Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Two weeks ago I discussed the philosophy of allowing placement to reveal itself instead of forcing it. Last week I gave a few exercises to help a singer discover where the voice wants to “place itself.” This week I will wrap up the series with exercises that address the “front room” and “back room.”
“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.
At the CCM Institute, we follow Bozeman’s concept and talk about the backroom as being primarily responsible for timbre issues and the front room as being primarily responsible for vowel clarity. If either room is not functioning optimally, the singer will struggle to experience placement sensations when singing.
If the backroom (the space behind the hump of the tongue) isn’t in the right shape for the desired outcome, the student will have to constrict somewhere else along the way to get the sound they are seeking. For instance, if the student is depressing their larynx, they will lengthen the vocal tract making the voice darker than if the larynx were in a more neutral position. In the artificially lowered position, it is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible to feel any type of placement in the “masque.” On the other hand, some singers will constrict, squeeze, and elevate their larynx when trying to place their voice forward. This is just as problematic. Yes, they may be able to force themselves to feel frontal vibrations, but if they are getting those sensations from constriction, there will be long-term negative side effects. While in the short term the voice will “ring,” over the long-term they will likely have difficulty with their high notes, trouble transitioning through the passaggi, and may end up with hyperfunction leading to a vocal pathology.
If you think a backroom issue is preventing the student from experiencing sympathetic vibrations, try the following exercises:
A lack of flow or improper registration balance can also cause the singer to squeeze the pharynx in an attempt to produce ring. So also try these exercises:
The space in front of the hump of the tongue is primarily responsible for vowel clarity. If the tongue, lips, and jaw are not positioned in a way that allows the body to freely produce the desired vowel, the pharynx will often constrict in an attempt to adjust the vowel formants. This leads to unnecessary tension and frequently a loss of ring in the voice that leads to an absence of placement sensations.
If you think a front room issue is preventing students from producing the vowel qualities you are looking for, try the following exercises:
There are of course many other ways to address each of these issues including working from a more artistic point of view that addresses phrasing and acting. Since every student is different, the more tools we have in our toolbox, the more effective we are at helping each client unlock their voice.
Do you have other ways to help your clients find placement sensations without forcing them? You can add to the conversation by commenting below. If you are not yet following the blog, please sign up to ensure you receive each new post in your email.
Thanks for reading and have a great week of teaching!
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Coordinator of Musical Theatre Voice 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