"Anatomy 101" - Mark Baxter
Welcome students. Today we will take a look at the basic parts of our vocal instrument. I’m sure you considered cutting this class; singers rarely educate themselves on the various parts of the body. They fear the knowledge will hamper free spirit. Ironically, this attitude often inhibits vocal ability due to common misconceptions. Many of us maintain a cartoon-like perception of anatomy. We picture, for instance, the lungs to be hollow, balloon-like organs occupying the entire area inside the rib cage. Muscle behavior is based on these larger-than-life perceptions, causing problems with control.
Singing starts with an inhale. Most people know this action requires the diaphragm but are not aware of its location or how it works. Place your hand over your belly button. This area is NOT your diaphragm; it is the abdominal wall. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle which divides your torso, separating the lungs and heart above (thoracic cavity) from the digestive organs below (abdominal cavity). To locate, place your finger at the bottom of your sternum bone (breast plate); the diaphragm crosses directly behind. Notice it is fairly high up inside the rib cage. Now place your hands on your chest, fingers facing up, with the base of the palms on your nipples. This provides a good visual of the size of your lungs. Made of thousands of tiny air sacks called alveoli, the lungs resemble dense sponges more than balloons. They do not draw in air themselves; they are enlarged as the diaphragm descends (inhale) and reduced as the diaphragm returns (exhale). When you hear the term ‘support’ in relation to singing, it means the diaphragm is able to move up and down freely and make minute adjustments in air pressure. It does not mean to push from the abdominal wall.
The larynx is in the middle of the throat, sitting on top of the windpipe and is the vibrator of the instrument. Its inside diameter is about the size of a quarter. There are two horizontal flaps within the larynx, called vocal folds, which can partially cover the windpipe and vibrate when air passes through. These folds are similar to eyelids in size and shape but are covered by mucus membranes and need to be kept lubricated. There is a network of muscles in and around the folds which manipulate their tension for pitch change, thickness for volume and their position for a variety of tonal qualities. These muscles operate reflexively, like those of the eye, and work best when provided with an appropriate amount of air pressure.
There is a short stretch of throat above the larynx called the pharynx. It is the main resonator of the voice. Most of us imagine this area as having a large diameter; yet we know better than to swallow a penny. The pharynx is lined with sensitive muscles which narrow the internal space further in response to contractions of the abdominal wall. The pharynx connects to the mouth and nasal cavities, also important resonators. The muscles of the tongue and jaw are the strongest in the body, and both brace instinctively to provide extra rigidity to the throat. All these closing actions greatly reduce the potential for overtones. Another reason not to over-drive your air pressure.
Every instrument requires a specific touch and the voice is no exception. Visualizing how small the parts of your instrument really are will help balance muscle activity. What I have provided is a very basic overview. Do yourself a favor and explore an anatomy book. The more you know about the functions of each part, the easier it is to make any instrument sing. That’s all for today. Class dismissed.
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