Singing With An ‘Open Throat’: Vocal Tract Shaping
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‘Opening the throat’ is defined as a technique whereby pharyngeal space is increased and/or the ventricular (false) vocal folds are retracted in order to maximize the resonating space in the vocal tract. Opening the throat involves raising the soft palate (velum), lowering the larynx and assuming ideal positions of the articulators (the jaw, lips and tongue), as well as shaping of the mouth and use of facial muscles.
The expression also describes the sensation of freedom or passivity in the throat region that is said to accompany good singing. The technique of the open throat is intended to promote a type of relaxation or vocal release in the throat that helps the singer avoid constriction and tension that would otherwise throttle or stifle the tone.
An ‘open throat’ - a misnomer for a few reasons - is generally believed to produce a desirable sound quality that is perceived as resonant, round, open, free from ‘constrictor tensions’, pure, rich, vibrant and warm in tone. It also produces balance, coordination, evenness and consistency, and a prominent low formant, which prevents the tone from sounding overly bright, thin or shrill. Additionally, if singing is performed with an open and relaxed acoustical space, the singer will experience a smooth blending of the registers.
This sound quality is linked to the vocal actions that take place during the preparation to sing (inhalation). The larynx lowers automatically when breath is taken in, and the soft palate naturally lifts at the same time. Because the events of singing are more demanding than those of speaking, requiring deeper inhalation, greater energy and further laryngeal depression, there is a corresponding increase in pharyngeal space that occurs somewhat naturally.
When a vocalist sings with a so-called ‘closed throat’, imbalance of registration is likely to occur. The chest register will be taken too high and the upper register becomes more and more harsh and strident because the singer creates a tone that is merely imitative of the head voice. Intonation becomes harder and harder to achieve because the larynx is too high and the soft palate too low, resulting in a feeling that the voice is being squeezed from both the top and the bottom. In other words, registration shifts cannot occur in a healthy manner if the throat is closed, nor if the vocal sound is driven toward the point of nasality.
The goal of every singer should be to achieve tonal balance. Many of the popular techniques that vocal teachers use to help their students improve the quality of their voices are devices for directly or indirectly enlarging and relaxing the throat during singing. The use of imagery, such as ‘drinking in the breath’, in their teaching is very common. Enlarging the throat space involves conscious inhibition of some of the natural reflexes, such as the swallowing reflex, a condition that is nevertheless essential to good tone production.
There is no science to refute that the teaching of the open throat is good pedagogy. The intricate relationship of muscles in the throat is positively affected when the head is allowed to be free on the neck. Each muscle achieves its proper length and connection with the others in an optimum state for functioning well. The muscles work together, each set meeting the opposing pull of the other, which allows the larynx to become poised, balanced and properly suspended. The vocal folds are actively lengthened and stretched by this action, and thus brought closer together. In these favourable conditions, they can close properly to execute the sound quickly and efficiently, and thereby produce a clear, clean tone with a minimum amount of effort. The throat is then properly ‘open’.
However, relying upon the open throat technique as the cure for all singing problems is potentially shortsighted and problematic, as a ‘closed throat’ neither causes nor explains all vocal issues.
There are many opinions on how to achieve an open throat, and just as many methods of trying to create it. Unfortunately, along with the correct ideas that are backed by real acoustical and anatomical science come strange, ineffective and potentially damaging ones. The popular internet site on which numerous voice teachers claiming to be ‘experts’ on the topic of singing present short video clips containing advice or ‘mini lessons’ on how to sing is full of such ideas. I’ve watched video after video of teachers (whose own voices typically sound terrible) demonstrating singing technique that involves overly wide buccal (mouth) openings and other such faulty practices. (A common mistake is equating an open mouth with an open throat. In reality, a jaw that is too low actually places tension on the larynx, lowers the soft palate and inhibits the effective closure of the vocal folds, which is the opposite of the desired effect.)
I am not terribly fond of some of the methods of creating an open throat space, particularly those involving imagery or shaping of the vocal tract that encourages the distortion of vowels. For instance, yawning, which is by far the most popular approach to teaching an open throat, tends to produce an overly open pharyngeal space, and thus a hollow, ‘throaty’ tone. It also tends to be accompanied by a flattening or retracting of the tongue. Whenever a teacher instructs a student to yawn in order to ‘open the throat’, he or she overlooks the injurious ramifications of such a technique when it is applied to the tasks of singing. The yawn is not intended as a sustained maneuver for the kind of phonation that occurs during singing. Retaining the posture of a yawn, even just a partial one, during speech or song induces hyperfunction in the submandibular musculature and hinders or prevents natural-sounding voice quality.
Even when students are encouraged to only imagine and generate the first part (beginning) of a yawn, there is the tendency for the opening up to be taken too far, which may include an overly lowered jaw that is accompanied by an unhinging of the jaw joints, as in a full yawn. The tongue generally flattens, pushes back into throat and depresses the larynx, which creates a new obstruction in the singing pathway rather than freeing up the voice. We have all heard others trying to talk while stifling a yawn, and the tone and the diction are both terrible because the natural phonatory laws have been compromised by the incorrect articulation of the words. The mouth should not be overly open while singing.
If the student reaches the point where he or she really feels a hugely open space in the throat – the feeling that he or she is ‘swallowing an egg’ or some other piece of fruit, for example – it is actually likely that the tongue root is so out of the way of the mouth cavity that it is depressing the larynx. What is an effort to free up space for the voice to resonate better actually ends up placing tension on the throat, tightening it, and producing a hollow, throaty timbre.
Assuming a facial posture of surprise, as some teach, is just plain silly from both an aesthetic and a practical standpoint, as no singer would ever apply it during a performance because they would both look ridiculous and sound no better. Raising the eyebrows, furrowing the brow, creasing the forehead, flaring the nostrils or widening the eyes are not linked to the lifting of the soft palate nor to enhanced resonance balancing. Instead, they produce tension. These exaggerated facial postures are not to be confused with the elevation of the zygomatic muscles of the face that is associated with a more open resonating space.
If a singer would never employ a certain technique during his or her public singing performances, then it is not likely to be a useful tool to use during lessons, and it thus makes no sense to teach it. There are some exceptions, of course, but unnatural facial expressions should never be included in technical training. A singer needs to learn to adopt and vocalize with singing postures that are favourable to resonance balancing and tension-free singing. Correct vocal posturing should be the starting place in vocal training, and a student of voice shouldn’t waste his or her time assuming silly facial expressions if that part of his or her technique training will later be done away with.
When I was a new student of voice, the first stage of technique that I learned was what my Bel Canto instructor called ‘lifting’. I was taught to assume a pleasant facial expression (not an actual smile) during singing by gently and subtly lifting the cheeks with the zygomatic muscles – those that wrap around the sides of the mouth and lift the corners of the mouth during smiling. I remember my facial muscles quivering and twitching uncontrollably during the singing of my vocal exercises for the first several lessons as I trained them to naturally and more comfortably assume this position. Like most people, my facial muscles had a tendency to pull down somewhat during speech and singing, and the muscles needed to be strengthened and retrained.
Additionally, I was taught to ‘inhale’ a soft, quiet ‘k’ sound. (This is kind of like the imagery of ‘drinking in the breath’ or ‘inhaling the breath’.) This technique lifts the soft palate further, separating it from the tongue, and lowers the larynx during inhalation. (Inhaling a loud or forceful 'k' sound not only makes for noisy and inefficient breathing, but it also contributes to the build up of tensions.
What I appreciate most about this method of achieving an open throat is how effortless and natural it is for the singer. It is based on anatomical science, since the soft plate naturally rises and the larynx automatically lowers during inhalation, and since a pleasant external facial posture directly affects the position of the soft palate, raising it slightly. (Yes, it’s as simple as that.) In my opinion, any teaching on the opening of the throat need not go much further than this simple concept of ‘lifting’, as it is effective and likely to be sufficient for nearly all students.
The key is learning to maintain this initial ‘open’ posture of the vocal tract for the duration of the sung phrase, not allowing any tension or constriction to enter the throat. Any persistent issues with ‘closed throatedness’, which are most prevalent during register changes, particulary as the scale ascends into the upper middle and head registers, can be addressed if they present themselves during vocalizing. (More often than not, these tensions and technical difficulties are the result of a ‘naughty tongue’ and/or a raised larynx, which will be diagnosed and addressed by a trained vocal instructor.) Otherwise, a singer need only open the resonating spaces of the vocal tract in preparation for singing and then continue vocalizing with freedom in the throat.
One helpful technique for ensuring that the resonating spaces are open is using the neutral vowel ‘uh’ in the larynx and pharynx – that is, assuming this shape within the throat - before bringing focus into the tone and singing the desired vowel. This technique allows the open pharynx to be established first. The brilliance of the tone can then follow while the open feeling in the throat is retained. For training purposes, it often helps to actually sing the ‘uh’ sound, then position the tongue appropriately for the desired vowel. Sing ‘uh –[e]-uh-[i]-uh-[o]-uh-[u]’ repeatedly on a single breath, aiming to maintain the openness of the ‘uh’ while singing the other pure Italian vowels. Starting with [a] is also good, as it is a similar vowel form to the ‘uh’. Once this exercise becomes easier, the student can then ‘open the throat’ using the (silent) ‘uh’ position, quickly move the tongue and the lips into position for the desired vowel, and begin to phonate on the vowel. For example, start with the ‘uh’ posture in the larynx and then bring the tongue forward and up as in the [i] vowel. In time, this technique will come naturally, requiring little pause for thought, and the student will be able to vocalize with an open acoustical space.
It has been my observation that whenever too much attention is drawn to what must happen at the back of the throat (the pharynx) and the larynx while singing, exaggerated results, along with unwanted tensions, are produced. I’ve had students come into my studio who have been taught by their previous teachers to focus so much of their attention on consciously attempting to manipulate the position of their larynxes and on actively ‘opening their throats’ that they end up experiencing a lot of tension in the jaw, neck and tongue, as well as a feeling of tightness and discomfort in the throat. In an effort to create more space, pharyngeal tension results as the tongue gets pushed back, and a hollow, throaty sound is produced. Registration, particularly the transition into head voice, becomes impossible because the root of the tongue depresses the larynx when it should otherwise be ‘rocking’ or ‘tilting’.
The greatest danger of this imbalanced teaching philosophy, though, is that many students are only being offered incomplete information about vocal science and good technique. Their teachers encourage them to open their throats and lower their larynxes, but they don’t actually tell them how to do so correctly and naturally, and they don’t pay attention to the other components of the vocal tract, such as the tongue, that could be contributing to closed throatedness and tension. When singers attempt to locally enlarge the space in the throat, they do not actually create more space. Instead, they simply rearrange the components of the vocal tract, mostly in disregard of the laws of acoustics. When they attempt to spread the pharyngeal wall, for example, they end up tensing it. In the end, the students fail to progress and find vocal freedom because they haven’t been given enough accurate information, and more harm is done than good. Stressed out and frustrated students with poor tone and unhealthy technique are the results.
The fact of the matter is that a singer needn’t do anything substantially different with the jaw, mouth, tongue or larynx during singing within speech-inflection range – the range of notes that a singer would use during normal speech - than what he or she would do while speaking within the same range of pitches, (unless his or her speaking technique is also faulty). There must be constant flexibility during articulation, which is impossible to achieve if the throat is being forced to remain in one (unnatural) position during singing or speech. Instead, the spacial arrangments of the pharynx and the mouth should follow the phonetic requirements of linguistic communication. Unnatural adjustments of the vocal-tract during singing should be avoided, although some modifications of this principle occur when a vocalist sings above speech-inflection range (i.e., head register). (I explain this further in the section that discusses the unique acoustical circumstances of the female upper register in the follow-up to this article, to be posted on this site in mid June of 2009.)
In the following sections, I will focus more directly on the natural and ideal positions of the vocal tract while singing, as well as some popular, though incorrect, ways of shaping the articulators. In Part II of this article, I will examine vowels and vowel modification, and explain the concept of formants in relation to tone balance and how they are directly affected by specific vocal tract shaping.
First, however, I’d like to discuss the anatomy of the throat so that the location and structure of the individual components are not a mystery to my readers.
Vocal Tract Anatomy
To help my readers better visualize the structure of the throat and understand the anatomy terminology that I will refer to in this article, I have included the above diagrams for study and reference. The first shows the entire vocal tract in profile. The second diagram narrows in on the structures of the larynx (‘voice box’). The third diagram shows the basic structure of the soft plate and its location inside the oral cavity.
Anatomy of the Vocal Tract
from the 20th U.S. edition of Gray's Anatomy of the Human Body
The throat, which generally refers to both the pharynx and the larynx, is a ring-like muscular tube that acts as the passageway for air, food and liquid. It is located behind the nose and mouth, and connects the mouth (oral cavity) and nose to the breathing passages (trachea/ ‘windpipe’ and lungs) and the esophagus (eating tube). The throat also helps in forming speech.
The throat consists of the tonsils and adenoids, the pharynx, the larynx, the epiglottis and the subglottic space.
The tonsils and adenoids are made up of lymph tissue, and both help to fight infections. Tonsils are located at the back and sides of the mouth and adenoids are located behind the nose.
The pharynx is the muscle-lined space that connects the nose and mouth to the larynx and esophagus. The pharynx extends from the base of the skull to the sixth cervical vertebra, with pharyngeal dimensions determined by the structure of the individual. The pharynx consists of three parts: the nasopharynx, lying above the lower border of the soft palate; the oropharynx, located between the soft palate and the upper region of the epiglottis, and opening out into the buccal (mouth) cavity through the palatoglossal arches – the velar region; and the laryngopharynx, extending from the top of the epiglottis to the bottom of the cricois cartilage – the lower border of the larynx. The posterior larynx projects into the laryngopharynx.
(I have also written an article detailing the structure and function of the larynx, which includes many of the structures discussed only briefly here in the paragraphs that follow.)
The larynx, also known colloquially as the ‘voice box’, functions as an airway to the lungs, and also provides us with a way of communicating (vocalizing). It is a cylindrical grouping of cartilages (including the thryroid, cricoid and arytenoid), muscles and soft tissue that contains the vocal folds, which produce the voice by their vibrations when they are stretched and a current of air passes between them.
The larynx is the expanded upper opening of the trachea (windpipe). The thyroid cartilage, attached to the hyoid bone or cartilage, makes the protuberance on the front of the neck known as the Adam's apple (or Eve’s apple in women), and is connected below to the ring-like cricoid cartilage. This is narrow in front and high behind, where, within the thyroid, it is surmounted by the two arytenoid cartilages, from which the vocal folds pass forward to be attached together to the front of the thyroid.
From the outside of the neck, the larynx can be seen to rise when we swallow and lower when we inhale. Some elevation during phonation is often seen, as well.
The larynx is connected to the pharynx by an opening - the glottis (the vocal folds and the space between them) - which, in mammals, is protected by a lid-like epiglottis.
The epiglottis is a small flap of soft tissue and elastic cartilage that acts to cover the upper opening to the larynx whenever we swallow. It folds back and down to guard and protect the entrance to the larynx, thus preventing food, drink and irritants from entering the respiratory tract. (The larynx also aids in this closing by drawing upward and forward to close off the trachea, or windpipe, when the hyoid bone elevates during swallowing.) Food and drink are then directed to the esophagus (eating tube) instead. After each swallow, the epiglottis returns to its upright resting position - the larynx also returns to rest - allowing air to flow freely through the larynx and into (and out of) the rest of the respiratory system. The epiglottis is one of three unpaired cartilages of the larynx, the others being the thyroid and cricoid cartilages, and is one of nine cartilaginous structures that make up the larynx.
Subglottic space refers to the space immediately below the vocal folds. It is the narrowest part of the upper airway.
Supraglottic space refers to the space immediately above the vocal folds.
from the National Institutes of Health
The soft palate (or velum, or muscular palate) is the soft tissue that makes up the back of the roof of the mouth. It is suspended from the posterior, or rear, border of the hard palate, forming the roof of the mouth. The structure is movable, is composed of mucous membranes, muscular fibres (sheathed in the mucous membranes), and mucous glands, and is responsible for closing off the nasal passages from the oral cavity during swallowing and sucking (and during the speaking and singing of nonnasal sounds).
The soft palate is distinguished from the hard palate at the front of the mouth in that it does not contain bone.
When the soft palate rises, as in swallowing, it separates the nasal cavity and nasopharynx from the posterior part of the oral cavity and oral portion of the pharynx. In sucking, the soft palate and posterior superior surface of the tongue occlude the oral cavity from the orapharynx, creating a posterior seal that prevents the escape of fluid and food up through the nose and, with the tongue, allows fluid and food to collect in the mouth until swallowed. During sneezing, it protects the nasal passage by diverting a part of the unwanted substance to the mouth.
The soft palate's motion during breathing is responsible for the sound of snoring. Touching the soft palate evokes a strong gag reflex in most people.
The soft palate retracts and elevates during speech to separate the oral cavity (mouth) from the nasal cavity in order to produce oral speech sounds. If this separation is incomplete, air escapes through the nose, causing the speech to be perceived as hyper nasally. In the case of nasal consonants and vowels, it lowers to allow the velopharyngeal port to open.
The ‘fauces’ are defined as the lateral walls of the oropharynx that are located medial to (through the middle of) the palatoglossal folds. The areas lateral to (to the sides of) the palatoglossal fold are not the fauces. The term ‘fauces’ refers to the narrow passage from the mouth to the pharynx (sometimes call the ‘isthmus of the fauces’) that is situated between the velum and the posterior portion of the tongue. The fauces are bordered by the soft palate, the palatine arches, and the base of the tongue. Two muscular folds – the pillars of the fauces – lie on either side of the passage.
The uvula, (Latin for ‘little grape’), is a fleshy piece of muscle, tissue and mucous membrane that hangs down from the soft palate. When we swallow, as well as when we say or sing nonnasal (oral) vowels and consonants, such as "Ah", the uvula flips backward and upward, which helps close off the nasal passages (at the velopharyngeal port), preventing unwanted nasality from entering the tone.
When the zygomatic muscles are raised during inhalation, the fauces elevate as well, thus playing an important role in 'opening the throat'.
The two zygomatic muscles (major and minor) have their points of origin on the zygomatic bone and insert in the skin and muscle at the corners of the mouth. The zygomatic muscles retract and pull the lip corners upwards.
The zygomatic major is a paired muscle of facial expression that extends from each zygomatic arch (cheekbone) to the corners of the mouth. It blends with fibres of the levator anguli oris, the orbicularis oris, and the depressor anguli oris. Its participation in facial expression is determined by the emotion to be expressed. It draws the angles of the mouth superiorly and posteriorly, raising the corners of the mouth when a person smiles. It draws the angles of the mouth upwards and, as in full laughter, laterally. Like all muscles of facial expression, the zygomatic major is innervated by the facial nerve. The minor and major zygomatic muscles (assisted by the levator muscles) can raise the fascia between the lips and the maxilla (area between the lips and cheeks), much as when a fragrance is slowly inhaled through the nose, producing a pleasant facial expression, but not a full-blown smile.