The ‘barrel neck’ or ‘victorian dentistry-style’ jaw clench might be familiar to many of you when you sing. Those could be red flags, but all of us will pick up some tension when singing. It’s nearly impossible not to. In order to create all of those wonderful tones and colours in our voice we must activate the muscles that move our larynx, jaw, tongue and lips. Not to mention everything else in your body that’s involved in cracking out a song. If you put some high intensity style and a professional level of voice use on top of that, then you’re probably going to pick up some vocal tension. As a result, you would benefit from ways to release that day to day.
How do I know if I’m suffering with vocal tension?
Sometimes it’s super obvious. Headaches, jaw pain, aching neck. That kind of thing. In addition to that, fatigue when singing could also be an indicator of a tiring amount of vocal tension, as can a deep gravelly speaking voice.
An airy or breathy singing voice, especially higher up, can also be a tell tale sign, but in truth there are many different physical hints of tension. Often singers have lived with tension for so long that it seems normal, and consequently it’s very hard to single out tension without a pro checking you over.
Sing a few lines of something
We do have something up our sleeve though… comparison! It’s always worth trying something new if you have five minutes, so try this vocal tension massage and see if it makes a difference. If it does, you’ll know you had a little tension hiding there.
So first of all, sing something along to a backing track. It doesn’t have to be a killer. Just a verse and chorus of something that might ordinarily tense you up is a good start. Sing it once or twice whilst looking in the mirror. Do you see tension in your face or neck as you sing? How does it feel and sound? Make a mental note because you’ll need to compare it later.
Let’s get in there!!
We’ll start with the neck. Take a deep breath and follow these in order…
- SCM – That stands for sternocleidomastoid, and it’s the beast either side of your neck (see GIF below). From the ear to the bottom of the neck, massage these with your fingers. As always, start with a little pressure and build it up. These muscles are big and powerful so they may require a little more pressure to release. Spend 60 seconds on those bad boys.
- Neck and chin stretch – This is a great exercise from Daniel Zangger Borch’s book, The Ultimate Vocal Voyage. Place your hands on the top of your chest as if you were pulling down on your skin. Now, raise your chin and jut your jaw towards the ceiling for a second or so. You should feel the stretch in the multitude of tissue that runs down the front of your neck. In one second intervals, reach your chin back and forth for 20 seconds.
- Larynx manipulation – You may not like this. Sorry about that. Once you’ve plucked up the courage, take your larynx between your fingers and gently wobble it from side to side for 10 seconds. You may feel it click and clack, which is totally normal.
- Tongue root – Another very common release technique is to apply some pressure to the tongue root, just under the chin, with your thumbs. Keep the pressure on for 30 seconds.
- Jaw release part 1 – To warm up the fibres, trace your fingers from the bottom of your jaw, over your cheekbones and to your temples. Take around 30 seconds to do it. Also, use a very small amount of pressure, like it was more of a glide over the skin. It makes me very sleepy.
- Jaw release part 2 – The pain in this exercise is courtesy of vocal coach Matthew Edwards and his video tutorial. You can message him to say thank you if you like. Find the deep pocket just underneath your cheek bone and firmly hold your fingertips in there. Whilst they are in there, open your jaw to the most open point. You might cry a little, but that’s OK. The knotted masseter muscle is being smoothed out underneath your fingers, which can only be a good thing! Repeat ten times.
- Jaw release part 3 – place your hands flat in front of your ear lobes and bite down. You should feel the bulging muscle stick out around the jaw joint. Take your fingertips and apply pressure, gently at first, directly into that muscle. It’ll probably be a bit tender but keep the pressure on until the tenderness subsides. Give yourself 30 seconds.
Remember that song you sang earlier. Although it might be a distant memory, sing the same part again. Sing it in a proud stance, without fear. How’s it feeling? What is it sounding like? How’s it looking? Is it better than before? If yes, then you’re on to something with vocal massage and you could do with bringing it in to your warm ups and cool downs.
If not, check your body language as you sing. Sometimes the massage has had a positive effect but as we sing we are still wincing on high notes. As a result, we still tense up. We often turn our head as if we’re about to be hit by a truck. Nip that in the bud and sing into the mirror again.
If nothing has changed, at least it’s been a fun five minutes… hasn’t it? OK maybe not. On to the next experiment!
Disclaimer: Go gentle to begin. If you feel jaw pain when you open your mouth then also be gentle. You may have TMJ. If you’re struggling with recurring or chronic vocal tension then please seek the advice of a vocal coach or a laryngologist. There could be something else in your life or technique that causing the tension and needs to be rooted out!
As always, contact me here at The Naked Vocalist if you have any questions or concerns. For now, get those fingers working!
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.