The Restricted Larynx (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Intensity)

Primum non nocere.

“First Do No Harm.” Don’t hurt someone’s voice or their psyche – good teaching goals, right? I agree 100%. But I also think that ALL voice training carries with it some risk, both good and bad. This is something that we don’t talk about too much in the profession. Oh well.

As a singer who experienced functional deterioration myself, I find I project my own history on my students: being overly cautious, maybe a little too gentle. Over the past 9 months, I’ve been questioning my approach. Am I doing enough to stimulate positive change in the vocal mechanisms of my students?

The answer that I’ve come up with is, no, I’m not.

I want students to build strength in their voices and that doesn’t come by singing gentle scales all the time. “Building on the soft” will NOT work for a student as a strength-building approach. If you lift the pink weights at the gym, you will register a change at first, but you must lift the SAME weight more and more to continue to build your muscles. Do you want to do 1,000 reps? 10,000? How much time will that take?

How does intensity manifest in a lesson? I ask students to give me a full sound in their chest register (Mode 1), rising ABOVE the speech pitch (F0) and usual intensity of speech range on open vowels. (Think open mouth “ah” or “eh” or “ay” on slides.) We do exclamations: “HEY!””WHOA!””NOOOOO””YEAAAH!” ALL in chest register, (Mode 1).

The students are excited about taking the vocal “horse” out of the barn and giving it a trot around the field. They get excited about what good volume feels like – even my gentler female students have been coaxed to make more assertive exclamations. (Another benefit of this: these gentle ladies become MORE assertive and more communicative in lessons as their voices get stronger!)

The timeliness of Ingo Titze’s recent paper in the Journal of Voice “Human Speech: A Restricted Use of the Mammalian Larynx.” Journal of Voice 31.2 (2017): 135-141” confirmed a lot of suspicions I was having in my own work regarding intensity.

Here are some quick takeaways from this article:

  1. Speech is not varied enough in pitch or intensity to stimulate the intrinsic structures of the larynx.
  2. The lack of calling, yelling, howling, hooting, roaring, screaming, chanting in our civilized society MAY pre-dispose a student to motor control issues in the larynx. Students who present with vocal control problems may have lost touch with inner laryngeal function.
  3. The laryngeal mechanism’s evolution can be attributed to a need to communicate over great distances. Current speech habits restrict the use of the voice, and in time, may cause the evolution of the larynx to naturally select ‘out’ the fullest properties of voice. Full, open, ringing sounds may become a thing of the past if the larynx isn’t stimulated enough in our species.
  4. Certain consonants do not possess the carrying factor. Vowel sounds are best for this type of communication. (Could this be why the vowel centricism of Italian was SO successful in the training of voice?)
  5. Children with developmental issues that do not use the voice NEVER develop a vocal ligament. Adults that lose the ability to talk also lose the ligament structure of the folds.
  6. Titze argues that speech alone uses about 10% of the sarcomere length of our vocal folds (the length at which the actin-myosin overlap produces the maximum contractile force).
  7. Functional issues such as spasmodic dysphonia (where patients can SING but not speak), may point to this restriction of usage that fails under speech conditions.
  8. Semi-occlusion and vocal function exercises (VFEs) are the vocal equivalents of taking the voice to “the gym.”

I was immediately struck by similarities to Frederick Husler’s book Singing: The Physical Nature of the Vocal Organ (1965). Husler’s entire pedagogy was built around ‘unlocking’ the functions of what he called a ‘normal’ mechanism.

…forming, training a voice is a process of re-generation. It consists in restoring the organ of singing to the condition intended by nature, or strengthening and revitalizing it in all its many parts. It is essentially a remedial operation. Leaving aside all artistic considerations, voice training as such is therapy more than anything else.

Husler goes on to state (echoing Titze):

There can be little doubt that the larynx, together with its other functions, was planned and constructed as a specific instrument for singing, if only for this reason: the edges of the vocal folds divide into harmonically ordered sections which can have no purpose other than to produce ‘useless’ aesthetic sensations. No such complex mechanism is necessary for speaking. If we may express it, the mind that formed speech took possession of the organ of singing.

Titze argues that mothers and babies speak in “mothereses” with each other, gliding up and over the F0 area of the voice, reflecting the evolutionary move from an early singing quality to a lower restricted laryngeal use as the infant becomes socialized.

From Husler again:

In many ways Man developed his most human attributes with the invention of language, and speech grew into so vast a superimposition that it has resulted in a chronic lack of INNERVATION, a lack that affects the purely SINGING function of the vocal organ.


As a result of this long and persistent disuse, the musculatures concerned have generally become extremely weak, even atrophied (atrophy through inaction), with a parallel fading of what is known as ‘organic memory.’

This civilizing process on the voice is ALSO interesting from an historical pedagogy concept. Edgar Herbert-Caesari in Tradition and Gigli believes that much of the Camerata’s work to develop their masterful vocal techniques were taken from observations of the lower classes of society that had not been subject to a ‘civilizing’ process: loud farmers, tradesmen, and field workers with impeccable laryngeal coordination. The Camerata was observing those human beings that had NOT lost their ‘organic memory’ of their vocal mechanism.

All this correlates to a lively and active use of the voice in a training program. In my studies and work as a teacher, I have come to realize the importance of full-throated sound to innervate the instrument, evoking the liberated sounds of childhood. (And yes, it also helps the head voice when the chest register is strengthened.)

Vocal intensity is good.

Intensity is healthy.

Intensity is what the mechanism was intended for.

We should consider our training directives, and question if a diet of gentle and easy is really going to do anything to build a sturdy voice, and then proceed accordingly.

However, Primum non nocere. 

7 thoughts on “The Restricted Larynx (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Intensity)

  1. Societal cues and environments are one thing, but if on top of that a child is shy and maybe has a strict father growing up (speaking from experience here!) then that voice can get super-suppressed, and it becomes the work of a lifetime to draw it out. As always, singing sidesteps around psychology.
    This’s such a good post, Jordan; i really, really needed it. Thank you.

    I’m familiar with semi-occlusion exercises, what with the straw and all. Would just increasing our intensity on straws also be a good/safe idea?

    And did Husler have any tried-and-true methods for this ‘unlocking’ that you can tell?

  2. Shit, just realized i misspelled your name, Justin- all apologies! (recently read some article about that canadian guy, with same last name peterson)

  3. I’ve been doing some (hardcore) yelling for a while now, after reading this. One thing I notice too, is that it instantly engages that ‘lower ab’, ‘grunt’ muscle area I hear talked about- is this the correct place and engagement of those muscles, Mr Peterson???
    If so, that’d mean singing is just a tepid, but prolonged, version of yelling, yes?

    1. I think that’s about right! I notice when there is more volume desired that the abdominal muscles will engage more. I would only posit this: if the ability to swell and diminish the tone is lost, then perhaps the activation of these muscles has become too rigid? I like to think along the lines of the Old Masters that ‘tone creates its own support’ and that ‘support’ is a constantly moving target of elements, much like surfing, that must be responded to in the moment as the singer manages pitches, vowels and volumes in a vocal exercise or musical phrase. That way these muscles do not become ‘set’ or ‘rigid’ throughout a phrase in an attempt to ‘support.’ The messa di voce becomes the test of the function of the entire system, in my opinion.

  4. Oh, thank you Justin! I agree with that, and love the surfing theme. Suppleness, and dynamism, above all.

    I also meant to include this idea in my comment, as I thought it somewhat tied in with your idea. It’s from the singer and teacher Tom Krause, where he talks about the ‘village idiot’. (He apparently talked much to his students about imagination, and mimicking different types of people):
    “Droll helpers are called to assist: There’s the little girl who is standing in front of shining lights and opens her mouth in a delicate “ohhh!” Then there’s the sad dog who is waiting for his master in vain: a soft-sad “auwaoh” (also as a run in the softest of legatos); then there’s the village idiot who always shows up (the best singer, assures Krause – because he doesn’t know any tension!).”

    (this came from this article, just in case it piques your interest:

Leave a Reply