There are two different sets of laryngeal muscles, the inner (or “intrinsic”) and the outer (or “extrinsic”) muscles. The inner muscles govern processes such as the adduction and abduction (bringing together and separating) of the vocal folds, the changing of the shape of the vocal folds, and the increase and decrease of the tension along the length of the folds. The extrinsic muscles govern things such as the positioning of the larynx (depressing and raising) for processes like swallowing, chewing and yawning. The tongue and jaw muscles can also be categorized as outer muscles for the purpose of vocal training (even though most of these muscles aren’t directly connected to the larynx itself).
Usually when a singer complains that their voice feels tense, it is due to the fact that the outer muscles have been recruited to to assist in the pitch making process. Unfortunately, the outer muscles can offer very little help in making pitch, but they can cause many problems with allowing a full free sound when they are incorrectly involved. If you think about it, a person swallows, chews and yawns very many times throughout the day; therefore these muscles are very strong. When a person is attempting to coordinate muscles inside the larynx to create pitches in ways that they have rarely, if ever done before, it is easy to understand how the large, strong muscles which are close in vicinity are often easily recruited. If you think about doing a sit up and notice how easy it is for the neck muscles to get involved, you get a good idea how the phenomenon of muscle recruitment works.
Usually the first order of business for training a singer involves encouraging these outer muscles to stay as neutral as possible during phonation. Often this period of training will require that the intensity of tone being worked with be lower than is ultimately desired by the singer. Also during this phase of training, the quality of sound can often sound a bit odd to the ear. This odd sounding condition is frequently known as “unfinished” sound. If, for instance, the singer is recruiting a lot of swallowing muscles while singing, we will often temporarily utilize an exaggerated low larynx sound. This can be a quite comical “dopey” or even “hooty” sound. I try to make sure that the singer understands that these are very temporary sound qualities which are being used for conditioning purposes in order to free up the voice, so that the student will ultimately have the full and beautiful sound they are after.
Until the unwanted outer muscle activity of the larynx has been eliminated, working on building a “full-voiced” sound will yield poor results and will often only further imbed the tense habits into the autonomic neuro-muscular system, thus making it even more difficult to “undo” these undesirable habits in the future. A singer must understand this very clearly so that they are not unduly impatient during this “releasing” portion of their training. It is important that the singer understands that while they are releasing the voice, they need continue to vocalize in this same manner at home as well. Coming into the studio once a week and releasing tension only to go home and grip and belt again for 6 straight days is definitely not a recipe for success. Usually this phase of training will be complete in a relatively short period of time, and a more “normal” sound will come into practice and the singer will be very happy with the results.