Unapologetically Me: A blog about Emotion and the Larynx
The other day I went for a laryngeal massage. I have been twice before, when I could not explain the feeling of a lump in my throat and then again when a scratchy feeling just always seemed to be present. Aaron Low is a Speech Pathologist and he checks for tension in the neck and jaw and larynx; something that many singers struggle with but perhaps don’t pay a lot of attention to. He massaged my larynx for about an hour, pausing every ten minutes or so ~ our conversation was very interesting!
I’m now more aware that there are things that genuinely DO affect a voice, such as caffeine ~ an excess of this can result in acid reflux, which manifests itself much like the feeling of a lump in your throat. Stress was an obvious thing to me too, but I hadn’t really connected external stressors to my own internal emotion and how THAT affected me and what I could produce.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have had some excruciating neck pain, to the point I could not turn my head to one side. It lasted for more than 17 days, shooting pain and numbness up into my jaw and cheek. It finally went away but I booked an appointment with Aaron as I knew what the benefits of his massage could be. We talked about how all of the neck musculature is connected to and affects the larynx.
At one point, I commented that it seemed that my ‘throat’ was the place of most vulnerability to me. If I were to get sick, it would always be a sore throat. I worry constantly about what I eat and how it could affect my singing. When I am stressed out or worried about things, the tension seems to settle right there in my neck or throat. I guess that because I wish to sing so much, and it is really important to me, I have allowed this place in my body to become my most vulnerable part. It shouldn’t be that way!
Aaron’s answer was that the Vagus Nerve is directly connected to the larynx. It is the longest nerve in the body and extends from the brainstem to the abdomen by way of multiple organs including the heart, esophagus, and lungs. Also known as cranial nerve X, the vagus forms part of the involuntary nervous system and commands unconscious body procedures, such as keeping the heart rate constant and controlling food digestion.
Think about how our throats feel when we cry. The Vagus nerve is controlling this and tightening up your larynx. It is impossible to sing while really crying.
On top of everyday stress and worry that we carry around, when we worry about our performance, all of these things can come bubbling to the surface in our voices. When this happens, we can often revert to bad habits, such as singing on our cords instead of finding our air and letting it do the work for us. Then, we are heading down a road of falling into patterns of singing that can lead us to damage, and even more stress. Here’s a great quote about this topic:
“It is well-recognized that many singers manifest their stress in their voices. This is similar to how other professionals may develop knots in their shoulders or ulcers in their stomach with stress. Anxiety in the singer often causes muscle tension around the larynx, in a group of muscles called extrinsic laryngeal muscles. These muscles are not the primary movers of the vocal folds, but they are connected to laryngeal cartilages and can therefore affect the voice. Singers develop extrinsic muscular tension from emotional stressors such as a breakup, work difficulties, or even an argument with a loved one.”
A very insightful series of Masterclasses I’ve attended over the last few weeks opened my eyes again to the way I was feeling about my voice ~ the Maestro said to me, “Stop listening to your own voice ~ your air is intelligent, let it do the work.” After only having met me a couple of weeks ago, he was able to tell that I was carrying tension around and was uncomfortable in where my sound was coming from. Sure enough, as soon as I cast these fears aside, I was able to reach my high notes and unlock a relaxed, vibrating and shimmery sound once again.
I have often felt throughout my life that I couldn’t ‘find my voice’ when I needed to fully speak out on something to defend myself, or that I ‘didn’t have a voice’ when it came to important decisions or debatable topics. I allowed these feelings to take over many other parts of the way I carried myself and without realizing it, it directly affected my sound production. This can make any singer feel as though they are headed down a scary road. There is a huge dichotomy here: We are mostly all emotional people and that’s good and important. Singers are often very highly sensitive people, and this is the reason they sing! We NEED to tap into our emotion to deliver the messages of our song. But we CANNOT let our inner emotions affect our production, that is different, and separate. When we allow this to happen, it will affect everything else. At the same time, singing can be a huge emotional outlet or pastime that takes us away from our daily stress. It’s all connected, and when we figure it out, and how to control it, we can open up and sing more freely than ever before. I need to stop letting my voice be the thing that controls everything I do or don’t do, and just let my voice be.
I’ve realized that I’ve not been taking the best care of myself for the last little while and after the Maestro’s comments, and the conversation at my massage, I decided to do something about it finally. I need to get back to a place of relaxation and also to work my body back into its strength and alignment. Everything seemed/felt out of whack. I attended a hot yoga class, for the first time in two years. I know a lot of singers who religiously do yoga and now I know why.
When I finished the class (which was enormously difficult, as I’m again a raw beginner!) I lay on the floor in the corpse position (Shavasana), drenched in a pool of sweat, and I was able to relax every single muscle and part of my body. I felt my eyes relax into my head, I let my jaw unlock, my hands and feet and legs and back and shoulders sank into the floor, I tucked my chin in a bit, releasing the back of my neck, and I felt my breath going in and out without labour. I tucked my shoulder blades in underneath me and opened my chest to the sky. Yoga is all about breath. Singing is all about breath. The instructor’s closing comments reminded us to accept ourselves and to be unapologetic in our presence in the world. And as I lay there, I felt a single tear slip out of each eye, past the sweat ~ and I knew I was doing the right thing for me, for my soul and for my voice.