"Singing - Body and Soul" Excerpt

Yawning, Laughing, Crying - Part One

It’s difficult to explain on paper what happens in a singing lesson. The teacher demonstrates vocal exercises and coaches the student in how to do them. These will be different, depending on the strengths and skills of each student. But there is one question many of my students ask: “Am I boring you?”

It’s a valid question. I yawn a lot while I’m teaching, particularly during the vocal exercises. But it is not because I’m bored—teaching singing is the most fascinating work I’ve ever done. So why do I yawn? 

Part of the way that I teach is to sing the exercises with the students. First, I demonstrate my solid vocal technique and then encourage them to imitate it. But what happens is that, as I sing with them, I find myself imitating their weaker vocal technique and then automatically correcting it in my own throat. Sometimes I can feel a muscle gripping or an awkward larynx position by singing with them, which I cannot detect just by listening. As I correct myself, I know what to tell the student to change. I don’t quite understand how this works, but I do know that my throat can feel things my ears miss. 

And most students need to open their throats more. When I start to yawn, I am trying to get them to yawn. The stretching position of a throat mid-yawn seems to open up larger resonating chambers. Perhaps it even moves the larynx to a more-favorable position for singing. See if you can move halfway into a yawn while singing and then notice the change in sound. The voice usually becomes richer, fuller, more relaxed, and louder without much effort. The tricky part is to hold the throat open in this position for a long time without slipping over the top into a full-fledged yawn, which will interrupt the sound. It is possible to do this, and learning to do so is worth the effort. Singing in that half-yawn position can solve a large number of beginning vocal problems in one fell swoop.

The same is true for laughing and crying through a vocal exercise, which can make the sound more natural, emotional, and relaxed. When a singer laughs on pitch (“he, he, he” is my favorite, but “ha, ha, ha” or Santa’s jolly “ho, ho, ho” will also work), the larynx seems to relax, shaking loose any tension, and the energy in the abdomen naturally becomes engaged in the singing.

Crying has a similar effect. When a student whines a bit through an exercise, the vocal cords often come together more solidly and with a precision that is difficult to achieve quickly with other techniques. Some people are more comfortable giggling or whining on pitches higher than they normally speak, so laughing and crying through a vocal exercise can open up the top of their range. Once the vocal muscles experience the advantages of the yawning, laughing, and crying positions, it becomes easier to dovetail these into a standard singing technique without having to obviously yawn, laugh, or cry through every song.

But while writing this book, I had a hunch that there was a brain connection between these three primitive impulses—that they had the ability to make the singing come from a more animal-like, organic place, and to convey emotions through sound that could cut through barriers of language and culture. So I did a little more research into what happens scientifically when we yawn or laugh or cry. A few moments on the Internet led me to the insightful work of a neurobiologist/ psychologist who is apparently the world authority on yawning, Dr. Robert R. Provine. (You didn’t know there was a world authority on yawning, did you?)

Before I could track down all of Provine’s published articles on the subject, I discovered that he had already moved on to a new research topic. After ten years of intense study, he has recently published his new findings in a fascinating book entitled Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (Viking, 2000). And, yes, the book includes several discussions on the nature of crying and its “intimate neurological relationship” (p. 187) with laughter. I had struck gold.

Provine’s work was enlightening in many ways. He confirmed my theories about the nature of yawning, laughing, and crying in a way that relates to good singing technique. He also took his investigation into other areas that I never would have associated with these three semiautomatic reflexes. And I discovered that his research was pointing toward other issues of performing, beyond the voice, that I cover in the chapter entitled “Yawning, Laughing, Crying—Part Two.”

So I have split this discussion in two. This half belongs with our consideration of the voice; the other appears much later in the “Singing Through Your Dreams” chapter. Sorry to leave you hanging, but the topic makes more sense divided into two bite-sized pieces.

Oh fine! If you’re just dying of curiosity, go on and skip ahead to “Yawning, Laughing, Crying—Part Two.”

I won’t tell.