Part 2 The human voice: an instrument in residence

Jamea Sale, Director of the Institute for Healthy Singing:

JSale@HealthySinging.org

Executive Associate Director, William Baker Choral Foundation

Voice Specialist, Allegro Choirs of Kansas City

Part 1 of  The human voice: an instrument in residence looked at the voice as a localized instrument in the form of the larynx and vocal folds [link to previous article]. Of course, the vocal folds do not initiate vibration of their own accord. There is energy stimulating the folds to vibrate! That energy is in the form of breath!

The Human Thoracic Cavity

The thoracic cavity can be thought of as a container holding the lungs and heart. The container is bounded by the ribs (and muscle and tissue). The ribcage, while structural, is also flexible having tissue and muscles between each rib that function to open and close the ribs. The diaphragm is situated at the floor of the thoracic cavity, and it works in unison with the ribs to draw air in and out of the lungs.

jar

 

Human Lungs and Diaphragm

The diaphragm is an elastic sheath muscle the spans the bottom of the rib cage. Think of the diaphragm muscle as the “divider” of the torso. The upper torso (thoracic cavity) contains the vital organs of the heart and lungs, and the lower torso contains the viscera. The diaphragm is parachute-shaped, and it descends on inhalation and ascends on exhalation.

 

brain breath

When the brain sends the message, “I need air!” a complex set of activity is triggered:

  1. Inhalation: The thoracic cavity must expand:
    1. The rib cage muscles are triggered open
    2. The diaphragm sheath muscle descends (contracts).

This causes a decrease in lung pressure in comparison to the atmosphere of the thoracic cavity, and air rushes into the airway.

  1. Exhalation: an elastic recoil of the lung tissue occurs. The thoracic cavity relaxes.
    1. The rib cage muscles close, returning to resting position.
    2. The diaphragm muscle ascends.

This causes a decrease in lung volume and results in increased pressure in comparison to the thoracic atmosphere so that air rushes out of the airway.

In physics, this is directly related to Boyle’s Law. Check out this easy to understand visual explanation on Youtube:  Boyles Law from Respiratory System – Anatomy & Physiology Online https://youtu.be/q6-oyxnkZC0.

Breath trivia:

The diaphragm descends anywhere from 1.5 cm at rest to 6-10 cm during exercise.

There is no air going into the abdominals! The role of the abs is to relax and allow the thoracic cavity to be more spacious.

Breathing allows you to take in the oxygen and expel carbon-dioxide waste. But when you exhale, you also breathe out a lot of water. Humans exhale up to 0.59 fluid ounces of water per hour and about four times that amount during exercise.

The right lung is larger than the left lung in humans to accommodate the heart.

If the lungs were opened flat, they would be so big that they would cover the size of a tennis court.

The abdominal muscles required for breathing are also involved in postural support, movement, balance, coughing, urination, vomiting, singing, childbirth, and defecation.

TO DO:

 Body Mapping the Ribs:

  • Place your hands, fingers together, on either side of your torso. Find the lower ribs. Do a long exhale. Notice the ribs drawing together toward the center of the body. As you do a long inhale, notice the rib cage “opening” and lifting. Keep your hands in the same position but move them a few inches away from your body. As you repeat the breathing exercise spread your fingers apart as you inhale and close your fingers together as you exhale.

Open & Close Hand

  • Imagine you are holding a pail, one hand on the bottom of the pail and the other on the handle. Lower the handle of the pail as you exhale and inhale as you raise the handle of the pail. Now, place your hands on your low ribs. Imagine the action of the pail handle as you exhale and inhale.

 

pail

  1. Body Mapping the Lungs:

 Stand with a relaxed, upright and regal stature. Allow your jaw to be relaxed and open. Exhale for a count of 4 and inhale for a count of 4. Now release to a slouched position continuing the count-breathing. As you inhale, notice how the breath intake is inhibited by this new position. Return to upright.

  • Expel all air in the lungs. Hold this position momentarily (don’t inhale). Now, release your ribs and abs and open your mouth. Simply allow air back into the lungs without “doing” an inhale. Repeat the exercise a few times. Notice that air naturally flows into the lungs due upon release of the muscles of the ribs and abs.

III. Sing!

  • Stand with a relaxed, upright and regal stature. Exhale for a count of 4. Inhale, releasing your ribs and abs. Begin an exhale and allow the voice to join the exhalation in a long sigh.
  • Repeat the previous exercise, but instead of sighing, try singing a song you like. Allow the breath to initiate the sound of your singing.

Jamea Sale, Contributing Author

References:

8 Fun Facts About Lungs | Pulmonary Hypertension News. (2017). Pulmonary Hypertension News. Retrieved 8 January 2019, from https://pulmonaryhypertensionnews.com/2017/12/20/8-fun-facts-lungs/

Bilal M, Voin V, Topale N, Iwanaga J, Loukas M, and Tubbs RS. (2017). The Clinical anatomy of the physical examination of the abdomen: A comprehensive review. Clin Anat. 30(3):352-356.

Heinrich, Jane Ruby. Voice and the Alexander Technique: Active Explorations for Speaking and Singing. Berkeley, CA: Mornum Time, 2005.

Breathing: The Mechanics of Human Breathing | Boundless Biology. (2019). Courses.lumenlearning.com. Retrieved 8 January 2019, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-biology/chapter/breathing/

Vennard, William. Singing the Mechanism and the Technic. New York: C. Fisher, 1967.

 

 

The Human Voice: An Instrument in Residence, Part 1 ~

The human voice: an instrument in residence

Instrument

Singers are fortunate to have a traveling instrument requiring no special assembly or installation. Even so, it is helpful to understand the make-up of the singing apparatus.

The Human Larynx

The larynx is the main structure of the human singing instrument. It is an organ suspended in the neck from the hyoid (the only bone in the larynx), and it is situated below the jaw in the neck. Its composition is primarily cartilage (seven cartilages total), tissue, membrane, and muscle.

Location of Larynx

Because the main part of the larynx is in a state of suspension, it can make excursions up and down and side to side in the neck. For singing and speaking, the laryngeal structure tilts and vibrates.  

An interesting feature of the larynx is the epiglottis, which is a leaf-shaped flap of cartilage located behind the tongue at the top of the larynx. Its function is to seal the windpipe during swallowing so that food or saliva is not accidentally inhaled. Thus, the larynx is instrumental in the prevention of choking.

Parts of Larynx

Phonation

Phonation is the sound of singing and speech which occurs from the oscillation of the vocal folds and resonance of the vocal tract. Singing and speaking require a combination of changes in position, tension and mass of the vocal folds.

Vocal Folds

Vocal folds are composed of mucous membrane stretched horizontally across the top opening of the larynx. The folds are situated just below the pharyngeal tract and above where the tract splits into the trachea and the esophagus within the larynx. They are open for breathing and closed for swallowing, sealing the windpipe from food and liquid.

Superior View of Folds

Vocal folds are essential for phonation or vocalization. Phonation requires the vibrate, modulating the flow of air being expelled from the lungs during phonation.

The size of the folds affects voice pitch. Vocal folds begin growing to their full adult length and thickness during adolescence.

  • Adult male vocal folds are relatively large and thick. Male vocal folds are between 0.75″ to 1.0″ in length.
  • Female vocal folds are less dense and are between 0.5″ to 0.75″ in length.

TO DO:

 I. Body Mapping the Larynx:

  • Gently place the fingers of one hand on one side of your neck/throat and then swallow. A swallow is a complex procedure involving numerous pairs of muscles. You probably noticed the larynx moving up then back down to a neutral position under your fingers as your tongue pushed saliva to the back of your mouth and down the throat.
  • Gently place the fingers of your hand on one side of your throat and yawn. As the jaw descends and the tongue lowers for the yawn, you will notice the larynx move down.
  • Gently place the fingers of your hand on one side of your throat and carefully nudge the larynx to one side. Repeat with the opposite side. Notice that the larynx can move slightly side to side.

II. Body Mapping the Vocal Folds:

  • Gently place the fingers of your hand on one side of your throat while you hum. Notice the feeling of vibrations in your neck. Try touching around your lips, nose, jaw, skull and chest while you hum or sing throughout your vocal range. Notice the vibrations that are produced when you phonate.

 

Open & Close & Shortened

  • Simulate the opening and closing of your vocal folds: Beginning with your palms together as in figure ‘a,’ move your hands apart while inhaling (figure ‘b’). Now, sing a long tone as you bring your palms together. Each time you breathe, repeat the sequence, opening the palms for breath and closing for singing. Notice that the breath exhalation begins slightly before tone starts.
  • Again, beginning palms together, breathe, opening your palms as in figure ‘b.’ Bringing palms together, sing an ee [i] vowel, starting from your lowest comfortable note. Perform a glissando to your highest comfortable note. As your voice slides from low to high, move your thumbs from a forward position (figure c) to an upright position. Move the thumbs back to the starting position as you slide your low voice down to your lowest comfortable note. The thumb movement simulates the lengthening and shortening action of the folds as you sing from low to high. Be sure to open your palms each time you take a breath and close your palms as you sing.

III. Body Mapping Tension/Relaxation:

  • Gently place the fingers of your hand on one side of your throat. Open your mouth as wide as possible. Notice the tension around your mouth, neck and jaw. Now, relax the opening until it feels natural and comfortable. Practice singing a range of vowel sounds with the jaw comfortably open.
  • Gently place the fingers of your hand on one side of your throat. Make an expression of a dramatic frown and a dramatic grin. Notice the tension around your mouth, neck and jaw. Try rolling your shoulders to an extreme back position. Notice the tension around your neck. Relax to a neutral position. Experiment with a range of postures and expressions noticing any tension and exploring to find relaxation.
  • Consider how tense postures might inhibit the ability of the larynx to move, tilt and vibrate while singing.

References

Birch-Iensen, M., Borgström, P. S., & Ekberg, O. (1988). Cineradiography in closed and open pharyngeal swallow. Acta radiologica29(4), 407-410.

Lumb, A. B. (2016). Nunn’s applied respiratory physiology eBook. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Mittal, R. (2011, April). Motor function of the pharynx, esophagus, and its sphincters. In Colloquium Series on Integrated

Systems Physiology: From Molecule to Function (Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 1-84). Morgan & Claypool Life Sciences.

Trollinger, V. (2005). Performing arts medicine and music education: What do we really need to know?. Music Educators Journal92(2), 42-48.

Vocal folds. (2018). ScienceDaily. Retrieved 31 December 2018, from www.sciencedaily.com/terms/vocal_folds.htm

Zveglic, E. A. (2014). Speech and singing. In Recognizing and Treating Breathing Disorders (Second Edition) (pp. 203-214).

Seamless Passaggio Tips

There is so much conflicting information on the ‘Registers’ of the Human Voice! Be it speaking, theatrical, or singing the terminology and methodology of the vocal mechanism can be an intimidating subject to grasp.

Effective Exercises for Creating Seamless Singing or Evening Out Registers…

  • Always warm-up! Activate your bodymind by moving! Singing is a full body, contact sport that is most productive if attention is given to engaging the whole singer.
  • Activate breathing for singing. There are many ways to do this & you need to discover what works best for you. To allow the abdominal muscles to release as air flows in and out, you might try:
  • leaning against a wall with knees soft, hips and shoulders flat, head floating above
  • lying on the floor.
  • Add sound to breath. Manage the breath by adding fricative consonants in rhythmic patterns to reinforce abdominal control of the stream of air.
  • Add pitch to breath, imprecise to specific – descending first.
    • Sighs, lip trills, rolled “r”. Then sigh down & back up until transitions are smooth.
    • Start comfortably high and slide down in a five-note pattern then back up to the starting pitch. Aim for a consistent timbre throughout the exercise. When the voice feels like it wants to switch or fall into a different ‘register’ do a few more, but try to keep it smooth for a few notes below what feels comfortable.
    • Flip your slide pattern upside down starting comfortably low then ascending through your upper range.
  • Sing your normal stuff!
  • When you are done with rehearsal or practice, REVERSE THESE STEPS to cool the voice down.

Current scholarship proposes that register shifts/lifts/ breaks are simply a matter of imbalanced muscle development. These slides are similar to lifting weights to balance the strength of the muscles that change the length of the vocal folds to facilitate changes in pitch. Do these things every day and you will hear (or not hear) 🙂 a difference!

‘Til next time!

Melissa Shallberg

MelShallberg@Gmail.com