Author: Daniel, Bert

A Really Great Instrument

(Editorís NoteóI remember receiving Bert Danielís very first Welcome column. He said he was honored to have the chance to write something for his bluegrass family but could make no promises about how many columns he had in him. That was okay, I said, just keep going as long as itís fun. Hereís Bertís 103rd from a year ago this month. My favorites have always been the ones in which he shares some insight about the music from his special perspective as a medical doctor. RC)

I was completely unprepared for what I was looking at. Although I was part of a class that was showing me how to use special equipment to see this stuff, somehow I was not really ready to appreciate what it was that this class was allowing me to see. I adjusted the light source and mirror again and took another look. Wow! So that's what makes all that sound! If you've ever cruised web sites like frets or mandolin cafe, you're all too familiar with how certain people can go on and on about the esoteric subtleties that supposedly make their musical instrument sound so good. People are fascinated by what makes a musical instrument tick and I'm no different.

But my class was on an very different level. It was a really special class and I knew it. You could never buy such an instrument for yourself and you could never make one no matter how many books you read or how many workshops you took with Roger Simonoff. If you don't believe me, take a look at this instrument for yourself. You be the judge. You can download a video of this instrument's inner workings right now. Put it on your cell phone to show your friends. Just click here.

Of course, you've figured out by now that what I was looking at was the human voice box. Compared to any of the other musical instruments you'd ever want to play, it definitely outshines them all. It's the only bluegrass instrument that can only be made by God. And I was looking at its inner workings during my class on physical examination of the human body in medical school.

Have you ever noticed how lots of old depictions of physicians (for example those of Norman Rockwell) show the physician sporting some sort of weird hemispherical mirror on the forehead? Well that's a focusing mirror and let me tell you, it's really tough to use one of those things properly. The basic idea of the set up is to have a very strong light source which you can look right down the barrel of. There's a hole in the center of the rounded disk reflecting mirror. A strong light source is positioned in front of you and you angle the focusing mirror in such a way that you can both point the strong reflected light down the throat and, at the same time, look straight down the light through the little hole in the hemispherical mirror. You have to hold another little mirror at the back of a patient's throat and angle the reflected light straight down the gullet. If you're quick, maybe the angling mirror won't fog up and the patient won't gag. You'll get a fleeting glance of the vocal cords. It takes a real pro to get a good view of the voice box by what we call indirect laryngoscopy. Simply angling the head mirror from the light source in front of you to get good lighting is tough enough for most people.

These days life is a lot easier. Doctors use headlamps and/or flexible cameras to do the same job. It's still a little tricky, but what you can see down the throat is still an amazing sight. And what you see from above is just a small part of the complicated mechanism that gives humans the gift of speech and song. A model of the larynx is more instructive about how the thing actually works. There is a tiny joint called the crico-arytenoid joint. It swivels when a muscle pulls on it and the result is a tighter or looser space between the vibrating vocal cords to produce a higher or a lower note. Just like other true joints, this crico-arytenoid joint can even become inflamed if someone suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. And the production of a good sound involves more than just the sound producing larynx itself. Anything from the diaphragm to the nasopharynx to the lips has to be called into play to get the right sound. The larynx is just the vibrating string, but what a string it can be!

Try as we might (artificial larynx, etc), no one has ever been able to construct an instrument anything like the human larynx. When the larynx has to be removed because of cancer, a person is left without an organ that in a very real sense makes us human. The unfortunate person has to work with a therapist to develop an esophageal voice or use a device to vibrate their throat and produce a semblance of a voice at best. The result is "frog voice", a term used to describe the best that modern medicine can do as a substitute. With modern computers, I'm sure someone is bound to figure out something better some day but it is a daunting challenge to be sure.

When you look at the video, much of what you are seeing are the true vocal cords. That's what makes all the sound. Below them are what are called the false vocal cords. They are mostly for resonance but Tibetan throat singers use them to produce some really unique musical sounds. (i've wondered what a bluegrass song would sound like from a Tibetan throat singer. What bluegrass song would you chose for them to chant?).

The human larynx has seven muscle groups. If only you could coordinate them to make your voice box sound like a Laurie Lewis or a Dan Tyminski! Keep trying maybe you'll find just the right combination of nerve impulses. Fortunately or unfortunately, you're born with whatever voice box instrument you happen to develop. But you can at least do your best to make you instrument live up to its own potential. Almost everybody likes to sing, (whether they'll admit it or not). You might just be holding back a great instrument there. Let people hear it now and then. Sure you're a good picker, but let's hear you fill the air with your best vocals too! That's one instrument you'll never forget to bring with you, You'll always have it with you when some music happens to come along.
Posted:  12/24/2013

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email