The Depressed Larynx Epidemic in Classical Singing

Bad-Barking-dogThere is an awful lot of woofy singing in modern classical music schools and in opera houses at all levels. Larynxes are forced down in the effort to sound ever “bigger” and “more resonant”. It results in singers sounding old before their time, distorted vowels, difficulty with agility, and several behaviors layered on top of the depressed larynx in order to try to make the voice do what it could do so much more easily without the depression.

When singers attempt to “make space” to an extreme, this often results in the base of the tongue stiffening, along with the throat around it. This usually makes adduction of the folds more difficult, and so some kind of compensation comes into play to make them come together, such as constricting the throat and engaging more thoracic pressure. So, we have an artificial “oscuro” compensated for by a squeezed “chiaro”. Now we are on the modern hamster wheel of “breath and resonance, breath and resonance…” with most singers blasting their folds in order to support this system of “flow” and “resonance” within the cavern of a dysfunctionally distended vocal tract. It’s as if the larynx has been pushed out of the way and not allowed to do its job. Clarity, diction, and flexibility are reduced, but, by golly the sound is “big”.

The reasons why this happens come from good intentions. Classical singing is based on maximum resonance – acoustic loudness and projection. Loudness and projection are related, but not the same thing. A lighter voice’s full volume will never be as great as a heavier voice’s full volume. Projection, however, can be achieved by both when the sound is free of nonharmonic tones and the overtones that enhance the fundamental pitch are present. A smaller, clear sound can project as well or better than a huge woofy sound.

When training voices, one needs to get the voice moving, expand the range, coordinate the registers, strengthen muscles, and create undistorted vowels, among other tasks. Maximizing resonance should come relatively late in the process, at least in relation to these things just mentioned. Worrying about maximizing resonance when there is constriction present, or ill-formed vowels, or lack of mobility in the various parts of the vocal tract, is like letting a baby use a chain saw.

It is easy to over-lower the larynx because it makes an immediate difference in the sound, and the vertical position of our larynx is something we can control directly. However, most of the other properties of the vocal mechanism are not directly controllable. Since it’s all inter-related we must be very careful about manipulating any one part. Unintended consequences are often a result.

There is lip service paid to not depressing the larynx. “Comfortably low” is a phrase I have heard frequently. What if it’s still “comfortable” but it migrates all vowels toward “uhl”, makes a person sound old and wobbly, and requires huge amounts of air pressure to activate? It seems that a lot of people are “comfortable” with that.

Ways must be found to maximize resonance above the level of the resting larynx as well as letting the larynx remain low in the throat. The vocal tract does not only extend “downward”!

When I hear young singers trying to make an “older” sound, or purposely “darkening” their voices, it saddens me. Voices need to be free. There is not such a vast gap between Nature and classical singing.

I leave you with a fine example of a large baritone voice that retained clear vowels, easy pitch variation, and an even vibrato that did not distort the pitch. No woof here! Justin Petersen has posted some more excellent examples.

10 Replies to “The Depressed Larynx Epidemic in Classical Singing”

  1. The only thing I can think of that is worse than a ‘depressed larynx’ is a raised larynx. Totally hamstrings a voice in all the ways you described but the timbre is white and open. As a university professor most of the students I encounter have never been taught the ancient concept of the open throat. The white colorless tone is the accepted academic sound, unfortunately. As in all things, balance is required! We want the colorful timbre but ALWAYS the bright vowel.

  2. Yes, Yes, Yes! I came across this article while prepping to restart lessons with a young baritone/bass this semester. Everything here is so well-said and so vital for singers and teachers to hear. Thank you!

  3. Spot on Article! I especially like your mention of layered behaviors that become necessary in order to compensate for the depressed condition. There is a cascading series of band aids that need to be employed in order to continue to make quality sounds with a depressed larynx which leads eventually to vocal failure.

  4. Hi, thank you for the post!

    Do you defend so a “neutral larynx” or a controlled low larynx (with no help of the tongue but only with the inhalations muscles)?

    1. Hello Nicolas, thanks for writing. I support both of those ideas. In most classical singing, where uniformity of resonance is considered important, keeping the larynx in a low suspension is usually desirable through most of the range, but it still must be able to move. I like the phrase “with no help of the tongue”. For me it is important that the larynx is suspended, not pushed down from above to the bottom of its potential location. For singers who need help finding a suspension that allows for the lower larynx, there are many mental and physical tricks that can work, and there is not one universal way to teach it. In styles not needing a long vocal tract and/or a high decibel output, the larynx’s suspension can be at a higher place in the throat.

      In all styles, it needs to be free to move. A little up or a little down, depending on pitch, vowel, and intensity.

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