Tension and Release: A paradox of strength

The most common concepts I hear among singers singing professionally are those of “connecting to the body” and “releasing the breath”. What is however difficult is getting a simple answer from them as to what these terms mean. To make matters more difficult, I also hear the phrases “connecting to the breath” and “releasing the body”. So where do we begin with this constant “chicken and egg” story? As always from the science!

Connecting to the body or to the breath, like most terminology based on proprioception, is an attempt to explain a resultant sensation when the causal functions are not understood. The confusion comes from not understanding the inherent paradoxical nature of singing. The majority of singers and teachers of singing do not like the term, “tension”. It is easier to refer to the tension that is felt when the voice is properly functioning in euphemistic terminology like “connecting to the body” and “engaging the breath”. Some prefer to avoid all sensations of tension and speak only in terms of “release” and “relaxation”. Whatever one-sided terminology is used will result ultimately in imbalance. Balanced singing is based on contrary forces acting upon each other to create a state of stability, while very energetic work is being performed. No viable aspect of “acoustic singing” (i.e. unamplified operatic singing) is performed without tension. That tension however is balanced tension.

What is it then that gives the sensation of connection to the body or the breath? It is simply the sub-glottal pressure that is created when the vocal folds close fully against the oncoming breath. For that reason, I take a line from the many axioms of a great voice teacher, Lloyd Hanson, who says: “There is no discussion of breath support without first assuring efficient phonation.” (I paraphrase). If that is all that is needed for that feeling of connection, why don’t we do everything possible to simply get the vocal folds to come together fully? Many people do just that! The result is often what we refer to as excessive medial pressure or “pressing”. There are many unbalanced ways to get the vocal folds together when “release” is not part of the equation, which begs the question: “What is release, and how is it compatible with tension?”

The truth is that the right amount of tension is not possible without the correct means of release. I have discussed here extensively regarding the balance of musculature that produces efficient phonation. We must assume first of all that those muscles (primarily, crico-thyroid, thyro-arytenoid [lateral and vocalis], crio-arytenoid and inter-arytenoid) are functioning in balanced antagonism with one another, thereby producing a phonation model that is efficient. In such a model, the vocal folds come completely in contact during every adduction (closure) cycle. Such a balanced muscular state cannot be possible unless the tongue is not interfering with the phonation process. Therefore, it is presupposed that the tongue is functioning as it should. Given that the tongue is the primary element of resonance, it follows that resonance function is also correct enough to support the phonation process as opposed to hindering it.

In the correctly functioning voice, resonance is indeed the agent of release. When the vocal tract is properly tuned with the sung pitch (fundamental and overtones), the air, above the vocal folds, assumes a remarkable acoustic state called, “supra-glottal inertial air.” In this acoustic state, the air above the glottis behaves in concert with the movement of the vocal folds, acting like a vacuum (negative pressure) that one moment accelerates the close phase and then like a leaf blower (positive pressure) increasing the opening phase the next. The vibration of the vocal folds therefore covers a larger distance (amplitude), however the accelerated close phase is fairly quick. This can also be called a comparatively much more efficient vibratory model whereby the close phase is quick and complete and the open phase allows for greater airflow.This “glottal impedance” occurs only when the vocal tract is in consonance with the sung pitch (i.e. one of the formant spaces [above or below the tongue] is in tune with the fundamental or one of the overtones of the sung pitch).

In a sense, it is not helpful to talk about phonation and resonance (tension and release) in terms of the chicken or the egg. The ideal resonance adjustment that produces glottal impedance cannot occur without a full glottal closure that is independent of extraneous tension. Likewise, balanced phonation cannot exist in a situation whereby extraneous muscular tension deforms the ideal dimensions of the vocal tract.

As per the title of this issue, the ideal balance of phonation and resonance depends on muscular strength. Each set of muscles must be developed strongly enough to function in concert with its antagonistic counterparts. Even a weak set of crico-thyroid muscles can stretch the vocal folds of a basso profundo to create a high C. Of course that high C would be in falsetto. The issue therefore is not whether the CT can stretch the vocal folds adequately, but whether they can while enduring the kind of antagonistic action from the vocalis muscles, to produce lengthy vocal folds that are bulky enough to resist the power of the sub-glottal air pressure. If not, then the vocalis will win the tug-o-war and the pitch will lower. Likewise, it is important that during this action that the inter-arytenoid muscles can complete the closing of the glottis. That too is an issue of strength. In the case of singers who do not have easy high notes, the issue is one of strength building over time. High notes come gradually when the singer slowly and deliberately practices higher and higher notes, developing strength in them such that they can withstand the sub-glottal pressure necessary for performance level volume.

Ideal resonance and phonation is a natural state that was trained in us as we developed the vocal capacity to make sound as babies. These sounds communicate primal needs. Watching a baby cry or laugh with joy shows the complete function that we as singers aspire to. The greater paradox in all of this is that most singers attempt to learn something they always knew how to do.

© 07/23/2008; corrected 07/25/2008

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