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Let It Go...and Open Up!

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

‘Open your throat’, gently guides the voice teacher. What should a student do who receives the direction to ‘Open your throat’?

Does one tense muscles to ‘open the throat’?

Conflictingly, a student may be told to relax to ‘open the throat’. Is this a contradiction?

It’s helpful to know how muscles work but, this is singing, why do we need to know this? I would like to quote Maribeth Bunch Dayme from her excellent book, Dynamics of the Singing Voice:

“To say things in inaccurate ways may make a person try to put effort in wrong places.”

I often say it this way, to try to do things that are contraindicated by a physical law will only create physical problems.

Most muscles throughout the body are paired antagonistically, that is, when one contracts, the other relaxes thus, they work in cooperation. To follow the suggestion, ‘open your throat’, it is helpful to know how muscles work so the body takes the advice in a coordinated manner.

First, it’s important to know some of the mouth and throat structures associated with singing. As we look toward the side of a head, we can name some structures with which we are familiar and some with which we might not be acquainted.

Image Head - lateral view.

lateral internal view of the head, with singing mechanism labeled
Rohen & Yokochi - Labeled by Barbara Dyer

Lips, teeth, tongue, hard palate, soft palate, uvula, epiglottis, pharynx, larynx. Notice how thin the back wall pharynx is from this side (lateral) position!

Photo Head – frontal view

front view image of mouth wide open, showing parts of the singing mechanism

When the doctor says, ‘open your mouth’ and she looks at the back of the throat - and perhaps the throat is very red from being a sore throat - she is looking at the pharynx.

What kind of tissue is the pharynx? The pharynx is a long, wide, and thin set of three muscles which run from the brain plate down the back of our throats back of the nose, behind the mouth where we can look in and see it, and it goes down further to interact with the larynx. I, often having allergy concerns, always thought that back wall was part of the respiratory system. In fact, the pharynx is part of the digestive system, and it becomes the esophagus! The last time one of my students went to a very fine ENT, he pointed to the pharynx and referred to it as the esophagus. I had never heard that before!

The pharynx is made up of muscles called constrictor muscles and there are three of them: the superior up behind the nose, the middle which we can see when we open our mouths, and the inferior which has a lot of connections with the larynx and tongue. Their names correspond with their position: the nasopharynx, the oropharynx, and the laryngopharynx.

Muscles can only do two things: they can either contract (and only in one direction) or they can relax!

What is the function of the pharynx that is so incredibly important to our survival? They are our swallowing muscles! When the constrictor muscles contract they form a partial pipe in the throat slightly curving their width around the back of the tongue to guide saliva or food downward and lifting the larynx readying the body to swallow.

First, the tongue pushes the liquid or food (called a bolus) upward and back toward the throat. Next, the epiglottis folds over the voice box at the top of the windpipe. Finally, the lower pharynx muscles contract upward and move the bolus down toward the esophagus at the back of the larynx.

The only time the constrictor muscles contract is when we swallow. Otherwise, they hang back saying “I’m on the beach hangin’ out”.

So, what does a pharynx do while we sing? For one of our NATS-LA Symposiums I invited a laryngology team, an ENT, a Speech Pathologist, and a Social Psychologist to analyze a singer’s throat who quite suddenly went hoarse. A fiberoptic film of the opera singer’s throat while trying to sing revealed no

medical pathology in the larynx, but her vocal folds would not come together and her pharynx was very rigid. After looking at her professional and personal calendars, she uncovered significant personal issues which she resolved over several weeks.

In the second fiberoptic film of her singing her voice displayed a regular colorful operatic tone and the vocal folds and undulating pharynx were back to what ENTs refer to as normal. [Counter to this idea of what is considered normal is the fact that certain styles of singing, i.e. Bluegrass, are thought to gently hold the lower constrictor muscles, but that is for another article…]

So, the pharynx must relax when we sing, speak or even yell. That back wall of the throat is an organ that constricts to fulfill a biological function in contraction called swallowing, and when that is finished, the musculature relaxes and can be moved and affected by airflow we call singing. Voice teachers have been correct when they said to relax the throat; in many instances they are asking for the swallowing muscles, the pharynx, to just “Let it go.”

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