Voice teachers will sell you a lot of bunk about what you can and can’t do with your voice: “healthy belting” is an oxymoron for a lot of people, with “healthy breathy singing” trailing right behind it in the imaginations of fear mongering vocal technicians. Granted, I’ll be the first to tell you that you can injure your voice belting (or singing breathy, or singing operatically) if you consistently over-push air, sing with uncontrolled constriction, and don’t listen to your body and back off when you’re feeling discomfort. Luckily, there’s a quick and surprisingly easy way to sing healthier in almost any genre: to retract your false vocal folds. Yeah, yeah, I know that probably sounds completely foreign and intimidating, but it’s not as weird as it sounds.
What Are False Vocal Folds?
First, a very quick rundown of true vocal folds: Your true vocal folds are two bands of tissue in your larynx (or voice box) that vibrate when you speak or sing. Your false vocal folds are two other bands of tissue above your true vocal folds. Their main role is to squeeze together and protect you during heavy labor, coughing, or swallowing in order to prevent any unwanted substance from entering your airways.
What Does This Have to Do with Singing?
Squeezing your false vocal folds might be great for keeping food out of your windpipe, but it’s not so great for singing. When the FVF are constricted, your true vocal folds can’t freely vibrate. This can be dangerous over time in any form of singing. Unfortunately, the same stress reactions that cause your FVF to say, “Hey! This person might be choking! Let’s close up to protect her” often cause them to say, “Hey! This person is about to sing in public and is terrified! Let’s close up!” What’s helpful in the first situation is actually detrimental in the second.
So What Do you Do? How Can You Learn to Sing Healthier?
To sing healthier in any genre, it’s useful to learn how to retract your false vocal folds so that your true vocal folds can freely vibrate. As with any bodily coordination, over time you’ll learn to pull them apart at will, and beyond that, your muscle memory will get you to this healthy place when you sing if you do it enough. But at the beginning, you’ll need some images to help you out.
1. Laugh Silently
You might look like a lunatic, but in the privacy of your own home or your voice teacher’s studio, try laughing silently. Do you feel how open your throat feels when you do that? That’s how it feels to retract your false vocal folds.
I don’t like this one quite as much because while the silent laughter gives you a lift before you sing, moaning tends to bring everything down. But for some people, this is the best way to feel false vocal fold retraction. To do this one, let out a giant, relaxed moan, not a tense whimper.
3. Imagine your Ears Pulling Apart
This one is probably my favorite, because you can be discreet about it and continue to use it even in performance settings. Simply visualize your ears pulling apart. You’ll probably feel your cheekbones rise, your eyes smile, and your throat open.
To see if you’re really retracting your false vocal folds, cover your ears and breathe normally. You’ll most likely hear your own breathing, and it’ll sound like the ocean. Then retract your false vocal folds and keep breathing. Everything should go almost or entirely silent.
Apply it to Your Singing
It can be challenging to remember to do at first, but if you work on applying this technique to your singing, everything, from operatic singing to heavy belting, will be more comfortable and healthy. Make sure to continue to listen to your body though. The best indication that your singing is healthy is that your throat is comfortable. If you feel a scratch, tickle, or cough as you’re singing, it’s time to take a break. And if this continues long term, it’s best to see an otolaryngologist.