The metaphor of peeling the layers of an onion has been used a lot for teaching singing, especially in regard to reducing interfering tensions. For me this is truest when talking about the tongue. The tongue is a much larger organ that it appears, and it is connected to the larynx in ways that require attention by most singers at some point.
The cycle of release of tension is usually something like:
- Something is wrong, but I’m not sure what.
- I have become aware (by myself or from someone else) that I have a particular tension getting in my way. I agree, but I’m not sure why.
- I do exercises and experiments that eventually release the observed tension. Now that I have felt the release, I am kinesthetically aware of the tension on a much deeper level.
- When the tension comes back, I now can detect it and remediate it.
- A new tension is discovered, often one that was not discoverable until the previous one was dealth with.
- And the cycle repeats. Eventually you get the worst things fixed and it becomes more nuanced little things to correct – we hope!
A tongue can show visual, sonic, and kinesthetic signs of tightness. I recently had an interesting experience using my phone as a mirror while I sang. I saw my tongue do a tiny movement while ascending in pitch. I couldn’t even feel it at first. It was REALLY subtle. But it was visible! So I worked on it visually to keep it calm and THEN I could feel it AND the high note popped out easier. This is very common for us singers – a bad habit lives a merry life in the body without any awareness on our part, until somebody clues us in. In this case, watching with the phone as I let my tongue become wide, soft, fat and forward created an improvement.
Warmups that include some attention to the tongue are essential for many singers. Habitual subconscious tension from speaking or stress can cause the tongue to be held in ways that screw up singing. Wiggle that tongue in all directions, stick it out, put a finger on it while you sing. How does it change with vowels (should be very little)? Is it involved at all in pitch or when changing lip-shapes? How still and soft can you keep your tongue while singing vocalises on a vowel?
Usually the part that is causing the most trouble is the root of the tongue, down deep in the throat where it connects to the hyoid bone. The trouble can often be invisible, but to trained ears it is audible, and eventually you can learn to feel it turn on or off. An insidious issue with tongue-root tension is that it can sometimes sound good to the singer. The potentially “boomier sound” that one feels with the tongue pushing down the larynx can be mighty tempting. In the attempt to “do something!” to make the tone feel more substantial, we can easily fall into a trap. This shortcut to lengthening the vocal tract is very tempting for young singers who want to sound more mature, and for older singers trying to sound “bigger”.
Once the tongue-root is stiffened, it can lose sensation and we forget about it. The singing becomes a tad harder, but the beefier sound we think we’re getting (at the expense of higher harmonics) seems like a good thing. Nope. The tongue root can also muddy your vowels, make you tired, and slow down your speed in runs.
People’s bodies are unique, of course, and the tongue will lie slightly differently in different mouths. Insisting on a particular position for the tongue may work for most people, but not everyone. The main constant is keeping it unflexed and out of the way, only using it for helping with pronouncing words.
Try using a mobile phone to look at your mouth and tongue while you sing. It has many advantages over a wall mirror, with limitless angles possible, as well as recording. It also allows the singer to focus in on the lower face specifically. Very helpful for my many singers who seem fascinated with their hair during a lesson!