Pretty much everyone will suffer tongue tension at some point in their singing career? Even my cat has tongue tension. Bearing in mind some people liken singing to “strangling a cat”, can you imagine how bad it is for me at home? Spare me a thought.
Putting my little Drew aside, tongue tension is pretty common in beginners and pros alike. It’s understandable why it’s so rife however, especially when you notice the myriad of reasons why it could be there. It can be the result of how we shape our vowels, our accent, an imbalanced speaking voice, excess singing volume, breath support problems, a laryngeal muscle weakness, unhelpful singing techniques, anxiety, etc, etc.
Why focus on it?
It’s important that we reduce tongue tension as much as possible because of how it can affect several important functions we have as singers:
- Muscle tension – The tongue, via the hyoid bone, is connected directly to our sound maker: the larynx. Such a close connection means that any excess tension in our tongue can pull and push our larynx around and drastically impact our ability to hit high notes and accurately pitch.
- Resonance and tone – We rely enormously on the space in our throat to provide boost to the sound waves that are created at the vocal fold level. This boost give us power, clarity, tone and efficiency, but tongue root tension will crowd and constrict your throat. That will leave little space for that important boosting function. Sometimes, there’s such little space that the sound has only one place to go… the nose. And believe me… despite a few old skool peeps claiming it’s ‘essential’, nasal resonance is NOT a thing you want. It’s not even a thing. You can read more about nasal resonance, and why you shouldn’t necessarily go searching for it, here.
Here’s a short video to help makes sense of the techniques below:
How can I spot it?
It’s pretty likely that if you haven’t worked on tongue tension before you won’t know if it’s residing in your mouth muscle. You’ll just know that something is wrong when you sing. You could have a dark and/or muffled sound that seems tight or high effort to produce. There may be a strong ‘clunk’ as you siren from the top to the bottom of your voice and some difficulty articulating. You might also go flat, yelly or have a shorter range. Like I said, it’ll just feel like something isn’t working so well.
If you don’t have a coach to help you diagnose it, not to worry. You’ve got time to find one. Until then, you could try a few of my favourite exercise routines for releasing it. If your singing improves you might have a good reason to put it on the list of things to obliterate with a teacher. Here goes:
1. Tongue Stretcher
Stretching is the standard start for any muscle fibre that needs unsticking. This is especially true for tightness that rests in the tongue when you’re not making sound.
Simply stick it out, grab it with tissue and gently draw it down to your chin. Don’t be aggressive and yank. Hold it there for 20 seconds and let it back in. Make sure you completely relax your mouth, jaw and tongue. Repeat 3 times. Don’t worry about the peg 😉
There are many other dynamic stretching exercises out there that you can research. Many are familiar with the ‘searching for toffee’ one, for example. It won’t hurt if you want to include your favourites as a starter to the routine.
Tongue stretches are best for resting or chronic tension, so be sure to sing before you stretch and after. If your voice gets a little better from a quick stretch then you’ll know if there’s a touch of that resting tension in there. However, tongue stretches mean absolutely zilch if tongue tension is a part of the singing process as a habit. That’s actually the case for most singers. If that’s you, your voice won’t feel or sound any better after a stretch, so please ignore this bit and don’t waste time with them!
2. Tongue Busier
These exercises are designed to kick the tongue up the **** and get it moving. Great for singers who unknowingly have an immobile tongue. Maybe one that likes to sit at the very back of the mouth and swallow or muffle up the tone.
- This first exercise, favoured by NYC coach Jeanie Lovetri who I had the pleasure of observing, is GLAY-GLA-GLAY-GLA. The consonants and vowels encourage the tongue to do a lot of moving around the mouth to stimulate flexibility. Make sure your jaw moves loosely and freely in this one too. Pronounce it as rapidly as possible without losing clear diction, especially on those L’s! (see video below for instruction)
- The next weird one is LEE-YAH LEE-YAH. But the weirdness doesn’t stop there folks! You need to use your thumb and forefinger as a jaw stopper on each side of your mouth. Ensure you’re not biting teeth marks in your finger nails and slacken your jaw completely! This jaw stopper strategy puts even more emphasis on your tongue because it’s the only thing that’s available to move and articulate the vowels and consonants. It’s another wake up call for those immobile muscle fibres! One thing though… try and go at a fairly quick tempo for short periods initially.
Tongue and jaw tensions are also known for slowing us down, which is why we don’t want to hang around at a slow tempo to allow them to activate. Focus on fluidity, clarity and mental relaxation. Avoid kicking the consonants too much as that will also slow you down. If you happen to lose pace and diction, stop the exercise for 15 seconds and start again. Your tongue muscles will recover in this rest period and be ready to go again. Spend around 3-5 minutes on this exercises in the lower part of your range. That’s somewhere under E4 or F4 for guys, and G4 or A4 for girls. If you’re doing great with it then there’s noting stopping you keeping the articulation going through the passaggio for the next few notes, but don’t bust your ass going really high with it.
NOTE: You could also use the jaw stopper strategy effectively on many exercises and tongue twisters, including song lyrics. If you happen to be a fan of wine (hands in the air!) and have a wine cork lying around you could hold that between your front teeth. Be careful that you aren’t biting down or holding the lips in a forced smile, but rather lightly holding it between your incisors.
3. Tongue Remover
Go get a sharp knife.
Seriously though, we can benefit from getting the tongue out of the mouth, just without such brutal methods. Try singing your scales with the word MUM, MAH, or MEH but have the tongue hang slightly outside the bottom lip the whole time. You can also use this method effectively in your lyrics, but beware… it will sound utterly insane. But we’re not listening for good diction right now. We’re listening for a reduction in the symptoms of tongue tension: better pitching, clearer tone, reduced effort, and all the rest. If you’re making waves with the tongue out, let the tongue back inside the mouth and return to normal diction. Just try and maintain the same clear sound you had when the tongue was out.
Symptom or cause?
Those exercises will go some way to helping you release the tongue and figuring out one of the most common and destructive singing ailments, but it can often return. Or, it’ll need a lot of maintaining to make sure it doesn’t snowball. If it keeps coming back it’s most likely a compensation for a weakness elsewhere in the system, and that weakness needs to be weeded out and dealt with. That, in most cases, also needs the help of a professional who knows where in the body to go snooping.
Many singers have also recruited too much tongue assistance in order to create qualities like twang or a lower larynx sounds. Dealing with how you approach singing from a tonal point of view, and how you create that tone, would be the best way to rid yourself of problems.
Eventually, working through a tongue tension problem will give you a greater sense of your tongues activity when warming up and singing. It will help you to build kinaesthetic awareness of it, along with your throat, so you’ll be able to feel when it’s retracted, immobile, pushing against the soft palette or just generally misbehaving. Having that awareness is 80% of the battle!
The repetition of articulation exercises like the jaw stopper above also go towards ticking a big box in singing; disassociating the articulators from pitch. In other words, teaching the tongue, jaw, lips and throat muscles to NOT react to going through the vocal range. That will give you so much flexibility and control back!
It’s not easy figuring this out alone so please do get in touch if you need help, or leave me a comment below for discussion. For coaching assistance with your voice you can book yourself a session with me here. For coaches, if you want to more about how to work with tongue and articulator tensions then why not join me on one of my workshops, either in-person or online. Visit here to see when the next option is.
Chris is also a writer for iSing Magazine, a founder/presenter of The Naked Vocalist podcast, a voting member of Pan American Vocology Association, and a teacher trainer/vocal coach with the Vocology In Practice network.
All that aside, he's a pure and true music fan with a penchant for Donny Hathaway and songs about heartbreak.