Author: dancallaway (page 2 of 5)

Constriction Fiction: a Real Affliction

The title is clearly to be sung to the tune of “Conjunction Junction.”

And I’m here to tell you that constriction is no fiction. In fact, it is the fourth wall of the singing house: managed constriction.

CVI calls it controlled constriction.

This is what we’re talking about:

Wrapping around our pharynx are three constrictor muscles that help us to swallow. Thanks constrictors. (Image from CVI)constrictors

They protect the vocal folds in times of strain (lifting something heavy) or in intense expressions of emotion or fear.

Constrictors also help us to shape the pharynx/vocal tract into myriad shapes that create all kinds of sound colors.

They can also completely screw our singing when we don’t know how to manage them.

I believe the feeling of the relaxed constrictor muscles is the “open throat” sensation that many bel canto teachers describe.

This image/sensation is a wonderful help to many singers, but it can also lead to other problems like lack of twang or added rigidity when singers try to muscularly open the throat.

You can’t really open it, you can only relax it/keep it from constricting.

When constriction is unmanaged, the vocal folds attempt to stretch longer in order to vibrate a higher frequency, but the attempted stretch is squeezed by the swallow-muscles.

Folds are trying to stretch here

And here is what’s super tricky about this. Like I said above, constrictors naturally engage when we express intense emotion; think crying or yelling from fright.

When we sing, we are moving a lot of emotional energy through the throat. It is counterintuitive to let the muscles there relax.

Imagine being brought to the point of ugly-cry but completely relaxing the pharynx muscles. Feels weird.

Singing freely feels this way, and when you habituate the feeling it becomes familiar.

It’s strange to have the dynamic support athletically moving all of this breath and vibration through a relaxed throat.

It’s kind of like your throat is pretending it had botox and is saying, “I’m so angry, but my forehead isn’t even participating. ”



The Twang Thang

The third part of building the singing house‘s strong foundation after dynamic support and how to open the jaw is our friend twang. Necessary twang to be exact.

First of all, twang is not:

  • manipulated or forced by extrinsic muscles. It should create freedom and never tension or uncontrolled constriction.
  • nasality. Nasality is produced when the soft palate drops allowing air and vibration to move through the nose.

Twang is an incredibly useful tool when we know how to leverage it.

We create it when the epiglottis and the arytenoid cartilages move closer to one another making a kind of funnel. (Image from CVI) (The front of your neck is to the left in the image.)

epiglottic funnel

As you can see, the space directly above the vibrating vocal folds gets smaller, so the sound waves bounce around a whole lot more in that smaller space and voilà, amplification.

I often liken the event to this video that none of my students seem to have seen, but it resonates with me deeply and illustrates the point:

Harley understands twang profoundly and is executing it using the orange resonance boosting receptacle.

If you’d like to learn more about twang, I’ll point you to Complete Vocal Institute’s research site:

And here are some videos showing the epiglottic funnel and the employment of twang.



How Plane Snoozing Can Help Your Singing

Okay now that our breathing is perfect, we’re ready to talk about the jaw.

This is a simple principle: your jaw should always open naturally down and back.

One habit so many of us develop in singing is protruding the jaw forward.

This is for a couple of reasons in my opinion.

1. The voice is coming out of our mouth which is on the front of our head, so our brain logically wants to put effort in a forward direction to help the voice out. This is why a lot of novice singers jut the whole head forward, reach up for hight notes, etc.

2. Jutting the jaw forward moves the mandible closer to the eardrum, and we hear more bone conductivity from that internally. It creates an ear-lusion that we’re singing with more resonance.

A couple of ways to think about it:

1. Imagine falling asleep on a plane or bus and you’re doing the attractive open-mouth snooze. That’s the feeling.

2. For more metallic vocal modes, you’ll execute more of a wide lizard overbite look.

If we protrude the jaw (and/or tighten the lips), it causes uncontrolled constriction in the vocal tract, and that makes singing harder.

Another way to practice this: Do what the picture shows when you practice. The loose jaw is for a neutral vocal mode while the bite happens in edgier and more metallic singing. (Image is from Complete Vocal Technique’s literature).14889848_10154796809368694_2128714944074084179_o-2.png-2

If You’re Breathing, You’re Moving (Principle 1)

I am going to explain very simply something that confused me for years and years.

All singers hear the word “support” from the time we start singing. And it takes on all kinds of interpretations both helpful and unhelpful.

The most important thing to understand about this potentially misleading term is that it is dynamic,  it is moving.

I often tell my students, “If you’re breathing, you’re moving.” We never hold a note, we move a note, we flow it.

I want to break down how I understand dynamic support in the way that is the most straightforward and usable to me.

Inhale: After you exhale, gently lower your jaw, let your vocal folds open, and as your diaphragm descends and your rib cage expands, the thoracic cavity gets bigger, so air rushes in. Thanks physics.

Exhaling for singing: After a nice gentle (and silent) inhale, you want your ribs to remain nice and open. This is technically a function of keeping your external rib muscles engaged (the ones used for inhaling that pull your ribs up and out).

I like to think of the image of my rib cage continuing to float. While that’s going on, you want to use your abdominal muscles (mainly transverse and obliques) to slowly move the air out of your lungs.

Basically, you’re letting your ribs stay in the state of inhale-expansion while the abdominal muscles harness the upward movement of the diaphragm.

The simple way to trace this is to focus on the slow, continuous inward movement of the navel toward the spine while the ribs and solar plexus remain out.

One way to practice this coordination is to inhale, let the ribs and abdominal cavity easily expand (all around, front sides and back). Then on your exhale, keep the ribs expanded while you let your abdominals contract to move the air out. This is the coordination without the resistance from closed, vibrating vocal folds.

Then when we sing, we can tune back in to this coordination and then determine just how much dynamic support we need phrase by phrase.

What I have found to be true most of the time: we usually need gentler muscular energy from the abdominals than we initially think.

Cushions (i.e. Italian Bread)

I wonder what makes me want to eat Italian bread toast with a lot of butter for breakfast (or French toast or blueberry pancakes or poached eggs on grits with sausage) rather than (or even in addition to) a tasty smoothie I can make in the fancy Aunt Sherri-donated Vitamix that has about twenty five fruits and veg in it that makes me feel really rejuvenated and full of energy.

That’s kinder to my body. But why does butter and white flour feel kinder when it’s going in my mouth? I guess it’s the same question for the smoker or the drinker (two things I also feel the appeal of).

Makes you want a coffee and a smoke.When I visited Copenhagen last spring, I had a nearly- overwhelming urge to throw down some Kroner for a pack of cigs and walk around the streets in the cold, Scandi-grey air feeling moody and Danish (though the Danes do top world happiness lists year after year). I played it (the tobacco purchase) forward in my head to the moment when I took the first imaginary drag (probably coughed) and thought to myself, “oh, that’s it.”

Not the sameThen back in real life I decided to spend my cash on a gin and tonic at a bar recommended by a student of mine. I drank it alone, so while it was a good drink, that’s not what having a drink is about. I sent a pic to my wife.

But I do wonder what the food thing is about, my drug of choice. That’s a lie. I don’t wonder. I know. I remember talking to an analyst in my early twenties about how I worried a little about how much cereal I ate at night. (I still eat cereal at night.) I told him, “Well, it’s not like I’m eating cake.” Dr. Krasnow said, “It’s exactly like eating cake. The carbohydrates do the same thing for you.”

And ouchy he was right, is right. The food, the wine, the Netflix, the Amazon Prime, the British crime drama du semaine, the fill-in-the-blank, it makes a cushion for me.

I was going to say it cushions me from the world, but it’s also a cushion from my internal world: old hurts that I filed away, ambiguous feelings that are thus far un-nameable, (so where do you FILE those alphabetically, anyway?), general low-grade discomfort that I’d rather mute than allow it to voice itself.

I learned recently studying the Enneagram that I am a 9, the Peacemaker: seeking to quell any and all conflicts that arise or MAY arise externally or internally. While this is a wonderful trait when it comes to empathizing and understanding several points of view, it makes for a lot of work when it comes to managing so much potential unease.

So, back to Italian bread. It’s delicious. And there’s a big-ass loaf of it that you can buy at Aldi right next to some equally delicious brioche. But you know what else? I’m going to make that smoothie too. And I’m going to rehearse the Strauss songs I’m performing in February, and I’ll probably put Noah in the Ergo and go for a little hike. Greensboro has readily available woods. Thanks Greensboro.

Maybe it’s about adding things that are loving, good, and move us in the direction of what lights us up, and therefore gives something beautiful to those connected to us.

I’ll still keep my cushions, I just know I will.

But the plan is to fill up my life space with the life-giving things so that at least the cushions get squished a little flatter.

Simple Checks for Singing and a Great Resource

Yesterday I mentioned how I tell my students to build the house.

That’s what I call the overall principles I learned last March at Complete Vocal Institute in Copenhagen.

1. Dynamic support

2. Jaw relaxed down and back, lips relaxed

3. Necessary Twang

4. Constriction under control

I’ll expand on these four things in the next days. I’ve found what I learned at CVI to be so helpful to my students and me. It’s a straightforward, Scandinavianly-tastic codified way of understanding how the voice works.

Check out the website if you want to jump down the rabbit hole. Or stay tuned, and I’ll briefly break down these principles in the next few days.

Sang purty, y’all.


Build the House

I practiced today for a concert of Strauss and Sondheim I’m doing in a little over a month.

I chose a lot of new music for myself. Today I panicked for about seven seconds wondering if I could not only learn the notes, text, translations, but make meaning of them, and sing them well.

I’m just going to believe that I will and show up every day to rehearse.

How many times do I lead my students through this process?

“Start with text. Be patient. If it’s another language, take time with the diction, the music of the language. Don’t rush to integrate all the elements yet. Piece them together. Then the house will be stronger.”

And there I hunker behind the music stand staring at Strauss in my snuggie with my brain yelling, “You don’t read as well as you should. I don’t know, that note is going to be tricky. Jonas Kauffman makes it sound easy–you’ve deceived yourself.”

Then I have to teach myself, remind myself to “build the house” as I say to my students.

I’ll be here tomorrow making the house stronger and more beautiful.

Rehearsal Snuggie


Pickin and Grinnin Yourself


Noah Lying on His Blanket

Noah Lying on His Blanket

June 15, 2018


I listened to a song while you were lying
On a blanket in the floor this morning—
A song we sang at church that left me crying
Because it said (a punch without a warning)
That God would never let me down. And I
Was pretty sure He’d done exactly that—
Because although I knew that He would dry
The tears He bottled up for me and pat
My forehead like my mama did, I had
To stop believing He would fill my heart
In that place where I longed to be called “Dad”—
Like saints that Paul said only saw the start.
“But if not,”—I would quote the three young men—
While God was brooding like a mother hen.


And I Said Nooo Nooo No

There’s been a lot of talk of recovery and the need thereof in my immediate circle lately.

The word rehabilitation has been playing around my mind this morning, and I was thinking about the etymology. Latin re–again, habitare–to make fit. To make fit again presupposes that something was fit before.

I don’t think that’s the case when it comes to things that we treat with what we call rehab, that something was actually fit before–and all it needs is to be restored to its former glory. No, I believe we come to the place where we need rehab because we were fundamentally broken from the get go.

Melissa and I have been reading a book by Richard Rohr called Breathing Underwater. It’s an examination of how the Twelve Steps are congruent with the gospel.

Rohr posits that we are all addicts. It’s just that for most of us, our addiction isn’t to a substance that will kill us, so our dependencies play like background software undetected for most of our lives.

My personal list would be topped by the triumvirate of Approval, Being Liked, and Pleasing Others followed closely by nighttime cereal eating.

I trace back through my years and I watch how my own legion addictions (activities or practices that promise a controlled, pleasurable experience, however fleeting or empty) have shat on my life, relationships, and sanity like a kit of Port Authority pigeons.

I also look back and see where the gentle, masterful Hand of God (where I finally let Him) turned pigeon dookie into manure that grew a really beautiful garden.

It’s grace. Charis undeserved and freely given. God sent the perfect people into my life at the perfect times to tell me in all love and tenderness, “This is a cluster.”

My experience has not been that of tidying up a messy room. There had/continues to be a razing of the whole structure, a re-digging of the foundation, and setting the Cornerstone in place that I had rejected. If the building blocks of our bodies are cells, I have been changed on a building-block level.

This was not self-help, self-improvement, nor will power.

It was Step One: “(I) admitted (I was) powerless over (my addictions)—that (my life) had become unmanageable.” It was the prayer of the despised tax collector in the temple that Jesus taught about: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

It was the end of my perceived self and resources. Accompanied by a ninja spiritual director, a cadre of truth-telling friends, and then the sweetest miracle wife, I walked and walk through re-pentance. Re-thinking. Metanoia

The gospel says that Jesus died and rose from the dead, and because He did, we do too. It’s that crazy.

I believe the whole thing. And I see the resurrection in my life, how God has raised dead things to glowing brilliance.

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