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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Valsalva Maneuver

Many voice teachers to sing, "on the breath", "forward", "spinning" and so on. At the crux of the issue that all of these subjective ideas are trying to address is the Valsalva maneuver. The discovery of the Valsalva maneuver's negative effects on singing was by my teacher Dr. Tom LoMonaco. This subject is a big part of his book as well.

The Valsalva maneuver is a medical term. There are two kinds of Valsalva maneuvers. The first is commonly referred to as the bucco-nasal Valsalva. A good example of this is when your ears feel plugged and so you hold your nose closed with your hand and your mouth closed while trying to blow air out. The other Valsalva - the culprit in constricted singing - is the laryngeal Valsalva. This maneuver happens when we lift something heavy, cough, laugh, sneeze, when women give birth, or - excuse the crudeness - when we go to the bathroom. It is the closing of the glottis while forcing air out against it. While this may be good to help us lift a heavy rock, it does not work in singing. In fact, it greatly inhibits the free vibrating ability of the vocal folds.

So, as singers we must find a way to completely circumvent this maneuver. That is done through the proper coordination of the breathing muscles. This refers back to the the ideas used by many teachers to sing "on the breath" or "spinning" the sound. Also, the attempts for the teacher to stop the student from "pushing" or singing "in the throat" or "too far back". These are all attempts to address the Valsalva maneuver. But they do not directly address it and therefore the results are usually poor. Many teachers today bypass fully engaged, big singing because it tends to cause a student to "constrict" or go into the Valsalva maneuver. Since we can understand what causes the Valsalva and how to disengage it, there is absolutely no reason why a singer cannot sing completely engaged, big and free. That is historically what all the great singers did. They all had very little constriction in the sound while keeping the voice fully engaged and free. Therefore, I will be also blogging about the proper engagement of the breathing muscles and the proper development and use of the vocal registers. This is another crucial part of great singing.

5 comments:

  1. The thing I have noticed about the Valsalva in singing is that it manifests itself in many ways. Students can have constriction in the tongue, jaw, throat, neck, shoulders, chest, and back. These things can be eliminated with help from the teacher, first by identifying, but also physically aiding the student in negating them as they sing.

    When a muscle is fully stretched and kept in this position (the opposite of contracted or flexed) it is very hard for it to contract. Without addressing these tensions directly (and I must stress, without any pain on the part of the student), some of these tensions are impossible to overcome with mental effort on the part of the student alone. Just being aware that you are over-tensing your jaw is not enough to eliminate it, as the student has years of muscle memory in place to the point where they may not even know they're doing it. Their brain has associated singing with this tension, and when that it taken out of the equation, oftentimes the student doesn't even think they can make a sound without it!

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  2. Dear Mr. Silver
    You are describing that spinning is an attempt to adress the valsava. My teacher always lets me spin my hand to "let the vocal chords move/ freely". If yes, whaf is proper coordination of the breathing muscley?
    Thank you, for your reply.

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    1. There is no such thing as "spinning" in singing. And spinning your hands has nothing to do with it at all.

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  3. I think this is exactly the problem I've been dealing with for years. And I don't know what to do about it. My teacher just makes my voice lighter and to raise the soft palate. Which I'm sure it's not what should be done.

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    1. Right. I would find another teacher. Telling you to lighten to the sound and then lift the soft palate is contradictory.

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