The Tongue, All Tied Up

Voice teachers and speech specialists have differing theories about why we have tongue tension. Some relate tension to emotional issues, or to a habitual tongue position that causes stiffening. You don't have to be an actor, singer or professional speaker to suffer from this. Fortunately, there are some solutions.

A little closer to the point, some voice people say that tongue tension comes from a desire to alter our sound and make the quality darker (usually), or brighter. But those reasons aren't very satisfying. There is truth in all of the statements. They just don't go far enough to define the problem at the root of the tension (and the tension at the root of the tongue!).

The problem is that each of us, left to our own devices, will try to imitate the sound that we want to have, based on a sound that we find desirable. Or, even more convoluted, we try to imitate the sound that we 'think' we 'ought' to have, desirable or not. We tend to try to produce the sound we expect to hear, rather than allow the instrument to determine for us our own personal, individual and unique sound. This makes us multitask as we try to listen to our sound at the same time we are creating it. The judgmental inner critic takes our attention away from singing. It's as if we don't trust our own creative process, which is far more capable than our judgmental self would like us to realize it is of producing a desirable sound.

Now that I've split your personality, how does this affect the tongue?

Internal listening causes us to hold things--tongue, jaw, breath, etc. It causes us to hold things 'in'--including our sound. When we are vocalizing in the right 'zone' we are not evaluating the voice. We are simply experiencing it. We are free to follow the voice's lead. We have to learn how to focus on the process and the moment, and detach ourselves from any concern about the product. The natural voice will know what to do. If it doesn't know right away, it learns very quickly. The judgmental self is what slows our learning process.

Many singers wrestle with tongue tension at some point or another in their singing experience. Releasing the tension is necessary in order for the vocal instrument to function optimally. Attainment of vocal resonance, vocal color and quality, clarity in diction and the total tone-breath-muscle support connection all necessitate a free tongue. Freeing the tongue allows for better vocal functionality.

It often surprises people to learn that they are harboring tension at the base of the tongue. Here are a few of the exercises that can help rid you of tongue tension.

1. Place the tip of the tongue lightly behind the bottom front teeth and arch the tongue forward--like a little tongue 'push-up.' Do your reps!

2. Stretch the tongue out of your mouth as far as you can and try to touch your nose. Then try to touch your chin. Also, stretch the tongue out of your mouth and hold the end of it with a piece of gauze for several seconds. Speech therapists use this exercise.

(The first two exercises help relax the base of the tongue and help you train it to do other than what it wants to do habitually. You're teaching it new tricks!)

3. Say the word 'sing' with your tongue tip behind the bottom teeth. Feel the sides of your tongue pushing against and between the side teeth. Leave the tongue in this position and take an easy, slow breath through your open mouth and nose. Make sure your back molars are parted slightly. Feel your breath cross every part of your tongue--tip, middle, back. (This helps to keep the breath low.) Feel the cool air at the back of your throat when you breathe in. This exercise helps you find a correct 'home' position for the tongue. It can also help you establish an inhalation position and good breathing technique. Does it make you want to yawn? I thought so.

Remember to focus on what the voice and the process of singing feel like, and on what things look like reflected in the mirror, and not on what your voice sounds like inside your head.

--Patricia Shanks

Copyright (C) 2010 Patricia Shanks Voice Studio All rights reserved.

About the author: Patricia Shanks is a respected professional speaker, voice trainer, actress, singer and all-round great person. For 30 Years she has taught voice and classroom music in public and private schools and institutions throughout the State of California. She is the major domo of Patricia Shanks Voice Studio located at 220 Newport Center Drive, Suite 16 in Newport Beach, CA 92660. This article was originally published on her newsletter and is available on her website. Ms Shanks may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by phone at 949.723.4473