Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
I have frequently addressed tongue retraction on this blog but realized a few weeks ago I have never discussed tongue narrowing. The tongue is controlled by a complex muscular system. The styloglossus, palatoglossus, and hyoglossus all help retract the tongue. The genioglossus is the sole muscle for protruding the tongue, which is one of the many reasons the tongue is likely to retract when singing – the genioglossus is outnumbered. But there are also muscles within the tongue. The image below shows the longitudinal, transverse, and vertical tongue muscles. These aid in chewing and swallowing and of course language. However, narrowing will often occur on vowels when singing, causing undesirable tension and/or a loss of clarity.
To explore the difference between a narrow and relaxed tongue, begin by alternating between /la/ and /na/. When pronouncing the /l/ you should feel a slight narrowing of the tongue. When you pronounce /n/, you should feel the tongue relax and widen. Alternate between these two (in speech) paying close attention to the narrowing and relaxing of the tongue. It may help for your students to watch themselves in a mirror while doing this as many struggle to place the tip of their tongue behind their upper teeth for these two consonants. It may also help to show them an image of tongue placement for /l/ and/or /n/. The real-time MRI IPA chart is great for this, here are the videos for /l/ and /n/. When they can accurately articulate the difference in speech, put it on a single pitch, for example, /na-la-na-la-na-la-na—/. When they are successful on a single pitch, expand into step-wise patterns.
After exploring the front of the tongue with /l/ and /n/, explore the back of the tongue with /gi/ and /hi/. You should notice that /gi/ narrows the tongue and /hi/ encourages it to relax. If the tongue tries to retract, make the vowel brighter. Students should notice (depending on mouth shape) that on /gi/ the tongue narrows between the upper molars, while on /hi/ the tongue widens across the molars. Cue your student to create a mental map of that sensation of width as they first speak /hi-gi-hi-gi-hi/, then put it on pitch before expanding to step-wise patterns.
Then create your own patterns using a variety of vowels to help your student release narrowing tension throughout their range. In combination with the previous exercises I have presented on the blog, your students should begin to notice a reduction of tongue tension that will improve all aspects of their singing.
Do you have other exercises you use to release narrowing tension in the tongue? If so, please share below. If you are not yet following the blog, please submit your name and email address in the comment form below (no comment necessary) and you will be added to the mailing list, ensuring you receive each new post in your email. If you enjoyed this post, please share it on social media to spread the word about Evidence-Based Voice Pedagogy.
Want to learn more about Evidence-Based Voice Pedagogy? Consider joining us at the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute this summer in beautiful Winchester, VA. Our faculty includes experts from a wide range of backgrounds who respect the work that has gone into all methods of vocal training and love helping other teachers learn how to apply science to tradition while also teaching new approaches. Best of all, it is a fun, positive, and supportive atmosphere where teachers are encouraged to find their own pedagogical voice to help keep the world singing.
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