After a conversation with a student today, I have decided to write a short entry about that villain in the art of singing, the depressed tongue. (I almost feel I should insert a sad emoticon here!)
The dangers of singing with a depressed/flattened tongue/ tension.
The tongue can be a real problem for singers. I was once told by that we tend to hold much of our tension – and let’s be honest, we all experience some tension in our lives – in our tongues. This tension in the lower face, jaw, and tongue will not only interfere with our production of sound – it can, in fact, become destructive, and lead to a long term battle to rehabilitate the voice.
When we “swallow” or depress the tongue, flattening it, flattening the back of it, we exert huge pressure on surrounding musculature. Janice Chapman, in “A holistic approach to the Art of Singing” states that it can exert “up to 1kg of pressure on the alveolar ridge” (the roof of the mouth). This will lead to the “Kermit the frog” type sound that we hear from so many vocalists. Worse, though, is the damage it can cause to surrounding musculature of the throat, and consequently the vocal folds themselves.
There is some confusion around this because this is often referred to as “flat tongue technique.” Singers will hear this term, and often travel too far in the opposite direction, singing with tongues raised or rolling around instead, obstructing the passage of sound.
Let’s talk about tongues!
To fully comprehend, it is necessary to go into detail and understand a little more about the physical aspects. The root of the tongue attaches into the hyoid bone. If we look in the mirror, we can only see a very small section of the tongue itself because the main body of the tongue is a thick and powerful muscle which forms the front wall of the throat. When the tongue is at rest, without pressure or tension, it will not be flat in the mouth, but will follow the outline of the roof of mouth. Conversely, if you press your tongue down, it will be flat. Furthermore, if you do this and hold that area at the front of the throat lightly with your fingertips, you will feel the movement, and the amount of pressure exerted by it. It is this position, and indeed the powerful musculature of the back of the tongue in the resonating space of the voice, that can cause such havoc in vocal production.
Muscles of the Tongue.—The tongue is divided into lateral halves by a median fibrous septum which extends throughout its entire length. As mentioned previously, this is fixed below to the hyoid bone. In either half of the tongue, there are two sets of muscles, known as ‘extrinsic’ and ‘intrinsic’; the extrinsic have their origins outside the tongue, while the intrinsic are contained entirely within it.
To better understand the movement of the tongue, we need to consider the direction of the fibres of its many muscles. The complex arrangement of the muscular fibers of this organ, and the various directions in which they run, give the tongue the power of assuming the shapes necessary for the enunciation of the different consonantal sounds. Posterior fibres draw the root of the tongue forward, and protrude the apex from the mouth. Anterior fibres draw the tongue back into the mouth. Acting together in their entirety, these two muscles draw the tongue downward to make the superior surface concave from side to side. These three sets of muscles, the Hyoglossi, the Styloglossi, and the Glossopalatini (you will notice the word ‘palate” contained here) in turn a. depress the tongue b. draw it upward and back c. draw the root of the tongue upward. The intrinsic muscles are mainly concerned in altering the shape of the tongue, and are used to shorten, to narrow, to roll the tongue. *I know you are now rolling your tongue around, checking and noticing which muscles you are using. Excellent!! This is an important lesson and exercise for all singers. Having read this, and experimented thus, we now better understand the powerful musculature that lies within the tongue, and why it can exert unwanted pressure upon the throat, and wreak so much havoc on, the voice. Anything the tongue does, impacts on phonation!
There was an old school of thought in teaching whereby teachers mistakenly told their students to depress the tongue, and forcibly and unnaturally exert excess pressure downwards to assist the “lift the soft palate”. This is passé for the reasons listed above.
Tongue tension greatly reduces the resonating space in the throat, and creates the dark “Kermit” or “throaty and gargling” sound previously mentioned. The powerful musculature of the tongue exerts pressure down on top of the vocal folds, and in turn affects their mobility which will make general phonation, singing or speaking, not only sound strange, but feel strained. This leads to vocal fatigue but, if practised over a length of time, it can also lead to separation of the folds, and vocal damage. Consider the biceps, the musles of the arm, how they increase in size with constant exercise and use, and the amount of tension exerted in exercise. Tension is the enemy of singers!
Pitch is affected by the depression of the tongue, and exertion of force on the larynx – basically speaking, the larynx lifts for higher pitches, and lowers for lower pitches. Tongue tension and depression will result in a flattening of pitch. As singers, we aim to keep the sound higher and forward in our mouths rather than lower and backwards. For this reason, even low notes should be well supported without tension so as to keep them on pitch, and not have them “bottom out” as is often the case. A very old teacher once said to me, “When you sing low, still ‘think high’ – don’t depress the tongue or be lazy and allow the sound to fall back down the throat. Keep it lifted and forward at all times.” This is because, as singers, our art is one where we constantly have to use our musicality and imagination to visualise and realise a pitch and how to produce it.
To experiment with this concept, sing a vowel – “ee” is useful for this – from high to low, and vice versa. Portamento. Again, lightly place your fingertips at the front of your throat under the jawline, and feel the movement. Now try this same exercise with the tongue depressed. You will not only feel an enormous increase in pressure, but you will also feel that singing is no longer effortless, and there is a degree of difficulty to maintaining a smooth, floating sound. If you were to continue this over a length of time, damage would be likely to occur, a result of the increased pressure of the musculature, and the inability of the vocal folds to move freely.
Correcting a Dark Tone in the Singing Voice.
I mentioned earlier that depressing the tongue can cause an overly “dark” tone. I will take this opportunity to address one of the problems mentioned earlier – the creation of an overly “dark” tone. A balanced sound has a considerable amount of hard palate vibration resonance, whereas a dark tone will have more vibration near the back of the palate, and sounds as though it is centred further back in the throat. A beneficial exercise to correct a dark tone is to bring the tongue forward with the tip just sitting over the bottom teeth, and sing “ah” to a vocalise. Do not put any pressure on the tongue at all. This is a countermeasure for a depressed tongue and larynx and putting pressure on the tongue will defeat the purpose. Singing the vocalises to frontal vowels such as “ee” or even “gnee” which will bring the sound very forward. Work on more uptempo vocalises for this… Vocalise Nellie Melba number 9 can be found on this site. The Vocalise Helen Coleman is available in two tempos. Choose the faster one, and revert to the other after practise. This is an excellent vocalise for working on these issues, both tension and dark tone.
But my teacher told me to let my tongue lay in the bottom of my mouth, with the tip resting behind my front teeth!
Because the tongue has to move for so many different reasons and to create so many sounds in singing, it is necessary for it to have a resting place, a place to return to in between. We can call this a point of reference. It is absolutely vital that students do not make the mistake of thinking that I mean sledgehammer your tongue into this position and keep it there at all times! It is a point of reference only. It is a place to return to, albeit briefly, before moving off again. Keeping the tongue higher in the mouth as a point of reference will inhibit the passage of sound and produce a muffled effect.
For most singers, the best “point of reference” is the gum ridge behind the front teeth, allowing the tongue to lay flat and wide to the teeth at the sides. When a singer is singing any vowel, the tip of the tongue should rest, gently and without pressure, on the gum ridge. It should never, never, never be depressed downwards! (Did you get that? Emphatically never! )
In order to make the various consonants, the tip will leave the point of reference briefly. Remembering that a consonant is a subordinate sound, and that vowels are paramount for production of beautiful sound, we need this resting place, this point of reference to be ingrained into the sub-conscious. And now, it is of value to experiment with this concept. Rest your tongue at the point of reference, and singing from a vowel, add a consonant to the end… ar, at, el, en, ol and so on and so forth. Try singing these sounds to the melody of a vocalise and feel the tongue moving, without pressure, from its light point of reference to the consonant at the end. It is vital for a singer to practise returning their tongue lightly to the point of reference on the lower gum, at first consciously, until it becomes an unconscious movement, by “second nature”. The tongue must not be depressed flat or pulled back into the throat. If this occurs, it may tighten the surrounding areas and block the larynx, reducing the quality of the sound, and immobilising the articulatory capabilities of the tongue.
But you said NO tension! ↓↓
There is no avoiding the fact that some vowel and consonant sounds are formed with a little tension in the tongue muscles naturally due to the structure of sound and musculature. (I) and the retroflex (r) are two examples. These will require particular attention, with the singer having to ensure that there is no extra tightening of sound or tongue tension in the process of production. Think relax! Keep the sound lifted, do not depress the tongue, and remember to return to that LIGHT point of reference.
When the tip of the tongue rests on the gum line at the point of reference, you will find that the body of the tongue will naturally lie low in the mouth. You will not be pressing it down there. This is the position the tongue assumes prior to inhalation (try it!) the commencement of singing, or the beginning of a yawn, and should be maintained during phonation except for the changes needed to produce consonant sounds. This will allow a singer to commit to the production of beautiful, balanced and fluid sound, and to sustain it effortlessly.
By summary, the tongue must be free of any unnecessary tension, and ready to move freely to form the consonants. It is the most important articulator in singing. To facilitate a high standard of performance, and the production of beautiful sound, it must have a point of reference, a resting place which it occupies for the vowels. It should not be held, depressed, or forced down, but rest lightly and freely there, with the tip resting on the gumline behind the front teeth and the sides touching the teeth at the sides of the mouth so that it is wide and relaxed.
Exercises for tongue tension:
“Chase the toffee”
Move your tongue around the inside of your mouth, outside of the teeth, starting at the top and move all the way around to the back molars, and along the bottom set of teeth to the very back again. Stretch the tongue both up and down, and around, working both clockwise and then anti-clockwise for no more than 6 – 8 times each. Don’t overdo it at first because, if you have a lot of tongue tension, it can become very sore.
Stick the tongue out, stretching it as far as it will go. Retract, and roll the tongue to touch the roof of the mouth. Repeat 5 times. Again, beware of overdoing it because the tongue could become sore.
“The Vocalises” as mentioned above. Available for download from this site. Some of these vocalises are set examination pieces for AMEB. You can download them with the melody to facilitate practise, and without the melody played over, so that you can sing more freely once you know the work. http://helencolemansinging.com.au/product-category/exercisefiles/
Sing fast vocalises on the vowels, and work on up tempo or patter songs (there are some excellent ones written by Gilbert and Sullivan) (fast songs discourage tongue depression. You simply don’t have time!)
© Helen Coleman 2015