I first learned of the maneuver of ‘sword swallowing’ from Jeannette LoVetri, the creator of Somatic Voicework™. At the time it was a revelation to me, and an innovative way of relieving throat constriction.
What IS throat constriction?
In singing, constriction is a narrowing of the pharynx caused by muscular interference. It is usually caused by compensatory tensions that manifest because of either 1) physical imbalance in muscles that adjust the vocal folds in changing demands of pitch, intensity, and vowel or 2) emotional interference. Throat constriction causes loss of vocal freedom, range, resonance, as well as flexibility.
How does constriction manifest?
- Excessive laryngeal depression.
- Excessive laryngeal elevation.
Once a singer has acquired constriction it can be very difficult to release. Attempts to release constriction can prove to be very psychologically threatening to the singer, further complicating the issue.
The sword swallowing position can be a potential help to a singer. It can be an ‘indirect’ way to allow these muscles to release their grip and result in a freer laryngeal suspension and relief of throat tension.
In her book Voicework: Art and Science in Changing Voices, Christine Shewell advocates the following exercise, attributing it to teacher Jenevora Williams):
Put your head and mouth in the position that you would need to take if a dentist were to examine your teeth, i.e. head tipped slightly back, mouth wide open and tongue protruded. Try to swallow – you can’t in this position. Intone or sing a few rather uncomfortable notes moving from low to high. Then gradually bring your head to an upright position, return the jaw to a loose but not protruded position and bring the tongue fully back behind the lower teeth. Repeat the sounds while maintaining that sense of the open throat.
Shewell, Christina. Voice work: art and science in changing voices. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.
Kristen Linklater’s book, Freeing the Natural Voice, offers an overview of the same exercise as well. However, Linklater connects the exercise to a breath-centric purpose. This seems a bit at odds with the other authors and pedagogues. Her disavowal of the larynx is the more modern pedagogical approach, unfortunately.
The back wall of the throat is lined with muscle tissue that reacts to changing pitch with a toning response that tunes the throat cavity to give resonating feedback appropriate to that pitch. The resonating aspect of the throat will be explored more fully in the next chapter. Here, the interest is in the throat as part of a free channel for sound.
The main working point here is the sharp angle at which the throat passage turns into the mouth passage. If the soft palate is lazy and the tongue tense, this angle quickly becomes jammed.
Behind and below this corner, the throat should be pictured— for working purposes — as a wide, unblocked passageway all the way down to the diaphragm and the pelvic floor. The less interest taken in the larynx the better.
Linklater, Kristin. Freeing the natural voice: imagery and art in the practice of voice and language. Nick Hern Books, 2006.
According to students of Cornelius Reid, sword swallowing was used in relationship to registration and constriction. Tipping the head back, like a ‘sword swallower’ inhibits the action of the chest register, and allows more head register dominance to occur in the tone. From one of Reid’s students:
…the “head back” approach tends to be effective when you are trying to 1) restrain the aggressive nature of the chest registers, 2) bypass the constrictive action of the swallowing mechanism, and 3) tip the register balance into a more “head voice” dominant equilibrium. As with all exercises that can make a significant difference in a singer’s vocal response, these exercises only work optimally in the right context and provided that both the singer and the teacher have the knowledge and skill to execute them properly. Having said that, the only way to gain that skill and knowledge is to keep experimenting and try it. You’ll eventually figure out when it works effectively and when it doesn’t.
-Anonymous student of Cornelius Reid
One of the most complete overviews of the exercise comes from the book Making More Sense of Singing, by choral conductor Alan J. Gumm:
Exercise Sequence: The intent of this exercise is to release pressure on the vocal cords and open the glottis and trachea. The exercise also helps keep the larynx in a low position for relaxed phonation.
- Hold an imaginary sword at shoulder’s width, by the handle in one hand and by the blade in the other hand.
- Like a sword swallower at a circus or carnival, raise the handle up above the head and the tip of the blade going in the mouth, the sword in line to go down the throat.
- Releasing the hand from the tip of the imaginary sword, move the blade smoothly down as if entering into the throat and past the vocal cords. Straighten everything out as the sword comes through – be careful and don’t get cut! (pretend that hard!)
- Feel the vocal cords opening to allow the blade to pass. Feel the larynx lower. As the blade continues, feel something drop open at the very base of the neck, between the two collarbones, down into the chest.
- Perform the sword swallower act all over again, this time singing a tone as the sword passes into the mouth, down the throat, and so on into the chest area.
Background Information. If you are a good play actor, this exercise can bring about new sensations of relaxation and openness like little else can. At the base of the neck is the trachea, which when it opens can open up the potential for vibrations in the hollows of the chest area. Though this experience is related to the topic of resonance, which is to let sound vibrate in more areas, why wait for the next chapter when the sword-swallower experience can get you to experience such openness and deep vibrations that far down in the body.
For the Voice Teacher. In a teacher-student situation, start the exercise by presenting the singer the imaginary sword as if a valuable gift. Hand it over in a way that without verbal explanation sets the distance of the arms and length of the sword, and establishes that the object has weight if mimed that way as the sword is handed over. Master the change in tone in this exercise yourself and demonstrate the difference for the singer to observe, which adds to the singer’s multisensory experience.
Gumm, Alan. Making More Sense of How to Sing: Multisensory techniques for voice lessons and choir rehearsals. Hal Leonard Corporation, 2009.
This exercise, as with ALL exercises, should be used judiciously and with an understanding of its implications on the function and psychology of the singer. It is NOT a cure-all for the problem, and I advocate a multi-factorial approach, along with the understanding that it may take TIME for these muscles to ‘let go’ and allow a freer tone.
This of course is all predicated upon the fact that the student is in a state of being able to ‘let go’ in lessons – which is another matter entirely.