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Singing through a straw is the subject of todays groundbreaking show. Before that, we have a new feature….
Fact & Myth (of the month, probably)
A females vocal folds can oscillate around 1 MILLION times per day
That’s a fact! If you’re a chatty little thing obviously.
Nasal Resonance contributes to your clarity
Definitely not sure about that one. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that’s not true. If you’d like to get some of The Naked Vocalists take on it you can find more information here in Chris’ blog about it.
Singing through a straw… buckle up!
Thanks to Dr. Ingo Titze for his recent research to back up the brilliance of straw phonation. He’s the best and once joined us for a nerdy podcast, which you can listen to here. Along with lots of other contributors, he has opened up the wide scale use of this technique, and now it really is a singers essential. Let’s us take you through why singing through a straw is awesome, as comprehensively as we can.
What basics do we need in efficient singing?
Well, we’re after a couple of things (definitely more than that, but you know what we mean). Good vocal fold positioning is a good start. This generates good, clear tone to be worked with. The 2nd is self-oscillation, where the vocal folds can freely vibrate without being forced, and good resonance is a key factor in this.
For the vocal fold positioning, there are three basic configurations that we generally encourage. Brace yourself for the stunning artwork. All images are the frontal view of the vocal folds.
The first position is modal, or chest voice. This has a high level of activity from the TA, or Thyroarytenoid muscle (‘chest voice’ muscle, in simple terms) and creates very strong adduction, especially along the bottom edge of the vocal folds.
The 2nd is falsetto, or head voice for some *terminology minefield alert*. This has pretty much zero activity the Thyroarytenoid, which leaves only the top edge of the vocal folds in contact during singing.
The optimal setting for vocal balance and efficiency is a mixture of the two. A mixed configuration, or mixed voice. There’s moderate activity in the Thyroarytenoid, and upper edges of the vocal folds are in contact, so we get an almost ‘squared’ positioning of the folds. This generates rich harmonics and allows much more function in vocal range and flexibility.
If only there’s was something to help us reach this positioning with as little effort as possible. Well, there is! Queue, the straw.
Now, let us kill you with information about why the straw is a useful little tyke.
AIRFLOW EQUALISATION – the occlusion (fancy word for blockage) at the mouth makes air pressure build in the oral cavity. This builds just above the vocal folds too, and helps to push back on the airflow from the lungs. This is helpful to us because it relieves the vocal folds of the entire job of resisting lung pressure. This helps them to function better and gain strength and training opportunity under less pressure. Great for weaker voices or someone who uses too much air to sing/too much volume.
REFLECTION OF ENERGY BACK TO THE FOLDS – the energy we’re talking about is acoustic energy, which is an oscillatory type of energy. Air particles vibrating. If we can trap this energy by singing though a straw, we can encourage more vibration of the air particles in the vocal tract. As they vibrate back and forth, they reinforce the vocal folds movement of opening and closing. That helps self-oscillation of the vocal folds immensely. Otherwise translated as efficiency. Nailed it.
ENHANCED RESONANCE ABILITY – tubes resonate sound waves at different points along them. That’s just physics. Our vocal tract is a tube, and can do the same. That’s how we resonate our sound. Longer tubes have more areas along them where sound waves can resonate. The straw lengthens our vocal tract so we too can catch and resonate more acoustic energy. If we’re also reflecting that back, as we mention above, then we’re increasing the self-oscillation process even more. We’re on fire.
REDUCTION OF THE VOCAL FOLDS ‘SMASHING’ TOGETHER – or in more technical language, less collision force during straw singing. Collision forces fatigue, or even damage, the vocal folds. We can’t stop this happening as that’s what creates our sound waves. BUT… in the case of warming up, rehabilitating tired or injured voices, and exploring the extremes of range and volume, we could do with less of it as we work it out. That’s where the increase in oral pressure comes in, as this pressure builds right down to the vocal folds, and in-between them. This provides a kind of ‘air cushioning’ effect where the vocal folds barely contact, or collide, but can still create sound.
Right. We’re sure you’ve had enough of ‘why’, so let’s talk about ‘how’.
What to do with your straws
A few applications for these straw regimes are: warming up, warming down, rehab, exploring range and volume, keeping a stable larynx position, vocal fold closure, mixed voice training, training the passaggio.
Singing Through A Straw – The Regime ( see the video for instruction)
SIRENING – glides, like a siren, from the bottom to top of the voice and back down again. Important tips are to NOT be quiet you deliver the sound through the straw. If the straw wasn’t in, we’re looking for your strongest, but still comfortable, voice production. Forte, for those who know what that means. Start in the deepest notes to ensure the ‘chest voice’ muscle is involved, and rise up to the top of the range to encourage it to coordinate with the muscles of the upper voice. This will train a mixed voice quickly. If you have a crack in the middle, great. Don’t worry about it. Singing through a straw regularly, and other appropriate training, will smooth that out over time.
If you have trouble rising up to the top of the range without the feeling of the bottom voice uncomfortably hanging on, you may need to siren from the top down. Start on your highest comfortable pitch, often in your lighter falsetto type sound, and glide down to the very bottom. Again, down worry about the clunk, if there is one. After a few of these you might be able to return to the regular siren and be able to ascend a little easier. Suck it and see.
ACCENTS, OR ‘HILLS’ – these are for exploring rising volume and pitch together. Start at the bottom of your voice, and gradually build the note and the volume over four accents. Finish at the top of your voice. You’ll really need to check out the vid for this one. The air pressure here can help with un-pressing the vocal folds, or relaxing the fold closure to something more helpful.
MELODY – once you’re a little more warm, from performing the above exercises, you can move on to melody. This is just to get used to the different vocal folds settings on mixed intervals and ranges. Choose any song, but ideally it’d be a quite dynamic song. Nothing too ‘meh’, otherwise it won’t be as beneficial.
TIP: Puffy cheek, or no puffy cheek. Standard answer: whatever works. Tense singers tend to find a puffy cheek finds a brilliant level of relaxation during the exercise. The pharynx and throat seem to relax a bit more, which influences the vocal folds away from squeezing too tightly. If you’re not feeling tight, then you might not need to puff out the cheeks at all. You may be wholesales one way, you be occasionally one and not the other. Who cares, as long as you notice what works and what doesn’t.
LAUGHING – laughing’s great for everyone, let’s face it. But as an exercise, it’s a beaut. It’s amazing training for strength of the vocal fold positions needed for intensity, especially high up. So, take your best laugh to the straw. Laugh down from the top. Go as fast as you can, but still keep it natural. Like a giggle. Once you’ve got used to it in the straw, take it on an arpeggio up and down the range. Speed, without sacrificing clarity and separation of each giggle, is one of the goals of this exercise.
MESSA DI VOCE – crescendo and diminuendo. Louder and quieter. Whatever you’d prefer to call it, it’s pretty difficult for most to perform well. The straw is another helper for this. As we get louder, we increase lung pressure. That’s standard. But we don’t necessarily need to increase fold closure simultaneously. In fact, we usually need to relax it slightly to stay in the same voice quality. Most beginners or intermediates sound squeezed on the loud part of this exercise, and breathy on the quiet bit. That’s because as well as needing less help from the muscles that close the vocal folds whilst increasing volume, we need more help from those muscles as we decrease in volume. That is, if we’re to remain in the same voice quality from loud to quiet.
With all that said, it’s easier said than done to do this. In order to train it, the increase in oral pressure from singing through a straw can offset our habit of pressing the vocal folds together as we grow in volume. It spreads them apart, as we said before. It can also assist us in keeping them together when we decrease in volume, because the oral pressure will be less and the vocal folds aren’t as spread during the quieter parts. Super helpful right?
See the video for a demonstration, but perform the exercise over eight beats. Take four to crescendo, and four to diminuendo. Start on C3 if you’re a guy. C4 if you’re a girl. Perform the exercise on each rising semitone, keeping consistency in the voice quality from quiet to loud. Most get an octave in before it gets really difficult, but ultimate skill will get you further. Then try it on open vowels… if you dare! #goals
SUSTAIN AND VIBRATO – choose your pitch. Ideally, the ones you have trouble with. Spending a considerable time just hanging there on the note, adding vibrato to assist the vocal fold setting; a mixed voice.
If you’d like to see an example straw routine, click on the link below!
Which size straw do I choose?
The thinner the better really. A 3mm diameter straw is a common one to use. Either way, the smaller the diameter the more reflection of energy there is, and that breeds more self-oscillation effect for the vocal folds. In case you can’t remember if that’s good or not, it is. 4.3mm straws, or even multiple straws at once, are useful for many singers too. That could because they may use too much air to sing, are new to the exercise, or just physiologically need it. This bigger diameter alleviates excess pressure in the mouth in these cases. If it is just because of unfamiliarity or excess air, they may well use thinner straws easily in future.
Straw length isn’t as important as diameter. Ours are around five inches long, which is ideal. If you only have a wide drinking straw, then it needs to be really long to be effective. But, like we’ve alluded to, get a thinner one to be optimal.
TECHY TIP: girls could need a slightly larger straw than men, purely because female vocal folds are smaller and resist less air than mens. We are often matching the straw size to the resistance level (or closure) at the vocal fold level. More closure, thinner straw. Less closure, wider straw.
How long do I do it for?
Five minutes is enough. More than enough. Don’t over do it, because in this instance more is not better. The benefit truly comes in short bursts of five minute, but spaced apart by an hour. You might fit that in five, six, or even seven times per day. We know that sounds like a lot, but it’s not really. Not if you can incorporate it into doing other things like walking to work, driving somewhere, tapping away on the computer at home. All you need to do is have straws wherever you go; in your handbag, in the car, at work. That really is a great approach to straw technique, and to smoothing out the cracks in the voice that hold you back. You’ll never look back after getting in the routine of it.
It’s pretty magic, but it’s not the cure
We definitely bang on about the straw. Rightly so. But it’s not the cure for everything. It can mask deeper issues, allowing you to train without getting your fingers burnt. There’s value in that because we don’t want to have to stop training the voice while we sort something else. However, it won’t solve the underlying issues of voice use, abuse, breathing and vowel production. These fundamentals need much more direct training if they’re out of whack, but the straw can give you the best chance of training them a bit more safely. Let us know how you get on guys! Feel free to follow the regimes as a guide to start training. Now time for our last section. It’s listener question time! *fanfare*
Thank you so much for your amazing podcast. It’s incredibly helpful and honest. I’m 26 and I sing for a living. I gig with a jazz group as well as a band that plays in a church, camps and conferences. I’ve participated in multiple choirs in musical theatre from the beginning of high school through to college and I primarily sang as a first soprano. My tone was fairly light, but definitely clear and strong. Occasionally I would experience bi-phonation in my voice, which was incredibly frustrating as no-one knew why it was there or how to tackle the issue. And, there is virtually no advice online. Out of college I began singing in a more pop-rock-songwriter style and developed my mixed voice tremendously, and I didn’t need my high soprano notes that I’d needed in college. Recently I’ve been working on expanding vocal range and styles, and I’ve discovered that my head voice is nearly gone and my bi-phonation is back in hideous, hideous spades. I met with a vocal coach who assured me I’ve been belting in a correct and healthy manner, but I’m concerned to push through the head voice to develop it and cause further damage.
Forgive my long-windedness, but if there’s any help, advice or exercises you can give I’d be eternally grateful!
Bi-phonation is essentially two notes being heard at the same time, which for vocal folds isn’t normal. In this case, the first question to be asked is “have you had a scope?”. This kind of situation, if unresolved, needs a look at the vocal folds to check for vocal injuries, like a polyp. It could even be strong asymmetry of the vocal folds, possibly from out-of-control muscle tension.
It seems to be worse on closed vowels that are higher up, and require a strong contemporary tone. Vowel tuning can help relieve this. Closed vowels, like the OOH being sung, often need a little opening to work better in certain parts of the range. A lowering of the jaw, a slight (slight!) opening of the lips, and maybe a repositioning tongue might help quickly. Along with reduced airflow you may find a better vocal fold setting. The straw, coincidentally, is another great tool to try and get some balance back in your vocal function. Try the basic regime above and see if it helps at all. If nothing helps, then maybe the scope and/or a full vocal assessment by a voice professional is the way to getting the issue cleared up.
That’s it for today singers. Please do leave us feedback, especially if you start singing through a straw in your daily routine. And if you love the podcast we’d appreciate a share on your social networks!
If you also need any help with implementing the straw into your daily regime, you can work with us directly. Click here to find out more.
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