Tongue Tension

The tongue can be HUGELY problematic in singing and as time goes by I am increasingly aware of this fact. For singers suffering with vocal fatigue, or experiencing an inability to negotiate the passagio (break in the voice) smoothly and ESPECIALLY if they are experiencing a loss of upper range (if of course they have already been given the all clear for vocal nodules), oftentimes the tongue is the cause of this problem.

The tongue is very muscular and hence it is ENORMOUSLY strong, with muscle fibers running in just about every direction. According to Janice Chapman who wrote the book; “A holistic approach to classical singing” when we swallow the tongue exerts up to 1kg of pressure on the alveolar ridge (the roof of the mouth). The degree of its strength is never more highlighted than through how it can wreak havoc in singing. It is often referred to by many singing teachers as one of the villans in voice production.

The root of the tongue attaches into the hyoid bone (a free floating bone which sits directly above the larynx). We can only actually see quite a small portion of the tongue and the other half that we can’t see forms the front wall of the throat/vocal tract (an important resonating space). It is this very unfortunate location and particularly the strength at the root of the tongue (in particular it is the hyoglossus muscle) that CAN play such a detrimental role in voice production. Hence, anything the tongue does impacts on the production and quality of the voice.

When the tongue tenses it greatly reduces the resonating space talked about above, resulting in an overall ‘darker or wooly’ sound and when it tenses it also presses down on top of the vocal folds greatly affecting their mobility (and health) and making general phonation feel incredibly effortful and strained.  As pitch is ultimately affected by larynx height; e.g. the larynx lifts for higher pitches and lowers for lower pitches, when the tongue tenses it greatly affects the vertical mobility of the larynx, resulting in a general flatting in pitch (which rarely has anything to do with whether a singer has a good or bad ear as they may be able to hear this pitching issue but can not seem to correct it).

N.B: To witness how larynx height is determined by pitch put your fingers on your neck and on an “ee” move randomly up and down in pitch and you will feel the physical sensation of lifting and lowering with your fingers. Then try the same thing but this time retract the tip of the tongue back towards the back of the throat (this will cause the root of the tongue to tense). Then try the same thing as before and be aware of how much harder it is to move up and down in pitch.

Why does the tongue tense?

There is no ‘one’ answer to this question. However, these are some of the theories:

1. The back of the tongue can be very responsive to how we are feeling and if we become upset, angry (or nervous in the case of a singer about to perform) this is simply an area that responds by tensing.

2. Singers tend to use the tongue as a false depressor and push it down and back to create a ‘dark’ sound. This is something contemporary singers can often be guilty of in the pursuit of sounding like a soulful singer. It is also common for classical singers to do this same thing as opposed to using the correct depressors when trying to emulate a low larynx sound.

3. If important support muscles are not engaged (whilst singing) to stablise the larynx, (in particular the soft palate) then we usually try to control the voice with what is most mobile; that being the tongue and the other villan…. the jaw. On their own they make a singers life difficult but together they are a recipe for disaster and unfortunately they tend to act like willing slaves to one another; recruiting the other.

Many assume that we should feel when the tongue tenses but the reality is, is that strong muscles  engage with very little effort and thus we generally don’t feel those muscles working when they are engaged but when we CAN actually feel the tongue working chances are that it is REALLY tight.

If you are already aware that you suffer with tongue tension (e.g you can often feel things getting tight at that level) or perhaps if if you are unsure if you do experience it, the following is a great exercise to try before singing as it tires the tongue out and if the tongue tires it will more than likely stay relaxed throughout singing (which is what we want). This exercise is called ‘Chase the Toffee’:

Move your tongue around the outside of your teeth starting at the top and move all the way around to the back (where the molars are) and then down along the bottom set of teeth right to the very back again, really stretching the tongue and then up to the top teeth again. Do this in a clock wise direction 8 times then anti clockwise 8 times. If your tongue is quite tight it will feel quite sore after this.

I would recommend doing this every time before singing regardless whether it is practice or performance.