Vocal Constriction - Causes and Cures

The healthy voice is a free voice, with range, power, flexibility, resonance, expressive and articulate. A vocal tone which is devoid of these qualities is often indication of a poor physical and emotional condition.

The foundations of vocal technique are posture, breathing and diction. A degree of muscular tension is required because singing is hard work and effort is necessary. However, tension which is surplus to requirements is detrimental to vocal tone. This often manifests itself in a tight tone which is lacking in colour and control. It does not pitch reliably, tires quickly and is prone to injury and infection.

This constriction may result in a tight jaw and stiff tongue, imparing articulation. Breathing is noisy and effortful and the tone is breathy, because the singer cannot control its' flow. Lacking effective abdominal support the larynx rides high and is inflexible. Finally the pharyngeal constrictors, responsible for the action of swallowing food, remain in a state of tension which robs the voice of resonance and projection. When speaking or singing the individual may be aware of the 'lump in the throat' feeling induced by globus pharyngitis. This is a result of the inability to relax the inferior constrictor muscle. The proper co-ordination and synergy of laryngeal muscles might be so impared that an isometric contest sets in which results a a choked tone. It is possible to sing with excessive effort by maintaining a high laryngeal position and with all laryngeal sphinctors constricted. However, greater sub-glottic air pressure and flow is needed; the singer must allow the breath to sit higher in the chest, by disengaging the larger, powerful abdominal muscles. To compensate the smaller muscles of the shoulder and neck must work harder. This results in a change in behaviour of the supraglottic resonators. The tone has a "honky" constricted quality, commonly attributed to nasal singing - but the constriction is oro-pharyngeal in origin.

Lacking power and support, the singer fatigues, strains and develops a sore throat. Vocal injury is highly likely. The end result of oversinging is an uncentred tone, a grossly wide vibrato and an inability to control the voice across the primo passaggio.

Singing Without Constriction and Harmful Tension.

It is essential that a singer applies a good technique with correct posture, proper breath control and good diction. The starting point is a singer's posture. Poor posture quickly affects quality, volume, pitch and resonance. Good spinal alignment is essential. Tension in the shoulders and neck quickly affect the larynx, tongue and jaw. The posture should allow free muscular movement for voice and breathing. In order to remedy existing faults exercises for whole body relaxation and exercises for the upper body and neck may be necessary. Such exercises were used by Lionel Logue (King George VI's speech therapist). The same exercises are still in currency today because they are effective.

In order to establish a 'proud', tension-free, posture, I use exercises to improve spinal movement and flexibility of the rib-cage; exercises to release tension in the shoulders and neck and a gentle massage of the big temporomandibular joint releases a stiff lower jaw. Finally, exercises which release, relax and medialise the tongue, improve vocal timbre and resonance. A sequence of five exercises only takes five minutes.

The second foundation of good vocal technique is breathing. Whilst no two singers will use exactly the same breathing technique, the principles that create a reliable and efficient breath technique are the same. They are exemplified in the Italian appoggio technique.

Appoggio is a system which combines good posture and muscular effort to create resonance which the singer can feel in the facial cavities (sinuses and mouth) or on the chest wall. A proud posture is created and sustained , with the shoulders in a raised but relaxed position and the sternum in a prominent posture. The breath taken is deep, placed low in the back, and helps to support the proud posture: the posture in return, helps to control the breath. Good co-ordination of muscular activity in the shoulders, chest, abdomen and back is obtained. It also stops the singer from using too little or too much breath. The principal role of the breath is to create space which produces and sustains a resonant tone.

Not all singing teachers advocate pupils to breathe, it seems unneccessary to teach what is a vegetative function and takes time away from the core activity. I believe that it is necessary because poor breathing habits produce poor tone; the complex relationship of voice and breath is not well understood - the voice does not behave in a linear fashion whereby increased air pressure produces a louder tone and raises pitch. The voice does not behave like a recorder.

Principals of Good Breathing.

  1. A good and relaxed posture.
  2. Optimum inspiratory action.
  3. Development of breath control (optimum expiratory action).
  4. A silent breathing action which is free from tension.
  5. An ability to monitor and control inspiration and expiration; finding the right amount of breath for each phrase.
  6. keeping the chest tension free.
  7. the use of appoggio principles when singing.

What exactly is good diction? Good diction has clarity, fluency, range and expression, energy and intelligibility. Good diction is a muscular habit which must be practiced in order to sustain optimum vocal use. A person has good diction if their speech is clear and can be easily understood. A dialect can therefore, in the appropriate setting be good speech. It is the sine qua non of communication. Often quoted is Pacchierotti's statement, "Pronunciate chiaramente, ed il vostro canto sara perfetto." (Pronounce clearly and your singing will be perfect.) This is a basic tenet of the bel canto school. Mechanistically speaking, good diction relaxes and opens up the vocal tract; it releases and medialises the tongue and encourages the pharyngeal constrictor muscles to disengage - the singer is not liable to swallow whilst breathing and singing - focus is gained by the action of articulation because most of the consonants are created with the tip of the tongue, the teeth and the lips. Diction is impaired by tension in the neck and the shoulders, which causes both a pushed and strident vocal quality and a strong bleat. Diction requires a good breathing habit in order to prepare the vocal tract for use. If a singer is pushing the voice, then they are not breathing and supporting correctly, at the other extreme lies breathy speech which shows an inability to control the breath, which floods the voice. For clarity and articulatory precision, the lips, tongue, soft palate and pharynx must be mobile. Measurements taken from recordings of the spoken and sung voice confirm that the energy and duration of consonants must be raised when singing in order to match the increased energy of the vowels on which the voice is carried. Strong diction allows the singer to access the singers' formant which enables the singer to achieve projection of tone. The oro-pharyngeal cavity and laryngeal cavity co-operate, in order to produce the singers formant. Articulatory speed is not as important as clarity, to begin with, but it is a long-term consideration and requires articulatory mobility, which is gained through purposeful repetition.

Projection of tone and text will require practise, because we have to combine in a musical fashion, vowels on which we sing and on which the melody is carried, and consonants which are noisy because they interrupt the melody, however they are necessary in order to achieve intelligibility. At the same time we want to give the impression that this action is natural or artistic. Singing is not natural and it is artistic and artistry is artificial. The paradox is this: in order to create an impression of naturalness the singer has to study and master the action of artifice, and learn the tricks of the trade which facilitate easy production. One underlining reason is the law of temporal summation. Temporal summation is the relationship between stimulus duration and intensity when the presentation time is less than 1 second. In order to reach the threshold of human hearing an acoustic event must be longer than 250 milliseconds or else higher in amplitude. Vowels are louder and longer than consonants , so consonants must be reinforced in order for them to be audible. Singers must reinforce their consonants in order to achieve projection on the stage. That involves a greater effort in terms of articulation and a well coupled oropharangeal orifice and laryngeal orifice. To articulate with the necessary energy and space will not feel natural to begin with.

Vocal Placement

When acoustic output of the voice reaches an appropriate threshold of audibility there is a perception of nasality to the singer. (This is not apparent to the listener!) The pitch of the second and third formants in the voice are also shifted downwards, making projection easier. Lilli Lehmann depicted this action of good placement using the following drawings in her book 'Meine Gesangskunst'. A singer who does not place the voice forward 'into the mask' is more likely to sing with an imbalanced tone, with a 'honky' or 'nasal' sound which can be heard by the audience but not by the singer. The source of constriction is likely to be lower in the vocal tract. The drawing shows the link between the chest register and resonance or vibration felt on the chest, a passaggio event at E4-F4 and the link between the tones of head register and resonance or vibration felt in the sinuses. Such a powerful metaphor has been an important teaching aid for many years - because it is effective!

Nasal occlusion is useful as a means to undoing pharyngeal tension which occur as a result of poor support. It simulates upper airway pressures achieved during high-intensity exercise. It can help resolve problems related to constriction, inability to pitch properly and unbalanced resonance. It is mentioned in William Vennard's book 'Singing, the Mechanism and Technique', but it is not widely enough used and many singing teachers remain ignorant as to it's efficacy.

I was introduced to the exercise 30 year's ago, when tuition from an inept singing teacher rendered me amost voiceless. Together with the 'hum on the tongue' it was used to restore support, balanced resonance and overall vocal stability.

It seems to work by introducing a deliberate constriction at the top of the vocal tract, which raises upper airway pressure, releases constriction at the laryngeal level. It would probably be the case that high-intensity aerobic exercise would have the same impact.

It is never a waste of time to practise a song without pitch, by learning the words and the delivery of the words, that is, the rhythm of the song. After all if you cannot read the words of the song with clarity, colour and at the appropriate speed, don't expect to be able to sing it! Good diction is not something which we can simply take for granted. It must be learned, practised and maintained.

The voice liable to disturbance through physical injury, illness and emotional trauma and the speech patterns are an accurate indicator of a person's character, age, health and emotional status. Both harmful physical and emotional tension can be stored in the jaw, the root of the tongue and the larynx. As stated above exercises such as stretching and gentle massage will release tension, remove constriction and stimulate energy.

A well produced voice will have clarity and tone, it will have stamina and flexibility and variety, it will not quickly tire or sound tired. The message it conveys is interesting and can be delivered in a manner which holds the audience's attention. An attractive, resonant voice conveys status and power gained from education and implied professional status.

The Project Gutenberg EBook of How to Sing, by Lilli Lehmann is http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19116

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Copyright © 2014 Jonathan Jessop.