Straws Are Not Just for Sipping Anymore
When I was a kid I used to love to blow bubbles into whatever beverage I was drinking with a straw. It didn't matter if it was chocolate milk (my favorite!) or soda. I just loved watching those little bubbles arise like some churning Volcano or mysterious creature arising in my drink. The more bubbles the better. Thankfully, as I grew older, I found this little habit to be rather immature and gross!
A few years ago I was performing 8 shows a week at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey in a show called Havana After Dark. I had a very heavy singing load and not a lot of recovery time between shows. About halfway through our 6 month run, I found myself getting hoarse and it seemed my vocal chords were in a constant state of inflammation. Not having an understudy, I had no choice but to soldier on and complete my nightly singing duties. After all, "The show must go on"! I was determined to find a way, other than medication, to reduce the swelling in my vocal folds.
I searched various books and articles for information about reducing vocal inflammation. I ran across an article in the Journal of Singing that touted the virtues of vocalizing through a sipping straw (Finnegan). The idea behind this technical exercise is that the pressure created in the pharyngeal cavity allows the vocal chords to stretch and lengthen, thus reducing inflammation. "EUREKA!" I immediately went to the closest restaurant I could find in the Tropicana and asked if I might have several sipping straws. I couldn't wait to see if this seemingly simple idea would help my poor, fatigued voice.
I had no idea what to expect, or if this new technical idea would do more damage than good. But I was willing to try anything short of Cortisone injections.
Using an 1/8 inch sipping straw, I began by singing a simple 5 tone scale through it. At first I felt a lot of discomfort because I was trying to make as much sound through the straw as I would by singing without it. Soon I began to relax the muscles in my mouth, tongue and jaw and found the entire process more relaxing. What I noticed was the space behind my tongue, the pharyngeal cavity, felt like it was being stretched. I also noticed that my lower abdominal muscles engaged with each onset of sound through the straw. I knew this could not be bad thing. Later, I started using various other vocal exercises, such as a glide from low to high. The more I used the straw the higher I could sing! This simply amazed me.
That same night, I stepped onstage to sing my first piece, and to my amazement, the voice felt easy and free and I didn't have to work as hard for the high notes.
When the run of the show ended, I immediately headed back to New York to focus more on vocal technique. My wonderful teacher, David Jones, recommended that I take some time off from performing and devote more time to mastering the technical ideas of the Swedish/Italian School of singing. During this time, I only used the specific exercises that we worked on in my voice lessons. These did not include the "straw technique." However, I truly mastered my singing and as well as the teaching of this wonderful, healthy technique.
About a year ago, I began teaching a gifted dramatic Soprano, named Ruth Ratliff (http://www.jeminimusic.com). She is also a voice teacher and has a burgeoning studio in Hope, New Jersey. Ruth is not only a gifted singer and teacher, but also a vocal “investigator”. Before working with me she had tried several different methods. Like me, she found that the Swedish/Italian system of singing just made a lot of sense. Her voice lined up quickly and she found ease in her high notes that she had never experienced before. Even so, she is always searching for new ideas and concepts to minimize tension and fatigue in the voice. She recently sent me an article titled, On Singing Straws And Water Bottles: The Physics Of Pressure, about the benefits of vocalizing through a straw (Wilson). I read it and immediately was taken back to that time in Havana After Dark, when I made a breakthrough using a sipping straw to relax and lengthen my vocal chords.
Over the last several weeks, I have used the "straw technique" on every one of my students. The results have been astounding! The exercises I use are as follows:
First: Using an 1/8 inch sipping straw, insert the straw about a half inch into the mouth. Close the lips completely and firmly around the straw. Using an "uh" feeling in the throat, glide from very low to as high as you can comfortably go without breaking into falsetto. You should notice an immediate engagement of the lower abdominal muscles. You will feel some pressure in the throat muscles at first. This is normal. Try to relax your tongue and let it hang loose in the mouth. Remember, the idea of the straw technique is to stretch and lengthen the vocal folds. The back pressure in the throat is what causes this lengthening and stretching.
Once you become comfortable with the glide from low to high, try a simple arpeggio of 1..3..5..8..5..3..1, still feeling the "uh" in the throat. Do this several times and then slowly go up using half steps. If you are doing this at a piano or keyboard, you can start on middle C (C 4 for female voice, C 3 for male voice) and slowly work the scale up. Another terrific exercise to use is the 1..5..3..8..5..3..1..5..3..8..5..3..1 scale. Again feeling the "uh" feeling in the throat sing this scale through the straw starting on middle C. Slowly work the voice up by half steps.
The most incredible benefit of using the "straw technique" is that it teaches singers not to over-blow the voice when singing without it. How cool is that? Many of my "Belter Girls" have found that using the straw allows them to belt with significantly less breath pressure than before, thus allowing for more beautiful over-tones while still maintaining the authentic belt quality needed for today's pop and musical theater styles. Rock singers are finding the same freedom from over-pressing the vocal folds by learning to sing through a straw.
I sometimes teach 8 hours straight without a break. Because I demonstrate the straw technique to students, I am finding my speaking voice stays high and light throughout the day!
If you have any questions about this simple and fun idea, please feel free to write me: jeff at voicesoaring.com. I read every email and will happily respond at the earliest convenience. For those not in the New York, New Jersey area, I offer SKYPE lessons in ALL time zones! Peace and happy vocalizing!
Jeff Alani Stanfill
Finnegan, E.M., Jaiswal, S., Laukkanen, A.-M., & Titze, I.R. (2002). Raising lung pressure and
pitch in vocal warm-ups: The use of flow-resstant straws. Journal of Singing, 58(4), 329-
Wilson, P. (2004). On singing straws and water bottles: The physics of pressure. Australian
Voice, 10, 16-19. (Download article as PDF: Click here)