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Tips for Singers:
"Play Me Like A Larynx"
(. . . because I'm not a horn, guitar or drum!)

by Mark Baxter

Voicelesson.comHello 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 called singing.

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.

Mark Baxter is a vocal therapist who offers private and video lessons. To contact him, call: (800)659-6002. Visit his website at:

(reprinted with the kind permission of Mark Baxter)

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