Episode 101 – Essential Muscle Balance

The balancing of tiny, unseen muscles is critical for singing, but these coordinations can be tricky.

In this episode, John explains the muscles of pitch – how they work and how they need to balance for powerful singing.

Episode Transcript

Episode 101 – Essential Muscle Balance

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me. Hey, if you’re on Instagram, well, so am I. And what I’m doing– I’ve taken a radical approach. I’m not taking pictures of my reclining feet with the beach in the background. I have yet to snap a photo in my latest hot outfit while sporting duck lips. No, I’m actually putting up a few videos of singing tips. They’re almost like little micro podcasts if you were so if you want to go to @johnhennyvocals over there on that Instagram machine. You can find my videos. I’d love to see you there.

Alright, let’s jump into muscular coordination for singing, and I’m going to specifically talk about the muscles of the vocal folds, or your vocal cords. Remember, if you want to sound smart you say your vocal folds. If you want to sound a little less smart, you say vocal cords. And then if you really want a voice teacher to pounce all over you, you spell cords with an H. That will instantly get you in trouble. Oh my gosh, I remember I had– the first time I had someone transcribe a podcast episode, and I just threw it up without reading it, and that was totally on me. And they spelled cords with an H, and like I almost had a heart attack. Not because– to me it’s not that big a deal. And you’ll actually see people, like I’ve seen journalists use it with an H, but oh man, my particular peer group does not suffer certain things lightly, and that’s one of them. So I was able to change it. Someone alerted me to it before I got flogged too badly. So we’re going to talk about these muscles of the vocal folds.

Now you have basically two pairs of muscles. You have the muscles, and you’ll know this if you’ve been listening to my podcast for a while, but you have the muscles that are within the vocal folds themselves. And these are called – for the big, big word of the day -thyroarytenoid muscles, often abbreviated to TA. And essentially the reason they’re named is they’re attached to your thyroid cartilage, which is that bump at the front of your neck that moves up and down when you swallow. They’re attached just inside there. And then at the back they’re attached to these little things called the arytenoid cartilages, and they’re like little pyramids at the back of the vocal folds. And they move apart in order for your vocal cords to open and they come together for your vocal cords to close. And we named muscles based on where they attach.

And so there are these muscles are attached at the thyroid and the arytenoids. And so they’re called thyroarytenoid muscles. Now these muscles make your cords– when they flex, they make your cords nice and big and fat and they give you those big, loud, juicy speaking tones and what’s often called your lower register, your chest voice. Or if you want to get really fancy as we’re moving more towards scientific language, because the language of singing is very blurry, so that is being called mode one, or M1. So if you’re reading any singing literature and you see someone referring to M1, they’re talking about the cords being nice and big and fat and juicy. Now, you have a second pair of muscles and these are called the cricothyroid muscles. And what these muscles do is they are attached to the thyroid cartilage, but they’re attached to the outside now, and then they’re attached to this thing called the cricoid cartilage, which sits below.

And when this muscle flexes, it pulls this thyroid cartilage forward and down. And because your vocal folds are attached to the back of this, this movement begins to stretch them. So as we flex these cricothyroid muscles, or CT muscles, the cords get longer and thinner. Now that is when you’re CT dominant. That is known as, often, head voice, upper registers. Some will call it falsetto. And the newer term is M2, or mode two. So we have M1 and M2, and the problem for a singer is switching from one to the other when we don’t want to. We will go from a TA dominant sound, which is going to be a very strong, robust sound. And as we go higher, we will often suddenly shift into a CT dominant sound. And in the CT dominant sound, the cords are longer, they’re thinner, and there’s less contact.

They don’t come together as intensely. And so it creates a less robust sound. It’s the difference between Hey and hoo. And the problem is when we’re moving back and forth, we get that crack in the voice. And one of the prized things in contemporary singing, one of the great skills, is being able to belt those really strong high notes. Now as you go higher, the CT muscles have to become more engaged and more involved. They have to begin to stretch and thin out those vocal folds for pitch. Otherwise you’re just going to get stuck. And I’m sure all of you have felt that when you go and try and belt a note and it just jams up and you can’t go any further and it just feels like you’re shouting. And there’s an acoustic element to that, but we’re going to leave that alone today.

I’m going to talk about muscle coordination. So what’s happening is the TA muscles are over-engaged and the CT muscles aren’t engaging enough. Now, muscles tend to like to be either on or off, and it’s this idea of– we’re moving from the TA to the CT and we get that– We’ll get the pitch. If you do this abrupt shift, you’re going to get the pitch, but it’s not going to maintain the quality you often want for contemporary singing. Now, if you want to flip, if you want to do a stylized kind of, then certainly you can allow that to happen on purpose. But for the most part, especially when you’re trying to belt or sing very intensely, we need the TA muscles to stay very active, but not so active that they stop us from getting to the pitch. So we need the CT muscles to engage but not overtake so much that the cords become over-thin.

So how do you do this? How do we work this out? Well this is something that will– this takes time and this takes obvious practice. Very often you will be helped greatly by a voice teacher who can guide you through this process because the process is likely not gonna happen overnight and you’re going to have this instability of the coordination for a while, and this smooth handover from the one pair to the other pair is not likely going to happen right away. The problem is singers tend to get impatient. They just want a belt. So they will take this TA dominant configuration, or that’s over-dominant by the TA, and they will just push and shove and try and work that up into pitch. And that becomes a problem because then you start to over-muscle the folds. You start going into the acoustic alignment of shouting, which then signals your body to use more muscle because that’s a survival mechanism that we’re hardwired to do. That becomes a real issue. And then we just start shoving and pushing and yelling and the cords are just slamming together and they’ll swell a little bit because our tissue doesn’t like being slammed together. And you may feel tired and hoarse after singing. It may even hurt a little bit. And you have to know that’s not good and that’s not sustainable. So what is our other option? Well, for a little while, going light is our other option. And that is the preferable option as you are developing your voice. Because in some developing singers, it’s actually pretty common, especially amongst men where the CT muscles are really underdeveloped and really weak. You know, we don’t use the extremes.

The average person isn’t using this CT dominant sound very much except for when they occasionally go woohoo, but to get that stretch and that pull, that’s something that we need to work in. So for a little while, the voice, it may really fall apart to almost nothing. You may get haaa, or you’ll get ahhhh. And I’ve had singers where it just doesn’t even begin to engage. The TA’s just over-engaged. So to offset that you’re going to have to make really light sounds for a little while, and even breathy is fine. And what you can do is just on some glides, ah-ooh-ah, and it is helpful. And you can start on an aeh or an aah, and then just round your lips as you go higher to an ooh, and work that back and forth until you start being able to access that upper range.

And then you can just take the whole thing on an ooh, and see if you can give it a little more core to the sound. And with that really narrow ooh, that will tend to dial down the break. The break is going to be more pronounced on the more open vowels. So for a while, stay on those narrow vowels. You can stay on ooh. If you’re really having trouble, you can add a little light consonant — koo, goo. Woo is a good one with the w, the diphthong if you will. And that little ooh is really going to narrow it down, and you start to get that back and forth. Then you want to start activating a little more of that TA muscle. And this is where you have to be patient. This is where you can’t rush this, because the TA muscle is the bully muscle and it will, as soon as you go to give it a little bit, it will tend to over-grab, so you want to gently bring that in.

Exercises that I found that do it really well as you start to step in, little edgy sounds. And even though that’s very, very light, you’re starting to step towards that more robust coordination. And then you can start to work in, open the vowel slightly and put a hard G and that little sense of that mmm. Some people call it a cry, that edge and you can, gu, gu, gu, gu, gu, gu, gu and you start to get a little more intensity and a little more intensity. And then once that’s working, then we can really start to open things up. So the gu can start to go to guh, then can start to go to muh. And then rather than going, muh, muh, muhh, you can start muh, muh, muh, Muh.

And on that top, I’ve got a little more of that mmm. A little more of that TA involvement. Now, if you want to know what that feels like, because we don’t have direct awareness or conscious control over these TA and CT muscles, right? It’s not like flexing your bicep. It’s a little abstract. So just go ahead and almost kind of like a cow: mmm. Without the moo, just that mmm. And you can feel a little more intensity there. Some singers will call it press, that resistance. Now again, you gotta be careful cause it can so very quickly muh, Muh, MMuh and it will overload very, very fast. If you feel the muscle begin to overload, it’s okay. It’s natural. 

Take two steps back. Go back to the last slightly more intense coordination that was working. Maybe it’s the light gu, with some exercise like that before you go back to the more open, more intense sounds. But as that begins to work, then you can start playing with more open vowels, more intensity, more resistance.

Now just a quick note on breathing. As you begin to have more resistance, you’re also going to want to flow a little more air, a little more air pressure or airflow coming up against the resisting cords. Because if you don’t give that enough airflow, then you’re not going to be in balance and you’re going to likely go towards that squeeze. Again, working with a voice teacher is really, really helpful. You will save so much time and so much frustration if you can find a really good voice teacher, and it’s worth the extra money to get a great voice teacher because they’re just going to save you time and they’re ultimately going to save you money. Because you’re saving a few dollars with a teacher that’s not as experienced or trained, it’s just gonna take you more lessons if you’re going to get there.

So do your research on vocal coaches. Ask singers that you know, check to see students they’ve worked with. One of my very first podcasts was on how to find a voice teacher, so you can check that out. And then you can start to apply this to material. As you apply it to material, do the melody first on an exercise that works for you. So don’t just jump in and start trying to belt out the words. The problem with words are the composer is not worried about vocal technique or how hard it is for you. The composer has other demands that they are trying to meet. And it’s not about making it super easy for you, and certain words are going to be harder to get this coordination on than others. So if you find a sound that really works for you, do the melody on that. Find your coordinations, and then start adding in the words. You may find that you’ll get– let’s say there’s a phrase, it has eight words in it and two of the words just aren’t holding there. They’re either wanting to flip to that light coordination or they’re starting to shout. So what you do is you do all the other words on the actual text and then when you come to those two, substitute the exercise sound that’s working for you. Ultimately you should be able to start putting in all the words, add more intensity. You can start building that belt, but you need to practice patience when you are doing this. What you don’t want to do is build in the muscle memory of shouting, of building in the coordinations of shouting.

Because that can be really hard to undo, and I have worked with singers who’ve done a lot of shouting in that area, in their upper notes. And even as I attempt to get them balanced and I get the vowels lined up and we start backing off, man, the nervous system just doesn’t want to let go of that. I call it the little ghosts in the machine and they just keep reappearing. And even if they back off the muscle, then all of a sudden there’s just too much air being shoved because their body is so used to having to labor and push through that. Your voice just isn’t going to respond well to that pushing. Now there are those of us whose vocal folds can withstand more abuse than others, but it’s never really a great sound. And you know what, it’s not fun to do when you’re really laboring, when you’re singing and you’re worried about notes coming up. Man, that really isn’t my favorite way to spend a day, is singing poorly. It’s frustrating, and if it’s in front of an audience, it’s actually a little scary. And you will find as your vocal technique improves, so does your confidence, and things like stage fright actually begin to diminish in light of your new confident powers in singing. So take your time. This is worth it to do it right. You don’t want to rush this. So there’s a little vocal tip for you. Just know about the TA and the CT muscles, and then developing that coordination so you’re not letting one over-dominate the other, but you find this really cool balance. And then you can play with those balances depending on how intensely you want to sing. It’s all good stuff.

Hey, if you want more information about me, you can check out my website, johnhenny.com. If you’re interested in learning how to teach voice, well, I’ve got a couple of things for you. My book Teaching Contemporary Singing is currently on sale on Amazon Kindle for just 99-cents, and I have my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy is now open. You can go to my website and just click teacher training up in the menu and you can get the information on that there. You can also check out on lessons with me, I will put in the show notes. I’m currently doing a special where if you will commit to weekly lessons, I just have it open for a select group of people, but if you can commit to weekly lessons, you will get a substantial discount off my rate. I’ve set aside a small portion of my schedule in order to work with really serious singers who maybe normally couldn’t afford my rate. Just go to johnhenny.com/101 for episode 101, and there’ll be a link for the monthly special. And hey, until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.