Drop your jaw!

If you take voice lessons you have no doubt heard this command. You have even likely felt the beneficial effects of doing the jaw drop.

Why does dropping the jaw help?

And why do we often resist doing it?

In this episode, John looks at the acoustic science behind dropping your jaw and why it is critical to vocal balance in the upper register.

He also digs into why singers resist this and how it can be done wrong.

A jaw-droppingly good episode – ok, sorry for that.

Episode Transcription:

Episode 43 – Drop Your Jaw

Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of the Intelligent Vocalist. Thank you so much for spending this time with me.

I’m actually trying something different. I’m doing a Facebook Live as I record this episode. So maybe you saw this, live? You can tell people you were there, Man! You saw this, live!

Anyway, today I want to talk about Dropping The Jaw. It’s one of the things I find myself constantly telling students during lessons. If you study with a teacher, you’re probably being told constantly to drop your jaw. And I used to wonder, why do I need to drop the jaw? And it’s one of those things that students are often reticent to do. It feels a little scary, especially as you get to the higher pitches as you’re going through those vocal transitions, it feels like it may throw your balance off. So people tend to kind of tense the jaw and not want to drop it.

Here’s why we want to drop the jaw:

I remember being told years ago by a voice teacher that you’re just dropping the jaw to give the vowel more room. And while it felt like that, that really didn’t make sense to me. How would a vowel need more room? Why does a note need more room? It’s not more spacious, it’s just vibrating air molecules. So here’s what it’s doing. It’s not that you’re necessarily giving it more room. What you’re doing is changing the size of your resonating tube. And that’s the key.

The resonating tube and its interaction with the sound waves. If you’ve been a faithful listener of this podcast, you know how important that is. It’s actually one of the key components of good singing. It’s this good acoustic interaction between the resonator and the sound wave.

Your resonator is basically from your vocal cords, above your vocal cords, your throat area, then your mouth area, and out through the lips. That’s where the sound wave is enhanced, certain parts of the sound waves are boosted, other parts of the sound wave are made softer or quieter. And that filtering process is what gives us not just your tone, but also affects vocal power and vocal balance. It’s incredibly important.

Now, what happens when we drop the jaw? Because I kinda thought of the opposite as to what dropping the jaw does. And there are some problems when you go to drop the jaw because it kicks in certain things in our nervous system. I’ll address that in a minute. But if you think about resonating space, higher frequencies are boosted in smaller spaces. Smaller spaces boost higher frequencies. That’s why a trumpet is smaller than a tuba. And a piccolo trumpet is smaller yet again. And a piccolo is smaller than a flute, etc.

So what we do is, we can adjust our resonating tube to be longer or shorter in order to affect the sound wave. And if we’re going to boost higher frequencies, we need a smaller, shorter tube in some respects. There are multiple boosts going on in the tube. This is going to be somewhat over-simplified. I can’t say that enough because you’re always going to get some pedantic person who wants to constantly critique everything on a scholarly level. This is not a scholarly level discourse. I am not posing myself as a vocal scientist. This is just really really simple. So I’m going to simplify things, and yes, I may over-simplify things. So there’s my disclaimer. And then, basically, if I say something stupid, my disclaimer covers that as well.

So by dropping the jaw,  what is happening is, as you drop your jaw it feels like you’re making the mouth bigger. But what you’re doing is actually pulling the jaw down and back, and it’s making the resonating tube just a little bit shorter. And that affects one very very important part of this equation.

When we’re boosting the sound wave, we get two boosts. We get a treble boost and a bass boost. We get more than two but there are two primary boosts that we get. And when we drop the jaw, you are more affecting that lower boost or that bass boost. And what you’re doing is, when you drop it, you raise that bass boost up a little bit.

And here’s why it’s very very important; is as you go higher, the sound wave itself, the frequency that it’s vibrating at, everything is getting faster and faster, so it’s getting higher and higher. So those values are getting greater and greater. Your resonators, if they don’t adjust you just keep them exactly the same, will then lose their relationship with the sound wave. Or the relationship may change in such a way that it’s not optimal. So by dropping the jaw and you shorten that tube just a little bit, what you’re doing is, that bass boost, the value of that bass boost is going to raise just enough to keep its relationship with the sound wave.

If you don’t drop the jaw, you’re going to lose that bass boost and the tone may become a little weak. You may become destabilized. That is why when people are working on their transition, when they’re working on, what they may call them, mix, or their “passaggio,”  and into the higher notes, if the jaw doesn’t drop properly, a vowel is a little too close, they’re not tracking the sound waves with their resonators. At least not in an optimal way.

So what happens is, people will over-narrow vowels and maybe keep their mouth a little close so that they don’t yell. And yelling is the first we want to eliminate when we’re learning to sing. It’s that yell instinct. And that definitely is a problem. But once you’ve eliminated that, if you in this over-closed vowel, your resonators are not going to align in an optimal way with the sound wave.

Now there is a time period where, when you go to drop the jaw and you go to open this up, it may very well kick back in that yell instinct. And we have to be careful with that. And that is why students will be a little scared to drop the jaw as they get into those higher pitches because it feels like by doing that, you’re going to allow the yell to kick back in. And we don’t want the yell kicking in.

So when you drop the jaw, you just want to be careful that the lips don’t start spreading at the same time. Not that the lips can’t open a bit, but that’s a bit more of an advance singing posture. Drop the jaw without spreading the lips. Just a nice relaxed “Oh”. You could even just say that. Just open your mouth, let that jaw hang in that position. What’s that going to do is, it’s going to shorten the resonating tube enough to raise that bass boost to give you a nice full tone.

Now, there are other ways to raise that bass boost. And the one the nervous system is going to most readily want to use is the raising of the larynx because that will also shorten your resonating tube. But that begins to kick in the yell condition. The larynx starts to come up, the outer muscles will often begin to squeeze, and then we start to get into that yelling condition, which we don’t want. And we can get stuck in our chest voice and trying to take that too high. And that is what keeps voice teachers in business – stopping people from hanging on to their chest voice and trying to push and pull that up into the higher notes. But by dropping the jaw, we can raise that bass boost up just enough that it stays involved with the sound waves, and it gives that lower boost.

And then, here is where the magic happens. This is what we’re looking for as singers. This is what we’re trying to guide our students in to as teachers. When the resonators align with the sound waves in an optimal way, you get this nice burst of acoustic energy. And everything really starts vibrating in a wonderful way. And as that power radiates out of your mouth towards the listener, it also radiates back the other way towards the vocal folds. And this back pressure of this energy, of this acoustic energy that you’re creating, will press down on the vocal cords and assist them in holding back the air. And actually assist them in their timing of opening and closing, so that everything becomes optimal.

It really is almost like magic. And when singers feel it, I’m sure you felt it in moments where suddenly the note becomes incredibly easy. And you’ve just become this vessel for this acoustic power. And that’s where you want to be. And dropping the jaw will help you get there. We will resist it because we feel like we’re going to go into the yell. But if you drop the jaw properly and in a nice relaxed way without pulling the lips back, without allowing yourself to add tension to the vocal folds, you should very well begin t feel this ease of production, this growth of acoustic power. And that the vocal cords can actually relax because they’re getting help from the acoustic back pressure in holding back the air. It’s not just your muscles having to do it. And it’s absolutely wonderful. This is where we want to get as singers. This is the magic place.

This is what’s fascinating about the voice. And I think the trap that we fall into is that we hear this big sound coming out of us singers. And we think, oh my gosh, there must be so much muscle involved with that, there’s so much power, that they must be working really really hard. And yet, when we sing properly most of the energy is produced after we’ve done our work. We basically create the sound wave, we send the air, the vocal cords resist it, compress the air, out comes the vibrating sound wave, and then we are now a passive vessel for the sound wave to travel through as it interacts with our resonators. We set the resonator but now, we just allow the sound wave and the acoustic space to do their work. And if we set it up properly, it creates all this energy. But this energy is created after we’ve done the work.

We’re basically now passive. We’re just the vessel in which this energy, this combo of magic, is occurring. Our nervous system wants to get involved. We feel this, “oh we’ve got to do something”. No. you just have to allow it.

That’s why singing is so tricky because it really is so much of us having to do all this work and all this study to get this skill, to get everything set up properly. But once we get it set up properly, we need to learn to leave it alone. And it’s this kind of odd zen space that great singing occurs in. and it took me a very long time. I remember thinking, “ what am I supposed to think about when I’m singing? What am I supposed to do in that moment?” It’s almost overwhelming. It’s get your cords balanced, get the air flow balanced, get the vowel balanced, and then leave it alone. And dropping the jaw is a big step on the higher notes. Dropping the jaw is a big step to entering that vocal nirvana, to entering that feeling of acoustic energy. And just allowing yourself to let that flow.

So the acoustics of the voice is so so profoundly important. I encourage you to learn as much as you can about vocal acoustics. You don’t have to become a voice scientist. But the more you know, the more you’re going to know how to adjust your resonators, and what to listen for, and how to approach certain notes. And you can even begin to control intensity and tone color all through this interaction of the sound wave and the acoustics.

So there you go. DROP YOUR JAW. That’s today’s lesson.

So hey, thank you so much for listening. If you want to find out more about me or studying with me, you can go to JohnHenny.com. I’ve got my other podcast episodes there and my blog. If you think we might be a good fit for vocal lessons, you can get in touch with me there. As I’ve said, I’m cutting back my teaching schedule but I am interested in working with you if you are a serious, committed student, and you think we might be a good fit.

So, until next time. To better singing, this is John Henny. Thank you so much. Bye.