Inspirazione! : At the Root of It: Muscle Tension and Emotional Memory

The great American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne once said, “Seventy-five percent of most famous singers, especially sopranos, their tongues wag and wobble all over the place, because they don’t get that tongue down when they go high.” Likewise, Birgit Nilsson said, “I don’t want to have the tongue down in the throat. If I get it down in the throat, it’s a plug there. [I want it] as relaxed as possible.”

Some singers like a nice groove down the middle of their tongues, or a fuller relaxation that looks like a cold-cut just lying in their mouths, or placing their tongue up against their molars for an “ee,” or on their lower lip, or behind their bottom teeth. Whatever your opinions on tongue position, we can probably all agree that mastery of the tongue is essential to good singing. But ask 10 singers how to achieve it, and you’ll get 10 different answers.

I was trained to practice with a mirror and tend to regard my tongue the way some of my friends regard their teenage children. “You never know what it’s doing unless you’re looking right at it.” I was also trained to have a very open pharynx with the tongue staying forward, resulting in a groove down the middle. These days, I’m in favor of a bit more relaxed and free-floating tongue that is a bit less susceptible to being gripped at the root. The biggest challenges I’ve experienced in retraining my tongue over the years, however, have not been physical, they have been psychological and emotional.

Recently, I witnessed a perfect illustration of the origins of tongue tension. I was sitting in a restaurant on a very hot day. A mother walked by carrying a beautiful baby girl who looked to be about a year old. Either because of the heat or because of her healthy infantile lack of inhibition, the girl had her mouth open wide and her tongue hanging all the way down on her chin. She smiled at me as she walked by and was quite adorable. As she smiled, her mother frowned and busily kept touching her daughter’s tongue, saying, “Stick it back in! Stick it back in!”

We all know that at that age, children want to put everything they can grab into their mouths, and for safety reasons parents have to deprive their children of oral gratification constantly. No one wants to see a baby put something sharp or filthy in his mouth, but in this case, the child did no harm by relaxing her tongue in this way. The only problem was the mother’s social discomfort at seeing her child act so uninhibited.

This is a very small example of a much larger issue. Imagine that the child’s mother constantly corrects her in this way. Maybe the corrections become more severe. Maybe one or both parents scold or even shame the child about it. Consider the kinds of corrections and input a child receives about how to speak, what to say, and whether it’s OK to cry or show anger. If children feel hurt but don’t want to risk their parents’ disapproval by showing it, or if parents actively discourage their children from showing how they feel, where does the energy of that unexpressed emotion go? Into the body.

This is by no means limited to the tongue. Learning to hold in the stomach to look thin is another example of something that produces tension that inhibits singing and a freedom of emotion. And imagine worse cases of trauma or violence where people do not have an optimally safe environment in which to express their grief or sorrow. However well intentioned the teaching or socialization may be, or how necessary it may have been at the time to “hold it in,” either literally or figuratively, the resulting tension is a hindrance to free and expressive singing.

Russell Friedman is a cofounder of The Grief Recovery Institute Educational Foundation and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook and When Children Grieve, both from Harper Collins. “Most of our emotional muscle memory storage bins contain a host of outmoded and inaccurate ideas about dealing with loss,” he says. “Those ideas have been unwittingly passed from generation to generation without benefit of a serious look to see if they are useful and current.

“Grief, by any reasonable definition is a crisis,” he continues. “Whether the grief is caused by the death of a loved one, or a divorce, or any other major, emotional, life-changing event, it creates a crisis. Confronted with the myriad of feelings caused by loss, we struggle to identify the beliefs and actions stored in our brains that will help us deal with the crisis.”

So how does this relate to singing? Friedman is talking about more obvious instances of crisis, but perhaps letting go of our learned childhood behavior triggers some degree of crisis mode in the brain. I think that is why singers, myself included, can become very emotional and cry in lessons when we experience a significant vocal breakthrough. Whatever loss we didn’t grieve and used tension to suppress is grieved in part when the physical relaxation takes place.

Another good example of this philosophy in action is the method acting technique as taught by the late Lee Strasberg. The first thing this sort of training teaches is the “Relaxation Exercise.” Students sit in a chair and systematically practice releasing all extraneous tension. The normal tension used, for example, to sit with your knees together is released. The student’s knees fall apart and tension in his legs and groin release. The student allows his head to fall back, or forward onto his chest. He releases the muscles in his belly and allows his arms to fall at his sides like dead weight. The student allows his jaw to hang open and releases his tongue. In short, all the ways we were taught to sit “properly” are undone.

Over a period of hours, the student engages his muscles just enough to lift his arm and let it fall again, or lift his leg, or sit up straight and then release again, using no more than the essential muscle effort to keep from falling off the chair.

The principal behind this training is that all other postural tension is specific to our individual cultural and societal training and life experiences, and unless we are able to release that, we are not really in a position to portray any character except ourselves. Say, for example, that the little girl I saw in the restaurant is taught to keep her mouth closed, perhaps to sit with her knees together and “look like a lady”—or suppose that a little boy is taught not to fidget, or taught to stand up and “look tough.” The actor needs to undo this kind of training to “free the instrument,” the same way a singer must unlearn habitual nasality or local accents. Also, the body learns to hold in the grief caused by trauma, so singers might have tension resulting from violence, sexual trauma, or other experiences that can cause grief or pain.

A common experience as students’ bodies relax during the Relaxation Exercise is what the teachers call “locked up sensitivity.” This is a tingling sensation that can begin as you start to relax, and then, as you relax more fully, give way to strong emotion. As the student begins to experience this emotion, the teacher encourages the student to open his mouth fully and let out a long, sustained “ah.” The idea is that on stage, actors want to be able to stay open vocally and speak in a clear manner, whatever the state of their emotions may be.

Actors learn early on that emotional and psychological self-exploration are essential to honing their craft—but even in the recent past, singers seem inclined to focus on vocal technique as almost unrelated to personal growth. Reading Jerome Hines Great Singers on Great Singers—a wonderful book and a fount of information on singers’ opinions on technique—you’d be hard pressed to find any mention of the psychological or emotional underpinnings of singing. I think the focus has changed since that book was published in 1982.

These days, singers have many, many ways of working with such “locked up sensitivity,” from healing body work to various kinds of therapy. I have found that to deal with these sorts of body tensions from a purely physical point of view without making room for emotional release is not all that productive, in terms of singing.

I often recommend various kinds of counseling and body work for my students and attribute their growth and my own as much to this kind of work as to serious vocal training. Yes, a good teacher can give you tongue exercises to improve your habits, but if you’re willing to look more deeply at where those habits come from, and how they are or are not serving you, you may actually be able to grieve for your losses—and the tension will have no reason to hang around. Then all you have to do is learn to sing.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at