Kashu-do (歌手道): Low Larynx and Pure Vowels… And Efficient Phonation Too: A Tripod Solution

I have quoted the legendary Richard Miller here a few times regarding the “Lowered Larynx”. He coined a phrase that make nerdy vocal pedagogues chuckle: “The history of the lowered larynx is a long and depressing one…” In a previous post, I dealt with the issue in a practical way, based on some experiences I have had at that time.  As I progress in my own vocal technique, I have become more philosophical about this issue and the other issues that are connected to it.  Let us deal with the three controversial issues that make up the title of this post!

1)  In the linked post,  I recommended a laryngeal position that is flexible and not rigid but I also spoke about one that was not pushed down too low.  As practical as it is, it does not tell the singer how low is too low.  Modern pedagogues like the late Richard Miller tend to take a practical position on the matter and I seemed to have advocated an even more practical approach, which puts me in the same category. But as I have often said, vocal science is a beginning!  Singing requires something a bit less heady!  More on this later!

2) Modern pedagogues are just as wary of the lowered larynx (AKA open throat) as they are of the term “Pure Vowels”!  I have often said, there are no such things as pure vowels.  The vowel quality changes on every pitch change.  Yet I have also said if we think of changing the vowel actively we will tend to exaggerate and the result would be imprecise diction.

My point of view in recents months has been tweaked to reflect what I have often advocated here on this blo–that great singing is achieving a balance between what often appear to be contrary ideas. — Indeed to many teachers the concepts of open throat and pure vowel are incompatible which is why singers often feel like a “yoyo” when they move from one teacher to another.  Many ideas from the first teacher (if such ideas were one-sided) often prompts a contrary response from the second teacher (eg. If one teacher advocated pure vowels that causes a high larynx, then the next teacher might advocate a low larynx, citing necessary vowel modification resulting in dull vowels and imprecise diction).

The root of the problem is indeed at the “root” of the tongue, the so called hyoglossus muscle, which originates from the Hyoid bone and inserts at the base of the tongue.

Since muscles contract in the direction of the point of origin, the contracting Hyoglossus muscle pulls the root of the tongue down when it contracts.  It is also important to note that the laryngeal structure suspends from the Hyoid bone (the only bone in the body that does not attach to any other bone).  Therefore when laryngeal depressor muscles pull the larynx downward, it causes a domino effect that then causes a pull on the hyoglossus and therefore a pull on the base of the tongue.  

The difficult skill that a singer must learn is to achieve the low larynx by contraction of the laryngeal depressors as opposed to the assistance of a the base of the tongue pulled down by the contraction of the hyoglossus.  “Facilitating” the lowering of the larynx in this way traps the tongue in a rigid position that makes the precise shaping of vowels nearly impossible. When the tongue is not free to migrate, the laryngeal position cannot remain stable, for vowels such as [i] and [e], which require a higher position of the back of the tongue would result in raising the larynx from the lowered position.  This is the most significant reason why the larynx rises with the [i] vowel and then migrates low with vowels such as [u] and [a].

Therefore, exercises must be utilized that encourage a lower laryngeal position without impeding neither the paradoxal movement of the back of the tongue (upwards)–for vowels like [i] and [e]– nor the relatively flat position of the tongue for the [a] vowel.  One-sided exercises do not work!

Yawning while singing as a means of achieving the low larynx is frowned upon by many teachers, fearing the very conditions of retracted tongue root that is discussed above.  Yet yawning is a very specific sensation that all singers can deal with and it does activate laryngeal depressors as well as palatal levitators enlarging the pharyngeal space.  

The solution is the following:  sing a yawned [i] vowel! If the problem is tongue retraction, the yawned [i] is the ideal solution.  The yawn activates laryngeal depressors while forcing relaxation of the hyoglossus.  This paradoxal (two-way) movement trains the laryngeal depressors to function without causing tongue retraction from rigidity in the hyoglossus.  

This however is not all.  Yawning also tends to cause a relaxation of the inter-arytenoid muscles that bring the vocal folds to midline in order to achieve complete closure.  A singer must learn to achieve a yawn all the while maintaining efficiency in phonation.  I personally identify correct laryngeal closure as the vocal fry (The vocal fry is of course an unsupported sound, i.e. the efficient sound that occurs before adequate pressure is added to the folds to cause a sustained regular vibration that we recognize as a sung pitch)  and believe that this flexible mode of onset that brings the folds together completely simultaneously coordinated with the breath must be what Garcia meant by the “coup de glotte” (defined as glottal stroke, distinguishing from a glottal strike or plosive).  Exercising and practicing the sensation of the “vocal fry” encourages vibration along the muscosa layer of the focal folds, avoiding the medial pressure associated with the glottal plosive.  This facilitates a balance between pressure and flow at onset of sound.  The glottal stroke needs to be as fast as “scratching a match” and relatively gentle.  Grinding the fry will cause too much friction of the fold cover and could result in pressed voice.

Efficiency in phonation is reflected in the clear nature of the sung or spoken vowels.  If there is no rigidity at onset, pressure/flow balance will be maintained and the larynx then can be lowered without resistance from excessive sub-glottal pressure.  Complete glottal closure and a comfortably lowered larynx provide both a rich overtone structure and balance between the low and high side of the spectrum because the lower overtones depend on low larynx (i.e. greater dimensions of the lower pharyngeal area is necessary for lower harmonics and the increase in pharyngeal size help create the conditions [1:6 ration between pharynx and epilarynx] for the singer’s formant).

Pure vowel, the sine qua non of compelling vocal expression, must be defined as the intelligibility of language in the listener’s ear as the speaker/singer imagines it.  This specificity of language, besides guaranteeing flexibility and precision in vocal tract adjustments (i.e. adequate lowering of the larynx as well as shaping of the tongue), may have a positive influence on glottal closure.  The singer’s desire to be understood has an effect on the efficiency of the phonation, because intelligibility is precisely the objective of communication.

Glottal efficiency creates strength in the entire acoustic envelope making it unnecessary to  either raise the larynx to achieve a brighter sound (i.e. eliminating lower partials to accentuate the presence of high ones) or retract the tongue to achieve a darker sound (i.e. eliminating high partials to accentuate lower ones).

In essence, with these three issues, we are confronted with the analogy of a tripod, whereby three legs must necessarily have the same length to achieve balance.  These three elements, committed to completely in ways that may seems extreme, constitutes a check and balances system that prevents exaggeration in all three elements.  Add breath management and the tripod is turned to a four legged table whereby the same interdependence is necessary.  The fundamental pillars of technique, phonation, space management (i.e. pharyngeal space and shaping via tongue and lips) and breathing must be thought of in absolute terms.  When they are all applied together, they balance each other out preventing excess in any one single functionary part.  Achieving balance is where the singer and not the scientist or even voice teacher can finish the product.  The singer’s personal understanding of his/her complete sound and process finishes the final sound, the final balance.  This is why, my technical approach needs to be worked out every day in order to figure out where better balance can be achieved.  I have begun video taping myself lately to see as well as hear what aspect of my technique could be improved on:

My coach will have a field day with this video looking all of the bodily up and downs trying to connect to my breath!  I post this quick example to illustrate my attempt at maintaining balance on a very difficult phrase.  The richness and flexibility of the lower range is not quite mastered yet in the high range, so the high B although good can be improved on.  When the structures are all refined, my body will be stiller and I won’t worry so much about securing the top note.  It is hard enough to practice one element, but amalgamating the different elements into a single sensation is what the singer’s goal should be.  Sometimes the elements can and should be practiced separately, but one should know that final results are never achieved in balance until all elements contribute together toward a flexible, centered whole.

©  02/07/2013

One thought on “Kashu-do (歌手道): Low Larynx and Pure Vowels… And Efficient Phonation Too: A Tripod Solution

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  1. Great post! The subjects of your recent posts have really been eerily relevant to where I am in my development.

    A couple of questions/ponderings:

    You say, if I'm getting it right, that the larynx should (at least by visual measure) be in the same position on a given pitch, regardless of the vowel being sung?

    If it changes position between, say, [i/e/y] and [u/o/a], that would be a sign of tension in the tongue root, yes? Then that is what is happening to me right now.

    I've tried relaxing the tongue but that leads to mush instead of vowels. Instead I've started to really concetrate on the feeling of lowering that occurs at inhalation, hoping to keep the strap muscles active to stabilize the larynx. So far I've had some good results but honestly I feel that muscles in the throat are working. But perhaps this is to be expected when breaking old habits and putting more strain on unaccustomed muscles?

    All the best,


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