Tension? Especially on the high notes? Does that sound familiar?
We know that tension on high notes is a common issue with singers and it’s something we want to try and avoid.
There are, of course, a million ways to skin a cat. That said, there are some small things we can think about and/or change that can have a dramatic effect on just how much tension we have. In this article, I am going to cover one of these: the jaw. I’ll detail it’s importance, just how much it can either aid, or debilitate, us as a singer AND something that may just change your entire singing world.
The jaw? But what do you mean?
Technically speaking, the jaw creates part of the oral framework. Any human being that has experienced life on planet earth will know what the jaw is, what it does and how it moves. One online dictionary definition describes its purpose as “typically used for grasping and manipulating food”. I love that they used the word ‘manipulating’. It made me laugh. A lot. It conjures up thoughts
of someone consciously choosing to skilfully reform mouthfuls of leafy green plants into play-dough like characters within the confines of the mouth. Now that’s skilful.
A big player within the structure of the jaw is the Temporomandibular joint (TMJ)*. The joint mainly consists of bone, ligaments and a cool little feature called the articular disc. Google it. The main muscles we are concerned with when it comes to movement are the temporalis, masseter, medial pterygoid and the lateral pterygoid. Let’s face it though (no pun intended) consideration must be given for all surrounding muscles: especially those supporting the hyoid bone and upper neck region. Removing excessive tension in these muscles should be a priority for all singers.
The jaw moves together and apart to perform many functions. The manipulation of food aside, it also plays an integral role in sound production. The jaw works in conjunction with the tongue, larynx and lips to create the postures we use to sing. For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to the jaw, tongue, larynx and lips as: ‘the controllers’. These controllers play a massive role in changing the sound we produce but also affect just how easy it is to produce that sound.
The jaw and its effect on tone
As mentioned, the jaw is one of the fundamental controllers of the voice and so it’s movement and position is going to make a difference to, not only the sound we produce but, how easy it is to sing. Therefore, it’s not hard to work out that if you aren’t used to moving your jaw or you suffer from muscular tension, there’s a high possibility that the sound you produce will be distorted. By making some small changes, your singing could be made easier.
What kind of jaw person are you?
My next sentence is going to sound weird, but I’m going to run with it: we all have our own interpretation of acceptable jaw movement. Please let me explain: if you’re someone who is very animated and energetic when you speak, you probably don’t mind a bit of jaw action. Flipping the coin, someone who is more reserved may, naturally, only move it marginally. This might be quite a bold, oversimplified, conception but a fair distinction, in my opinion. On the same page, are you stressed? Are you a tooth grinder whilst you sleep? If so, there’s a chance that tension has become the norm and you’ve become a prime candidate for exploring more jaw movement and seeing what you can produce if you loosen that jaw!
A great way to check just how well the jaw is functioning is to see how many fingers you can fit into you mouth*. Now, before you try and eat your hand, three fingers are plenty (as per the picture) and show that there is no joint restriction. Any less may be a cause for consideration.
*If you feel you have a more serious jaw problem, or misalignment in any way, contact your dental practitioner (Note: it’s been said that it is sometimes due to poor dental work that people get TMJ and so it may be best to contact an oral surgeon). TMJ and muscle disorders are a group of conditions that cause pain and dysfunction in the jaw joint and muscles that control jaw movement.
This is all very good, but what do I do with it?
Answer: move it.
There’s your secret. Not much of a secret is it, huh? But, from experience in the studio, it appears to be harder than it looks. The words “drop your jaw” or “lazy jaw, lazy jaw… lazy jaw, for crying out loud!” have left my mouth more times than I could ever possibly count.
Literally just “move the bottom of your mouth down when you sing”. Such a seemingly simple request that is either ignored, quickly forgotten, or incredibly tricky to maintain. I’d like to think it was the latter, which would suggest that there is more to it.
The five step plan for releasing that freakin’ jaw
1) Face massage and stretches – this is not ‘hippy’ stuff and is fundamental if you want to give yourself the best chance of surviving those top notes. Use your fingers to massage the muscles surrounding your jaw. You don’t need to be a scientist or a masseuse to do this – just get in there and circulate gently to stimulate some blood flow. Here’s a great video on doing just that!
2) Massage the INSIDE of your mouth. Yes, you heard me. Inside. There are some great resources on line but it really can be this simple. Remember to wash your hands! Check it!
3) Open your mouth wide and close it. Lots of times. (Small caveat: ensure there is no pain whilst doing this. Pain could indicate an issue with the joint).
4) Exercise with scales whilst incorporating a chewing motion. This can help disengage some of the troubling muscles.
5) Consciously consider moving your jaw more when you sing. This sounds like a no brainer, but be hot on it. Sing into a mirror: there’s a chance you are not moving it as much as you think.
As a summary, moving your jaw more than you already do will most likely give you a new singing experience. It’s worth adding here that this isn’t something everyone has to stress about. After all, the movement of the jaw and its relationship with singing is vastly complex, especially when we consider the formation of vowels and clear articulation. That said, as an early remedy for losing tension, from experience, “dropping the jaw” has worked every time.