Tension. Twenty-five years ago that word used to have more of a scientific meaning, referring to wires or ropes. Culturally, now it brings up freeway traffic, migraines, heart attacks. It’s acknowledged as a bad thing, and we try to get rid of it with massages, yoga, deep breathing and martinis.
When referring to singing, though, tension is more ambiguous. There must be tension for the vocal cords to vibrate, but all the other muscles surrounding them must be relaxed. The muscles in your neck, shoulders, abs, jaw, tongue, lips, even your hands may all tense and consequently not move the way they should. The tricky thing is these muscles have forgotten how it feels to be relaxed. Prove it to yourself: tense your hand, then gradually release the tension. At some point you can’t tell if your hand is relaxed all the way or not. Finally releasing it all the way is revealing—it didn’t feel tense and yet it still was.
Here are some diagnostic tools for the tongue, lips, and jaw as found in Carolyn Sloan’s “Finding Your Voice”:
Say this quickly: “Take a ticket, take a ticket, take a ticket Tom”. If you can say it fast and with little or no effort you probably don’t have excessive tension in the tongue. But try this one: “Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather.” Fast.
Now try “Ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya”. Don’t move your jaw. If you are unable to do this without the jaw moving, you have hidden tongue tension.
- Ng-gah. “Ng” is with your tongue up against your hard palate–gah opens up your throat. Really feel the “Humminess” of the “Ng”–it’s called an “open-mouthed hum”. Try this on various pitches.
- “I think a thousand thoughts” has the blade (tip) of your tongue touching your teeth. Really enunciate those “th’s”. Sing these words all over your range.
- “Never not now”. Your tongue also touches your teeth , just on the ridge. Sing this up and down the scale.
- “La La La La Ta Ta Ta Ta Da Da Da Da Da.” Sing on one pitch up and down the scale, without moving your jaw.
- “Ladies Like Lollipops” Sing on a scale going up and then down, with your tongue touching the teeth ridge, the hard palate, and use both lips. All should be relaxed. Jaws should be apart on “pops”, using only the lips. Lips should be “kissy” and forward.
- “Why won’t we wait?” using “kissy” lips.
- Do the “Whitney Houston waggle” (move only your lower jaw) as you sing through any song that gives you trouble moving from one transition area to the next. Also think of st-r-e-t-c-hing your jaw wider at the end of a word instead of closing it up—it gives you amazing breath right when you think you don’t have any more!
You may get tense just thinking about doing all these exercises when in fact they are great indicators of just the opposite. In order to do them correctly, your muscles have to be relaxed. So take a deep breath and jump right in– you have nothing to lose but your tension! (And everything to gain–maybe even a standing ovation at Karaoke Fest!)