Something that makes the voice very unique is that „the instrument“ is part of our body. We’ve talked about breathing, the foundation of our lives, and breath support, the foundation of our singing. Both of these things are actually automatic mechanisms and just need a certain amount of coordination when you sing.
The sound we produce, through pushing air against our vocal folds, is amplified by resonating. Resonance is a major part of how our voices sound and can be altered by the way we form our Vocal Tract.
📖TERM. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, resonance is the production of sound, as a result of the vibration (shaking) of another object. In this case, the objects set on vibration are in our vocal tract, described below.
What is the Vocal tract?
The vocal tract is a cavity, shaped like a tube and is responsible for producing sound! This tube can be approximately 16.9 cm in males and 14.1 cm in adult females.
The main parts of the vocal tract are the Oral Cavity, the Nasal Cavity, the pharynx, and the larynx.
The mouth, lips, teeth, and cheeks are part of the oral cavity.
The nasal cavity is basically the space we have behind our nose. This cavity connects the nasal and oral cavities to the larynx.
The pharynx is the most important resonator. This is due to its position, degree of adjustability, and size.
It consists of two parts:
- the esophagus, which goes down into your stomach, and
- the trachea, which goes down into your lungs.
📌FACT. The pharynx is very important in digestion and respiration.
The larynx also called the voice box or Adam´s apple holds the vocal cords. This is the part where the sound is actually produced. It can modify pitch and volume, through proper breath coordination and it lies on top of the trachea, which protects it against food aspiration. It serves to form an air passage to the trachea, which connects down to our lungs.
So what happens is: When we sing, which is basically exhaling, we push air against our vocal folds. These start to vibrate and distribute the vibration in the vocal tract. Now, the vibration of the vocal tract can be altered by the vocal tract’s shape, size, and tension of its walls. The interesting part about this is, that some parts of the vocal tract can be changed in shape, size by us.
How do we shape our vocal tract?
It might seem silly because as soon as you breathe through your mouth it’s open right?
Yes, but still many singers have to be reminded of opening the mouths properly and it is a thing they consciously have to think about. If you open your mouth properly (meaning – wide but not exaggerated) your sound will have more volume, it will get warmer and richer because of more room for overtones. Furthermore your pronunciation understandability will be better.
Many vocal problems are caused by stiff and tensed jaws. This might be originated in poor habits like mumbling, that unfortunately, many people have! Some also think that holding their jaws together conserves air and they can sing longer. That is a misconception! The length of a tone is dependent on our breath support and coordination.
We all know the problem of running out of air! But again, the length of a note is all about breath support and not about any other muscular activity in your vocal tract!
Something inexperienced singers sometimes do is: tense the back part of their tongues as soon as they run out of air. The tensed part thickens and partly closes off the throat, this leads to tensed throat muscles and a tensed pharyngeal cavity. Trying to regulate the airflow with tension in the vocal tract results in constriction – which can be harmful to your voice and doesn’t sound nice!
💡TIP. Something that can influence the open throat is for example your posture. As soon as our head and neck position are aligned, the throat space widens and gives more room for air to come through, and resonance to take place.
🏋️EXERCISE 1. Lowering your larynx – widening your throat. Put the thumb and index finger to your larynx (vocal box) and feel it. Now do a Yawn movement and feel where your larynx is going. It is going down. This movement of lowering your larynx increases the pharyngeal length, which gives more room to resonance, so your sound gets louder, warmer, richer, etc.
Constriction mostly happens when we have to sing high and don’t have proper breath support. The air pressure is not regulated, we quickly lose a lot of air and our larynx goes up. To countervail the loss of air, we tense up our jaw, tongue, and throat muscles, and lift the larynx. This creates a constricted sound that is often out of tune. Many untrained singers have that problem and are devastated, might think they can’t sing, etc. But all they actually need to work on is breath support!
🏋️EXERCISE2. Lifting your larynx (Mendelsohn maneuver) Put your thumb and index finger to your larynx, start to swallow, and use your throat muscles to stop your larynx on its highest point, for a couple of seconds.
The Vocal Tract is magical, it is one reason for us to be able to speak how we do it every day! Gaining control and coordination of shaping it, gives you many sound options you can use to establish your own style! But like always it is part of a mechanical system whose foundation lies on breath support! So before you get started, be sure to have proper breath support!
- Singing From The Inside Out – Ineke van Doorn
- (SmC) Your Voice: An Inside View (second ed.), Scott McCoy, Inside View Press 2012
- (JC) Singing and Teaching Singing (second ed.), Janice L. Chapman, Plural Publishing 2012
- (DSV) Dynamics of the Singing Voice (fifth edition), M Bunch Dayme, SpringerWienNewYork
- (TV) Geography of the Voice (second ed.). Obert, Kerrie B; Chicurel, Steven R (2005).