Many singers and speakers experience tongue tension, but why is it so common?
Take a look at this MRI image of me. You can clearly see that the tongue dominates the whole oral cavity. There is far more to it than just the tip which you can easily see.
And because it is connected to so many other structures like the jaw, the soft palate, the head and the larynx you can begin to understand how tension in the tongue can easily spread and effect how the voice works.
One way to see if you have tongue tension is to look at the tip of your tongue when you sing sustained vowels. If it retracts into your mouth or you can see a dip, it may be a sign that the base and root of your tongue are too engaged and pulling your whole tongue into the back of your throat.
Strategies to relieve tongue tension
So what can you do about tongue tension? First, release it. Then put new, balanced vocal habits in place to make sure the tension doesn't come back. Here are three steps for a possible strategy:
1. Release tension
Something simple you can do yourself is tongue rolls. It may be painful if there is a lot of tension, but moving the muscles will help to release them.
You may find that there is too much tension for you to deal with on your own. If this is true for you, consider going to Physio Ed where a certified physiotherapist specialising in voice can release your tension safely and give you a clean slate to start from.
2. Isolate the tongue
Make sure the tongue isn't part of starting a spoken or sung sound. Use your thumb to feel the floor of your mouth close to your larynx. This area should feel flexible at all times, even when you make your loudest noise!
It may take time and patience to resist engaging your tongue, but stick with it. Remember that awareness of your habit is the first step to changing for the better.
3. Build good habits
Once you have released tension and isolated the tongue from voicing it's time to put good habits in place to make sure that tension doesn't come back.
A simple thing you can do is to make sure that the tip of your tongue stays in gentle contact with your lower front teeth on the inside as you breathe quietly or sustain a vowel in singing (like in the "relaxed" image above). This helps to ensure the base of the tongue is out of the throat. It's great for resonance and also helps the larynx to move freely through your range.
Big warning here though!
Some teachers tell students that the tip of the tongue should stay in contact with the lower teeth at all times. This is, of course, not possible because the tongue needs to be free to move - for instance, when you say consonants like -t, -d, -l and -n.
In truth, as you sing the tongue is constantly on the move and the tip will only momentarily have time to land in that position by your lower teeth.
You can beat tongue tension
Tension in the tongue can feel impossible to overcome. It can stop you from communicating clearly in speech or reaching your full range in singing. This might lead to you feeling hesitant to raise your voice and stop you from doing activities you love to do...
...but please know that you are not alone! With some awareness and regular, patient work you can begin to recognise what is causing tongue tension and then establish better habits that will unlock the full potential of your voice.
You can of course work on relieving tongue tension yourself, but it can be tricky to do on your own - especially if you don't even realise it's the problem in the first place! If you'd like some help with tongue tension and setting up good habits, book a one-to-one session with me.
Stefan Holmström is a professional opera singer and voice teacher working with speakers and singers of all ages and abilities with a wide range of goals. He offers online and in-person vocal coaching and workshops from his studio in central Brighton in the UK. As an Estill Master Trainer (EMT), Stefan uses Estill Voice Training (EVT) as a baseline for safe and sustainable voice use.