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Tongue Tied
By Daniel K. Robinson
(2008)

The Great book describes the tongue as the rudder of a ship (James 3:4-8 MSG). Comparatively small in contrast to the bulk that it directs yet it wields such force as to determine the direction and ultimate destination of its passengers. How true this is even for singers...moreover for singers! I often state that singing is not about ‘perfect notes...it is about communication’, and language is foundational to communication. Have you ever been frustrated as an audience member when you find yourself unable to determine the lyric from the notes? Perhaps the singer in question is struggling with that ‘rudder’ called the tongue. The tongue is not only observed in its role as a singer’s primary articulator. Often the tongue can be observed as an active influence in the deterioration of vocal tone and general stamina. This undesirable activity is referred to as ‘tongue-root tension’. Janice Chapman (2006) in her book Singing and Teaching Singing states:
Singers use tongue retraction and tongue-root tension to increase auditory feedback…Many singers also use the tongue root as a false depressor of the larynx when attempting to sing with the lowered position that is desirable in classical singing...Tongue-root tension also occurs when there is inadequate breath support for the singing voice. (p. 115)

Tongue-root tension will often evidence itself with an almost ‘swallowed’ sound as if the voice cannot quite make it past the back of the throat. As the student singer becomes more aware of their ‘placement’ (a kinaesthetic awareness of where the sound is placing along the vocal tract) he/she should be able to determine, with the help of their singing teacher, when the voice is ‘falling’ back down the throat and ‘onto the larynx’. Ultimately, as contemporary singers, we are aiming for the sound to be present in the mask. This placement is often along the bridge of the nose but may vary from singer to singer. Tongue-root tension is often a well-worn habit that requires intentional and persistent practice to overcome. Morris and Chapman (2006) offer the following exercises to help “experience appropriate kinaesthetic sensations of normal tongue root use.
 Accent Method Breathing using /Ө [voiceless ’th’] and /ð [voiced ‘the’] with the tongue fully protruded. The fricatives in isolation first, followed by syllable babble with these fricatives. Initially higher tongue position vowels should be used in babble.

© Daniel K. Robinson - 2010

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Djarts Voice Coaching ~ www.djarts.com.au

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Tongue base stretches with jaw two-fingers wide and a forceful /k/ held for 3 to 5 seconds. Tongue tip curled under its own body (inside the mouth) and a /Ө/ held for 3 to 5 seconds. Tongue click with two-fingers open (hold for 3 seconds, then click).

These exercises should be done three times each two or three times each day for up to 6 weeks”. (p. 117)

Often the beginner student of singing cannot determine the evils of their tongue in either articulation or tongue-root tension. In working with a qualified singing teacher you should be able to determine whether these are major areas of concern and if so deal with them appropriately. I hope your tongue steers you to calmer waters! References: Morris, R., & Chapman, J. L. (2006). Articulation. In J. L. Chapman (Ed.), Singing and teaching singing: A holistic approach to classical voice (pp. 97–128). San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing Inc.

© Daniel K. Robinson - 2010

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