“Don’t assist the pitch” is a pedagogical directive that I was taught recently that means, “Don’t allow other muscles to come into play that aren’t needed in the act of singing.”
For me, this was a revelatory insight, because so much of my own singing was SO muscled and ‘tied-up’. In fact, the correct muscles that I needed to use had atrophied and other muscles had taken over the job of singing in my own voice.
When I’m working with students, I am always trying to show the student how to sing with only those muscles that are necessary to the act of singing. Neck tensions, forehead tension, ticks, and other physical aberrations are ways that the body comes to the rescue in the singing act when the vocal musculature is either overburdened or weakened with improper use.
I will often use the image of someone doing an incline chest press at the gym. If the person’s muscles are not strong, then other muscles (usually the shoulders, trapezius muscles, and others) will come into play. This image will evoke a strong example for the student of ‘helper muscles’ coming to alleviate the stress placed upon weaker muscles of the torso.
The picture below is a PERFECT example of a person using extrinsic, unnecessary muscles to perform an exercise. Her shoulders are raising in an attempt to help her complete the exercise. This is a macro example of the SAME concept when unneeded muscles in the throat, neck, and torso creep in to help a singer with weak ‘singing muscles’.
Yvonne Rodd-Marling and Frederick Husler describe this phenomenon brilliantly in their book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ:
Badly innervated muscles and muscle-groups suffer from motor-weakness and inflexibility. Possibly also the reverse: a muscular organ that has been rendered immobile for lack of exercise will always be a poorly innervated one.
If badly innervated and inflexible organs are called into action, it is only with difficulty that they can carry out the work demanded of them, so they will try to help themselves by using extraneous forces (in the case of a singer, not only forces of a muscular nature; they will also increase the pressure of the breath). The resulting struggle is usually described as hypertension (‘Verkrampfung’). A far-fetched analogy might be the following: if one were to cause, by some artificial means, a partial paralysis of the under-arm muscle used in grasping (which happens in certain neural disorders), and then tried to grip, other adjacent muscles would immediately try to serve as substitutes. A stronger effort of will is likely to bring distant, quite independent muscle-groups into play, for instance the masticators, ‘clenching the teeth’ in physical exertion. Furthermore the breathing apparatus would automatically exaggerate the pressure of air against the throat. The paralysed under-arm muscle represents an abnormal condition, and yet this form of spasmodic tension is precisely what occurs when a poorly innervated, ‘locked up’, obstructed vocal organ tries to sing.
If muscles are powerfully constituted but sluggish, and if the will interferes (possibly demanding more than can, for the present, be accomplished physically), the state of tension is simply aggravated. That is why moderately asthenic types are sometimes able to achieve more than athletic ones. The true vitality of a musculature does not lie in the mass of its strength, but in its mobility.
Muscular forces lacking perfect motor-response are useless. They need to be agile, flexible and quick to react, while the impulses that govern them should be strong enough to make them tense and relax with maximum rapidity. Such muscle-systems are healthy. Extraneous aids would only hamper them.