Phonation 1 (Introduction)

It is good to begin our discussion with phonation because phonation is at its best an automatic function. In fact vocal function as a whole is an automatic process. As babies, we were all able to make perfectly efficient sounds by simply wishing it. This is the way we naturally develop. At the early stages of fetal development we are indistinguishable from other mammals in the way we look and in the ways we develop. The vocal folds form and begin spontaneous vibrations at the end of the first trimester (10th week) unless there is a problem in development. In short, vocal fold vibration at its most efficient level does not need our conscious help. Like moving a finger, we only need to desire it and the brain makes it happen. If that’s the case, why do we need to learn to phonate in singing?

There are a couple of significant reasons: 1) the musculature responsible for coordinating phonation, particularly when it comes to operatic singing, requires a certain amount of toning. 2) As soon as the human brain develops enough we gain the ability to mimic. It is the way we learn human behavior. These two facts, outside of congenital anomalies and genetically or environmentally influenced deformities, are the two most significant reasons for the vocal dysfunctions we develop. If the sounds we mimic are compatible with the make-up and muscular capacities of our vocal mechanism, then we will tend to spontaneously make those sounds in ways that do not violate the natural functions of the mechanism. However, attempting to create sounds that the instrument is either not designed to make or not muscularly conditioned to make will necessitate hyper-function (excessive muscular activity) or hypo-function (insufficient muscular activity) or compensatory function (unnecessary muscular activity) or a combination thereof (let us call them functional imbalances).

I sang a lot to my daughter when she was a baby. She was so sensitive to singing that she matched pitch by the time she was two months old. She also became very attached to my voice which is naturally much lower in pitch than hers. By the time she was two years old, she sang a lot. She used to ask me to give her voice lessons like I gave to my students. We had mock voice lessons (I had her sing simple scales and played accompaniments to her favorite simple songs). I noticed then that she had a very chesty voice and she had difficulty accessing the lighter mechanism. So I began so sing with her in falsetto without any commentary. Over time, she developed a very natural transition from her lower range to the upper.

Functional imbalances become problematic when they become habitual. Our brain has the nasty tendency of accepting the new habit to such a degree that we begin to consider it natural. Given this tendency, when I first hear a student, I do not assume that the voice that comes out (speaking or singing) is the true voice, whether he or she has had training before or not at all. Only with experience can we learn to recognize balance in the phonatory process.

The following video gives us a very valuable diagnosis of vocal imbalance and distinguishes between two conditions that are often confused for one another: muscle tension dysphonia and supraglottic squeeze. The first part of the video is especially significant to our discussion. Notice in the slow motion section of the video how the vocal folds come together perfectly, then bulk up considerably to produced a pressure between the two folds and finally open up at the posterior end. However, the breathy nature and weak acoustic yield of the young singer’s voice suggests hypo-function. This is a paradoxical situation where muscular hyper-function yields an apparent hypo-function aesthetically. Something influenced the young girl to go beyond her natural ability to phonate. She wanted more than was natural for her, or perhaps she wanted something simply different from her true sound. It is worthwhile repeating that an ideal adduction coordination is observed just before the young singer begins to squeeze beyond that coordination. Looking ahead, remedying her hyper-function has to do with undoing the portion of the phonatory pattern after the natural adduction phase (i.e. the squeezing phase of adduction).

For voice teachers, this video also has a major significance. One of the scientific issues that has filtered down to undergraduate vocal pedagogy classes and therefore to the large number of young people who become voice teachers in their communities is the concept of the mutational chink. William Vennard, one of the early vocal science pioneers introduced the idea that the inability to close the posterior (cartilaginous) third of the vocal folds is a symptom of undeveloped musculature. However, given the present video, I ask myself whether a great number of those cases are not the result of muscular tension dysphonia (MTD) rather than hypo-function of the undeveloped inter-arytenoid muscles that are supposed to close the back end of the vocal folds. However, we would have to subscribe to Dr. Thomas’ definition of the term and I do. I find his explanation very logical.

How would we then remedy the breathy phonation exhibited by this young girl? Rather than try to induce vocal fold closure by increasing medial pressure (common sense approach), knowing what we see on this video, it would seem necessary to make the counter-intuitive choice: have her sing lighter (in the direction of an easy sigh, for instance). This approach would reduce the contraction that brought the vocal processes so far in. The lighter approach would also help reduce the muscular action that causes the bulking of the vocal folds. The compensatory counteraction that causes the abduction (separation) of the vocal folds at the posterior end would no longer be necessary and the folds would in essence meet completely by reducing muscular activity (less work).

This situation instructs us in many ways about the basic principles of vocal pedagogy: 1)The true voice is the most efficient voice. 2)Efficiency means greater vocal power achieved by the least amount of work necessary. 3)Correct function is automatic unless the singer in question has learned some bad habits (most of us have). 4) The teacher’s job is to bring the student to correct function, which involves undoing faulty muscular habits ( as not to interfere with the natural process) rather then learning new muscular function.

Finally, this is a situation that most likely cannot be properly diagnosed with the naked ear. However, an easy test would reveal whether the problem was hypo-function or hyper-function. If it is hyper-function as in the video, singing lighter (a light hum, for instance) would bring the folds together. If it is hypo-function, singing higher, which has the virtues of 1) bringing the folds together more closely and 2) increased longitudinal tension (antagonism between vocalis and crico-thyroid groups), which makes the fold cover bulk slightly, would help bring the folds to full closure.

In our times, it is important for the voice teacher to learn as much as possible about vocal anatomy in order to come up with solutions that make sense. Today, students cannot afford daily voice lessons as they did in the 19th century. But time does have a way of providing a solution. What has been lost in terms of the impracticableness of daily voice lessons is correctable through the pedagogical efficiency that is possible with newly discovered science and newly developed technology. © 12/29/2007

Coming next: Philosophy 1 (Science and Vocal Anatomy)