Five years ago, I posted about the concept of “open throat” and what that might mean. Since that time, I have read the books of David Clark Taylor where he uses the term “throat stiffness”, which I like. The awareness of stiffness or suppleness of the throat helps me more than “openness” to monitor conditions in the vocal tract. I can feel stiffness or softness. I can’t really feel openness, it being negative space, in a sense. These perceptions are highly personal.
In the vocal tract, where does the “throat” begin? Check out this page showing the anatomy of the pharynx and especially the constrictor muscles of the pharynx where all sorts of mischief happens. Why do I say “mischief”? The first sentence on the page gives clues: “The pharynx is a muscular tube that connects the nasal cavities to the larynx and oesophagus. It is common to both the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts.” When we attempt to shape the pharynx a certain way in singing, we can sometimes confuse the constrictor muscles, which were designed to help us eat. They can contract automatically when we wish they would not, creating problems with optimal singing.
I got into a lot of trouble over the years trying to open my throat to the maximum for singing. It backfired, causing my throat to have excessive muscular contraction. It is a balancing act for many of us to figure out how to “leave alone” the parts that might contract automatically while optimizing the vowels and resonances we want to sing with. For me, conceptualizing my activity as “above” a certain latitude on my face was helpful. This allowed me to have a softer throat and continue to release the base of the tongue from trying to help things.
Many teachers and singers have developed helpful concepts and tricks for avoiding throat stiffness. Some singers make progress only thinking of vowel and sound. Some singers need a period of thinking about mechanics (“lift this latch to open that door” types of thoughts). Eventually, the more useful, freeing behavior needs to become habit, at which point it passes from conscious “doing” to automatic response. If a behavior is called on that resists this transition from doing to responding, it should be dropped and other things should be tried.
If you can play with space and sound without locking the larynx, you are doing well.