First off, “tongue positioning” may be misleading, because the last thing you want to do when you sing is force your tongue into one position that it’s stuck in the entire time. When you use consonants, your tongue should move around freely. Try making a “t” sound, for example, and notice what your tongue does. It should move to the roof of your mouth and then float back down. But in general, when singing vowels, your tongue should be relaxed, soft, forward, and typically resting on the back of your lower incisors.
Tongue Problems to Avoid
1. Tongue Tension
Tongue tension is a catch-all for many of the other issues described, but as a general rule, singing with tongue tension leads to a whole host of problems, from sounding shrill or nasaly, to sounding hooty and woofy, to having rough-sounding passaggi (the register transition areas in your voice).
2. Tongue Retraction
Very little kills vocal brightness (or “squillo” or “ping”) like tongue retraction. Your tongue should relax forward in your mouth instead of pulling back.
3. Your Tongue Pulling Up Too Much
While your tongue needs to drift up to articulate certain consonants, letting it remain too high in your mouth will yank your larynx up and result in a shrill, nasal sound.
4. Your Tongue Pressing Down Too Far
Your tongue should relax downward, but not be pressed and tense, as this will hinder brightness and nasal resonance.
Try This Exercise
Tongue positioning and relaxation is easier said than done. Oftentimes, the more you’re told the relax, the harder it becomes to do so. If you think your tongue habits are getting in the way of your singing, try this exercise. Open your mouth like you’re saying “AH” and stick your tongue out, letting it hang over your lower lip with the tip of your tongue heading down toward your chin. Don’t force it out as far as it will go, because that’ll only lead to more tension. Just let it relax. Start with just one pitch on an “AH” or “A” (as in cat). If you feel your tongue tensing up retracting, start over.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of this, try leaving your tongue out and arpeggiating.
This is harder than simply singing one note on “AH,” so make sure to pay attention to what your tongue is doing. If you feel your tongue consistently retracting, focus on pitches that are easier for you until you can gain control of it. Working on this exercise will help you learn to sing without trying to use your tongue too much to control pitch.
Keep In Mind
Sometimes when singers experience tongue tension, the tongue is not the root of the problem. Jaw tension–caused by a variety of issues, including Temporomandibular Joint Disorder (TMJ), stress, and simply habit–can affect what the tongue is doing. Lip and neck tension can also affect the tongue. Whenever possible, it’s best to treat the root of a problem.