Forget the Cat! Has Tension Got Your Tongue?

Weekly Teaching Tip – Sep. 4, 2018
by Camiah Mingorance

I was recently taking some voice lessons with a respected colleague who said, “Well, we should definitely address your tongue tension.” I was caught off guard since I hadn’t even noticed the tension there to begin with! However, as we worked through my “chest” register, it became clear that my tongue was reacting to the lower pitches by pulling to the back of my mouth. After several exercises, I could feel a significant release and wondered how long the tension had been there without even noticing it. There are days that I teach very long hours and I’m sure the length of my teaching schedule has directly contributed to the slow build up of tension – so slow that I was oblivious to it myself!

Here’s a little overview of the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the tongue and what they do:

Intrinsic Muscles of the Tongue
• Transverse muscle – Lengthens and protrudes the tongue
• Vertical muscle – Flattens and widens the tongue
• Superior Longitudinal muscle – Elevates the apex (tip) and sides of the tongue
• Inferior Longitudinal muscle – Depresses the apex and sides of the tongue
Extrinsic Muscles of the Tongue
• Styloglossus – Raises and retracts the tongue back into the mouth
• Palatoglossus – Raises the back of the tongue as well as lowers the back roof (soft palate) of the mouth
• Genioglossus – Lowers and protrudes the tongue forward in the mouth
• Hyoglossus – Lowers and retracts the tongue back into the mouth

Tension in the extrinsic muscles can lead to multiple issues for a singer – a lisp or difficulty with articulation without jaw movement, joint (TMJ) discomfort, poor resonance, lack of flexibility in larynx position, tongue exhaustion, tightness in the pharynx, etc. Even if singers are not consciously aware of the tension within their body, it is always a good idea to incorporate exercises into their pedagogy that will help these muscles release. In order to achieve healthy contraction when desired, these muscles need to experience the release as well. That all goes back to the balance that our bodies always seek, which I mentioned in an earlier article. Once singers experience this release, they become much more aware of tension as it builds.

If singers experience instability in a register, it may be wise to see if the tongue is contributing to the instability. Run them through a tetrachord scale on a “raspberry” (tongue out lip trill) through the unstable area of their voice. If the tongue cannot relax enough for the exercise, there is very likely some level of tongue tension that should be address sooner rather than later.

Of course the severity of the tongue tension should guide us in the exercises we choose for each singer. Here are some of my favorite exercises beginning with those ideal for “low tension” to those exercises that are better at addressing “high tension”, although certainly a combination of these exercises may be ideal for many singers.

• tongue raspberry
• tongue trill
• “TH” fricative
• semi-occluded exercises while keeping the tongue tip pressed to the front teeth or freely
moving around the outsides of teeth
• chewing while moving the tongue all over the inside of mouth
• tongue out singing
• curling the tip of the tongue to the back of the mouth (as in the “R” sound) and shaping the lips in an “OO” or “EE”
• tongue multi-directional stretch
• holding a straw under the tongue
• waggle the tongue
• thumb under chin massage

By incorporating a few well chosen tongue exercises, we can help singers resolve or even better, avoid altogether, tongue tension. Singers may need a little rest in between these exercises so be aware of how much each exercise pushes them. Allow a quick minute of rest and then begin again until you feel the instability/tension is fading or resolved. Of course once they begin a song, they may fall right back into tension, but then using the tongue exercises on the melody of their song can help them experience the release in the song as well. Eventually the tongue “learns” that it’s “assistance” with pitch is not required.

As singers experience the release, they may become more aware of when tension builds and be able to incorporate some of these exercises into their everyday routine. This is especially beneficial when tension builds while in their “chest” voice, since it is very likely that their speaking coordination will also build tension during their everyday routine. Ideally, they can quickly address tongue tension issues throughout their day and even before they walk into your studio. After all, an empowered singer is a happier and healthier singer!

Related Articles