If you saw Sydney Theatre Company’s memorable production of Sarah Ruhl’s play In The Next Room last year, you’ll know that the common or garden “ladies” vibrator has been the subject of offbeat medical experiments for well over a hundred years. Now, it appears, researchers at the University of Alberta have been experimenting with sex toys to help singers and actors achieve that little bit more.
Pressing a finely tuned vibrator against the throat, it turns out, can loosen up all sorts of tensions, enabling improved vocal range and projection. The claims come from Professor David Ley (pictured below), the university’s voice and dialect coach, who led the project.
“You can actually watch on a spectrograph how vocal energy grows,” he says. “Even when you take the vibrator off, the frequencies are greater than when first applied. I’ve done this with singers, schoolteachers and actors. It always works … people simply say, ‘wow!’”
The vibrator method looks like a handy alternative to speech pathology’s standard technique of massaging the larynx – often problematic for people who have problems with the feeling of fingers on their throat.
Professor Ley’s research suggested that what he needed for non-manual massage was a vibrator with a frequency somewhere between 100 and 120 hertz – close to the range of the human voice. A little lateral thinking and he came up with the idea of sex toys. After a discreet visit to an “adult shop”, he put his theory to the test to find out whether they could help release muscular tension. Applying the vibrator over the vocal chords in an actor’s neck produced striking results when Ley asked his patient to hum. “Not only did it free tension in the laryngeal muscles, but it seemed to stimulate vibrations in the vocal folds,” he says. He also found that applying the vibrator to the top of the head and cheeks helped to increase specific overtones.
One of his guineapigs was Sara Farb, a Toronto based actor, who was suffering from laryngitis in a production of the rock musical Next to Normal. She heard about the professor’s discovery and contacted him for advice. “It was just unbelievable,” she said after trying the therapy. “That night was my best performance—not just of that run, but in recent memory. It was like my voice had been polished and was completely brand new. I sent David a message that night saying he may have changed my life. I don’t mean to be dramatic, but it was drastic. I will never forget that performance.”
Now that Professor Ley has brought the humble vibrator out from under the sex shop counter he’s received online back up from a whole range of authorities. Claudia Friedlander, a New York vocal coach, is clearly delighted with the research. “If you’re debating whether you ought to try this for yourself, my recommendation is: Yes. Absolutely”, she writes enthusiastically on her blog. “If we’re talking about something you can easily do on your own to alleviate chronic muscular tension in the muscles that directly impact on the larynx, I can think of no better and swifter way than a gentle massage with a vibrator or showerhead.” She also has some practical tips for the shyer vocalist “Vibrators come in a daunting array of shapes and sizes”, she writes. “Without doing more exhaustive research on my end”, she says apparently without irony, “I’m going to recommend the Lelo Siri Massager”, which your correspondent can report is readily available via Amazon. “It’s a good size and shape to cover a broad area of your neck and can be adjusted to five different levels of intensity. It’s also ‘discreet’ in appearance” she says, reassuringly, “if someone sees it in your bag, they won’t necessarily know what it is. Unless they already know what it is, in which case they won’t judge you for it.” For an insight, and more specific technical details, Friedlander has recently interviewed Professor Ley and her summary can be found on her website [click here].
Meanwhile, Professor Ley plans to present his method at the Voice Foundation Symposium in Philadelphia next June and has taken steps to patent a device. As for Farb, she happily admits she ordered her own vibrator online before leaving Ley’s office. “I will never go anywhere without that thing.”
Clive Paget (Limelight Magazine) / March 17, 2013