Be Free Of Your Swallow Reflex
When we swallow we close our vocal folds together which makes air pressure build up underneath the vocal folds which in turn raises our larynx. The next part of our swallowing function is that our tongue pulls back in order to guide food down into our stomach. The first part of the swallowing mechanism is very similar to pop singing: We close our vocal folds, the air pressure builds up and we raise our larynx. But – you guessed it – our tongue then wants to pull back.
Part of vocal training is telling our body that we are not swallowing and our tongue doesn’t need to retract. We need our tongue to stay relaxed, or actually slightly forward. One way we can train our bodies away from the swallow reflex when we sing is to practice vocal exercises with an extended tongue. This way, we learn to create sound without pulling back and tensing up the tongue.
Try humming with your tongue stuck out between your lips. You can do glides and sirens or simple 1-3-5 arpeggio scales – whatever you want. Once you are comfortable with the protruded tongue position, move onto a vowel keeping the tongue resting on your lower lip. The ‘A’ vowel is best to begin with. Then you can sing a whole song with your tongue still in this position.
There are a set of muscles that are involved in the swallow reflex that like to get involved in singing which are the constrictor muscles. These run down the back and sides of your neck, and when contracted help squeeze food down into your stomach. When the constrictor muscles contract when we sing they can cause a lot of throat tension.
If you look up to the ceiling as if you were trying to swallow a sword or howl to the moon, these muscles are no longer able to contract. If you try to swallow in this position it is virtually impossible. When the constrictor muscles contract when we sing they can cause a lot of throat tension. We can train our body into understanding that we can sing without engaging the constrictor muscles.
On an ‘Ah’ vowel, look up to the ceiling and whilst singing, try to make your throat as wide as possible. Slowly work through your range. Once you know what you are doing, bring your head slightly down to a 45 degree angle and repeat the exercise. Then you can bring your head back to its original 90 degree angle once you feel confident you are not constricting.
This may take weeks of practice, but with mindful practice you will notice that your throat feels relaxed and you will feel less swallowing reflex kicking in when you sing. As with all vocal exercises, if you feel any pain, stop immediately and seek guidance from a knowledgeable vocal coach.