Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Kenneth Bozeman‘s book Practical Vocal Acoustics gave teachers a great introduction on how to make vocal acoustics research applicable in the voice studio. His second book, Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy, takes the work a step further by offering a wide range of practical exercises to improve student outcomes in the studio.
Today I will provide a very brief summary of two critically important concepts from chapter two, which addresses the idea of an “open throat.” Many teachers use the concept of a yawn to teach open throat technique. Bozeman describes in detail why this approach can actually be counterproductive. As Bozeman states, there are no muscles in the pharynx directly responsible for widening the vocal tract. The only actions that “open” the throat are relaxation of the pharyngeal muscles, elevation of the soft palate, lowering or settling the larynx from below, fronting the tongue, decompressing the thyrohyoid space, and deconstricting the false vocal folds. Singers have a difficult time finding an open throat because our kinesthesia (sensory awareness) of the vocal tract is misleading. While many singers believe an /a/ vowel has the most space in the back and an /i/ vowel has the least, it is actually the exact opposite.
When singers inhale with excessive noise on an /a/ vowel, you are hearing the effect of the narrowing that occurs behind the tongue. While there is a cooling sensation behind the tongue when in this position, it is actually caused by an increase of turbulence through the narrowed passage. If the student instead inhales on an /i/ vowel, the back space opens, there is a reduction in inhalation noise, and the cooling sensation moves to the front of the mouth, which is now the most narrow part of the vocal tract.
Vocal tract mapping can help correct the situation. As Bozeman states:
“Body mapping theory suggests that inaccurate mapping leads to awkward use, while accurate mapping facilitates better coordination. Because our kinesthesia is backwards for throat space, it seems plausible that most people have inaccurately mapped the location of the back of the throat and insertion and function of the tongue.” (Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy, p. 12)
Having observed countless singers struggling with tongue retraction when singing, I think Bozeman’s hypothesis is spot on. To begin correcting this fault, it is helpful for the student to understand where the back of the throat is actually located. Look at the image below and you will notice that the entire vocal tract is in front of the ears.
However, many singers perceive space behind the ears extending all the way back to the back of the neck when singing. Bozeman believes this sensation comes from experiencing activation of tongue muscles including the styloglossus. The result when these muscles are activated is a retracted tongue. If you have the student inhale on /i/, with the tongue fronted behind the bottom teeth, they will gain a much better concept of where the back of the pharynx lies in relation to their vocal tract.
Bozeman also describes how we often incorrectly map the position of the tongue. Many singers imagine the tongue descending into the vocal tract and attaching to the larynx. While the tongue does indeed connect to the hyoid bone, the largest portion of the muscle (genioglossus) connects to the chin. When relaxed, the tongue should be fronted and rounded, rising towards the soft palate instead of flattening.
I have found that explaining these two concepts to my students is extremely beneficial. Today’s post is only a brief introduction to all of the wonderful tools that Bozeman provides in his book. For the complete description of how to accurately remap the open throat, check out pages 8-18 in Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy. If you are a member of NATS, you can also download a PDF of the original article from the November 2015 issue of the Journal of Singing (Volume 72, Issue 2, pages 183-187).
Do you have other methods for improving your students vocal tract map? If so, please leave them in the comment section below. If you would like to learn more about fact based teaching, consider joining us this summer at the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. During session II we train teachers to map the entire vocal tract, giving them tools to help students gain a better understanding of their mechanism. While the early registration deadline has already passed, you can still receive the early bird rate by writing “Blog” at the top of your application. If you are not already following the blog, please enter your email on the bottom right of this page to receive a message every time there is a new post. If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it on social media. As always thank you for reading! ~ Matt