Taming the Wayward Tongue: Workshop Recap
I would like to thank all of the singers who made last night's workshop such a success! You were all so willing to risk making strange noises and do some pretty yucky things for the sake of improving your awareness of how your tongues work and enhance your powers of articulation.
Here's a recap of the major ideas we covered in the workshop.
The tongue serves us in many ways in addition to the work it does for articulation in speech and singing, including eating, drinking, tasting, yawning, sucking, gagging (prevents choking and swallowing something you don't intend to), and French kissing (thanks, Evelyn!).
The major job of the tongue in singing is articulation. Other major articulators include the jaw and the lips. It is possible and desirable to be able to move your tongue independently from the jaw and lips.
You can view and download the handout from the workshop here.
Notice just how large an organ the tongue really is!
The tongue is composed of extrinsic and intrinsic muscles. The extrinsic muscles attach it to the jawbone, the hyoid bone, and the styloid processes of the temporal lobes (i.e. the side of your skull). These are the muscles that move the whole tongue around. The intrinsic muscles originate within the tongue. They cause it to expand and contract with great versatility, enabling us to articulate an incredible variety of speech sounds.
We worked primarily with two of the major extrinsic muscles of the tongue: the genioglossus, which protrudes and sticks out the tongue:
and the hyoglossus, which depresses and retracts the tongue:
The hyoglossus is attached to the hyoid bone. Depressing and retracting the tongue is going to exert downward pressure on the hyoid bone. Your larynx is suspended from the hyoid bone, so you can see how depressing and retracting the tongue can limit movement of the larynx and create resistance in your singing.
When we talk about tongue tension, this is mostly what is meant: retracting and depressing the tongue creating downward pressure on the larynx, crowding your resonating space, and making itself less available for highly specific articulation work you need it to do.
If you take your thumbs and gently feel under your chin, the tissue in this area should be relatively soft and pliable. If it becomes rigid and pushes back against your thumbs when you start singing, this is primarily the hyoglossus retracting and depressing the base of your tongue. It is possible to do pretty much anything you need to do as a singer without this muscle contracting to the point that this area noticeably stiffens.
However, most singers do this to a greater or lesser extent and have to train themselves to keep the hyoglossus much less active. The major reasons for this include speech habits, chronic or habitual tightening associated with learning to "hold your tongue" as a well-behaved child, and using the tongue to do vocal technical things that can best be accomplished other ways.
Most of our discussion centered on two things singers sometimes use the tongue to do that are not related to articulation:
Using the base of the tongue to push the larynx down and hold it in a low position.
I myself was trained to do this by one of my first voice teachers. Holding the larynx down with the base of your tongue increases the length of the supraglottal tract. We all want to maximize the length of the supraglottal tract because this yields optimal resonance, contributing bloom and power to the voice. Pushing the larynx down with the base of the tongue is a quick and dirty way to do this, but you'll pay for it because:
It requires a lot of consistent and unnecessary effort
It keeps the tongue from being able to perform its articulatory duties well
While it will keep the larynx from moving up, it will also keep it from tilting efficiently and will likely compromise your range
It also diminishes resonance because the tongue is taking up space it shouldn't be and the whole area will be stiffer and less available for enhancing your sound.
Using the tongue to help with breath management – increasing subglottal air pressure by pushing the tongue down and then driving breath against the resistance it creates.
This is one of the issues I addressed in my recent post on breath management. While it may seem a more expedient way to achieve greater subglottal air pressure, it creates more problems than it solves.
It is possible to maintain a low relaxed position for your larynx and maximize the length of your supraglottal tract without retracting and depressing your tongue; it's also possible to increase and regulate subglottal air pressure without doing this. However, strategies for both these concerns touch on wider issues of vocal technique. Different voice teachers will propose different solutions, and I wanted to be able to present as much information on tongue anatomy and function as possible to a wide audience of singers without prejudice for one technique or another.