The Three Mechanical Parts of the Voice

Many moons ago, in an auditorium not so far away, I caught a lecture that changed my life.  Dr. Tom Cleveland (an unbelievably compelling human being and voice pioneer) of the Vanderbilt Voice Center gave a talk during one of the music school’s special lunchtime learning programs at the Blair School of Music.  My student, who’s lesson was scheduled at that hour, didn’t have a choice about going.  We were going.  Something inside my soul knew it was important.  How important, exactly, hit me about midway through the talk.  Not days or months later, but exactly during that monumental, way-too-short hour.

He talked about a lot of things, showed video clips of the vocal folds in action, imitated the sound of the vocal folds without the vocal tract, told funny stories, talked about the voice center, referenced his research, and MADE A MECHANICAL VOICE OUT OF A BELLOWS, A DUCK CALL, AND A PIECE OF TUBING.

Wait.  What??  Stop, please.  Dr. Cleveland!  Did you just create a voice out of supplies from your shed??  Did that thing just sing vowels to us??  What is happening, and how do I make my whole life about this duck call/bellows/vowel-tube trick?

In that moment everything changed.  Ba-bam.

Do you remember back in the day when the internet wasn’t fast OR filled with information?  Well, this happened during those days.  Finding out more required asking a lot of questions of a lot of people, and trying to find someone to teach me about voice science that could also handle the fact that I sing jazz.  Back in those days, it felt like the classical singing camp had some kind of lock-down on information regarding the voice, which was a strange realization.  Fortunately, there was a woman at Western Michigan University named Diana Spradling who was a huge (huge) voice nerd and jazz voice teacher.  She graciously gave me lessons and showed me a spectrogram.  (Clouds parted, sun rays from heaven entered.)  It was like finding the holy grail.  A jazz teacher who loved voice science!

But – I digress.  Back to the mechanical voice situation.

Dr. Cleveland showed us that the voice can be understood in three parts: the power source, the vibrator, and the resonator.  The lungs and respiratory system provide the airflow and pressure, or fuel for the voice, the vocal folds cut up the column of air by vibrating and thus create a sound source, and the head acts like a container that resonates the sound.  This very simple model gives us a place to start addressing interactions between the three systems, and how they work in concert.  To this day, I tell every single student this 3-system story if they allow me even 1 minute to do it because if they know about it, they can begin asking empowered questions about it.

The Voice in 3 mechanical parts:

  1. Power Source – Lungs
  2. Sound source (or vibrator) – Vocal Folds
  3. Resonator – Vocal Tract

Got it.

Next: a video to show YOU how to make a voice using a duck call and a piece of tubing.  Stay tuned.

Here is a link to the American Academy of Otolaryngology’s description of the 3 mechanical parts of the voice: Click here and enjoy!

 

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