Cornelius Reid on Throat Constriction

“The attack, as we have seen, is a positioning process which draws the vocal cords into tension for pitch and adjusts the larynx and also the pharyngeal cavities lying above to ensure tonal resonance. Also involved is a complex network of muscles which permit the articulation of the consonants, without which there would be no language. All of these are overlaid functions, the primary organic purpose being respiration. The vocal problem is further complicated by the fact that the respiratory organs naturally perform another basic function which is swallowing.

It is the act of swallowing which helps make vocalization so difficult. Swallowing occurs reflexively and the muscles governing mastication and ingestion interfere all too easily with the vocal process. The dynamic movement in peristalsis is not muscular expansion, but contraction. In opposition to this is the vocal need for a positioning process in which the ideal adjustments made for pitch, intensity, and the vowel will maintain the throat in an open position for a considerable period of time. Unfortunately for the singer, peristaltic action is also associated with the crico-thyroids which are directly involved in stretching the vocal cords for pitch. Thus, the laryngeal muscles responsible for phonation may seem to be more intimately associated with a natural movement which closes the throat than they are with an opening action. In short, it is easier for the student to identify kinetically with a constricting movement than with one which opens the throat.

In a faulty laryngeal suspension, the muscles of the tongue as well as a large number of swallowing muscles (the upper or superior constrictor, the middle constrictor, and the lower or inferior constrictor) come into tension to reduce the size of the throat cavity. This narrowing of the pharyngeal tract causes the emergent sounds to possess a quality commonly known as ‘throatiness.’ Throatiness distorts the purity of the tone quality, brings on early vocal fatigue, causes the voice to become tremulous, and interferes with the free movement of the articulatory process. Each of these shortcomings betrays the presence of constrictor tension.

Throat constriction is a universal vocal problem. The purely physical aspects of this problem may be attributed to the virtually limitless movement potential of the muscles comprising the respiratory system. Out of this vast potential there is but one adjustment for each pitch, intensity and vowel pattern which will yield a perfect tone, all others ranging anywhere from highly efficient to totally ineffectual. The degree to which the vocal organs and their auxiliary musculature are correctly innervated will determine the degree to which the technique has achieved a status of functional health.

The need to position the larynx lies at the heart of the vocal process, and making contact with a dynamic laryngeal poise is a problem basic to all but the exceptional singer. Among other factors which make the problem excessively difficult is this: the positioning process must be accomplished without recourse to methods of direct control. Denied a mode of access, what procedures then are practical, and what means can be devised for influencing the internal and external musculature of the larynx so that they, together with their auxiliary and dependent muscles, can be effectively coordinated? If a satisfactory answer to this question can be found we will have at our disposal the necessary means for restructuring vocal techniques which would otherwise remain bound and restricted.

Shakespeare’s suggestion to ‘place or balance the larynx over the breath and retain it in its appropriate position,’ although loosely phrased, gives the appearance of being helpful, but it is deceptive. From a functional standpoint his use of the word ‘place’ is misleading. It implies volitional effort, and the suspensory muscles of the larynx are not subject to legitimate volitional control. Is is true, the throat can be volitionally opened, but after an open-throated technique has become a reality. For those whose throats are not yet open, who are groping toward and experience they have not yet experienced, such a proposition is futile. Volitional attempts to influence and control involuntary muscular activities will inevitably prove self-defeating. A desirable solution must be sought elsewhere if the larynx is to be made to participate effectively in the phonative process.”

Reid, Cornelius L. Voice: psyche and soma. J. Patelson Music House, 1975.



3 thoughts on “Cornelius Reid on Throat Constriction

  1. I do want to say something about this because I came from a teacher who was an associate of Reid’s and who studied his methods in person every year and eventually edited one of his books. And I read and adopted Reid’s methods for years because they were close to the truth, and I still think he was quite an iconoclast in his day; by his industry came a great deal of thinking on voice culture and reversing what it had become in the 20th century.

    What Reid misses about Shakespeare, though, is that the latter has taken the greatest care in choosing his words when he explains how the mechanism is to be set up (and yes, this can be done volitionally by any person; later it happens automatically) and how the tone is emitted and how the tone is sustained.

    And actually only when the voice is brought forth in this way can one even begin to talk about the registers and truly refine how they are equalized. But mostly this equalization will handle itself when the pre-requisites are in place.

    The “problem” is that our minds today read over those words and just breeze past them, when it is every detail that counts, and those details are in fact rather simple. The modern academic mind—even Reid’s—is not in the habit of accepting this simplicity and instead wraps the instructions will counterarguments and various veils of logic. When my mind, thus veiled and contorted, finally struck on the utter perfection of what the old school really achieved—and that, being explained in Shakespeare’s book—it felt like a ray of light piercing through it all.

    (will continue in second comment…)

  2. I’m really just going to be paraphrasing Shakespeare, but…

    There are a few simple key factors about singing that must be true when the voice is properly produced. They are absolutes, and in their own way, both GOALS and TESTS of the voice.

    The air that comes from the lungs must flow literally UNOBSTRUCTED and in as free a manner as is possible. This is not a metaphor about being uptight or anxious. I mean the physical reality of the throat. We’ve all heard the term “open throat,” but what that literally means is that the position of the throat is the SAME as in free, unobstructed, voiceless PANTING. In fact that was a preparation for a phrase and test of the freedom of the throat in the very old Italian school: with the jaw hanging by it own weight (which is to say, relaxed like a dummy) open the mouth with the teeth separated a thumb’s width apart (literally use the thumb to space it initially), raise the upper lip just slightly to show part of the upper teeth and gently let the the corners of the mouth retire backward but not too far at all. This position is effectively the “smile” that is mentioned in many old methods. With this position, the singer should silently PANT through an silent AH. Literal, actual panting. The ability to pant means that the throat is open and the air unobstructed.

    Additionally, the tongue must be completely, literally relaxed in such a way that it lies—on its own—flat in the mouth when singing an AH. The test of THAT, in the old school, was the teacher having the student perform very, very rapid (“lightning fast”) silent L’s inside the mouth with the tongue just before phonating whatever AH-vowel exercise s/he was about to do.

    So: exhale/panting + rapid silent L’s mean 1) the throat is open and unobstructed, 2) the muscles of the jaw and throat are properly disengaged from 3) the muscles of the tongue, which were free and independent of 4) the muscles of the mouth and lips, all of which are in the position to sing a pure AH vowel.

    When that is possible, dare to sing the AH vowel *without grabbing* onto it. Because the openness of the throat has been set up to feel like panting (it must still feel exactly like it does in panting), the sensation of singing will be that of gently *blowing* a stream of air toward . While singing the vowel, the same things are true for the tongue—it must lie relaxed in the bottom of the mouth AND be able to do rapid L’s while singing that AH, which the singer could/should eventually attempt mid-note or mid-phrase. This “flow phonation”, more than any other element of the essential elements of truly great old Italian School singing, is the ****single most difficult element to accept and trust****. It is a RADICALLY different experience of phonation, especially for Americans because since about the 1960s, the popular way to speak has been a strange contortion of the throat which literally requires constrictor tensions to work. Our dialect uses a lateral pressing mechanism (“phressed phonation”) in the throat that gives it its guttural, weighty, brash qualities.

    Finally, so that the air does not immediately escape through this now-open passage when singing, the outflow *must* to be controlled with the lower ribs and diaphragm. Because if this and the above items are -not- true, then the only way to control the outflow is with the CONSTRICTOR tensions of the throat. And one sure sign that this is happening is the valsalva “echo” sound at the end of a sung phrase. The valsalva mechanism is a/the throat-constricting mechanism (Reid is right about the swallowing being the problem), and when it is present, it means that air is near its end and that the throat is closing to stop the loss. Or else that the expiration is -not- truly being controlled by the breathing technique, and instead, the singer is trying to stop the loss WITH the valsalva, which of course shuts down the voice.

    The above sounds like a lot of words—and indeed is a gymnastic coordination—but I maintain that there really are only four or five “things” that need to be done to set up the singer to emit and sustain the voice successfully. Reid has it backwards, you cannot and should not attempt to do anything else with the voice—no scale, no leap, no manipulating registers—until the above is understood completely and achieved on a single note. It is worthless—and virtually impossible—to make “an open-throated technique a reality” without getting the singer to understand the nature of flow phonation, and this I believe can only be done volitionally (albeit, *indirectly*) by setting up the mechanism in the way that Shakespeare describes.

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