Weight Lifting In Your Throat

I've had the recent joy of working with a singer who is boldly making his way to the front of the stage.

From playing guitar, he is taking over as new lead singer very soon. As a baritone with no previous training, he had quite the road ahead of him to build his voice up to the range required of their set list. Everything was new. I told him after the first lesson, when he asked me if he'd get there, "It'll be a race." I knew this was essentially a case of going from "the couch to the olympics"...in his throat. And I know that can be done. But it is going to take 200% focus from both of us.

This singer has been attending a double session twice a week to get ready, and we are seeing great progress. But even this great progress feels slow at first to the outside world. First, our goal was finding the head voice--the register that had never seen the light of day--the one that would have much rather preferred to stay in and order GrubHub. The chest voice had been pulling all of the vocal weight for all of the person's life-- to the effect that the chest voice was collapsed in on itself, functioning improperly no matter how much he tried to follow my instructions. 

We sent out a search party and brought back pieces of the head voice every week. It has been a delicate balance to find these small windows where the coordination will show up and encourage that growth, while trying to keep constriction at bay. Anytime there is a weakness, constriction is nearby, like a horrible friend that thinks they're helping out by telling your most embarrassing story at a party. They think it's funny. You don't. No one likes constriction. The other thing about constriction is that as long as it has its grip on you, it prohibits you from gaining strength. As long as you bring that friend to the party, they're going to be in the way of you being yourself and getting to know everyone else. 

The extra tough issue for a beginning singer is that they are simply not used to listening for and feeling the differences that are happening at lightning speed in a place they cannot see and have varying degrees of ability to feel or hear. But I love nothing more than sitting there saying "yes, no, yes, yes, no, the one before, do you feel that?" until the wiring starts to develop. The sensation eventually follows the coordination, if I can draw it out. Then, when the awareness is there for the student, they can draw it out of themselves. And that's happening now. Because he has been patient, consistent and 200% dedicated.

Last weekend I went to see him perform at an informal event with his band, and I met the band afterwards. They were a fun, boisterous group, and I genuinely enjoyed them. None of them have studied singing, so I'm not sure where their conceptions of vocal pedagogy stem from. Perhaps they're based on passing comments from other singers or perhaps on their experience of learning their own instrument. And though they know it can't be exactly like learning their own instrument, they don't know what it's like. There's a lot of mystery surrounding what can and cannot actually be accomplished in vocal lessons, how much their singer can or cannot improve. They're excited to meet me, and they do get to hear me perform a song or two that night, which works in my client's favor.

Then one of them describes to me what he thinks it takes to sing well...which was essentially a deep breath. I think he's asking me for validation of what he has just said, plus maybe some expansion. If there's anything I know about non-singers, it's that they could not care less about the specifics of voice training, so I say something like "yes, breath and a web of other really intricate coordinations that must be in concert with each other." This sounds like a non-answer, but it's the best I can do. I finish it off with a positive, "He's going to get there."

Later, another member asks me a similar question and I tell him, "It's like lifting weights in your throat" which is part joke and part an actual answer as our first struggle has been to find and strengthen the cricothyroid muscle that tilts the thyroid cartilage to stretch the vocal folds into head voice. We also have struggled to ask the vocalis muscle to be in action (so that we are not only in falsetto) but to do so without bulking (chest voice/mix) -- and all of this can happen only through thought and air. No one feels their cricothyroid muscle. A teacher says, "that sound! stay there!" and eventually the student catches on. But of course, no one wants this answer in a bar, so I say "weight lifting in your throat."

The mystery surrounding the voice is a big one. It's big to teachers, singers and non-singers alike in different ways. I also mention to this band member that everyone else's instrument is not only outside of their body where they can see it, but that their instruments are fixed things. We are creating the instrument and learning to play it, all through sound and feel, patience and practice and showing up 200%. It's a race we're still in, and it may take a bit, but he wants it and I want it for him, and I see no reason why he can't get there. And in the meantime, I guess I'll also mitigate his band's anxiety's with profound statements like "weight lifting in your throat."

All of this to say, singers -- know that other instrumentalists are probably not going to know the extents of your work. They have just not had the experience or the interest, honestly. Don't let someone else's ignorance weaken your goals and drive. It is really hard to make huge changes like this, but it happens all the time all over the world. People find their voices, and that's an experience like nothing else. If it's important to you, stay consistent.


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