Breaking Up Is Hard To Do! by Camiah
July 8, 2019
Tension is like the “bad boyfriend/girlfriend” that every voice teacher wants their students
to dump. However, some singers spend their time and, indeed, even earn a living, from
singing styles of music that require more tension than we are typically comfortable with as
voice instructors. While it’s unrealistic to think that singers are never going to have a
relationship with tension, we can certainly give them strategies for managing that
relationship, so they can dump it when they need a break and pick it back up when it
stylistically suites their needs. Sound manipulative? Yes, it is. Singers need to be master
manipulators – of their voice.
Below are some of my favorite exercises for breaking up with tension. Obviously, I didn’t
come up with these exercises myself. I’ve picked them up from other fantastic teachers,
workshops, videos, articles, books and private lessons. I go back and comb through their
videos, books, notes on their lectures, etc, etc, etc from time to time, simply because I
forget about a great tool that I had previously used in my teaching and somehow let it slip
from my toolbox. My best teaching days come after I’ve reminded myself of what good
teachers do by re-visiting their material!
• The “EE” vowel on a a descending scale beginning over the singers first passagio. I
LOVE “EE”! The formants for this vowel are fairly close together, so the singer feels
supported and energized (lots of innertive reactance right above the vocal folds) but it also
lowers the first formant, thereby causing the singer to feel a sensation of “head voice” or
release of tension. This is a great tool for the singer who resists any transition through
• Have the singers check their alignment and posture as they go through initial warm ups,
taking time to massage muscles that are tense. I had a singer come into my studio yesterday
who insisted that her lymph node was sore on the right side. When I asked her to touch the
part of her body where she felt the soreness, she touched the right side of her neck about
mid way between her jaw and her shoulder – not anywhere near a lymph node. I asked her
to check her alignment. Realistically, every singer needs to check their alignment
frequently. Here’s how my ballet teacher would go through the process of alignment and I
use the same checklist with my singers in lessons:
◦ Stand with your feet hip width apart and shift your weight from the back to the front of
your feet until you find a center where the balls of your feet and the heels of your feet
evenly share the weight of your body.
◦ Make sure that your knees are loose, not locked, and centered over your ankles.
◦ Check your hip position by rotating your hips and finding the place where they are
centered directly over your knees. Your butt should not protrude out behind your, neither
should your hips be thrust forward. Find the easy, floating feeling of hips centered over
◦ Placing hands on your lower rib cage, take a few deep breaths in and feel the expansion of
the ribs both in the front and in your back. Allow the ribs to float in a circular motion until
you find the place where they are centered over the hips and free expand and contract.
◦ Roll your shoulders forward, up into your ear lobes, back and down. Do this three or four
times. Shoulders should be resting directly underneath your ears.
◦ Point to where you believe your spine and your head connect. (Most singers will point to
the back of their skull). The head should float right on top of the spine which connects to
the brain stem at a point right behind the jaw line, at the center point between the ears,
imagine gently lifting your head off the top of your spine
• Ask the singer to ball their hands into fists and shake their fists as they sing through their
scales or songs. Frequently, the body will release tension in the throat as you focus tension
in the arms. This is a great tool for those singers who over compress in the glottis or over
engage extrinsic muscles of the throat.
• Ask the singer to sing through a scale or section of their song as they squat at a ninety
degree angle while raising their hands high above their heads. Or ask the singer to bend
over at the waist and sing their song while touching their toes. This is a great tool for the
“over-thinker” kind of singer who needs a distraction from their usual approach to vocal
production…pretty much all of us.
• Sing through a scale or section of a song on the “puffy cheek” exercise. With this
particular exercise, we have to be careful that the tongue doesn’t over react to the pressure
build up by tensing in the back of the mouth, so remind the singer to keep the tip of the
tongue gently placed on the back of the front teeth. I love this tool for those singers who
tend to push too much air, thereby causing the muscles of the larynx to compensate with
extra resistance to said air. It also works well for singers who tend to sing with an
unnecessarily high larynx.
• Remind the singer to take a deep breath through the nose, which automatically raises the
soft palate slightly and thereby encourages less squeezing/tension in back of the mouth.
This is for those singers who reflexively squeeze the tongue/soft palate/muscles of the
oropharynx on every vowel.
• Use any of the tongue exercises that I discussed in one of my previous articles. Honestly,
I just use these with nearly every singer. Tongues are hard working muscles and deserving
of a little stretch and release every now and then, even if we don’t consciously feel tension
there. If I hear any instability in a voice this is an exercise I will use to double check that
the tongue is not stuck in tension.
• Have the singer phonate while sucking air back into the lungs. A friend appropriately
called this exercise The Raptor, because of the hideous sound we make when phonating on
an inhale, but this reversal of flow allows for the muscles to resist air coming from another
direction and thereby changing the coordinations and giving singers an opportunity to
Of course, all of these exercises mentioned are just a small selection of tools that may help
a singer find relief from unhelpful tension.
The Reason behind it all
As teachers, our task is to hear where the unwanted tension is and choose an exercise
that will help counter act that tension.
That’s where your magic ear becomes the key to this relationship management! Never be
afraid to switch gears in the middle of a lesson, if the tool you chose is not addressing the
issue you hear. Usually, I will work through several of these tools during a lesson simply
because I want to make sure that I’ve covered all my bases. More often then not, there are
multiple issues going on with a singer and just one diagnosis will not be enough to get them to their optimum vocal production. Relationships are tricky and multifaceted so we have to be creative when helping singers manage their relationship with tension. Dig around in that tool box! Keep adding new tools! Be brave enough to switch tools! And…trust your ear.