Retraction in singing
The most important ingredient for healthy singing is retraction.
Retraction means opening the false vocal cords.
The false vocal cords sit above the true vocal cords and close for two reasons:
- To protect your lungs from things going down the wrong pipe
- To create back pressure to cough something up
Unfortunately, the false vocal cords often invite themselves to participate even if we do not want them there. In healthy singing we want them out of the way, i.e. open which is something a singer needs to learn. But why?
The opposite of retraction is constriction (i.e. closure of the false vocal cords). When we close the false vocal cords and sing or speak the false vocal cords put pressure and rub on the true vocal cords. Ongoing pressure and rubbing on the true vocal cords can lead to injuries such a nodules. It is therefore necessary that a singer learns to retract.
There are various ways of retraction and in contemporary singing any degree of retraction between mid and full retraction is acceptable. Any degree of constriction between mid and full constriction shall only be employed for artistic reasons and must be a conscious choice.
To feel the different degrees and learn how to retract do the following:
1) Mid position of false vocal cords
- Breathe through your mouth as if you were at the doctor
- Observe the noise of your breath. Place your hand in front of your mouth and feel the air on your hand
- Your false vocal cords are in the mid position. Since they are not fully retracted you can hear breath noise as the air is going through a smaller space.
- Notice how it feels in your throat. Most people describe this as a fairly relaxed feeling.
2) Fully retracted position of false vocal cords
- Think of something really funny and silently giggle in your throat.
- Breathe through your mouth through this “laugh” posture.
- Put your hands in front of your mouth and feel how the air is moist, dispersed and warm.
- Notice that the breath is silent. Put your fingers into your ears and notice that you cannot hear your breath. If this is the case you are fully retracted. If you can hear some breath noise retract more (i.e. think of something funnier).
- If you are fully retracted there is no breath noise because there is more space in your throat and the air is not going through any obstacles on the way out.
- Notice how it feels in your throat. Can you feel it being wide? Do you notice that is takes effort to retract?
3) Constricted position of false vocal cords
- Please note that it is important to know the feeling of constriction. If you practise constriction without making a sound it is not damaging as your true vocal cords are open. It is only damaging if you are voicing and your true vocal cords are closed.
- Pretend you are lifting something very heavy and feel how your abdominal muscles turn on.
- Notice how your throat closes, i.e. your false vocal cords close.
- Try to breathe through this closure.
- Notice how “constricted” and small your throat feels.
- Notice how noisy the breath is and how difficult it is to actually breath through that posture (if your false vocal cords are fully closed you will not be able to let air out).
If you have done the above 3 exercises and can feel the difference in your throat try voicing on a comfortable pitch on different vowels with varying degrees of retraction, i.e. from fully retracted, retracted, a little bit retracted to mid.
- Before voicing put your tongue in a high “yee” position to avoid that the tongue lowers the larynx.
- Do not go further than mid.
- Notice how the sound is different at the various stages of retraction: retracted gives you an open, clean sound whereas mid will give you a smaller sound that is slightly breathy.
In contemporary singing any degree of retraction from mid to fully retracted can be employed depending on the sound and feeling you want to achieve.
Practising retraction should be a daily exercise for anyone using their voice a lot who wished to use their voice in a healthy way.View More Blog Posts
Thank you! I have just realized that constriction of the false folds might be one of my problems in singing. I have started to practice retraction and find it really hard. Maybe it takes some time to awaken those muscles.
You are welcome! It is a big problem for a lot of singers, especially when learning to sing in a new way, higher notes or anything else unfamiliar – our bodies tend to constrict with ‘effort’ or ‘panic’, so try relaxing/softening your abdominal muscles and think of something hilarious. Good luck!
Thanks for this! I’ve actually had the opposite problem where I’ve been trying to engage the false folds without engaging the true folds for harsh metal vocals and the tips here have helped me to more clearly define where the false folds feel so I can safely separate them.
Thanks for your comment Jayson. If you only engage the false vocal folds without engaging the true vocal folds you would be whispering – as we need to engage the true vocal folds to produce sound. If you want to achieve harsh metal vocals you would need to engage the true vocal folds and the false vocal folds. Obviously for vocal health the less we engage the false vocal folds the better for the longevity of our voice and the degree we engage them will be decisive too. I am glad the blog helped you to separate them.