Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Many voice teachers use the idea of backspace when teaching. I was taught that concept by many of my past instructors, sometimes it worked and other times it didn’t. What I eventually learned was that the pharyngeal wall does not move backward. We may feel like it moves, but that is what Kenneth Bozeman calls “false kinesthesia” (for more info, check out his book “Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy”).
My philosophy on teaching is that if you use an exercise/cue that is not necessarily based in fact but it gets you the results you are looking for, great! However, if your cue does not produce the results you are looking for, it is helpful to know why your cue may not be working. Today, I want to dive into this idea of backspace for those cases when “sing out of the back of your head” or “imagine a light bulb in the back of your throat” does not yield the results you are seeking.
An accurate map of the back wall
The image above is an accurate representation of what the vocal tract looks like. What I think many voice teachers/singers miss is that the cervical vertebrae are directly behind the pharyngeal wall (view a cadaver image here). The tissue of the back pharyngeal wall is around a millimeter thick, thin enough that its movement is insignificant. The lack of movement can easily be seen in MRI videos.
So why do we feel like we are making space in the back if nothing moves backward?
I’m not 100% sure, we would need to do an MRI study to get a better understanding of what moves when singers feel that sensation. I have a few thoughts. When we are projecting acoustically, it is possible that the resonance we create may excite pharyngeal tissue in the vocal tract, which leads some singer’s brains to perceive backward movement. Another possibility that comes to mind is that some people prefer a dark tone quality, which requires some degree of tongue retraction to produce. Because of that tongue retraction, they feel space in the back. Because the resulting quality is a tonal goal, they may not associate tension with the mechanics that enable them to produce that sound.
Professor Ken Bozeman theorizes that what we are really feeling is the contraction of the styloglossus muscle (Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy, p. 11). The muscle connects to the styloid process, and it would make sense that feeling contractions in that space may be perceived as having an “up and back” quality. I believe there is also a possibility that contraction of the digastric, sternocleidomastoid, and trapezius could also skew our perceptions and lead us to perceive backward expansion.
So if backspace imagery does not work, how do you address pharyngeal space?
First of all, you help the student create an accurate vocal tract map. When your students realize their vocal tract lies entirely in front of their ears, it will change their perceptions instantaneously. When they understand the anatomy of the vocal tract, you will want to teach them how to keep their tongue out of the pharynx while relaxing the jaw and elevating the palette towards a British /a/. Essentially, you are teaching your student to release tensions that narrow the vocal tract rather than attempting to widen it.
I usually begin by teaching my students to release tension in their jaw while also working on tongue agility. I wait to see if the soft palate takes care of itself; it usually does. In a case where it does not, you can use a mirror and a flashlight to help a student create an accurate map of their palate and associate the sensations they feel with the movement that occurs. However, this is not worth exploring until the tongue and jaw are free as the palatoglossus muscle is directly connected to both the tongue and the palate.
A few final thoughts
At one point, the concept that the back wall doesn’t actually move was new to me as well and I seriously doubted it was factual. However, after I gave the idea a chance and saw how much better the results were, I was sold. Hopefully, if you give it a chance, you will be sold too.
Do you have a similar philosophy about backspace? Do you believe that backspace is critical in your teaching and have an anatomical/physiological reason why you believe that is so? I would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to contribute to the conversation by using the comment form below. If you’re not already following the blog, enter your name and email in the form to receive an email each time there is a new post. If you enjoyed this article, please share it on social media to help spread the word about functional voice training. As always, thank you for reading and have a wonderful week of teaching.
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Director of Musical Theatre at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA, and Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. He is the author of “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N Roll” and dozens of articles and book chapters on functional voice training for non-classical styles. For more information visit EdwardsVoice.com