experienced a better coordination, it will be more likely to gravitate towards that in the future.
Recoordinating your registers is beyond the scope of a blog posting, but let’s examine the process briefly. First, we must establish that in well-coordinated singing, the two registers (chest voice and falsetto/head voice) oppose each other in an equilibrium of delicately balanced tensions. One of the functions of the chest voice mechanism is to keep the throat open. It does this easily in your low range because the falsetto is only gently engaged here. But as you rise higher and higher, the chest voice mechanism must brace against an increasingly vigorous falsetto action, as the vocal cords are stretched thinner and thinner as you ascend.
If your chest voice is not sufficiently strong to maintain its pull against the falsetto for your high notes, your throat will shut down. Alternatively, other, less appropriate muscles will get involved to try to force your throat to stay open. As you can imagine, this creates constricting tensions, making your sound as effortful as it feels. Another possibility is that your chest voice is strong enough, but poorly coordinated, so that constricting tensions that were not noticeable in your low range because of the relatively lower tension requirements become amplified in your high range to the point of making you uncomfortable. In all these cases, you need to recoordinate and/or strengthen your chest register.
Chest register development normally begins on low notes, where this register is most easily accessible. Often, we will want to start by isolating the chest register from the falsetto momentarily, to make sure it works well. We can elicit chest register response by choosing patterns of pitch, loudness, and vowel conducive to it: loud single tones using the [ah] vowel on low notes are perfect.
Once the registers are working well independently, we choose other patterns of pitch-loudness-vowel to encourage them to work together. I often use octave leaps from loud low notes to quiet high notes on [ah] for this purpose, although the possibilities are nearly endless. (In this particular exercise, developed in many variations by Cornelius Reid, starting on the low range and singing on [ah] elicit the chest voice. Going to the higher note more quietly, but with rhythmic spontaneity, brings in more head voice without, we hope, knocking out the chest voice action.) As the teacher, I continually monitor the student’s sound to discern whether the desired coordination has been achieved, altering my approach as we go on in response to what is actually happening. (This takes a highly sensitive ear as well as experience in knowing what registrational situations different vocal sounds indicate. That is why I am not going to recommend that you try this on your own. Also, on your own you will likely be too strongly influenced — and misled — by how it all feels.)
Thank you, Toni, for giving me the opportunity to revisit this crucial singing issue. . .and good luck!