Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
The digastric and mylohyoid muscles are part of the swallowing mechanism and will often contract when singing. If these muscles contract, they can cause a wide range of problems. Most notably, their contraction raises the larynx causing tension that can interfere with both phonation and articulation.
Place your thumbs beneath the chin, lightly press in, and swallow. When you swallow, you will feel downward pressure in this area. What you are feeling is contraction of the digastric and mylohyoid muscles. If the student feels these muscles contract while singing, she will need to learn to release them. There will be some movement when changing vowels, producing consonants, and singing through the passagi. These movements are normal, acceptable, and do not need to addressed. However, the pressure should be less than when swallowing.
First teach the student to massage these muscles. Have her place her thumbs underneath the chin, and gently press up-and-down alternating between the two. Instruct her to work from the center outward. After massaging the muscles, add phonation.
First have the student place her tongue on her bottom lip, slightly open her jaw, and rest her thumbs beneath the chin. Ask her to sustain a comfortable pitch on the vowel /ae/. If the muscles contract, help her explore variations of the vowel to find one that does not cause contraction. Depending on the severity of tension in these muscles, it may take a while to sing with release. Sometimes it is easier to find release in head voice/falsetto, but eventually the student should be able to relax the muscles in both chest and mix.
When she can relax the muscles with a slightly extended tongue, have her bring the tongue back into her mouth and rest it behind her bottom teeth. Start with /ae/ followed by /E/, bright /a/, and finally /e/. Begin with sustained pitches, followed by glides, followed by scale patterns, and finally arpeggios. When the tongue is relaxed on the first four vowels, try /o/, /u/, and /i/. Because of the way the tongue moves to form these vowels, there may be a slight feeling of contraction. However, the feeling should not be anywhere near the extent felt when swallowing.
When the student is capable of singing all of the vowels listed above on arpeggios, it is time to work this new technique into songs. Beginning with a simple song, have the student sing through the melody on a single vowel. When she can successfully navigate the song on a single vowel, have her sing the melody while changing vowels (based on the text). When the student is able to successfully navigate the melody on vowels, add consonants. With advanced students it will usually take four to six weeks to see noticeable results (it may take longer for beginner and intermediate students). However, the payoff for learning to release these muscles is enormous and well worth the dedication to this work.
Do you have variations of this approach that you use in your own teaching? If you do, please leave a comment in the section below. If you are not yet following the blog, please enter your email address on the bottom right-hand side of this page to receive a message when there is a new post. As always, thank you for reading and have a great week! ~Matt