Episode 61 – Voice Stuck In Your Throat?

“I feel like I’m singing from my throat.”

“My voice is stuck in my throat.”

Singers complain of feeling like their voice is trapped in their throat, unable to break free and soar.

But if your vocal cords are in your throat, shouldn’t your voice be there?

How can you be stuck?

In this episode, John looks at this common singing complaint, breaks down what is happening, both physically and acoustically, and gives helpful tips to get you unstuck quickly.


Episode Transcript (approximate)


Hey this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of the Intelligent Vocalist. Okay. I have to ask a favor. Especially if you are a dedicated listener of this podcast. And I know you’re out there. I know that I actually do have some fans. I’ve gotten some fan mail. I have a new YouTube series called Why I Love This Vocal. If you go on YouTube and you look up John Henny vocal studio or John Henny why I love this vocal, it should show up. And what I do is I break down some great vocals and explain what they’re doing, what they’re doing with phrasing. It’s kind of like those reacts videos but I’m really trying to break down exactly what’s happening and so you can learn from a great singer and musician how to better approach your vocals and how to use phrasing and emotion and vowel shades and all of those wonderful devices, using a great vocal as an example and breaking that down.

And I’ve managed to find multi-track versions of most of these tracks where I can isolate the vocals. It’s actually pretty cool. I’m pretty happy with it. It’s quite a bit of work which is why I need some viewers so if you can go there and subscribe and spread the word I would absolutely love it. It’s a brand new series. Just kind of needs to find it’s traction. I’d love to keep doing them but I kind of like to have people watching if I’m going to do it. So this is my pathetic request to try and get some viewers for that. To get you my happy podcast listeners to go out and spread the word. That would make me very happy and I would appreciate it.

So moving on from my pitch. That’s my pitch for the day. I want to talk about this idea of singing from your throat. Just before I did the podcast I said to one of my associate teachers “Hey, throw out an idea for the podcast.” And she said “Okay, how about how pushing doesn’t help you sing louder?” And I went “Okay, yeah that’s actually a good topic.” And that made me think, you know, people very often when they’re caught in this feeling of pushing or grabbing or extra effort they’ll very often say “I feel like I’m singing from my throat. I feel like my voice is stuck in my throat.” And that’s a very funny thing to say because where else would your voice be but in your throat? That’s where your vocal cords are. So it would reasonably follow that if you are singing or talking or making sound, you would feel in your throat. You’re singing from your throat or in your throat.

But singing is a funny thing because the sensations change and the sensations don’t always reflect what’s actually going on. And what makes good singing, to the new singer it’s counterintuitive. The sensations aren’t what you would necessarily expect. And there are sensations that you’re not even going to know what they are like. You can have them described to you but you actually have to feel them for yourself to understand what singers are talking about and understand this feeling of not being stuck in the throat and to feel like the voice is vertical and to feel like there’s no tension whatsoever. And all of these things that actually don’t make sense. You’re not singing on the vertical, if you will. The sound is coming up and then out your mouth. It’s not coming out of the top of your head.

To sing completely without effort is impossible. Or tension. Because there needs to be tension in order to create sound. A complete lack of tension is silence. There, that sound of my breath is absolutely no tension in my vocal folds. They’re just open and relaxed. So all of these things that we think, feeling the voice in the throat, that any tension’s bad, it’s not entirely true but within the world of singing and the sensations of singing and just how this instrument behaves it begins to make more sense. And learning to sing and teaching singing and being a singer, you very often have to utilize lies that work for a greater truth. And within these lies and within these untruths there is some truth that can help us learn to sing. I just like people when you’re using something that’s not true, you just be aware that it’s not true. It’s okay. But just be aware of what’s really going on because we’re using things that aren’t necessarily true or sensations that are somewhat personal and this kinesthetic experience and the mind body interaction and how we feel the notes kind of changes and isn’t exactly the same for everyone.

And they’re somewhat nebulous. They’re not always concrete sensations. So it’s a very odd world that we have to live in as singers. Even weirder than drummers. And singers are pretty weird. Drummers are weirder but we’re pretty weird. And I say that as an ex-drummer which just makes me like off the charts. You don’t want to go to dinner with me. Anyway, so getting back to this feeling of being stuck in your throat. What is that? Well, it’s going to usually happen on one or two levels. Usually both. And it’s the physical and then the acoustic level. On the physical level when somebody is talking about being stuck in their throat they are usually using too much muscle. Your vocal cords, their function biologically is they need to open for us to breathe and then they close over to protect the lungs so if something goes down the wrong way the vocal cords are going to kind of cough and spasm and help get that foreign object out of the lungs to protect the lungs.

And then they also when we need to bear down on something, lift something, push, in child birth or your visit to the toilet, that huh, huh, where you close the cords and press down it helps the body bear down. Language is something, and singing, we developed. What came first? Who knows. They probably came at the same time. I mean singing is a very, very primal thing that we do. It really connects us with a deeper part of ourselves. And that’s a whole nother avenue I’m not going to get in today. But singing is incredibly special. But it’s a high level skill and it not only requires coordination’s and muscular balance that speakers aren’t ever going to use but also the acoustics and the sensations are completely different than what most people ever experience. When you learn to sing and you learn to sing up into your upper notes and just really lay into them in a balanced way, those are sensations the average person will never feel. Even a lot of singers will never truly experience those sensations in quite the right way.

And when great singers talk about singing it can often be confusing if you’ve never experienced these sensations. But this feeling of being stuck in the throat, almost everyone who’s tried to sing has felt that. They feel the tension, they feel it locked up, they feel they can’t get a higher note. And the first thing is the physical. Basically your vocal cords have to be able to do a couple of things. They have to be able to close over the air as you’re blowing it out and stop the air and compress it into a sound wave. And this happens hundreds of times a second but it’s just like a trumpet player buzzing their lips. You need this opening and closing and this compression of air to create the sound waves. Then the cords also need to be able to get fatter and thicker or thinner and add tension, reduce tension in order to give us different pitches. As the cords begin to lengthen and stretch or come back to a shorter, fatter condition the whole time you also have to be controlling the muscles that are closing the cords and keeping that consistent so that you don’t go from breathy low notes to just totally squeezed higher notes. I mean there’s a lot of muscular interplay that’s going on and until you get those coordination’s working you’re going to have trouble getting pitch, getting consistency, even singing in tune, nevermind expanding your range.

All of those things are going to be rather difficult. And to add to the difficulty these are muscles we don’t have direct conscious awareness of. So the whole singing thing gets tricky right there but now we add a second element, which is the acoustic element. Which is what happens in these resonance chambers of your throat and your mouth as the sound waves your vocal cords created travel through and the interaction of the sound waves bouncing around inside those two little rooms. Think of the back of your tongue as like a little room divider. We have two of these acoustic rooms. Think about if you go and you clap your hands in your closet and then you go clap your hands in an empty underground parking garage. The sound coming back at you from your clapping hands is going to be profoundly different in each one.

Even from your bedroom to your bathroom just because of the reflective surfaces on the bathroom versus your bedroom which tends to be curtains and pillows and sheets that’s going to absorb the sound. So the different acoustic spaces are going to have different effects on the clapping hand or that sound wave. You can even take bathrooms of different sizes and the sound is going to be a little different from one to another. And that’s the interaction of the acoustic space and that becomes really, really important with the singing voice. It’s creating the initial sound wave and then having the sound wave go through the acoustic spaces in an optimal way. And if you can do these two things plus put in emotion and musicality as well as dance around like Michael Jackson meets Prince, then you have a good chance of being a star.

Now I can’t help you at all with the dancing but let’s just look at the voice and this singing from your throat and if you’re feeling that what can you do to get out of it? Well the first thing is we got to look at the muscle of the vocal fold and you have to understand that when you start to squeeze harder and you start to push more air you’re not necessarily going to get more bang for your buck. You may get a little louder but you’re going to work way, way too much for it. You’re going to start to limit your range. You’re going to get vocally tired very, very quickly if not begin to do some damage to your voice over time. And you are just going to go around in circles in this effort. The sound wave itself is going to be suboptimal in that it’s not going to have the right shape. Without going too far into it the sound wave is made up of a multitude of pitches.

When you talk, when you sing there’s a bunch of pitches coming out at the same time that the ear folds together into the finished sound. If the ear was breaking down each pitch separately we wouldn’t have language. It would be information overload. So our brains do a good job of molding all this together so we hear it as one unit. There’s a contour to the energy of these multiple pitches coming out of your vocal folds that is more optimal. And then there are contours that are less optimal. There’s the breathy, weak contour and then there’s the pressed, over muscled contour. The pressed, over muscled contour begins to have a very harsh, steely, unpleasant sound. It may be usable in certain situations but for most musical applications it’s not going to work for you and again, it’s just going to tire you out. So you have to find this, what they’ll call a medium level of compression.

Sometimes the phrase that will be thrown around is flow phonation. In other words the air flows more easily and more readily past the vocal folds. Now if you take that too far you’re going to fall back into breathy. So there’s a balance there. But you can kind of feel the difference between the three. What I’ll often have students do is first have them sigh. There’s not enough vocal fold compression. Now you go like you’re lifting something heavy. There’s too much. And now go like you’re eating your favorite food. Mmmm. And there’s the right amount. Okay. What food did you think of? I know what I thought of. Probably wasn’t what you thought of. Mine right now is oatmeal. I know I’m off on a tangent but I’m really digging oatmeal with fruit. That’s what I’m going to go with. So that makes me go mmmmm. So whatever makes you go mmm, give me a mmm. That’s what we want. That’s basically what we want.

Now you can go a little bit on either side of it if you want to go a little softer. If you want to go a little more intense. But you’ve got to start developing the coordination’s that you can control that. Otherwise that feeling of being stuck in your throat gets pretty overwhelming very quickly because you’re over muscling. The second component is going to be the acoustic component. This one’s a little bit trickier to understand. I cover this in some of my previous podcasts and I didn’t do my homework, I don’t have the podcast numbers. So you’re going to have to listen to every episode to find what I’m talking about. But basically when the sound wave goes into the acoustic area of your throat and your mouth, it’s going to create interactions and this interaction is going to increase certain energies and it’s going to decrease certain energies.

And in some of these interactions the energies will decrease to the point where the voice is really dulled and weakened. In others the energies are increased in a way that actually gets the voice rather shouty, which then will often tell your body to squeeze the folds even more because the body thinks it’s shouting. Then again, you start to get these feelings of being stuck in your throat. So what you need to do then is also find the acoustic balance so that there is an alignment with the sound wave that is optimal. Today’s word is optimal. Everything is a balance. And there is no one perfect place for your voice. Because your voice is constantly expressing, not only hitting different pitches, but expressing different emotions and different intensity levels and moving from one vowel to another vowel. The vowels are going to behave differently. They’re going to change the resonances into consonants.

All of these things are conspiring to break that balance and to throw you off and you’ve got to get to where you can just sit balanced no matter how fast the words are going by. No matter if this vowel tends to be a friendly or unfriendly vowel for the pitch that you’re singing. If you have to move to these consonants that are kind of interrupting your flow and what’s going on with the buzzing of your cords. A lot of times people, if they have to sing an H in the middle of a phrase they have to stop moving their cords. It’s like I have to have. I have to have. The H will throw them. I just made that up by the way so that’s copyright by me. That’s my song. I have to have.

Anyway, the H’s can throw people. So you have to be able to learn to get all of those consonants and vowels balanced. But as you begin to find these balanced vowels, the good ones, when you get the chambers in the right condition for the sound wave that you’re singing, it’s going to create this friendly energy that will feed back to the vocal cords and help them do their job. It’s like this back pressure that it leans against and helps push the cords down. I think I’ve used this before and I’m going to bring it back in because I will use zombie attacks and zombie apocalypse when I can. But if there’s a zombie apocalypse and they’re pushing at the door and you’re pushing back and the zombies are starting to gain ground and pushing against you, well the back pressure is like another person coming and kind of pushing on your back to help you lean against the door.

So the good back pressure will help you sing notes and it will also help you fight zombies. Good back pressure is good. Zombie fighting good. So you get the good vowel and then what happens with the good back pressure is the cords can relax a little bit because they’re not having to do all the work themselves. They’re not straining. The muscles aren’t tending to lock up. So that then decreases the feeling of being stuck in your throat. It increases the feeling of ease, of relaxation, of effortless singing. When you get the right balance of muscle in your throat in terms of the vocal cords and how they’re holding back the air, mixed with the right balance of resonance and that good feedback, that good back pressure, you’re no longer going to feel stuck in your throat. The sensation of singing begins to change completely.

As a matter of fact the feeling at the throat kind of fades. Doesn’t totally disappear but it fades. And singers will have more sensation of the resonance. And the voice will actually feel as if it’s sitting up maybe behind the eyes. Again, these are phantom sensations. Kinesthetically, it’s a bit of lie. But it’s how we experience the voice. And it’s very important for you to feel these. That’s why voice teachers will use certain exercises like having you hum through a straw or the lip bubbles. Go back and listen to my podcast on semi-occluded exercises. I think it’s just a few episodes back. See I kind of did my homework on that one. I can guide you there. But it will talk about these exercises and how they will assist you in beginning to feel these sensations. Sometimes we got to cheat a little bit and maybe phonate through a straw. Just getting a drink straw and buzzing through that and the narrowness of the straw will create some friendly back pressure to help the cords stay together without you having to work too hard.

Go ahead and just do some slides and see if that being stuck in the throat feeling doesn’t disappear or at least really back off a lot. If you are singing a song and certain notes feel like you are stuck in your throat or singing from your throat, look and see what they are. What note is it? Where does it sit in your range? What’s the vowel sound that you have to sing on the note? And what I would do is if it’s a hard vowel sound, something that’s really closed like an oo or an ee, well those can tend to want to squeeze because you lose acoustic energy on those. But if it’s a wide open sound like an ah, that can actually create a bit of a shouty condition and throw the energies in a different direction. Take it maybe towards a neutral uh. Try singing, substitute the word buh for the word itself. So if you’re coming to a hard part of the song and a few words in the line are difficult replace it with buh buh buh and if that still feels squeezy, bu bu bu, like book. Between bu and buh I tend to find a lot of success with students.

Or you can try mum, one, just different variations of an uh vowel. And make sure it’s uh, not ah. Some people, you think that you’re saying uh up there but your body’s going to fight and want to go to a wider vowel so it can hang on and pull and then that brings the stuck in the throat situation again. So just make sure it’s that nice neutral uh. Go through the straw or tongue trill. Or the ng of sung. Some of those ones that give you a little bit of back pressure. You can create it through the use of those exercises. Once you’re singing really well the acoustic energy itself will create the back pressure but we often have to force the issue a bit initially. But these are ways to get out of that being stuck in your throat feeling. If you’re stuck you got to back off the muscle at the folds and you got to just watch what you’re doing with the vowel. How you are adjusting the acoustics.

Hey, if you want more information about me you can check out website johnhenny.com. I do have information on there if you want to get in touch for lessons. The one thing I would recommend, join my email list. I actually do email my list at least a couple times a week. Different insights about singing, careers, working towards singing, keeping yourself motivated. So I’d love to see you on there and if you’re interested in learning how to be a voice teacher my contemporary voice teacher academy is open right now as of the recording of this podcast. I may be closing enrollment soon and just having it open only a couple times a year. So if you want to get in on that just click the tab on my menu that say teacher training.

Hey, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I really, really do appreciate it and until next time to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.