Tension is the enemy of the singer because it blocks the free flow of energy, breath and sound throughout the body.
One very important concept for any singer to remember is that your body is your instrument, not your vocal chords. Anything that negatively impacts the open flow of energy and sound through your body will negatively effect the quality of your singing. . . . chief among these is physical tension.
When a new singer comes to work with me, one of the very first things I do is to help them become aware of any physical tensions they have that are getting in the way of their most efficient production of sound. Mother Nature gave humans an incredibly efficient mechanism for producing sound, but singers often do not trust it. Instead they develop habits which they believe help control their sound, but which really just create all sorts of tensions that negatively impact the sound they are trying to improve.
Here are 3 of the most common tensions I see in singers and some exercises to help undo them.
- Jaw Tension – If you have trouble with your higher register, one of the culprits might be that you are trying to grab and control the notes with your jaw. If the jaw is not free then your ability to stretch your soft palate is compromised (soft palate stretch is necessary to access your upper register successfully). The more locked and controlling your jaw is, the less you can expand into your soft palate for those higher notes. To that end, we want to have a free and fluid jaw while singing.
Exercise: Find a soft, easy smile and let the jaw hang in that smile. Remember that when we talk about the jaw, we’re really just talking about the two hinges on either side of your head in front of your ears (don’t mistake the jaw for the chin). From this easy smile, allow the jaw hinges to soften and open. The feeling will be one of the jaw hanging down and back as you smile. Do not hold your jaw in this position, it should feel free and softly hanging. Keep the energy of the easy smile by feeling your ears widening away from each other. Then alternate between chanting “ya-ya-ya” and “la-la-la” on a single pitch. You want the tongue to be doing the work of moving to change the vowels and consonants, not the jaw. We need the tongue and jaw to be able to move independently of one another. If you find your jaw locking, closing, or moving up and down in tandem with the tongue as you change consonants then close your mouth, swallow, take a nose breath into a smile, feel your ears widening, then let the jaw drop again and resume. Doing this exercise in front of a mirror can be helpful as well.
- Neck Tension – Neck tension is evident when the tendons and veins in a singer’s neck pop out while singing. It’s usually a key indicator that a singer does not have a good handle on their breath support. When a singer cannot rely on the solidity and consistency of their lower support, they instead try to control the air and vibration with the muscles in their neck which creates an enormous amount of tension in that area. This tension negatively affects resonance because it puts a squeeze around the larynx, so singers with neck tension also often suffer in their higher register. As the pitch rises so does the amount that those neck muscles want to tense to push the sound up. They do this because the singer hasn’t learned how to correctly engage their lower support to manage the rise in pitch effectively. It can be a vicious cycle because as long as the neck muscles are engaged in supporting the sound, the lower support will not take over the job. Yet your subconscious won’t let those neck muscles release if it intrinsically doesn’t trust the lower support to take over the doing. Therein lies the rub. I have found one exercise really helpful in breaking this cycle. It is very simple and designed to help your subconscious begin to trust that you do not need your neck muscles to make a good sound.
Exercise: Slowly turn your head from side to side, looking from one shoulder over to the other in a slow, smooth motion. Once you feel comfortable in the movement, begin to sing a simple descending five note scale on “Ma” while continuing to turn your head from side to side. Have someone watch you to make sure that when you sing you are not locking your head, neck and torso together turning them as a unit from side to side. If the neck is soft and free, the head can turn independently of the body. Also have someone watch to let you know if you get stuck and stop turning your head as phrases begin or end. These are both indicators the neck has gone back into tension. It is impossible to tense or lock your neck if you are continuously turning your head from side to side. In doing this exercise, you are taking away the security blanket of what’s been supporting your sound and you will really see where you are with your lower support. It will force you to go farther to engage that support because the neck is no longer able to engage. Once you feel that lower support kicking in and your subconscious realizes that you can make a good sound without using the neck to control it, over time it will begin to trust that it can let the neck go when you are not turning your head and a good sound will still come out.
- Tongue Tension – In my experience, tongue tension results most often when a singer is changing the timber of their sound to make it stronger or sound better inside their head. It may sound great to them, but out here it sounds “covered”, pressed, overly darkened and inauthentic. Most often tongue tension manifests in the tongue muscle contracting and bearing down on the larynx putting an undo amount of pressure on the vocal folds as they attempt to freely vibrate. This can be really damaging to the vocal folds.
Exercise: Make a “thumbs up” gesture with your hand. Then gently place your thumb under your jaw in the soft tissue area behind your chin. If you press up with your thumb you’ll feel the base of your tongue. Rest your thumb there and allow the tongue muscle to release and melt down around your thumb. Then do a simple descending five note scale on an “ah” from this released place. If you sing with a lot of tongue tension, you will feel your tongue contracting, hardening and bearing down where your thumb is. Use your thumb as a reminder that the tongue doesn’t need to do so much work. Let the tongue soften around your finger as you vibrate down the scale. You may feel a little vibrating under your thumb, it’s not always completely still down there, but you should not feel any hardness or bearing down while singing. At first your sound may feel smaller, less resonant or less powerful to you. That is ok, let it be that way. The way to be more resonant and to find a richer sound is by strengthening your lower support and the energy / stretch of the soft palate instead. Engage those things more and you will see you are able to have a powerful, resonant sound without the need to bear down with the tongue.
The bottom line is that singing should feel good if you are doing it right.
If something hurts, feels overworked or stressed in your mechanism after singing, if you get easily vocally fatigued, that’s your body telling you that you are not doing something right. Listen to your body, start to become aware of these tensions, work to undo them and then build back your support and resonance from a much more efficient and healthy place of support.