Weekly Teaching Tip – April 23, 2012
Doctor Hubert Noe is a great resource for us teachers. Not only is he an ENT and vocal scientist, but he is also a singer and a teacher. This is unusual, as I have found that most ENTs understand how to diagnose problems and repair things medically, but don’t understand the proper function of the voice in regards to singing. Dr. Noe has spent most of his life not only learning the most up to date science of the voice, but also the function in regards to the best use of the voice. He has also been very willing to share this knowledge with others.
In a fairly recent conversation, Dr. Noe explained to me the most recent findings regarding what physiologically happens inside the vocal apparatus during the bridges in a singer’s voice. It confirms what some teachers have felt was happening even though many doctors were not aware of it. The singers could feel it happening.
He explained that throughout the voice both the TA (thyroarytenoid) and the CT (cricothyroid) muscles are working. The TA gives the basic pitch and the CT stretches the vocal folds to fine tune the pitch. As a singer moves through each bridge there is a stiffening of the TA (also known as the vocalis muscle) which causes the basic pitch to get higher. It is a little like a guitar. You move to a different string to get a higher pitch, and then fine tune the exact pitch on that string.
He explained this process as similar to shifting gears in a manual transmission car. When the RPMs get high enough, you shift to the next gear. You can think of each gear shift as a bridge in the voice. The vocal folds are more relaxed on the lower notes, then they stiffen with each ‘gear shift’ or bridge. This is why the singer feels a definite adjustment at the bridge and how the pitches are able to move higher with the same basic length of vocal cord.
Our job as teachers is to help our students shift as smoothly and easily as possible so that the audience doesn’t hear an adjustment and the singer doesn’t feel any loss of power or control. Hopefully the singer gets so good at this that they don’t even pay attention to the ‘shift’ and it eventually just feels like one, smooth, even voice from the very bottom to the very top of the voice.
If the singer doesn’t ‘shift gears’ at the right time the voice doesn’t work properly, just like if you don’t shift the gear at the right moment the engine either lugs down (pulling head voice down) or the engine races and strains the engine (pulling chest). If we want a lighter sound we can shift earlier, if we want a more aggressive sound we can shift a bit later; however, we must shift and do it smoothly and at the proper time. We can’t drive around staying in 1st gear the whole time (pulling chest) or in 5th gear the whole time (staying in head voice).