Me Like A Larynx"
(. . . because I'm not a horn, guitar or drum!)
there. Allow me to introduce
myself. I'm your larynx and, although I've been with you all your
life, chances are you don't know me very well.
I work all day automatically protecting your lungs from food or
fluid getting in and coughing up whatever junk needs to get out.
I also make lifting easier by holding air in your lungs which
lets your body stiffen up. While these things are very important,
my biggest claim to fame is that I can make sounds. Mostly I get
used for speech, but with a little coordination you can turn my
sounds into something melodic. If the sounds I make are important
to your music, it would be a good idea to take some time and explore
what it takes to play me.
Although I can be as loud as a trumpet, I'm
not made of metal. So it's not a good idea to blow as hard as
you can in me; I have some delicate parts. Just because I can
move around a pitch like a slide trombone doesn't mean I'm one
of those either. As you know, I come in different sizes with
names like Soprano, Alto and Tenor but that doesn't mean I'm
played like a saxophone. Although there are no strings inside
me, my vibrators can be stretched just like the strings on a
guitar. In fact, I don't belong to any of the three categories
of musical instruments: wind, string or percussion. This is
why there's a completely separate category for what I do; it's
It's simple. You don't blow on guitar strings
to play a song or strum a drum to keep a beat. Every instrument
has a particular set of physical requirements. Yet when it comes
to the voice people tend to play it with principles that apply
to other instruments. There are four components to almost every
instrument. Each has an actuator (something to trigger the sound),
a vibrator (something that wiggles to make a sound), a resonator
(something to enhance the original vibration) and an articulator
to shape things on the way out. Actuators are guitar picks,
violin bows, drum sticks, hands and wind power. Vibrators are
things like strings, drum heads, mouth pieces, reeds and vocal
folds. Sound resonates in the enclosed space of an acoustic
guitar, a drum, a saxophone or in your throat, mouth and nose.
Articulators are anything from wah-wah pedals to the plunger
used at the end of a trumpet to your lips and tongue.
Most vocal problems are caused by over compensating
the actuator (sending me too much breath pressure). This is
typical behavior for beginners on any instrument. Music stores
are always filled with kids sitting there squeezing their guitar
picks and bearing down on the strings as they show their friends
how awesome they play. When people first attempt to sing they
also squeeze the pick (neck tension) and bear down too hard
on the vibrator (drive the air). The difference is that, over
time, kids will relax their death grip on the guitar and develop
the necessary touch whereas singers tend to go in the opposite
direction. In search of control, singers tend to push more,
as if they're blowing into a trumpet. The problem is that a
trumpet is an inanimate object and requires additional pressure
for high notes. I am a part of your anatomy and respond in unmusical
ways when overloaded.
You can learn a lot about singing by studying
the differences between playing an instrument and using a part
of your body to make music. First, though, it's important to
remember that the laws of sound are the same for everything.
Instruments come already designed to agree with these laws.
To maximize tone, most instruments have vibrators (that's me!)
which float in or around a resonator. The strings on a guitar,
for example, are suspended over the sound hole and barely touch
the body at all. In the same way, if you let me float freely
in your throat I'll sound as rich as I possibly can. I know
it's not easy to keep me hanging loose when you're pouring your
heart out, but the laws of sound don't care what's easy!
Singing accurate pitches also requires an agreement with simple
science. A pitch is nothing more than something vibrating a
steady number of wiggles per second. Scientists call it a frequency.
To sing high notes, you've got to stretch my folds just like
you would tune a guitar. The tighter you stretch something,
the faster it wiggles, the higher the pitch it produces. At
the same time, everything gets thinner when stretched. This
means my folds need to get thin to make high notes and will
thicken to make low notes. Again, just like the strings on a
guitar. Now hold on, because here's where I assert my independence
from all these guitar comparisons. You can also sing higher
notes by feeding me more air pressure -- like a trumpet. The
problem with singing high notes this way is that extra air pressure
makes my folds thicken up and become rigid whereas the mouthpiece
on a trumpet stays the same. Since nothing can be thick and
thin at the same time, I don't always give you the pitch you
were expecting. Sorry about that!
Providing me with a consistent environment that
aligns with the laws of sound will allow me to serve you much
better. In short, the list of problems caused by approaching
me the wrong way is everything you don't like about your voice.
That's good news. It means that your sound is based on misguided
beliefs and dysfunctional behaviors that can change. Learning
what an instrument requires is what lessons are all about. How
you apply that information is what defines you as an artist.
There's nothing wrong with pounding on a guitar like it's a
drum, but the instrument certainly has more to offer when played
traditionally. In the same way, I can be blown like a horn,
stretched like a guitar and smacked like a bongo. You'll get
the most out of me, though, if you play me like a larynx.
Baxter is a vocal therapist
who offers private and video lessons. To contact him, call:
(800)659-6002. Visit his website at: www.voicelesson.com
with the kind permission of Mark