The tongue is among the most effective multitaskers in the human body; it is responsible for tasting and swallowing food, articulating verbally, and keeping teeth clean. In performing these various tasks, the muscles of the tongue engage in a variety of movements that are both unconscious and habitual, resulting in qualities of strength and coordination that may or may not be optimal for classical singing.
Throughout my teaching career, almost all of the singers I have encountered have demonstrated a need to retrain some of these habitual movements or cultivate greater tongue mobility. In part one of this column, I will discuss the kinds of tongue tension that are problematic for singing and examine their origins. Part two, which will appear in the Summer issue, will offer strategies for alleviating them.
What Is Tongue Tension?
Muscles work by contracting (tensing) and releasing. In singing, the myriad muscle groups comprising the tongue collaborate with the other components of articulation and resonance to produce a magnificent array of vowels, consonants, and vocal colors. The ability to skillfully tense and release these muscles is a crucial component of vocal technique, so clearly not all tongue tension is bad. If you want to alleviate problematic tongue tension, you must distinguish between tongue movements that create interference and those that promote free phonation, articulation, and resonance.
Because the tongue moves as a unified body, it may seem as though it would be challenging to differentiate the helpful tensions from the bad. When the tongue causes problems for your singing, however, it is nearly always due to tightness or poor coordination in one specific muscle: the hyoglossus.
The hyoglossus depresses and retracts the tongue. Because the hyoglossus originates from the hyoid bone, when it is activated it exerts a downward force on the larynx, impeding its mobility. “The tongue is attached to the hyoid bone, and the larynx is muscularly suspended from the hyoid bone,” Richard Miller wrote in his Journal of Singing article, “Taming the Terrible Triplets of the Vocal Tract: Tongue/Hyoid Bone/Larynx.” It is possible to feel the hyoglossus depress the larynx by placing a thumb under the chin just in back of the jawbone, but Miller points out that you can also visually detect this as it happens. “Even by observing speech in another person, or by watching oneself in a mirror while speaking or singing, it becomes apparent that the tongue/hyoid bone/larynx complex is actually a functional unit.”
When we talk about tongue tension in relation to singing, what we are usually referring to is the action of the hyoglossus retracting and depressing the base of the tongue (aided by its synergists, the geniohyoid and mylohyoid). This restricts the mobility of the laryngeal cartilages by constricting the area available to them. The resulting resistance dampens resonance and prevents the vocal folds from vibrating freely.
At best, a tight, overactive hyoglossus can create a systemic resistance that a singer must override with breath pressure or compensate for in other ways, making singing more effortful than necessary. At worst, it can significantly limit range, resonance, and vibrancy and create a persistent shaking of the jaw.
Fortunately, with patience and focused practice, it is possible to release, lengthen, and gain control over this muscle.
The Origins of Tongue Retraction
Given the detrimental consequences for vocal technique, why do singers so frequently develop chronic tongue tension? In my experience, there are three main categories of conditions that lead to habitual tongue retraction:
• Long-ingrained speech habits
• Using the hyoglossus to depress the larynx in order to affect depth and resonance
• Using the hyoglossus to stabilize the larynx
Vowels are internal resonating shapes. There are a range of shapes that will result in the production of any given vowel, but only a select few that are optimal for the resonance required for classical singing; therefore, part of a voice student’s technique involves refining the way they define individual vowels. For example, when we first learn to speak, we most commonly form [i] with a closed jaw position and a lateral pull of the lips—but when we learn to sing, we adopt a more resonant [i] by relaxing the jaw and lips, arching the tongue forward, and/or creating a greater sense of internal height.
It is possible to articulate an [ɑ] that is perfectly serviceable for normal speech with the tongue in a retracted position. Many people grow up defining [ɑ], [o], and [u] with depressed and retracted tongues. If you are one of these unfortunate people, by the time you undertake voice lessons, you have associated the retraction of your tongue with the formation of these vowel sounds literally millions of times, and creating optimal versions of these vowels will require focused, repetitive work.
However, forming [ɑ] by retracting the tongue does not result in an obviously compromised resonance in the same way that forming [i] with a closed jaw does. Your [ɑ] may sound perfectly fine, but the habitual retraction of your tongue due to suboptimal vowel definition may cause problems elsewhere that go undetected longer into your studies.
Affecting Deeper Resonance
In her article for Journal of Voice, “The Retracted Tongue,” Marilee David suggests that when a singer deliberately uses the tongue to depress the larynx, “It may be the result of trying to produce or imitate a dark, full sound. In beginning singers it may stem from a desire to sing too loudly, too low, too long; thus, the retracted tongue may be found in sopranos or tenors who have been misplaced as basses and altos and as a result are singing at a consistently lower tessitura than they should.”
This was certainly my case when I took up singing. The artists I most admired were mezzo-sopranos, and the repertoire that most attracted me were the roles and arias they sang. By retracting my tongue, I was able to mimic the depth and bloom I found so beautiful. My teacher at the time also liked the resulting quality and encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing. It wasn’t something I did consciously—I just wished to produce a particular tone, and depressing my tongue achieved that end.
The ability to maintain a low laryngeal position is a hallmark of excellent technique because it facilitates sonorous, consistent tone production. Depressing the larynx with the base of the tongue will indeed force it into a low position and will also expand the resonating space by lengthening and widening the supraglottal tract. The resulting sound may be impressively similar to the sound that you would produce were you to create these conditions in a way that promotes freedom and good coordination throughout your instrument—but I can assure you, not only from observing my students but also from my own early experiences as a singer, that it comes at a prohibitively high cost. Pushing my larynx down and forcing my throat open made it possible for me to affect only a vague facsimile of my authentic sound and prohibited me from accessing the soprano range and vocal power that was organic to my instrument.
Perfect legato, even registration, and dynamic control all depend on the ability to stabilize the vocal mechanism. The instinctive, expedient way to accomplish this is to hold the larynx in place, and retracting the tongue is an effective means to this end. However, the only way to stabilize the larynx without compromising its function is to create dynamic stability through movement: the balanced production of continuous phonation, continuous airflow, and continuous musical and dramatic expression.
Here is a useful analogy. When you first learn to ride a bicycle, it’s helpful to affix training wheels to each side to provide a measure of stability while you build strength and get used to the movement. However, eventually you develop good balance as well as the skill to allow forward momentum to keep you upright. You will obviously travel much farther, faster, and with greater control than you would be able to manage with your training wheels on—and, so, you remove them.
Holding the larynx in place by retracting your tongue may give you a sense of muscular control, but directly manipulating the larynx in this way is needlessly effortful and will never yield your freest and most expressive singing. You must instead create stability by balancing out the forces that act on your larynx. Your voice will then respond effortlessly to your expressive impulses rather than require direct physical control for every sound you produce.
The tongue’s primary role in singing is in the realm of articulation. In order to perform that role effectively, it is necessary to rehabilitate speech habits as well as relieve the tongue of compensatory behaviors it may be performing to enhance resonance and stabilize the larynx. Part two of this column will outline methods for resolving tightness and overactivity in the hyoglossus and exercises for retraining the tongue.