The vocal environment – pharynx

Cornelius Reid wrote often about the environment in which a voice responds. He liked to refer to the environment as pitch, vowel, and volume. There is, of course, a lot more than that, and I’d like to begin to go there today. Some other environmental factors are physiological, psychological, acoustical, and cultural.

This post is about an aspect of the physiological environment in which singing happens: the shape of the pharynx. A quick definition of “pharynx” is: “the membrane-lined cavity behind the nose and mouth, connecting them to the esophagus.” For today’s purposes, I’m talking about the area from the back of the mouth down to the larynx.

My teacher, David Jones, has had me experiment with pharyngeal shapes, what he calls “pharyngeal stretch”. He said that some people need to think of a stretch from “side to side”, while others may need to think of “front to back” to obtain more sound with less effort.

I can hear some past teachers hollering in my head right now. “Don’t mess with your throat!” “Danger, danger!” “That’s unnatural.” A teacher who was born with a resting vocal tract that is closer to an ideal shape may think efforts to explore “wide” or “deep” are ridiculous. But if I practice Mr. X’s “method” for years, conscientiously and to the letter, doing everything he asks, and I still sound weak, do I accept that, or may I dare to believe that all avenues have not been exhausted?

Working with David Jones’s idea of “wide pharynx” has been hugely helpful for me. My sound carries better and there is more balance in the overtones. My vibrato is more even, and other technical tasks are generally easier as well. Therefore, for the last few months I have been making it a habit and love it. I can’t say for certain that my pharynx is wider, but the proprioceptive attempt feels wider, has good results, and is repeatable. I’ll accept it as I experience it.

Classical singing is a very enhanced mode of vocalizing. The sounds are bigger and quite overtone-rich compared to crooning, which is my default. Although I can croon over a wide range with ease, my and others’ search for “more voice” in my singing has always been challenging. Although classical singing is not “natural” for me, I know that many exhilarating human activities are not natural, and I still want to do them! I want to sing the art song literature as well as I can, and I want to unleash whatever vocal potential I possess.

I have possible theories about why this pharyngeal stretch helps me so much: needing to learn a vocal function far beyond speech, stretching out tonsillectomy scarring, working through fear, changing my belief about the kinds of sounds I can make, correcting proprioceptive concepts of what it means to sing strong, or just dealing with the way I’m built, with a long slender tract in a tall, long-necked body. What I have come to realize is that the environment in which my voice works best includes a better-configured pharyngeal space in which to vibrate. It feels like a different physical attitude in my throat. I like it.

We are all so physically different, including and especially in our vocal tracts. Voices are unique because bodies and their owners are unique. Some people need this or that concept, trick, technique, or attitude to make a breakthrough, while someone naturally vocally endowed may say “What’s the big deal?” or “Not necessary.” or “You simply don’t have a viable voice.” Screw that!

Most singers have to overcome two major sources of bullshit: poor teaching and unhelpful self-talk. If something isn’t working, never stop looking for something better. Even after many years as a musician and teacher, I’m still making progress with how to operate this avatar in the act of singing, and it’s exciting!

If you enjoy this blog, consider grabbing a copy of Sane Singing: A Guide to Vocal Progress, available in print and ebook!

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