Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: The Tongue Depressor

CCM Bannder no dates

The memories are very clear. It was my freshman year of college and I was looking in a mirror while holding a popsicle stick on my tongue in order to keep it down when vocalizing. At the same time I was trying to flatten my tongue, I was also trying to get my voice forward while maintaining the warmth I was so in love with at that age. I mean after all, what lower voiced male doesn’t want to sound like Samuel Ramey at age eighteen? I tried my hardest with the instructions I was given. I thought I was doing everything I was asked, but the sound just wouldn’t get better. It was frustrating. I remember going into the practice room and trying everything I could to get my voice to make the sounds I was told I needed to make, but it just wouldn’t happen. Now I know why.

The human voice produces vowels and consonant through a wide variety of tongue, jaw, and lip movements. We have plenty of MRI studies that show us what is happening inside the mouth when singing. We even have an entire IPA chart that shows us exactly how every vowel and consonant is formed, and with the exception of one or two vowels, the tongue is never flat. My good friend Marci Rosenberg uses a water balloon as an example of how the tongue shifts around in our mouth. If you press a water balloon between your hands, water pushes out towards the sides. If someone else tries to push the sides in, the water will shift front to back. If someone pushes in the front and back, the balloon will burst. Luckily your tongue will not burst, but Marci points out that like a water balloon, the mass does not change it only shifts in another direction. When we flatten the tongue, 99% of the time, the place it is going to go is in the back of the throat and down towards the larynx. David Jones address is this in his book, “A Modern Guide to Old World Singing.”

“The ultimate in vocal abuse is the use of tongue depressors. I have worked with singers who have been taught to use tongue depressors, and the resulting vocal problems are difficult to correct. Confusion about using such a technique lies in the fact that some teachers believe the front of the tongue to be in the way; the tongue appears to be filling the mouth space. They think that flattening it will create more space. In fact, it is the exact opposite! Flattening the tongue fills the pharynx (back wall of the throat) with tongue mass (root of the tongue). Singers who train in this way often sound as though they are “gargling marbles”, or they develop a hooty, dark, false resonance. It can also cause such problems as dysphonia.” (Jones, p. 224)

Now to be clear, I do not think my teacher was intentionally “abusing” me, she was a very kind woman who nurtured me when I really needed it. When I was in school, we did not have the same wide-spread access to voice science as we do now. (For younger readers, in those days you had to go to the library and sit at a record player or cassette player to prepare for listening tests. Yeah, a lot has changed in the last 30 years.) I had a lot of technical problems and my teacher was trying to unravel them all for my juries, which were every nine weeks at that school. She was working with the best tools and information she had available. I definitely improved with her, but I struggled with tongue tension for years after because I was convinced I need to keep my tongue flat. It didn’t occur to me that it was the cause of the problem because, inside my head, my voice sounded huge. Here’s what David Jones has to say about that:

“Another source of confusion for many singers is that the use of a flat tongue position (and a depressed larynx) can make a huge, forced sound that sounds large in a smaller room, but does not carry in the theater or concert hall because of its lack of high overtones. A vocal sound that is dominated by lower laryngeal resonance and a dropped tongue position lacks the high overtones that assist in developing the intensity of ring. The intensity of ring, or what some call blade or cut in the voice is what offers the singer more carrying power in the theater without pushing too much breath pressure through the larynx and vocal folds. A flat tongue position. with the tongue root tense, blocks this function in the voice. A large sound that is dominated by low overtones never produces appropriate acoustical balance.” (Jones, p. 224-5)

In addition to struggling with an artificially dark sound, I could not get through the passaggio (~E4) at all. It was push or flip. No in-between. Jones also offers some insight as to why I was struggling with that issue:

“Establishing the ability to find an easy transition from register to register is basic to vocal health and to a uniform sound. However, in employing a flat-tongued technique, the singer compromises much of his/her ability to navigate these register transitions healthily. This is because depressing the root of the tongue directly interferes with the laryngeal tilt, the flexible down-and-forward motion of the larynx that is vital to the head voice transition and healthy vocal fold stretch. Female singers who employ a flat or retracted tongue position will experience difficulty transitioning through the lower passaggio – going from lower light mechanism (head voice) into heavy mechanism (chest register) – as it will make the break much larger.

Male singers will find it difficult to align the upper passaggio when the flat tongue posture is employed. The resulting gag reflex creates a false sense of “cover” for the male singer, leading to difficulty with higher pitches. Another negative side effect (for both male and female voices) is that the tongue-root tension can negatively impact healthy phonation, encouraging the development of a vocal wobble (wide and/or slow vibrato). It is also a primary cause in the inability to employ the ‘fine edges’ of the vocal folds. Finding the fine-edge function is critical in achieving the shimmering balance in the vibrato speed and in releasing high overtones.

When the gag reflex is engaged at the tongue-root, the singer must then use too much breath pressure to force phonation. In extreme cases, the duality of a flat tongue position and the use of air pressure can play a role in causing such vocal damage as hemorrhages, nodules and/or polyps. It is what I call the “lock and push” reflex. The vocal folds are over-squeezed and then the singer must force breath pressure to force phonation. This injurious practice may work for a short time, but in the end the singer will suffer severe problems.” (Jones, p. 223-4)

So what should we do instead? First, improve tongue agility while isolating the movement of the tongue from the jaw. Then think of vowels being formed closer to the /ng/ position rather than down and back. Jones quotes Lamperti to explain:

“Lamperti said, “The singer’s vowel origin for pronunciation is in the /ng/ position (Lindquest’s home position for the tongue), then the singer can pronounce the vowels clearly and experience the resulting ring in the voice. If the pharynx is filled with tongue mass, neither clarity of resonance nor clear vowels is possible.” (Jones, p. 224)

If you want a more detailed look into the science behind this, check out Ken Bozeman’s books “Practical Vocal Acoustics” and “Kinesthetic Voice Pedagogy.”

David Jones book is full of great information to address specific issues. It is advice (including exercises) to make adjustments to specific issues that are quite common in my experience. I have long been fascinated by his posts on Facebook and couldn’t wait to get my hands on his book. While it is geared towards classical singers, I have found plenty of gems that apply to troubleshoot other styles of singing as well. If you don’t have a copy yet, you can buy it on Amazon.

Were you ever taught with a tongue depressor? Did it help or hinder your singing? You can add to the conversation by commenting below. If you are not yet following the blog, please submit your name and email address in the comment form and you will be added to the mailing list, ensuring you receive each new post in your email. If you enjoyed this week’s post, please consider sharing it online to help spread the word about evidence-based voice training.

Thanks for reading and have a great week of teaching!

Matt

Matt Edwards is an Associate Professor of Voice/Coordinator of Musical Theatre Voice 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 

 

 

 

3 comments on “Mix it up Monday: The Tongue Depressor

  1. Dan Johnson-Wilmot
    September 16, 2019

    Hi Matt,
    Please add my name to your list

    Like

  2. Anonymous
    September 17, 2019

    Great post, as usual! I love reading David Jones’ posts as well. Will be sure to get his book.

    Like

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This entry was posted on September 16, 2019 by in backspace, Constriction, Jaw, Tongue, Vocal Exercises, Vocal Tract Adjustments.

Ranked the #1 New Release in "Vocal and Singing" on Amazon.com (October 2014), "So You Want To Sing Rock 'N' Roll?" covers voice science, vocal health, technique, style, and how to find your artistic voice in a way that is beneficial to both singers and teachers. Order your copy today!

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