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.

Jo Estill


I was saddened to hear recently that Jo Estill, who created The Estill Voice Model, had died a few weeks before Christmas. Fortunately, she had lived a relatively long- and full life- leaving us at the age of 89. Her life is one marked by significant achievements, both as a professional performer and in the later stage of her life; as a contributor, researcher and educator of voice science and technique.

Many actors, singers and professional voice users may be familiar with the Estill Voice System (13 Compulsory Figures for voice and 6 voice qualities), through attending Estill Workshops. No doubt, many have also been indirectly influenced by Jo through their own teachers, who may teach/ have taught many of her techniques- without even knowing the true origins of those techniques.

Jo Estill was born in 1921 in Pennsylvania, USA and began singing from a very young age. As an adult she had a successful career as an Opera singer in America and also toured throughout Europe. Despite her level of vocal proficiency and all the lessons she had received, she was aware that none of her teachers had ever TRULY explained to her how the voice worked, thus she was unaware of how she was actually able to make the sounds that she did. Even more importantly; she was unaware of how to fix things when her voice wasn’t working. It has been quoted that she often said to herself “how am I doing this?” and that it was this fundamental question that led her to leave behind her performance career and go back into education to undertake an MA in Music Education to uncover the answers. Much of the information obtained from the research conducted during her MA (and subsequent years of research) paved the way for the Estill Voice Model.

It was with Jo’s passing that I realised just how grateful I feel towards her efforts and her dedication to uncover the answers to the questions that she- and so many other singers have asked. I also feel immense gratitude for her generosity of knowledge and the fact that she has shared this information with others. I have found the Estill model excellent for obtaining real and tangible vocal results as opposed to many other teaching methods that I have also been exposed to that have no grounding in scientific facts or reality and consequently… results are elusive. Knowledge is power. The more you know about your voice and how it works the more likely you are able to improve and be able to make adjustments or fix things yourself (when having problems), without needing the constant assistance of a teacher. The Estill technique has given me that.
I feel that without Jo Estill many singers would not be where they are today; many would have not reached their true potential and there would still be an abundance of teachers teaching damaging vocal techniques or blaming their students for a lack of talent because they do not know how the voice functions or how to teach. Her discoveries and her training system have revolutionized the teaching of the voice and peoples understanding of how the voice functions.
So… thank you Jo!

I would encourage anyone if they are interested in developing their vocal ability and their knowledge and awareness about the voice to do an Estill course. You can find more information about Estill courses below.

Cool Down


During my time as a teacher it has concerned me how many singers run into vocal trouble; particularly contemporary singers (however, as the scope of singers I work with are only contemporary- I have to plead ignorance to the reality of vocal problems with classical singers). Unlike the classical musical genre there has not been a substantial tradition of training the rock/ pop ‘voice’, I feel that this is largely due to the fact that the popular music industry is so much newer in comparison to the classical or operatic world. Also, the demands of the contemporary singer are different to the classical singer- particularly as there are so many styles and so many different vocal qualities from one genre to the next (this is not a personal aesthetic preference/ validation of either style but something that I feel is a reality). This is particularly evident when one looks at the difference in vocal qualities and tone needed from folk, pop, gospel, rock to country- it is huge. You can not use a ‘one size fits all’ vocal quality for every contemporary genre.

Many of the singers birthed from the pop music industry are considered ‘natural’ singers through the very fact that they have taught themselves to sing through listening to others who inspire them and (as is normal) to varying degrees there is mimicry involved. Alternatively, they may come from a family of musicians and thus music is as much a part of everyday life as is sitting down and eating dinner together. In these situations a singers ear may be well developed, as is there kinesthetic awareness of what feels ‘right’ as they sing.

However, I still continuously come across many singers who appear to be doing everything ‘right’ whilst singing and who have a sound vocal ability who still develop a vocal difficulty of one sort or another over the course of a year. On the odd occasion it can be that the singer has sang whilst sick and the vocal folds which are already dehydrated and swollen become even more so after singing (leading to huskiness or voice loss). However, sickness aside, oftentimes many of these singers are not doing anything wrong whilst singing but it is the absence of what is happening after that leads to the vocal problems. So what is this problem or absence that I am referring to? It is the lack of a vocal cool down. Singing is muscular; it involves coordinating a variety of different muscles. An athlete never runs to warm up the body- they always stretch, as should a singer stretch the vocal folds through warming up as opposed to launching into a song to warm up. After a fitness workout it is also strongly recommended that you stretch AGAIN- the reason being is that through exercise the specific muscles you have been using have contracted/tightened and through stretching it releases those muscles back to their natural resting posture so that you do not injure yourself. Despite the fact that singing IS muscular and your instrument IS your body this same theory has not translated into the world of singing and this is particularly where it is needed.

Muscular effort in contemporary singing is often felt through maintaining fold mass or ‘core’; as is seen in belt and speech quality (or a middle mix) and through the larynx having to rise and the great deal of support that other muscles give to stabilize the larynx and maintain this level of effort; namely the tensor palatini (one of the soft palate muscles) and the sternocleidomastoids- and a host of other muscles. This is fundamentally where the problem lies after singing; these support muscles remain contracted and the larynx becomes ‘fixed’ quite high in comparison to its normal resting posture and once an individual begins talking without ‘resetting’ or cooling down the voice it becomes incredibly tiring on the vocal folds (which have also contracted significantly in order to sing high pitches). Consequently these muscles become even more tense the longer they are in this position, which then leads to vocal fatigue, huskiness, neck pain, headaches, jaw pain and general physical fatigue. Trying to counteract this by talking at a lower pitch will not solve the problem- you actually need to get the muscles back to their original resting posture.

The sternocleidomastoids (which as stated above are part of the larynxes support network) are a group of muscles which are incredibly strong. Theses muscles which wrap around the neck (from the mastoid process-just behind the ear- to the front of the larynx; sternum) form a V shape and can be felt if you turn your head from one side, to the next. Once these muscles get into a state of rigidity (because of a lack of a cool down/ or just general over-use) they influence the mobility of the larynx and impact on the muscles that help a singer to move higher in pitch thus resulting in an inability to ascend into the upper part of the voice, resulting in a loss of range. Once these muscles are overworked they are also the ones primarily responsible for headaches (and neck pain).

There are specific things you can do to re-set the larynx and bring it back to the level which is your normal resting posture but this must be done immediately after singing. However, sometimes the muscles become so fixed and tight through frequent voice use that you may need a manual therapist to get in there ‘unlock’ everything. There are several osteopaths and physical therapists  (who are in high demand) and who specialize in voice related massage techniques but unfortunately they’re all in the UK.

So if your voice is your livelihood remember that although a warm up IS important so is a vocal cool down.