The tongue plays a prominent role in our daily lives. Not only does it help us taste and eat things, it also helps us speak and therefore sing. It is used in many different ways every day, and it is arguably one of the most important and most powerful muscles in your body. It is used to taste your favorite meal, warn you when you accidentally get soap in your mouth when you shower, and it most importantly helps you shape your vowels.
This, along with the other articulators, helps you sing with crisp, clear diction and long, connected vowels when used correctly. To sing with good technique is to manage and align each articulator with ease in order to create the smoothest, clearest sound as possible at all times. This can often prove to be a difficult and seemingly impossible task.
Yes! The articulators are the muscles we use to form sounds and words. These include the tongue, lips, jaw, palate, teeth, and throat. They all work together to shape and form our sound, tone, vowels, and words so that we are clearly heard even when we are speaking or singing unamplified in a performance space. If one of these articulators is tensed up, this can lead to many vocal problems that you may be experiencing today, which is why it’s very important to learn how to relax them. In this article, we will be learning how to position the tongue when singing.
Personal Tongue Problems
I never really noticed how big my tongue was until I started singing. During the beginning of my classical training, I had a teacher who told me to look into my mouth in a mirror every time I sing so I become more kinesthetically aware. This is where I noticed the middle of my tongue would hunch up when I sing due to tension. Training myself to have control over my tongue to the point where I can “put it away” to make more space to sing has been tough when my tongue seemingly has a mind of its own.
In my years of lessons, I have used countless tricks to try and suppress my tongue. I have switched off between vowels countless times, and have used a stick, straw, and a spoon to try and keep my tongue down. After much practice, I finally become aware of my personal correct tongue positioning and thus have improved my technique. Like it is always said, everybody is different and in order to find your ideal tongue position, you first must get to know your tongue, or become kinesthetically aware of it much as I have become.
Why the Position of the Tongue is Important when Singing
Relaxed Tongue = Open Throat
The articulators are very interconnected in a way that if one of them is tense, then all of them are also usually tense. If the tongue cannot form clear vowels, then the singing itself will become muddied and unclear.
Focusing on the position of the tongue will fix many vocal problems present, such as breathiness, strain, and unclearness of diction. Methods of relaxing the tongue will be explained in a later section with other technical exercises, but let’s talk about why and how tension affects our singing.
Tension is Bad
Tongue tension is something I’ve personally had to deal with and overcome. My mouth is larger than the average tongue, and when I was really starting my classical training my teacher instructed me to use a spoon to press it down while I sang because the middle of my tongue would rise with every sound my voice made.
This cuts off space in the mouth, therefore holding back your full capability as a singer. This could also result in the tongue sinking too far back into your mouth, blocking your airways and preventing you from taking full advantage of your breath support.
Don’t Let It Get in the Way!
The correct tongue position for singers is having your flat tongue rest naturally against the insides of your bottom teeth. A tongue that is TOO flat has the tendency to be pulled back too far and promote an incorrect swallowed tone, as stated in the previous section.
A rule of thumb is to always keep the tongue forward and relaxed. There are many tongue exercises for singing that will help combat tension. Below are some examples of exercises that will help with relaxing the tongue.
Tongue Position Techniques
Yoga is always good for releasing any sort of bodily tension. This aspect also translates to singing. A Yoga Pose called The Lion’s Pose is simple and only requires the movement of the face. First, take a deep breath through your nose. Then, open your mouth wide while sticking your tongue out to touch your chin and exhale slowly on an audible “Ha”.
This stretches out all of the face muscles so that any tongue tension held will be properly released. Do this at least four times and feel your face start to fall into a relaxed state. Singing must never feel tense. It should always have a light and free quality to it, even when singing dramatically.
Just like warming up our singing muscles before we sing, we must warm up our articulators in order to guarantee their precision and accuracy. Saying tongue twisters such as “rubber baby buggy bumpers” or “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” will warm them up.
A better method would be to sing them on a five-note scales. One that I personally like using is “Mama made me mash my M&M’s” on a five-note scale, ascending and descending. Another fun one is to sing “articulate the consonants, spit out the words, round all your vowel sounds or else you’ll be a nerd” on a 1 3 5 8 scale, also ascending and descending.
I had a voice teacher who taught me that rolling r’s will relax your tongue. Whether it may be from the repeated motion acting as a sort of massage on the tongue or the condensed airflow, it does seem to work on most people. He mentioned that it also helped to keep the larynx down, which is a singing component that raises when strained.
I often roll through a few scales to warm myself up in the wings. It does a good job with softening any tongue tension, focusing the airflow, and lowering a larynx to prevent strain.
Practicing the movement between vowels can anchor more “problematic” vowels to act in the same way. For example, if you sing on an E vowel just fine but you struggle on an A, try switching between them until the movement in your mouth becomes more subtle. The better vowel will act as an anchor to help the problem vowel function normally.
For example, I’ve always had air overflow troubles in my mid-range whenever I descend on an A vowel, so in order to combat this, I usually descend on an E-A-E-A-E to aid the A to become more relaxed and forward.
Other Things to Remember
- Keep your tongue out of your throat. If it is pushed too far back, it will block your airways and prevent a good sound from being produced, and as a result will be strained and unsupported. This sound will not project and will not reach the ears of the audience. A tongue that is pushed too far back will also result in tongue tension as the tongue bunches up to occupy the incorrect space in the mouth.
- Rest the tip of your tongue against the back of your bottom front teeth at all times. This will ensure that your tongue is not too far back and down flat for maximum mouth space and a good default position to remain in to form words precisely.
- Use the tip and sides of your mouth to articulate words. The back of your teeth should be used as a guideline to where the resting position of the tongue should be when singing. Similar to resting the tip of your tongue against the back of your bottom front teeth, it is important to keep the sides resting on the inner sides of your teeth so that they are flat and relaxed when not in use.
- Keep the tongue and the jaw soft. Tightness in your jaw or your throat is bad news for your technique. In order to combat any tension, I like to often think of what my former teacher used to tell me all the time. When you sing, pretend like you’ve been injected in the jaw with novocaine. She called it the “numb jaw”. That is the level of relaxation we should have with our articulators to be able to manipulate them to make precise and clear words while we sing. Even more so than we do when we talk regularly.
The Bottom Line
Your tongue’s position is very important when you sing. In order to facilitate a good resting position and promote flexibility and precision, always keep your tongue flat and against the inner part of your bottom teeth. Technical exercises and warm-ups mentioned in previous sections should help incorporate these aspects into your muscle memory so you will naturally implement them without thinking about it.
Daily implementation of these techniques and exercises will eventually erase all bad habits of tongue tension. Learning correct tongue positioning and the exercises that help a singer discover it are vital to singers of all ages and aspirations.
- Make sure your jaw and tongue are relaxed and loose
- If they feel tense, say some tongue twisters and do some vowel exercises to warm up the articulators
- Check to see if the tip of the tongue is touching the bottom front teeth
- Check if the sides of your tongue are touching the inner sides of your bottom teeth
- Make sure your tongue is flat, relaxed, and not swallowed in at all
- Keep the tongue out of the way if anything else
- Practice every day
- Relax and have fun!
Last but not least, check out the following videos for even more useful tips:
Read some of our other articles to help you improve your singing skills:
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