Singer’s Formant, the Diaphram and the “Vegas”-Nerve


Evan Bortnick

Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

In a recent discussion in a forum on LinkedIn the topic of the Vagus nerve came up. Someone unintentionally (or intentionally) misspelled it “Vegas” which precipitated a most educating and entertaining exchange. Here are some of my thoughts;

My associations with the Vagus nerve have always been with words like “Vagabond” and Vagrant”. I’m not sure their word origins come EXACTLY from that same root, but it’s been an effective memory link for me. The Vagus nerve (actually often pronounced VEGAS nerve) does indeed ‘wander’ throughout the body and is responsible for a great many things. It is also partly responsible for the direct innervation of the vocalis muscle. The branch responsible for diaphragmatic action is called the Phrenicus nerve (my memory association here has always been Mirella Freni and how she kisses! Freni KUSS….OK, I teach mostly in German). I honestly am not 100% sure if we can influence nerve activity through touch, but there are exercises in which the intention to do so definitely SEEMS to activate specific nerves. More on that in a sec.

Important to understand when considering the Vagus is that there is a myelinated area and an unmyelinated area.  (This comes from recent research into the Vagus and is to be found under –Poly-Vagal Theory-  a FASCINATING new model). These have profoundly different functions in the body. Without getting TOO complicated (stop laughing, please) the unmyelinated parts of the Vagus connect with the limbic system and the older reptile brain and have to do with vigilance and defense from earlier evolutionary forms of ‘human-ness’. As you’ve probably heard, Fight or Flight are two typical reactions from this area. Another (some say there are 5) is FREEZE! So you can probably guess where I’m going with this in regard to the diaphragm. If the unmyelinated Vagus is triggered, the diaphragm (along with portions of the external and internal intercostals, abdominals and pelvic musculature) have less motility, ie. ‘feel’ stiffer. How does the unmyelinated Vagus become triggered? You guessed it again; through stress and/or a high level of sympathetic stimulus, which overloads the system. Sound familiar? Singers find their balance at extreme levels of sympatikus just by going through singer’s training. What exercises can we use to innervate the parasympatikus? Balance exercise, as mentioned before. Here’s another exercise I’ve always intuited as assisting the Vagus to find balance, through consciousness of the phrenicus branch—

  • Ask the singer to sing a fifth scale up to around the place where they habitually use too much sub-glottal tension (usually around C-sharp or D, sometimes higher, sometimes lower), which Caesari called the “First Lift”.
  • Anchor the sensations through questions for later comparison.
  • Ask the singer to sing the same phrase (same vowel and same dynamic) twice, first as before and the second, by raising their left arm and putting the right pointer finger just below the middle part of the clavical in the little cavity which emerges when the arm is lifted, then to push gently.
  • Depending on the singer, you will hear a highly strengthened second formant and/or singer’s formant with MUCH less energy expenditure along with a couple other juicy advantages.
  • Ask about the differences, great and small, anchoring the changes.
  • Turn it around, first time with the finger under the clavicle, second time without, yet maintaining the same tone color.

This exercise does a whole bunch of really interesting things. With the finger in this position, it would be slightly painful to raise the sternum too high, initiating what the old bel canto teachers called “Appoggiare in Petto”. The raised arm tones the M. omo-hyoideus, an important sinking muscle for the larynx and tones as well the M. crico-thyroideus, responsible for optimally stretching the M. vocalis. It also allows the entire vertebrae in the neck to lengthen flexibly, which mirrors vocal tract lengthening. Most important for this discussion is that the Phrenicus runs right through this area. As I mentioned above, I can’t be 100% sure that it’s possible to enervate a nerve through touch, but the idea that it’s possible does something with the singers I’ve worked with to date, ESPECIALLY with the high voice. Some Wagner singers I know used to call this ‘singing up the sleeve’. I invite you to try it out with any and all diaphragm, abdominal, thorax tension chain issues and report back what you experienced.

Evan Bortnick

Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden


About evanb54

I'm a passionate, curious learning junkie--- an X-Opera Singer turned Voice Teacher, Voice Teachers Teacher, NLP Lehrtrainer, Off-Path Coach, Cranio-Sacral worker and a few other even less mainstream things. Everything I've learned or taught revolves around THE VOICE. The Voice as a tool of artistic expression. The Voice as a tool of emotional transparency. The voice as a tool of flexible communication. If you're interested in voice lessons or vocal pedagogy, please visit this site: There's an English and a German version. If you're interested in voice coaching, public speaking, trainer skills or presentation skills, please visit me here: ..and feel free to send any questions. Looking forward to hearing from you! More information can be found at my Institute Site: The Wiesbaden Academy of the Vocal Muse Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden, Coaching, Voice Pedagogy
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