The Stable Larynx

A multitude of things depend upon the position of the larynx during singing: the steadiness of the tone, whether or not the voice is free of tension, the ease and facility with which it moves, the quality of the resonance, the colour – bright or dark, and ultimately and perhaps surprisingly, power. Evenness of tone has, for three hundred years or more, been one of the most basic of vocal criteria, and it cannot be achieved unless the larynx is held steady. How can this be done in such a way as to bring out all the benefits already mentioned? By activating the suspensory muscles of the larynx to hold it firm without stiffness.

When the act of singing begins in a voice of quality, the larynx naturally descends a little. The good singer’s skill is to keep it there without unnecessary tension in the structure, keeping the throat free. All phonated breath is compressed, the compression of which increases as the pitch rises: low notes low compression – high notes more compression. The Italian idea of appoggio of the breath against the front wall of the chest insures that a concentrated force of breath is not pressed upward at the larynx. Nevertheless, there must be some upthrust of breath at the larynx, which if unopposed, will blow it upwards. This upthrust must be met by an equalising downforce, resulting in there being only sufficient upward energy to set the chords vibrating. Thus, there are two forces working in opposite directions.

A bi-product of this action is a drawing in of the throat above the vocal chords at the point where the false vocal chords are sited, thus creating two interconnected resonators. The smaller, directly above the vocal chords (laryngo-pharynx), resonates very high frequencies (2500-4200 cps) which give a voice ‘ring’; the larger (oro-pharynx), resonates the vowel shapes, which are fine-tuned by movements of the mouth and tongue. The mouth itself is not a resonator; it is an adjuster. Successful phonation depends on the ‘tuning’ together of the two resonators, both of which alter their configuration in line with the vowel shape.

This system explains how the voice – a wind instrument – can resonate sounds over two and a half to three octaves, and yet is never more than six to eight inches long even in the largest male. And yet the system cannot exist if the larynx is not drawn slightly downward and kept stable. If the larynx is too high, range, vowel quality, dynamic variation and power will suffer. Furthermore, the two resonators are not formed properly and the vocal cords are only partially protected from the power of the breath stream. As a result the full potential strength of the voice cannot be achieved, and if power is used and no compensatory action taken, then the voice sounds shouty and raucous. Agility will also be impaired throughout the voice.  It will not be capable of both dark and warm sounds, and high notes will be a problem.

© 2003, Neil Howlett