Write Into Life

Unloading the larynx: not for sissies

Physiotherapist digs into muscles that affect the voice. 1906

It’s boot camp year. I don’t say no to anything that could help me achieve my prep-for-old-age goals. I’m on stage three of working on my voice. So, off I went to Peter Chum, specialist voice-and-breathing physiotherapist for performers. I do perform (in more ways than one) and I want to give every performance my best whether singing or speaking.

During our initial conversation Peter sussed out my needs, all the while sneakily observing my voice and my breathing. Luckily I didn’t realise he had pointed his mental CCTV camera at me, or I would have tried harder … which would have been counterproductive.

That endless throat clearing: sorted in seconds

Ahem ahem ahem is such a common human problem, given a badly designed valve between stomach and oesophagus. In one minute Peter told me how to abolish gastric reflux. Take a little apple cider vinegar in hot water before dinner, digest your dinner and go to bed. But the vinegar must be the good stuff, cloudy with threads of fermentation bug or “mother”.

Oh. That simple, huh? Ladies and gentlemen, this remedy has worked for me from day one. Awesome.

Getting strangled in a good cause

Then it was hands on time. Have you ever had your throat massaged? Thought not. You wouldn’t choose to be strangled, either, and it’s not so different in the initial stages, I dare say.

A pair of ultra-strong physiotherapeutic hands grasped and pressed and pushed not only the muscles of my cheeks and neck and shoulders and jaw, but even my larynx (yes really!) and tongue (from the outside).You know how a therapeutic masseur digs in extra deep and hard to the very parts that hold the most tension or pain? Now imagine someone doing that to your throat. That’s called unloading the larynx.

It was both scary and intensely wonderful. Amazing. Only after the tension was released did I realise how tense those parts of me had been. After the session I floated away, pretty much spaced out. Migraine eye patterns came and went. Unloading the larynx is powerful stuff. But hey, I could take it.

And now what? No point in softening all those muscles if I go back to my bad old habits and screw them up again. I’ve learned a lot about relaxation from Natasha the speech therapist, but that is not enough.

Next on Peter’s list: slow belly breathing

Breathing is voice. Breathing is life itself. My inner smart-ass Smugilla had something to say on the topic.

Smugilla: You’re a shoo-in. You’ve been breathing all your life. There couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with your breathing. Look at you, you meditate, you do tai chi, you sleep like a log, you know all about breathing. As a breathing machine you’re perfect.

Oh yeah? According to Peter I am breathing fast and shallow.

What? This cannot be! Yet Peter was only stating something that was obvious to him. The numbers do not lie.

To my credit, I instantly saw the truth of his diagnosis. I do constantly raise my chest or even shoulders to suck in air. I often feel as if I’m drowning for lack of air. I breathe as if my lungs need a Sergeant Major to make them do their job.

Fast and shallow breathing ties in with tension around the neck and throat and jaw and shoulders. Everything’s connected, and you can’t have a good voice without good breathing.

Peter gave me a breathing exercise to practise each night before sleep. I’m to do it lying down, so that there’s no contest with gravity, no need to use any muscles to hold myself vertical. Just count 1-2 on in-breath, 3-4-5-6-7 on out-breath. Easy peasy? Well, no.

Image from The manual on barbering, hairdressing, manicuring, facial massage, electrolysis and chiropody as taught in the Moler system of colleges” (1906). Public domain.

Photo of Capital Choir singers after a thrilling performance of Shaky Places, a song cycle of New Zealand poems. Capital Choir, Wellington, New Zealand shares this photo.