Last Sunday, July 24th, Joni Mitchell took to the stage at the Newport Folk Festival. It was her first performance since 2015 when a nearly fatal aneurysm rendered her voiceless. Like many in the audience–and even those on stage–I wept as I listened. But it wasn’t just the words to her beautiful songs that moved me. It was hearing them in her voice, unfiltered and enriched by her personal experiences and emotions.
If you haven’t guessed, I’m a huge fan of voices. For nearly two decades I’ve taken care of countless singers from Broadway and TV to major recording artists and everyone in between. These singers all have one thing in common: their voice is their instrument, and they can’t do their job without it. The rest of us take it for granted.
Vocal production is a fascinating show of biomechanics.
Most people are familiar with vocal cords. They are two bands of muscle attached at the front and loosely covered by a mucosal membrane (see above). You may chuckle at their likeness to female parts, but the resemblance stops there. The cords are essentially a valve that protects your airway. They sit at the opening to the trachea to prevent anything from going into your lungs. They open to allow you to inhale and exhale, and close to protect your airway when you swallow or if something touches them (in which case you cough to clear it out of the way.)
The secondary purpose of vocal cords is to create our voice, but they don’t do it alone. They are merely the vibrator that starts the sound, much like the strings of a guitar. Eight pairs of outside or extrinsic muscles move the cords in different directions. When they are brought together–close enough but not too close–they vibrate against one another to produce sound. (Totally closing your vocal cords is how you…