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Better Singing Through Technology: A Conversation with Professor David Ley

Professor David Ley's phone has not stopped ringing since redOrbit ran an article about his research on vibrators and vocal production. I was therefore very grateful to him for carving out some time to share his work with me over Skype last week. 

A Professor in the Drama Department at the University of Alberta, David Ley has long been interested in the physiology of dramatic expression and vocal production. Investigating vibrators as a means of helping actors and singers was for him an obvious step. "It's so simple. It's like, what do vocal folds do? They vibrate. What is resonance? It's sympathetic vibration, reciprocal vibration. So using vibration to create vibration shouldn't be a very big leap."

Ley describes the breadth and specificity of his work as going far beyond what the redOrbit piece touched on. Their article described how his techniques "help give actors a little bit more vocal power" and improve their "projection and range" but that barely scratches the surface of the ways that his team uses vibrating massagers to facilitate and accelerate progress in vocal training for both speech and singing. He proceeded to give me a swift yet thorough tour of the techniques they're developing to release vocal tension and improve voice production and resonance. 



Kinesthetic Awareness and Release

Hands-on work is a powerful tool for increasing body awareness and releasing tension, but the effects can be amplified exponentially with the use of a vibrator. Consider a simple exercise like spinal roll-downs. "In the theatre, we do a partner exercise where you run your fingers down your partner's spine, but do the same thing with the vibrator and the degree of information that the person gets from the vibrator versus somebody else's fingers is huge." The continuous vibration increases awareness of the area being touched by an order of magnitude. It also stimulates the musculature in a variety of ways that mere touch does not. "This is about how our bodies deal with vibration: The muscle will either tone up, or engage, to deal with the vibration, or it will release," Ley explains. "It's mainly about creating a flow of energy, and then it's really about release." 

Ley has been using the Lelo Siri vibrator to develop his techniques. "It's got a great kind of point to it. Anywhere that you would use a finger to do pressure-point massage, you're just going to use the tip instead of a finger, and you'll get the benefit of the massage plus the release that comes from the vibration." Buttons towards the base allow you to incrementally increase or decrease the rate of vibration. 

He has identified certain points around and above the hyoid bone that respond extremely well to the vibrator. Massaging the point where the digastric attaches to the hyoid bone, for example, will relax and bring awareness to this crucial part of the vocal instrument, relieving fatigue and allowing the larynx to settle into a lower position. "Anybody who's got vocal issues - it might be that they're tired, sore, or just concerned about hitting a high note, you can feel how the digastric is going to constrict as they lift up." 



The digastric muscle

The vibrator is also useful for resolving tongue tension. Direct vibration at the base of the tongue while gently extending and retracting it can not only begin to release the muscle but also provide a lot of information both about what is happening throughout this complex structure and where there may be other areas of tension or weakness. All of the major muscles of the jaw can be effectively targeted and massaged with the vibrator; there's a particularly useful spot under the cheek bone that hits both the temporalis and the pterygoids. Ley points out that while "you can't massage the pterygoids from the outside, if you're using a vibrator you can get a better release into the pterygoids from working in that spot." 


Jaw muscles
Masseter, temporalis & pterygoids


Sometimes the body builds up tension that interferes with the voice in places you wouldn't necessarily expect. Another precise point that Ley targets is on the side of the neck where the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid cross, the transverse process of the fourth cervical vertebra. "You're going to go down the side and hit a bump and go 'ow' - it's one of those Spock spots, part of our human design where we are all going to carry tension." It's one of the first things he'll address when performers feel like they're losing their voice and need to get it back in time for a show the same day. 


Vulcan nerve pinch
That's it… right there!


These are just a few examples of ways that massage with a vibrator can ease vocal fatigue, release chronic tension and warm up the musculature. Any accupressure point related to breathing, vocal production or articulation will likely benefit from this kind of work. 


Vocal Fold Response 

Ley has found that using the vibrator to stimulate the vocal folds results in measurable improvement in projection and range. A spectrograph swiftly registers an increase in vocal energy, and his subjects feel as though there is a more dynamic wave to their vocal production. Precise placement and rate of vibration is essential for doing this safely and effectively. Ley places the tip of the vibrator "right below the thyroid notch - there's a nice natural depression there on the lamina where you can get into the cricothyroid and the other muscles coming across there." 


Lamina of thyroid cartilage


He demonstrated for me, placing the vibrator on his throat and humming an arpeggio. The result was an exceptionally free double wave, produced effortlessly. It was quite clear that even with so brief an application, "already you're increasing the potential eigenfrequency, the number of waves in the vocal folds." As someone who spends a fair percentage of my work day listening to singers perform arpeggios, I was struck by how incredibly still Ley's entire throat appeared and how full his resulting sound was just with a gentle hum. One of the things I am most looking forward to investigating is whether this technique is useful for eliminating the extraneous tension and "reaching" singers often feel is necessary for accessing their highest and lowest pitches. 


Resonance & Placement

Voice teachers and singers alike find resonance to be one of the most elusive aspects of vocal technique. It's the area where people are most likely to use bizarre imagery or contort their faces to achieve that balance of "point" and "bloom" characteristic of the perfect chiaroscuro. We just don't have much sensation of/direct control over much of the tissue, muscle and bone comprising that inner space, so figuring out how to shape it optimally for every vowel and pitch can be a mysterious and daunting process. Ley showed me how he has been using the vibrator to stimulate awareness and reciprocal vibration at key resonance locations. 

He began with the "mask resonance" so crucial for brightness and projection. "It's not so much about placing the voice forward but about capitalizing on resonance space and developing a more complex sound," he explained. "I don't want to put it in the depression between my nose and my cheekbone - I'm looking for that little divot where the zygomatic muscles insert." [Please follow link for clear definitions and an interactive illustration of the location and activity of these muscles.]

Ley then hummed an arpeggio. His voice emerged with a very bright, pingy quality but devoid of the pressure and nasality we often associate with "forward placement". Again, the effortlessness with which the sound rolled out of him was remarkable. "What's interesting is it hardly takes any time at all," he comments. "Now I'm not speaking with any more energy, but all of a sudden the placement has gone right there."

Next he directed the vibrator at his anterior fontanel, one of the head's most significant "sweet spots". "Every sounding board is going to have a sort of a sweet spot," he explained. "We don't think enough of our head as being a kind of sounding board, but it is, and you've got to find the sweet spot. If I'm working on placement, that shift between a quarter of an inch here or a quarter of an inch there actually makes a huge difference in what I'm getting from my voice. Here I'm looking for the center of the 'dome,' when we're talking about bell resonance." 


Anterior fontanel
Anterior fontanel


Ley hummed the same arpeggio, and this time his voice did indeed take on a very full, dome-y bloomy quality. "Again, I'm not actually thinking about it. I'm not trying to place it. What's happening is that the vibration is drawing the sound there. Your body is feeling the vibration and the sound, in essence, just gets drawn to that place." 


Professor Ley's research is ongoing, but he has already developed an incredibly useful repertoire of applications for this device that have yielded exceptionally positive results and little to indicate the possibility of negative consequences. That said, these techniques are still in the early stages of development, so it's vital to use common sense and explore them slowly, noting the results, rather than following a particular defined regimen. Ley advises against using the vibrator in the throat area while vocalizing for more than a couple of minutes to avoid having the vocal folds heat up such that the body responds by generating mucous to cool them down; it's important to lay off before your voice ends up getting phlegmy. Thus far, when the device is used with the specifications his team has developed, that appears to be the only risk. "I've probably demonstrated this with close to 150 people now, and so far nobody has said that there's a problem or reported a bad side effect from doing this."

With consistent practice, the results seem to be permanent: "One thing I have noticed is that I hardly need to do it any more; it's like, do it enough and you stay like that. So I really fell like for me, to tap into that resonance now, I'll just use it for a minute and it's more of a reminder than something that you are seeking to develop. Hopefully, like any good training tool, it's something that gets you somewhere and helps you maintain it, but once you're there, you're there." 

I'm clearly very excited to see how incorporating these techniques into my own teaching will facilitate and accelerate my students' progress. 

It's vital to remember that like any good training tool, no matter how much these techniques may enhance vocal progress, they will never be a replacement for skillful instruction and a disciplined practice regimen. There are no true "quick fixes" in the world of vocal technique, and this is not a panacea. Regardless of how thoroughly this technology helps you to release tension, enhance vibration and access resonance, if the way you're singing continues to generate tension and entanglement, it won't do you any lasting good. 

Treat this tool with respect and use it intelligently to complement the structured, mindful work that you continue to do in the studio. 


Like to learn how using a vibrator can help your voice? Visit the Vibrant Voice Technique web site

For more information about how these techniques are now being applied in my voice studio, please also have a look at this post. 


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Luke Bernard

I am curious, have the results been great using it in your own studio? I am thinking of trying it for myself and suggesting it to some of my students.

Can you give us an update?


Luke Bernard

Oh i just saw you put a link on the last line. My apologies

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