Christine came for her first singing lesson with me last year. She had been experiencing problems with reaching high notes, this had been building over time and wasn’t good news for a coloratura soprano. She’d done lots of research into her problem, spending hours with the anatomy books and palpating her neck to find out the cause of the problem. “It’s my digastric muscle”, she announced with certainty.
Muscles don’t work in isolation, they don’t over-work in isolation, and if you have an isolated injury – a sprain or tear, the affect isn’t a lone event either. Muscles tend to function best if they work in teams, they co-opt the surrounding muscles to help, to stabilise the system and to spread the load. Muscles linked to phonation are triggered by brain signals; in response to an idea (the timbre of a sound), an end goal (to produce a pitch as part of a melody), an emotion (surprise, joy), or simply a desire to communicate with another. The brain signals are caused by events around us, by the way that we are feeling, by an idea we’ve had. The way that we are feeling in response to our environment is influenced by every other aspect of our health and wellbeing. So even if it was Christine’s digastric muscle, the solution will always be a holistic one.
If we are to consider the whole person, we need to know how to ask the right questions without prying and crossing boundaries. A loss of high notes could be due to vocal fold pathology (never rule this out unless you’ve seen the evidence), but it’s generally due to an imbalance of overall muscular activity in the vocal tract. These will be holding patterns, nearly always brought about by anxiety – either chronic, low-level; or sometimes by trauma. Acknowledging the links need not be an explicit verbalisation, it can be just something that informs your suggestions. The process in the studio can be addressed as a purely technical journey, the gentle making of sounds while releasing the holding patterns. The outcomes of this positive experience can then feed into reducing the anxiety response, thereby enabling more release and so on. The body-mind relationship can be addressed from either body or mind and both will respond.
If you are to help the singer to move on from this and prevent a re-occurrence you may wish to suggest that there’s a psychosocial aspect to the biomechanical function. Singing teachers are really good at seeing the whole person, our experience as performers and educators and thinkers has helped us to know that everything is connected. Our challenge is to help the student to understand the importance of the holistic view. That’s where the magic happens.
About the author
Dr. Jenevora Williams Dr Jenevora Williams is a leading exponent in the field of vocal health and singing teaching. After a successful career in Opera, Jenevora turned her attention to investigating healthy and efficient vocal function. The combination of academic study and practical experience has resulted in a unique perception for understanding the human voice. She was the first singing teacher to be awarded a PhD in voice science in the UK, and won the 2010 BVA Van Lawrence Prize for her outstanding contribution to voice research. Her book, Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults, has been enormously popular with singing teachers throughout the world. She is well-known for her imaginative and rigorous international training courses for singing teachers and voice professionals. She now runs Vocal Health Education and Evolving Voice. As a teacher of singing, she works with professional singers of all ages in both voice rehabilitation and career mentoring
ANATS is the peak professional association for singing teachers in Australia. We help teachers of any style of singing to be the best they can be, by provide professional development, advocacy and community for singing teachers and other voice professionals across Australia.
We welcome members from all musical cultures, vocal styles and singing or teaching environments.
We are committed to building an inclusive culture that encourages, supports, and celebrates the diverse voices of our industry.