Healthy speaking and singing

August 28, 2014
May 26, 2022
Healthy speaking and singing

The importance of retracting when you use your voice

I have recently found in a whole host of students that they are constricting when they speak and as a result, constricting when they sing. I am coming up against this so often that I felt it is worth writing about.

To explain the mechanics briefly: Next to the lovely, small, white vocal folds we have what we call the ‘false folds’. If you have seen a scope or picture of the larynx, these are the red fleshy bits next to the true vocal folds. They are very useful as they close when we swallow. This prevents food from going down our windpipe. However they also cause all sorts of problems when they press inwards or constrict. When you hold your breath, grunt, caught, rasp, make a ‘dirty’, raspy sound, the false folds are constricting inwards. This stops the true folds from vibrating freely. Good singers have nice, open, retracted false folds. The false folds are responsive to emotion. When we are sad and angry and tired or stressed and in shock, they tend to start constricting. When we laugh or giggle, they open and retract.

It is a rather modern habit to speak with a rasp. Professional singers simply must not do this. Speaking is the activity your vocal folds are pursuing most of your day. Therefore the way you speak influences your muscle memory, your muscle set-up and the challenges you will face when you sing. If you speak with a rasp, you are practicing constriction. Don’t do it!

So how do you practice retraction? This is best demonstrated in a singing lesson. However, try the following: Breathe in and out of your mouth quickly so that you can hear the breath going in and out. Now think of something funny, imagine you are about to burst out laughing and breathe in and out so that you cannot hear it. Do this for about a minute and notice the feeling of width in your throat. Some coaches call this the ‘laughing larynx’. The air you inhale should feel as if cold air is hitting the back of your throat. This feeling of openness is incredibly important for singing. It is absolutely crucial for Belt. You must retract BEFORE you sing, not after already making a ‘gripped’ note. You can practice retracting anywhere, on the bus, the tube, whilst doing the dishes.

I teach many West End Swings who have to deliver high strong Belt. When these singers start rasping on a high note habitually, it is a downward spiral. I find it takes about 3 weeks to reverse this. It does take a lot of concentration. But it can be the difference between cracking on a high note and delivering the goods.