Mix it up Monday: Richard Miller’s thoughts on addressing a shaky jaw
It is not uncommon to encounter a singer whose jaw trembles or shakes when singing. Richard Miller offers a few suggestions for how to work with students who struggle with this problem in Solutions for Singers. There are several possibilities that should be examined and most of them involve unwanted tension. Miller suggests diagnosing by checking the following:
- Check the musculature below the jaw. Is there tension in the digastric and/or mylohyoid muscles? If there is, address it and see if the shaky jaw improves.
- Contraction of the platysma muscles (the muscles responsible for grimacing) can lead to a trembling jaw. An easy way to investigate if this may be the cause is to have the student engage their zygomatic muscles, the muscles that help us smile.
- If the student is trying to enlarge their pharynx (aka open their throat), it can cause tensions that can lead to a shaking jaw. If you believe that may be the case, try having him place his fingers slightly above his Adam’s apple. Have him speak a phrase, then sing it. Teach him to resist the urge to engage any muscles that are not involved with speaking.
- However, the jaw may have a slight trembling that is not related to a technical “fault.” Miller says that the tongue is a complex muscle that is attached at one end to the larynx (via the hyoid bone) but free to move at the other end (the mouth). The larynx, hyoid bone, and tongue function as a single anatomical unit. In some cases, jaw and tongue movement may be a result of a free and natural vibrato that produces slight vibrations in the entire unit (larynx, hyoid bone, tongue).
Miller suggests beginning with this set of exercises to improve the singer’s awareness of the presence and extent of the jaw movement.
- “Looking straight ahead, clasp the hands well forward on the top of the head, being certain that the head is neither elevated nor lowered, and that the chin and head do not bob up and down with changing pitch; sing passages from the literature where the shaking has occurred.”
- “Remaining axial, place the palm of one hand on the occipital bone at the posterior of the head. This self-monitoring device assists in recognizing any tendency to move the head upward or forward during intervallic leaping.”
- “Place the little fingers at each temporomandibular joint, (the jaw hinge saggital to the ear), the remaining fingers and thumbs resting at the mastoid bone (located just behind the ear), to make certain that the axial posture of the head and torso is maintained during singing.”
- “Remaining in the noble posture, cross the arms over the upper chest, taking care not to move the shoulders forward. One hand lightly cups the chin to ensure that the mandible does not drop beyond the requirements of the vowel, tessitura, and amplitude. Make certain the chin does not jut forward or move upward.”
- “Place the back of one hand just under the chin to recognize, minimize, and stabilize jaw movement,”
- “Another corrective device for excessive oscillatory movements of the jaw and tongue is momentarily to sing a sustained pitch while rapidly moving the lips and jaw in small lateral movements. Such mobility will lessen pharyngeal spreading and correct jaw tension.”
To read Miller’s complete explanation, check out pages 99-102 in Solutions for Singers. In my own experience, I find a shaking jaw is often related to pressed phonation or a lack of independence between the jaw and tongue when forming vowels and consonants. If the issue is pressed phonation, you can try teaching your student to manage transglottal airflow, you can teach them to maintain expansion using a waist trimmer belt, teach them to monitor flow using a water bottle, or use good ol’ lip trills. If you suspect it is due to issues with the tongue, try using corks, play with the McClosky exercises, and work on releasing the masseter muscle.
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Thanks for reading and have a great week of teaching!
Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Director of Musical Theatre at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA, and Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute. He is the author of “So You Want to Sing Rock ‘N Roll” and dozens of articles and book chapters on functional voice training for non-classical styles. For more information visit EdwardsVoice.com