The throat has four functions that can affect our singing. These functions are breathing, swallowing, communication and yawning. All of these functions are very natural, however there are only three that benefit the voice: breathing, communication and yawning. The function of swallowing can be detrimental to the voice but can be combated with a lowered larynx.
Let’s test it out! Place your fingers lightly on your larynx. For men, it’s easy to find. It’s the part that sticks out the most on the front of the throat, under the chin. This is also called the “Adam’s Apple.” For women, it’s a little more difficult to feel. It is located roughly in the area of the throat where skin of the head meets the skin of the neck. Try a yawn. Notice how the larynx drops and comes back to the middle of the windpipe. Now try a swallow. The larynx raises and returns to a relaxed, middle position. Now say “lowered larynx.” Notice how the larynx bobs up and down, slightly in the the middle, neither rising too high or descending. This is the communication function. Each of these functions places the larynx in a different position.
Singing is communication. Think about it. If we simply say “What time is it?,” the vocal chords and diaphragm (see blog post “Proper Breathing…”) both engage to make shorts sounds to form words and phrases. If we were to sing this phrase, “What time is iiiiiiiiiit?,” the words and tones are held out. Although the sounds are lengthened, the function is still the same.
Sometimes the complex muscles of the swallow function can interfere with the delicate muscles of communication. That’s when we start to have vocal problems. As we sing, the larynx has a tendency to raise and engage swallow muscles. These muscles weigh heavy on the vocal chords and “slap” them together as we sing. Over time, the vocal chords swell and we either lose our voice or permanently damage it.
The Solution to a Lowered Larynx
In order for the communication muscles, and ONLY the communication muscles, to work while we sing, the larynx must stay in a middle position. How do we do that? You may notice that the higher the pitch rises when you sing, the higher the larynx rises. Not to worry. Although this is a big problem, it’s very common. Remember earlier when the larynx dropped as you yawned? Yawning can be used to correct a high larynx. Try the yawn again. Notice how the back of the throat creates a large space to take in oxygen. It’s this space that the singer relies on to keep a lowered larynx when notes rise. This space can also give you a bigger sound so you don’t have to work so hard.
So, the singer has to play a balancing game. If the note is in the middle range, then they can use a small yawn. As the note rises, the yawn gets bigger, creating more space. Beware though. If the larynx goes too low, it will give you an “oafy” sound, much like the sounds you make if you’ve ever talked while yawning.
See for Yourself
You can train your larynx to lower as you sing with the simple vowel sound “uh.” If you are currently working vocal scales with a syllable like “la, la, la,” try it with “luh, luh, luh.” If “nee, nee, nee…,” try “nuh, nuh, nuh…” This will open the back of the throat and help you to maintain a lowered larynx. Remember, the higher the note, the bigger the yawn.