In this post I’m going to share with you the worst singing problem I’ve had in my life, and how I solved it, once I decided to take the solution into my own hands. This is a very common problem for male singers and I’m surprised how little information there is about it.
The Problem:Excessive Muscle Constriction When Singing High Notes
The problem involves over-reactive constriction and compression muscles while singing. Constriction worsens as pitch increases until you either can’t sing the notes at all, or you have to push through them with a lot of force, and this will cause the voice to go hoarse and several other symptoms. The medical name for this condition is Muscle Tension Dysphonia (MTD). It can also be called muscle misuse dysphonia and/or vocal hyperfunction.
Two Contributing Muscle Groups to Muscle Tension Dysphonia
There are two groups of muscles that can contribute to Muscle Tension Dysphonia, one is needed for phonation and the other isn’t. Each of these two groups can be broken down again into two groups.
Group 1: Problematic Phonation Muscles
These are the muscles that directly effect the vocal folds. When they constrict or compress too hard, the condition is sometimes called “pressed phonation”. I prefer to call it “over-pressed phonation“, as some pressure is always needed and the phrase, “pressed phonation”, doesn’t indicate that too much pressure is being applied.
The two muscles primarily responsible for over-pressed phonation are:
- Vocalis Muscle: The vocalis muscle is inside your vocal folds and it’s job is to keep your vocal folds short and thick when making sound (phonating). The problem is, they also have to learn how to become less thick and longer at higher pitches. Because men only use the lower 1/3 of their voice most of their lives, this muscle often struggles to surrender thickness in exchange for length and higher pitches and requires careful attention to regular training to develop new habits.
- Lateral Arytenoid Muscles: These muscles bring the center of the vocal folds together. This is called “medial compression”. They are very important in creating good, firm vocal fold compression when we speak and sing. However, much like the vocalis muscle, they can over-compress to cause problems with our singing.
Group 2: Problematic Muscles that Aren’t Involved in Phonation
Just above the true vocal folds, still inside the larynx, are two groups of muscles that are needed to close the passage to our lungs when we swallow. They, too, can become problematic to our singing, for both men and women. These muscles are usually called “constrictor muscles”, and when they become problematic we’ll use the phrase “excessive constriction”.
The two muscle groups primarily responsible for excessive constriction are:
- False Vocal Folds: The false vocal folds are larger and thicker than the true vocal folds and sit just above them. They are part of the same muscle group as the Vocalis muscle, the Thyroarytenoid muscles. They are also called the Ventricular Muscles. When under our control, they can be used to nice effect while singing. When out of control, they can slam shut as they do when we swallow, and they let very little air pass and can become inflamed and swollen if we force air through them.
- Aryepiglottic Folds: The Epiglottis is the “lid” to our wind pipe. When we swallow, the muscles within the aryepiglottic folds constrict to close the lid so that no air can get in or out of the lungs through the larynx. Having over-reactive constrictor muscles can wreak havoc on our singing.
How to NOT FIX Problems with Excessive Constriction While Singing
Resting the voice will certainly help in the short-term as excessive constriction can cause a range of symptoms from vocal fatigue, inflammation and swelling, neck discomfort, altered vocal quality, to complete loss of voice. However, simply resting the voice will not correct the deeply embedded muscle memory habits that lie at the root of the cause of the problem.
Most voice coaches are in the habit of giving their students exercises in a category I call “Open Mouth Variations”, or OMVs. There are many, many types of OMVs as they are the most common type of singing exercises we do in our training. Simply put, if your mouth is open while you are doing an exercise (such as “mah – mah – mah – mah – mah”), you are doing an OMV. These exercises are essential for vocal training, but unfortunately, can exacerbate a problem with MTD.
Most vocal coaches are in the habit of teaching a collection of OMVs as a way to develop the voice, and probably feel a certain amount of pressure to do so so that the student gets “their money’s worth” from the lessons.
The Exercises I Used to Fix my Problem with MTD
IMPORTANT: I am not a doctor. I’m not even a vocal coach. I’m a man who’s been addicted to singing his entire life and has only recently began to train his voice to overcome a large collection of problems, the worst being excessive constriction with both phonation and non-phonation muscle groups. What follows is an explanation of how I fixed this problem.
Start with Closed Mouth Variations (CMVs)
When you phonate with your mouth closed, sometimes called humming, you isolate the phonation muscles from the articulators in the vocal tract (tongue, lips, jaw and soft palate). The articulators don’t move. I have found that it is the movement of the articulators that triggers constriction in the throat. When they are stationary as they are when humming, there is much less constriction in the throat, even at higher pitches. It may not disappear entirely, but we are put in a position where we can now train our muscles to climb up and down scales in a way we can better manage.
Six Weeks of Only CMV Training
Last year for six consecutive weeks I trained anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes each day, sometimes more than once per day, with my mouth closed at all times. I did not sing songs during this period. I used the same piano scales on mp3 that I give away for free here at the website. I believe I was using the set called “baritenor”, that covers the range from Bb2 to Bb4. I would recommend that most men start with the collection called “baritone” that covers from G2 to G4.
Your main intention is to simply go up and down your range, over and over again, gently and lightly, with your mouth closed, paying extremely close attention to when any constriction sets in. When it does, you must relax the constriction, and then continue. The key is to go as light and gentle as necessary to do these exercises without constriction. You want to memorize what it feels like to cover this range with a relaxed throat.
Next, Begin to Introduce Semi-Occluded Variations (SOVs)
These exercises can’t be taught in a blog post, so I’ll do my best to describe them so you can begin to gain an understanding.
Semi-Occlusion simply means that the mouth is partially open such that only a small amount of air can escape through the mouth. This causes some backward pressure to build up at the point just above the vocal folds, and it actually helps them operate more easily when done correctly. More importantly, the articulators are still much less active than with OMVs.
Making sound with the mouth semi-occluded involves the use of a type of consonant called a voiced fricative. There are four voiced fricatives:
- Th: as in “these”, “those”.
- Z: as in “zebra”.
- V: as in “victor.
- S: as in the word “pleasure” (i.e. not the normal “s”).
You can then choose what vowel you want to put after the fricative. However, the fricative sound is done throughout the exercise. I’ve actually created a fricative “hybrid”, that I LOVE, by combining a “v” with a “w”, and I use it with the “oo” vowel to great effect.
The primary difference between CMVs and SOVs is that the soft palate is now raised, fully if possible. Though the tongue, jaw and lips need to now be involved, once you start the SOV they are again stationary through the entire exhale, reducing the constriction reaction while moving you a step closer to full, open-mouth phonation.
Another great thing about SOVs is that you can vary the amount of pressure you put on the fricative. Begin with more pressure as you learn the exercise and then over weeks and months, begin to reduce the amount of closure caused by the fricative.
I have been surprised to discover that there are so many more benefits that come from devoting a lot of time to training with CMVs and SOVs. These benefits include a rapid improvement in pitch accuracy, a rapid development of the top half of my vocal range, a rapid improvement in connecting and blending registers and passaggio. Truly, it’s been a miraculous discovery for me.
Some Do’s and Don’ts To Keep in Mind
Always exercise caution. Don’t be afraid to go as light as possible. You may feel your voice flip into M2 (falsetto) early (the common crack or breaking sound). This is fine, even good. You are not trying to develop strength here. You probably have too much strength in the lower half of your voice and you have to teach it to surrender, bit by bit, as you climb in pitch.
When doing CMVs, I prefer to keep my tongue fixed flat against the roof of the mouth, with the tip up against the back of the front teeth. I usually hold the thought of the vowel “ee” (as in beet, feet) in my head. I send all the sound into the head and not toward the lips.
These exercises are gentle and can be done for extended periods of time and multiple times per day as long as you are not forcing or pushing.
Be patient! You will see improvement right away, but it could still be months before the muscle memory begins to shift into new habits of less constriction.
Next Steps – How to Get Started Today
- Get Vocal Scales on Mp3: If you don’t have a good collection of piano scales on mp3, then download one or more of my free collections. Experiment with each scale type until you have your favorites, and then build a playlist using only your favorite files. I love the scale labelled “Standard Octave Chromatic” and I would recommend that you start with only this file and simply put it on “loop” for the entire training. The scale only increments by half steps.
- Follow Me for More Instruction Coming Soon: I am now creating a voice building course unlike any course on the market. These exercises, plus my new creation of OMVs, called the “Yoweling Series”, are unique to the marketplace and are what I’ve used to completely transform my voice in a short period of time. You can follow me on Youtube and subscribe to my email list here at the website and you will receive an offer to enroll in the first group of students for the launch scheduled on October 1, 2017.
I have more to share and this post is already very long. Send me any questions you have or leave questions at my videos on Youtube and I’ll do my best to answer.
Excessive constriction is a difficult problem to overcome, but not at all impossible. All forward progress feels great and when you can sing in your full range without constriction you’ll be thankful that you put in the training time to correct the problem. My life as a singer has been completely transformed and I continue to do loads of CMVs and SOVs with every workout.
Good Luck to you in your training and singing!