The Vagus Nerve and the Larynx

My old Maestro, Cornelius Reid often said, “destroy the voice; destroy the psyche.  Restore the voice; restore the Psyche.”

While my intuition and previous vocal conditions told me this was a remarkable fact rather than fiction, I could not come to a complete understanding as to why that statement might be so.   Several years ago I had a Eureka moment while I read Jean Abitbol, M.D. ‘s book ODYSSEY OF THE VOICE.

Dr. Abitbol writes clearly and brilliantly about the evolution of the larynx (fish gills) and describes levels of vocal development in humans.  During his description of the vagus nerve I was amazed to learn that ……”The vagus nerve registers EMOTION directly in the glottis”!!! – Yes indeed!  – Think about how that lump in the throat appears when we are emotionally moved in any way.  The maestro in NYC had it right without knowing exactly why.

Makes sense – place of fear, where the saber-tooth tiger bit and the guillotine cut. –  Place of crying, of yelling, of screaming, sighing with pleasure, where cats purr, where babies suckle and breathe simultaneously. defines the Vagus nerve as follows: “A nerve that supplies nerve fibers to the pharynx (throat), larynx (voice box), trachea (windpipe), lungs, heart, esophagus, and intestinal tract, as far as the transverse portion of the colon. The vagus nerve also brings sensory information back to the brain from the ear, tongue, pharynx, and larynx.”

But MedicineNet doesn’t go on to mention this phenomenon about emotion.  Nor does it mention that stimulating the vagus nerve electronically can aid in the treatment of resistant depression

Okay what’s the point of this post? – If teachers and vocal coaches are not clear, responsible and well-informed, they can do almost irreversible damage by harming the singer’s voice with misguided ideas such as looking for symptoms of vocal production rather than the causes of them ( placement, support, diaphragm control, intercostal breathing, abdominal breathing etc).  Unjust ridicule because singers cannot meet these ludicrous expectations, also creates emotional collateral damage.  Young women in their second yr of vocal study in university should not sound like they are 40 – yet many are pushed into those mature qualities prematurely.

–  Last weekend I watched the first session of OVER THE RAINBOW on CBC TV: A Canadian search for the Dorothy character in The Wizard of Oz (a future Mirvish/Andrew Lloyd Webber production) in which young women from major Canadian cities (most between 16-21 yrs of age) had auditioned to be part of a spectacular competition for the role.   During the drilling for the finalists’ auditions, the hired “vocal coach” (who must remain un-named on this post), shouted and ridiculed.. “are you some kind of a Barbie Doll?”  … Get this straight ladies…” this is a dog eat dog job, survival of the fittest.” — Charming!  I could see those little larynxes rise and protrude during those diatribes and I felt so badly for them all.   How the hell do we call that justifiable, constructive instruction??  Think about it.

This attitude of “I’m the teacher and I am more important than you, the student,” is rampant in the vocal arts, particularly in so-called masterclasses and competitions.  Let’s get rid of it and show some human respect for these brave, young talents.  Singing is, in this writer’s opinion, the most personal and vulnerable of personal art forms.  Once it is violently rendered, it is no longer artful.  Self-expression in conditions of fear is constrictive, unproductive and harmful to the singer.

Posted on September 21, 2012.


5 Responses

  1. Paul Weeren says:

    I am very glad with your blog, especially with this point. As a music teacher and NLP masterpractitioner/trainer, I can confirm your story from my experience. In my opinion, body and mind are an inseparable unit. Not only through the nervus vagus, although very important, but also regarding the breath. Breathing is very much linked to emotion. I worked with a singer, who participated in a television contest, like Idols. She was sent home with remarks which had nothing to do with her singing, but in the end boiled down to the way she looked. From a vocal point of view, she was quite competent. After this event, she felt insecure about singing, which resulted in breath-problems. She started breathing shallow and high. In stead of working directly on her breath, we did some work on the experience she had in that show. This proved to be the right kind of action, for now she is more secure and her breathing-problems disappeared by themselves.
    This makes all too clear that as teachers we are responsible for the well-being of the mental state of our pupils and it also shows how important it is to have a positive attitude. Of course we also should be realistic and congruent, because incongruency,when picked up, can be even more detrimental.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the Nervus Vagus!

    • carol says:

      Breathing in singing is a rhythmic activity that relates to the musical phrase being executed. By taking large breaths even with a balanced registration, one may as well try running Niagara Falls through a garden hose. The vocal folds are too short and must adjust to variety of tuned tensions to phonate the pitches and vowels with clarity and precision. Too much breath along with the crutch called “support” will only intensify vocal problems. If breath were the answer to all singing difficulties, then all the millions of aspiring singers on the globe would be singing brilliantly without other instruction.

  2. michele mele says:

    couldn’t agree more…in fact, just had the same discussion about”constructive and destructive ” criticism and how terrible and counter-productive the trend is….
    also love the concept of the link to emotion, as I just discussing it with my coach Mark Baxter , yesterday….
    so glad to have found this!!

  3. Sorry, sript only in german
    “Kontrolle” des Kehlkopfs?

    Für uns alle, die wir allzu gerne die Kontrolle darüber hätten, was uns aus der Kehle dringt, ist es ein echtes Problem, dass der Kehlkopf in all seinen Funktionen nervlich nicht vom Großhirn gesteuert wird, sondern vom “Nervus Vagus”, diesem Vagabunden des vegetativen Nervensystems, der als Gegenspieler des Sympathicus, dem Stressmanager, neben dem Kehlkopf auch die Atmung, den Herzschlag, die Verdauung und die Sexualität reguliert – in der Balance von Ruhe und Erregung. (Außerdem gibt es unter anderem noch interessante Verbindungen des Nervus Vagus zu den Ohren, zum Rachen und zum Anus.)

    Also laufen alle Optimierungsstrategien für das “Stimmorgan” ins Leere und alles Wollen und Bemühen erschöpft sich in Manipulationen, Kompensationen und Ersatzhandlungen.

    Im Singen können wir erfahren, dass hinter jedem Satz, der mit “Ich” anfängt, eine Falle lauert, vor allem hinter Sätzen wie “Ich will…”, “Ich kann…” und “Ich weiß…”. Und vermutlich sind wir auch in anderen Lebensbereichen von solchen Fallen umstellt oder stecken darin fest, ohne es wirklich zu merken. Wir Menschen unterscheiden uns eben darin von den Tieren, die auch über ein vegetatives Nervensystem verfügen, dass wir für all unser Tun und unser Empfinden Rechtfertigungen und Geschichten erfinden können und dabei uns kaum bewußt sind, wie sehr wir in diesem Erfindungsreichtum den schönsten Selbsttäuschungen erliegen.

    Und dieses “Kernproblem” ist deshalb genau die Chance, im Singen in die Grenzbereiche von Willkürlich und Unwillkürlich, Bewusst und Unbewusst, von Absicht und Reflex einzutauchen und darin ungeahnte Potentiale in unserm Singen (und in unserm Leben ?) zu erschließen.

    Wenn das Ohr (nicht das bewertende Gewohnheitshören) und die Stimme in ihrer reflexartigen Schwingungsbewegung (ein “selbstorganisierter Prozeß”) mit der körperlichen Empfindung und Wahrnehmung in einem Regelkreis mit Wechselwirkung verkoppelt werden kann, dann kann sich die Stimme e n t – f a l t e n.

  4. Amber says:

    Good post. I’m experiencing some of these issues as well..

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