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.