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Larynx problems in a young singer

Many thanks to those who responded to my query about stabilizing the larynx
of a youthful tenor. What a vast resource of knowledge and experience is at
my fingertips! I meet again with my student tomorrow and now have a better
handle on the approach I will take. As it turns out, many suggestions were
ones that I have used with other students, but had been forgotten in my
momentary frustration.

Below are the results of my post.

All the best,
P. Kevin Suiter
Music Program Coordinator
Appalachian Bible College
P. O. Box ABC
Bradley, WV 25818
ph: 304-877-6428, ext. 3255
email: ksuiter(a)abc.edu


STABILIZING THE LARYNX
September 28, 2004

Original Post:

What exercises have you found most helpful for stabilizing the larynx of a
young tenor? I have an 18-year-old voice student who sings with a throaty
sound, and I can physically see his larynx rise as pitch ascends. The
result is that strained, "country" sort of sound from mid-range on up. The
higher the pitch the tighter the sound. His head goes out in front of the
shoulders and the chin rises right along with the pitch. His musicianship
skills and ear are excellent, so no problem there.

We have reviewed elements of posture, instructing him to keep his ear over
his shoulders. I even had him sing a song in moderate range while I stood
behind him and held his head in my hands, moving it around in an effort to
release neck/jaw tension, etc. He is stiff as a board!

I have introduced him to breathing concepts that he seems to be able to
comprehend and put into practice (open body singing, breath that is seated
low, expansion around the waist, etc.). This goes out the window, however,
when that larynx starts to rise.

So far I have tried having him speak the text in an energized fashion (or
sigh on a vowel), then sing in that same manner. This works best if I start
him around e-flat above middle c and come down. Sometimes it works,
sometimes not. If we approach from a lower pitch he reverts back into that
throaty sound.

Two approached I have concidered since his lesson last Friday are to
reinforce the "beginning of a yawn" position as he sings each note in a
phrase. Also, vocal fry exercises where one leaps up to modal voice without
conscious adjustment. Your reactions?

I have him singing in the second tenor section of our choir. He told me
that there are days he can sing the notes freely, and others when he
struggles to sing even a D or E-flat. I do plan to move him near a better
singer whose technique he might benefit from.

I have also lowered the key on a couple of his songs until we get this
worked out. We meet again on Wednesday afternoon. Any quick tips you can
think of would be appreciated.

RESPONSES

Try starting in his falsetto and working down into his chest voice. Another
image instead of the beginning of the yawn is to feel as if you are about to
sneeze.

* * * * *
Try concentrating on PURE VOWELS! (The Italian pure vowels) Can the tenor
swell and diminish from a falsetto to the full voice. If the vocal registers
are improperly joined this can cause throatiness. One must insure when
swelling from a soft note to a loud note that the resonance adjustment ( and
vowel position ) doesn't move or change in the slightest. Concentrate on the
"ee" and "ooh" vowels with very soft intensity

Do a search for Cornelius L. Read's books on the voice! They are the "bible"
for voice production. Also Anthony Frisell's book, " The Tenor Voice " is
another excellent resource.

You listed all sorts of things but most of those things tend to lead to a
very "self-conscious " technique! By having the singer concentrate on
singing pure vowels the voice can begin to react ( as opposed to trying to
"place" the voice )

Most vocal teachers over-emphasize breathing techniques as well. The most
important thing about breathing for singing is to make sure that the neck
and shoulders remain relaxed or it is impossible to obtain a deep breath. It
is impossible to get a deep breath if the shoulders and chest are raised
high! Then, ( and only then!) does the diaphragm work properly.
* * * * *
Perhaps look at Alexander Technique studies. I find lip trills to be helpful
as well.

* * * * *
The excellent voice teacher I had in high school, long ago, always worked
from head voice (falsetto, whatever you want to call it) down, rather than
allowing his students to push up. He used high calls, going for the
brightest sound possible, and sirening down from head voice into chest. His
goal was a mixed register high range allowing the student to choose more
chest in the mix for forte singing and more head for piano singing.

Technically, he is not restricting the vibrating length of his vocal folds
within his voice box, and is compensating by using external muscles to
tighten them instead. Very dangerous vocally. I won't
presume to prescribe exercises to help, but I'm sure others will help out.

* * * * *
I'd be interested to see the responses you get. I've had most success with
the yawn idea. To make a singer aware of his larynx is important, so I have
him put his finger on it (lightly- just as a monitor) and have him swallow
(larynx rises) and then have him yawn (larynx lowers). If you can get him
to breathe in through a yawn (or yawn space) and then maintain that larynx
position, you're on your way. Then maintaining that larynx position while
creating tone at a speech level is helpful as a first step. It truly is a
matter of baby steps and constant awareness to strengthen the depressor
muscles and relieve the elevators. To tap into the first head tones, I've
had more success with the yawn... sighing through a very 'sleepy' yawn
(while keeping the tongue forward) is very effective. Another image is a
imitating a puppy whimper. This is a very slow process. You might consider
making him a baritone for now until his vocal coordination gets better. Let
me know how this jives with what you get back.

* * * * *
One thing that I have found that works in this situation is having the
student sing while lying on the floor. They can feel "proper" alignment,
breath "support" etc more easily since gravity and bad habits aren't in the
way.

Also, how in touch is he with his falsetto/voix mix? If he can work on that,
he can develop a bigger bag of "tricks" and ultimately that voix mix is how
tenors "turn.

* * * * *
Two quick things come to mind- breath and tension. The exercises you have
done with him thus far are solid, but also consider these. With the breath-
do you know what a lip trill is (just buzzing your lips on pitch)? If not,
it is hard to explain- I'll try (if you know, disregard this!). Sort of
like a horse sound, where the air passes over loosely-closed lips and they
flap together. Doing this on pitch ensures that the air is flowing
properly. Doing exercises like a five-note scale up and down on 8th notes
on this lip trill, making sure to get up into his problem range, could
immensely help him through this problem area (once he can do it on a lip
trill, have him do it exactly the same on a good vowel for him). The second
thing was tension. It sounds like he is trying to control things with his
throat, when the support really has to come from lower in the body (abdomen
and below). Quick remedy: what I call the "tree" position. One foot far
out in front of the other, with legs bent (like a lunge), and arms in an L
position to the side with hands above head. Have him hold this position
while singing in his problem range (focus on one line of the song to start
with). This position assures that the only muscles that are working to
produce the sound are low in the body, releasing the neck tension, typically
freeing up the sound.

I hope you find these to be helpful- I know I did when I was an 18 year old
tenor with the same problems! Tell him to hang in there!

* * * * *
Have you tried applying the aggiustamento or vowel modification in a
systematic way? This entails the adjustment of the vowel shape, that is the
shape of the mouth to accommodate the acoustic demands of the passaggio for
the tenor which will generally be between the Bb to about the f or the
treble clef transposed an octave lower. The make this work you instructed
singer to do three things, drop the jaw, narrow the aperture of the mouth
and bring the vowel forward by slightly bringing the lips and tongue
forward. This changes most of the vowel to a rounder version ,so that the
"ah" becomes "aw", the "eh" more an ""ih" etc. For better and more thorough
explanations see either the Ware or Mille pedagogy texts.

* * * * *

Sounds like you're doing all the right things. Seems like he's having
difficulty combining what he's learning with you with actual singing. Take
things one baby-step at a time when making the transition from exercise to
singing. For example, I would start with a proper exhale (no sound, just
air) with relaxed posture, etc. Have him move his head and/or his tongue
around while doing this. Then have him add sound by making 'sighing' sounds
with all of the above- pitch is unimportant. Then once he has mastered that,
move onto specific pitches with his 'sighing' sounds - I usually use a
descending 3rd closest to the notes he was already sighing. As you go
through these steps, gradually have him cease the head or tongue waggling
(but feel free to use it again in later exercises if necessary). Make sure
your exercises use good vowels that will help ('oo' or 'oh' are better than
'ah') and consonants that are fricative, such as 'f' or 'gh' or 's'. Step by
step, move from exercise to singing. Each lesson, go through these until you
feel you can start skipping steps. Eventually, you should be able to spend
only a moment or two on these before going into normal singing.
Other tips to try
- sing while laying down in relaxed position.
- sing with hands or cup covering the mouth - tight so he has to push the
air out. This will focus the 'resistance point' from the vocal folds to the
cup area. (May not be a great idea since he also has neck and shoulder
tension, but you never know what a student will catch onto).
- I always tell my students to sing in a downward direction, especially on
the high notes. Aim the sound to a spot on the floor 8 feet in front of
them, with the feeling that they push down to get the high notes.
- don't focus on the larynx. It's like telling him not to think about the
color pink. Give him other things to focus on that will accomplish the same
purpose without drawing attention to it.
- I think your 'vocal fry' exercizes are good (although I don't know what
you mean by that!). I would encourage the use of more exercises of this
kind, and lots of exercises that start in the falsetto and move downward.
Sounds like you're doing lots a great things. Keep the faith. Some of us
problem singers (I was one of them) take a while, but it eventually starts
to sink in.

* * * * *
Obviously a problem created by tension.

Abandon all ascending vocalizes for a while. Your singer is only reinforcing
the tense behavior.

I am sending you a brochure which I just wrote for my students. As it
states, the method is based on Larra Browning Henderson's, How to Train
Singers which I recommend to you.

I have many more but this is where I would start. I feel very confident that
the base of the tongue is the culprit. Essentially everything you feel under
your jaw is tongue, big, tight muscle.

Have your singer pant like a puppy with his tongue protruding over the lower
teeth with the tongue very relaxed. Say a voice-less th-ah by swinging the
jaw and tongue up to the upper teeth. The the th is made by gently swinging
the jaw down from the lifted mask. DON'T FORCE ANYTHING.

The tongue should remain quietly over the teeth. After doing this several
time, try th-a, th-ee in the same was, the jaw must always be flexible but
not loose or floppy, the mask must always be lifted. If the tongue is
pulled in on the th-ee, there is your tension. If the tongue does not remain
perfectly relaxed, the base of the tongue is tight. Try gently swinging the
head back an forth. If a set of musclesis moving freely, then they cannot be
tense; if tense, they cannot move freely.
thee tha
If this begins to work, then start around middle c and vocalize 5 4 3 2 1 2
3 4 5 keeping the mask up, the tongue protruding over the teeth (swing head
if needed) and the tongue pleasantly relaxed. If it is bunched in the back,
then we have to do more things.

The solution may take months with as much tension as he seems to be
maintaining.

* * * * *
First of all, are you sure he is a tenor. Just an hour ago, I was working
with a Freshman who came in as a tenor, but I have had the sneaking
suspicion that he was a baritone. This morning he vocalized down to a low
Eb. And as I got him to keep his larynx low here began to have more of the
baritone timbre. He would start to raise his larynx at about middle C.
Even lower he would raise it ever time he made a skip. A few things I did
with him that got him started on the right track even within the hour-his
breath is pretty well established, low and diaphragmatic, so I had him
inhale with a big gasp, minus the noise, as if I had surprised him with
something wonderful. This opens the throat and lowers the larynx. I had
him sound like a Santa Claus with a breath between each deep Ho or Ha or
Hay. With each of these I had him actually lightly touch his larynx at the
protrusion or point of the thyroid cartilage and feel that his larynx stayed
down. (I don't often make this big a point of it, but it is very necessary
in some cases) Then I had him vocalize down from a fifth to the tonic on
mum, mum, mum-starting with the new lower setup. Then I had him do the
Santa Claus up Do, Mi, Sol, Mi Doall the time checking that his larynx
didn't slip up. Be careful that your student doesn't try to manipulate the
larynx low by using the back tongue muscle to hold it down. It must be
kept Relative low by keeping the inhalation muscles engageI use the
phraseresist collapse. Anyway, this seems to work. It is difficult to
explain in prose.

* * * * *
The most important thing you can do is to make sure he is focusing his tone
in the mask of his face. In my experience, tenors tend to try to use their
throat too much if that's where they are placing their tone.

Some ways to help him feel the correct resonance of tone in the mask are:
-Have him hold his index finger up in the air about six inches in front of
his nose. Tell him to imagine that he is "sending" the tone right to the tip
of his finger.

-While seated, have him bend at the waist, resting his shoulders against his
knees and letting his head fall downward. Then do some mid-ranged, scale
based exercises. Explore his range as you progress. He will likely be able
to feel the resonance in his nose area.

These are the two exercises I've had the most success with. Once he
discovers the correct way to produce his tone, you can move on to more
advanced exercises, based on scales. My favorite is singing scale degrees
5,4,3,2,1 on a "Hnoh" (starting with a little bit of an H) at a moderate
tempo. As he starts to force the tone into his throat, go back down a step
or so, and remind him to place the tone forward. Often, telling the student
to "snarl" or to wrinkle his nose will make him aware of his mask area
again, and the tone will find it's way there naturally.

Most importantly, never push him far enough into his high range that he
starts to force it. That is one habit he will have to work hard to get rid
of.

* * * * *
Terry Barham from Emporia State University - who posted the message about
the 5 state ACDA presidents - wrote the book on working with young male
voices! I'd definitely listen to his advice if he replied to your question,
or seek his advice if he didn't respond! If needed, you can find Dr.
Barham's contact info on the leadership roster at the ACDA national website.
* * * * *

You're describing ME as an undergrad! Ouch, the memory is painful.

So, some things that really helped me get free and clear (vocally at least).

1. move the jaw w. the hand up/down side/side, until the muscles release
and you can really do it "by hand" w/out jaw muscle resistance.

2. When singing, over and over and at all times, both when feeling tense or
not, move the head gently in a head-shaking "no" motion. This releases the
big strap muscles which both hold the head up and elevate the larynx. If
done subtly, you can even do it in performance, making it look "expressive."

3. Do rangy, arpeggio exercises from very low to high, up n down, and
quickly, (1351531, and raise m2) to
avoid tense holding of high note.

4. Contrast high falsetto w. high true head voice: 5 - note scale down
fals, same scale in head.

5. Of course, keep the head balance and chin down - headshake can help this.

And in choir, Use a light falsetto whenever tension arises. There's no harm
and it takes the pressure off. Tenor parts in choir are notorious for
hanging in the passaggio - composers are taught to use this range for good
part-writing - and thus are really hard to sing blended and in tune using
true head voice. Takes years of development, so use falsetto.

Good luck - keep the head moving side to side.

* * * * *