June 4, 2011
How To Sing: Without Strained Vocal Cords
Strained vocal cords and/or a high larynx, if left unchecked, creates swelling and a host of other dangerous problems at the vocal cord level which can be very serious in singing.
The Holy Grail
There are many singers throughout time that could sing across their whole voice effortlessly and with fullness – without having to rely on hiking up their larynx or straining their vocal cords much at all: Ella Fitzgerald could do it… So could Sarah Vaughan, Joni Mitchell (in her early years), Wendy Moten, Kate Bush, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, Pavarotti, Robert Weede, Smokie Norful, Anthony Warlow, Dawn Upshaw, Kristin Chenoweth, even Aretha Franklin…
They all sang with a vocal freedom and intensity that was both striking, rich, and powerful – yet somehow baffling easy.
The world is FLAT!
Yet still, some people have gone as far as to make the assumption that because the larynx seems to raise with some (not very good) singers on certain pitches, that we should just accept it and sing like that anyway!
Not so! Singing with a raised larynx or strained vocal cords can be avoided when you understand what the problem is.
The FREE voice
Your larynx (voicebox) contains your vocal cords that lay flat over your trachea (windpipe) and vibrate horizontally in your throat. In order to sing freely and easily without vocal strain across your whole range, your vocal cords need to vibrate and make their adjustments for pitches freely, and they need your precious resonant areas and external muscles around and above the vocal cords and larynx to be free also, for maximum full-effect.
However, engaging the swallowing muscles does the opposite: It lifts your voicebox into a crunch creating a “clamp” around your vocal cords triggering the epiglottis to lower over it. This seals off the passage way into your voicebox so the food or liquid that your body is preparing to take in slides across the back of the epiglottis, over the voicebox, safely into your “food pipe” (esophagus) that eventually drops into your stomach.
Put your finger on your adam’s apple (not as pronounced in women), and swallow. Could you imagine trying to sing as you do that? This marvelous contraption ensures nothing, not even air, will get through your larynx, vocal cords, or into your lungs when you’re swallowing something. Lucky. Our lungs are enormously sensitive, and if that were ever to happen, we wouldn’t live to tell the tale.
Swallowing is great for eating and drinking, but terrible for singing! Any singer who has experienced trying to sing with a high larynx will tell you that it is NOT a nice feeling. Continuing to sing that way can result in a number of long terms vocal issues which can potentially scar the voice for good.
“Sit doggy… SIT!!”
So how do we get the larynx to stay down? Because there are a number of factors that tend to work together to create that condition for the singer, it’s often not the easiest tendency to unravel for those who may struggle with it, especially in a written article of few words such as this. Understanding what the problem is a great start! But finding a skilled teacher who has a proven track record of stabilizing and balancing a wide variety of singers is crucial to developing an understanding of what makes your voice unique, and what is required to balance it out.
With that said, we can begin to address the strained vocal cords and high larynx by first acknowledging the many obstacles which may create it, and then some possible solutions to fix the problem. Remember, many of these obstacles may work in tandem to create the high larynx, so often it is not one solution, but a few in various proportions that will result in stability and balance for the whole voice. And once you have learned how to get your larynx to stay down in a few exercises, then you have to retrain all your old habits which many of us may have built over many years, that led into the problem in songs in the first place!
- 1) Wide mouth & wide vowels: Many singers may instinctively open their mouth wide on high notes, or on low notes, distorting the vowel they are trying to sing which pulls up the larynx from it’s relaxed position. The solution? Speak the true vowel you intended, or narrow it! By narrowing your vowel, you will make it easier to sing the pure vowel.
- 2) Excessive Air: Some singers blast way more air than they need on higher or lower notes in an attempt to “reach” the pitch. This lifts the larynx as the vocal cords and other outer muscles become overwhelmed and tighten to try and hold back the air. Remember, your tiny vocal cords (the size of your fingernail) are of NO MATCH to the blasting power of your abdomen. You need very little air to sing well. The solution? Blow less air! Allow your vocal production to be as unmanipulated as possible by allowing yourself to “speak” the words throughout your voice, especially where you are struggling, to ensure you’re not over-blowing. Also, make sure you pronounce your consonants as they break up the airflow – but watch the aspirates. You can even try to vocalize with “g” before your vowels (go/guh/gee/goo etc) or use an “edge” or “cry” in your voice.
- 3) Increasing Volume: Think getting louder on higher notes is gonna help you? It’s only gonna make it worse because your vocal cords become too tense. This also causes the larynx to lift. The solution? Try being gentler. You can build strength in your voice after your larynx is able to stay more stable.
- 4) A Vocally Demanding Song: Sometimes, we just can’t resist. We KNOW that our voices aren’t developed enough to sing Whitney Houston or Led Zeppelin, but yet we can’t help ourselves. BE CAREFUL! It takes considerable training to make sure the right muscles are being used, and the wrong muscles AREN’T being used to sing songs that are difficult. If you find yourself in a vocal fight with a song that is difficult, put the song away, and either find an easier song to practice with, or seek professional help. You would never lift 500 lbs at the gym if you haven’t developed the right form and muscles to do so, so you shouldn’t sing a song that is too “heavy” or too difficult for your vocal cords.