Last Tuesday I attended a voice workshop for members of Rackham Symphony Choir, and boy, did it give me a lot to think about as a singer! It was run by Vicki Bigelow, a fine soprano, long-time voice coach at Marygrove College, and doctoral candidate in higher education at the University of Michigan. She pulls a lot of inspiration from the late, great Richard Miller, who is not unfamiliar to me as he once visited Bowling Green State while I was a student there.
Anyway, here’s the best piece of vocal wisdom that came out of it:
Trust your larynx.
Your larynx is the only organ in your body that can reach the note.
Not your tongue, not your jaw, not your sinuses, not your diaphragm, not your cheeks, not your eyebrows…NOTHING else in your body does this.
So when you’re trying to reach the right note, it does no good to smile, arch your brows, tighten up in the throat or neck, or anything like that, because NONE of those organs have the responsibility for affecting pitch. Only your larynx does. And all it needs to do its job is the breath that fuels it from below…WAAAAY below, as low as the lumbar and pelvic floor region of the torso, according to Vicki.
Very few of us are present to the unconscious little twitches and adjustments we make in our bodies to try and assist the larynx with its job. Often what it takes is to look at ourselves in the mirror from all angels, or to physically grab the jaw, feel the base of the tongue at the throat, and feel the back of the neck to get a sense of where the tension is.
It’s incredibly subtle.
But when you get those pesky muscle twitches to calm down and get out of the way of your larynx, you will discover all the things that this extraordinary organ can do. All you will need is for your brain to project where you want the voice to go and your breath to open up really low and with intention. From there, you can let your larynx go to work with nothing but the flow of breath from the isometric resistance in the torso (right around the area of the lowest rib), and your sound will soar to great heights.
And your BRAIN can’t get in the way, either! At any moment when you think, “I can’t do that,” or “Oh God, my voice is gonna crack,” or “I have to do XYZ if I’m gonna make it that high/that long,” you’re not trusting your larynx. You will short-circuit the system. That brain signal will interfere with the larynx by making everything around it stiffen with apprehension. And whatever you’ve told yourself (however subconsciously) WILL come true.
I was lucky to test this theory at a Friday gig at Stony Creek Roadhouse. I was to sing a bunch of acoustic covers ranging from Dusty Springfield to the Beatles to Adele and everything in between for about four hours, so I couldn’t afford to have any physical tension getting in the way of my singing. I would tire from fatigue on top of all the high notes I would miss.
So I just let it all go…I released whatever was there, over and over again, and any time I didn’t just simply feed the larynx with breath, I got in trouble! I found myself smiling, “covering,” and tensing in all the ways I was used to doing to get the sound right. But the times when I just let my larynx work…boy, did it work. I even felt those moments of oblivion when the resonance goes right to the top of your head and you jump out-of-body for a split second. (I’m seriously not kidding about going out-of-body during singing; that’s how I know I’m on the right track.)
And at the end of the night, I wasn’t hoarse! Tired, but not down for the count. I felt like I had sung a full concert, which is exactly how it should feel. You shouldn’t feel like your throat got run over by a truck.
I’m thinking of that old 70’s song: “All I need is the air that I breathe…” That is the theme song of your larynx. Its needs are more simple than we think. Yes, it’s delicate and yes, you have to take care of it. But when it’s on stage and in the spotlight, it doesn’t need much of anything.
Many thanks to Vicki Bigelow and her workshop for the valuable vocal wisdom!