Any singer knows that one of her worst enemies is unwanted tension. Tension comes in a lot of forms, and most of them are connected to one another in one way or another. This means that relieving tension in one area can relieve tension in another area, and adding tension in one area can unintentionally add it in another. Sometimes we don’t even realize we’re carrying tension, and recognizing where we’re doing it is an important first step in relieving it. You’ll be surprised by how much freer your voice can feel and sound if you even release some of the unwanted tension we’re carrying. To get you started, here are 5 places you might be holding too much tension when you sing and ways you can relieve it.
It’s such a small organ, but it’s full of a surprisingly complex web of muscles that can help your tongue move in a variety of directions. Because your tongue forms the front wall of your pharynx (where your voice box is located), tongue tension can cause a variety of problems–for example, dragging down your soft palate and reducing the resonating space in your mouth. The acoustic result can be anything from nasality to a muffled woofy quality, to both.
How to Tackle Tongue Tension
Use Tongue Twisters as a Vocal Exercise
Tongue twisters force your tongue to move fast enough that it doesn’t have time to lock up. Any number of basic tongue twisters will work, but you can try “red leather, yellow leather” or “ticky tacky tockey tokey tookey.”
Sing With Your Tongue Out
Start with an “a” (as in cat) sound because it’s the easiest to execute with your tongue out. Then move to other vowels. Consciously relax the root (or back) of your tongue as you do this.
Find Your Hyoid Bone
If you’re not sure where your hyoid bone (a horse-shoe shaped muscle that floats at the top of the throat) is located, put your thumb on your chin, and trace it closer to your neck until you find the fleshy part. When your tongue is relaxed and forward, that area will continue to feel soft and fleshy. But try tensing your tongue and drawing it back. You’ll suddenly feel that area harden. If you have a tendency toward tongue tension, keep your thumb there while you sing and make sure the area stays soft.
The masseter muscle (one of the muscles for chewing) is the strongest muscle in the human body. We’ve evolved to be able to effectively chew food, but unfortunately, this also becomes the source of a lot of stored tension. When the jaw is tense, our tone can be greatly altered. It can come out in a number of ways, including sounding shrill, less bright, and/or less open.
How to Combat Jaw Tension
Make Sure Your Chin Is Aligned
One of the symptoms of jaw tension is that it ends up out of alignment. Look in a mirror, and make sure that your chin isn’t pitching too far forward or too far back but that when you open your mouth it’s just descending vertically.
Massage Your Face While You Sing
You can begin to release jaw tension by massaging your face. The hard part is maintaining the relaxed posture when your move your hands.
Move Your Jaw
This can be challenging if you have a stubborn jaw, but put your fingers on your chin and physically move your jaw around. It’s easier to relax enough to make this happen while you aren’t singing, so you can start with that. Once you have it moving, try singing while you do it.
You may not want to go public with this, but chewing while you sing (without physically grinding your teeth together) will help release your jaw.
Simply enunciating can help you unlock your jaw. You have to be careful about over-enunciating in certain genres, because you don’t want your version of “Lost Boy” to sound like a Julie Andrews cover, but enunciating is a good tool for jaw problems.
Lip tension is usually not as difficult to fix as jaw and tongue tension, because it’s more visible. I notice it especially with singers who are working hard on restricting air. Often they’ll concentrate so hard that they’ll draw their lips back around their teeth.
How to Lose the Lip Tension
Because it’s so visible, I’ve found that mirror work and constant reminders about lip tension are the best way to combat it.
Enunciate and Chew
Like jaw tension, lip tension can also be corrected by enunciation and chewing. It’s tough to tense your lips doing either of these actions.
Lip trill will help keep your lips relaxed and soft. Try that exercise and then see if you can apply the same relaxation to the rest of your singing.
It seems obvious when you think about the location of your larynx, or voice box, but singers often forget how much neck tension can affect their singing. Your neck should be in line with your torso, as if you’re a puppet hanging from strings pulling up from the top of your head. If you feel your face jutting forward and it doesn’t feel in line with your torso, you’re probably dealing with some neck tension.
How to Eliminate Neck Tension
Shake Your Head “No”
Shake your head back and forth as you sing. It’ll make it difficult to clench any of the muscles in your neck.
Look at Your Profile in the Mirror
Watch yourself in the mirror. Your neck provides another very visible sign of tension. If you notice that your head is out of alignment, straighten up, and envision that string pulling you up from the top of your head.
There’s a common misconception that singing should involve clenching your abdomen to get the sound out. While this is one way to produce a loud sound, it’s not going to be the healthiest, best controlled sound you could be creating. When you inhale, your ribs should be allowed to open, and your abdomen should relax. On an exhalation, you’ll use a lot of support muscles (including your abdominal muscles), but that doesn’t mean that you should yank your belly in.
How to Loosen Up your Abdomen
Focus on Your Breathing
Try lying on the floor and setting a book on your belly. Watch as the book rises and falls. If you’re clenching your abdomen, you won’t be able to move the book very well.
Yoga will strengthen your abdominal muscles without causing you to clench then. Watching your breath and learning to restrict air with ujjayi breathing will be beneficial as well.
Stop Focusing on What You Look Like
I know you’re used to sucking in your stomach because you want to look thin (believe me, I do it, too), but this is not the most expedient way to make your voice sound good. Relaxed inhalations are key to not singing with tension.