Physical Signs of Tension in Singing

 

In my writings, I continually encourage you as a singer to take responsibility for your own voice and career.  After all, you are the only person always there when you are practicing, taking lessons, rehearsing, performing, etc.  Not only that, but you are also the only one who can actually control your voice.  Other people can advise, teach, help and support, but it is your breath, your vocal cords and your resonators that create your unique sound.

Likewise, you need to be in control of your body and what happens in your body that affects your voice.  As I have discussed previously, tension is the enemy of singing.  You, the singer, need to sing with a body that is as relaxed as possible, engaged muscularly in a very detailed, coordinated manner in the torso and expanding and opening from the neck up.  There are specific signs of tension that occur in many singers that you need to be aware of and observe with an eagle eye to see if you are exhibiting them when singing.

Your new best friend, the mirror, can help you tremendously in diagnosing tension issues you currently have.  Mirrors can be uncomfortable for many singers, but try to steel yourself to do mirror work for just a few minutes at every practice session.  Try looking at yourself dispassionately, as if it is someone else entirely.  Some physical signs of tension can drop away simply by observing them in a mirror and being aware you are doing them.  Other signs will improve when observed.  No matter what, knowing what you look like when singing is yet another level of taking personal responsibility for your voice and your potential career.

 

Jaw and Tongue Tension

The jaw and tongue are huge areas of tension for a large number of singers.  The reasons are complex, but can be summed up like this.  If there is not enough breath resistance to support the voice and provide the necessary energy, other muscles will “helpfully” pitch in and get tense instead.  The jaw and tongue are often the first volunteers.  When the jaw gets tense, the tongue, a near neighbor, almost always gets tense, too.  A tense tongue pulls the larynx up and away from the laryngeal tilt, causing a loss of color, openness and healthy cord phonation.  Jaw and tongue tension are definitely serious issues that need to be addressed in the voice studio.  There, you can work to release the excess jaw and tongue tension and simultaneously build a better, healthy breath resistance.

The lower jaw should release freely back and down upon opening.  Here are some of the physical signs of jaw tension:  inability to drop the jaw on open vowels like “ah” and “oh”; a consistent, small mouth position throughout your range; thinking you are dropping your jaw, but actually only pulling down your bottom lip; jutting the jaw forward; and a jaw wobble.

The tongue should release forward, it should look soft and relaxed and the tip should rest gently against the bottom front teeth at rest.  This should be its neutral state to which it returns when singing on the vowels.  Here are some of the physical signs of tongue tension:  the tongue pulling back in the mouth, away from the bottom front teeth; ridges in the middle of the tongue; an overly-flattened tongue; a tongue that twitches on sustained tones; a tongue that has difficulty with repeating an Italian flipped “l”, a “guh” or “kuh”; and a tongue that can not be released forward into an “ng” position.

 

Lip Tension

Lip tension is less pernicious than jaw and tongue tension, but still exists in a number of singers.  Often, because it is more subtle, it is easier to miss.  It is also related to a lack of appropriate breath resistance and releases as breath resistance improves.  Lip tension can respond very well to mirror work.

The lips should remain soft and supple while singing, stay slightly rounded and maintain the ability to freely move as needed for the text.  For the majority, the upper teeth will be visible, while the lower teeth remain hidden when singing.  Here are some of the physical signs of lip tension:  lips that are overly-thin; a pulled-down upper lip hiding the upper front teeth; a pulled-down bottom lip showing the bottom front teeth; lips that have difficulty moving rapidly; lips that have difficulty rounding; lips that are overly-puckered; and a quivering lip.

 

Solar Plexus and Torso Tension

The solar plexus can get tight and locked up when trying too hard to engage the breath resistance.  This creates a specific type of torso tension that is important to recognize.  It is more prevalent in men, but also happens in women, as well.

The solar plexus should remain flexible and released, as the muscles of the abdominal wall below engage while singing.  Here are some of the physical signs of solar plexus and torso tension:  a pulling down in the front muscles below the rib cage and shaking in the torso.

 

How you carry yourself as a singer when practicing, auditioning and performing is of great importance.  It not only gives an immediate impression of who you are and the potential quality of your singing, but it affects your ability to breathe easily and reflexively, as well as how well the voice itself is able to function.  Unfortunately, it is something that is also often not addressed directly by voice teachers, except by using a few concepts that can easily be misinterpreted and misused by students.

When they do address a singer’s carriage, voice teachers normally use the work “posture”.  Being an Alexander teacher as well as a voice teacher, I specifically refrain from using the word posture in my teaching or my writing.  Posture evokes in people’s mind a lack of movement, a sense of the body being static and held in one position.  The word “use”, on the other hand, means how all of the parts of the body relate to one another while in activity – literally, how you use your body as an instrument.  That is the concept of the body that I will be discussing here.

Becoming aware of and rectifying use issues that affect your singing and stage presentation is another level of taking responsibility for your own career.  It isn’t enough simply to pull up your sternum, hold your head high and assume that everything is just fine.  Use issues can be subtle and they can be obvious.  Both types can affect you in ways you don’t even realize until you actually change them for new, better habits of use.  Below are some of the most common patterns of misuse that occur. Use your new best friend, the mirror, take a close look at your body when singing and see if you notice any of them.

 

Back-and-down

This refers to the relationship of the head, neck and back.  Back-and-down occurs when the muscles attaching the back of the head to the neck shorten, rotating the heads backwards.  This then puts the entire weight of the head, usually between eight and twelve pounds, directly on top of the spine.  The spine is compacted slightly in the neck and it shortens and tenses, pulling up the shoulders in the area near the neck.  This is the classic stress response for humans and other species as well and the tension cascades from there to other parts of the body.  Unfortunately, the crunching and shortening of the neck clearly has a detrimental effect on vocal freedom.

Instead, the neck should remain free, including the muscles attaching the back of the head to the neck.  A free neck allows the heads to rotate more forward, so that its balance point is in front of the spine and the weight is more evenly distributed.  When the spine is not compacted, it has a chance to free upward and actually lengthen, improving vocal functioning and quality.

 

Jutting the head forward

This is when the head moves directly forward in space and the neck shortens and tenses.  Jutting the head is often the result of wanting to reach out more to the audience.  The position of the larynx cannot help but be affected by this, detrimentally changing the resultant tone quality.  Jutting the head forward cannot always be seen in the mirror straight on, so you need to check yourself frequently by angling more towards your profile.

Instead of jutting forward, the head should remain poised in a slightly-forward, but balanced way above the neck (as described above).  It is important that the head is poised and you are not pulling the head too far back at the same time.

 

Over-raised sternum

The position of the sternum or breastbone effects functioning of the entire rib cage. When singing, using theappoggio is important for a comprehensive approach to breath resistance, but it is extremely easy for singers to raise the sternum too high during singing and to retain that high position all of the time.  In fact, this is the classic singer’s position that people latch onto an early age and carry into their daily lives. Unfortunately, an over-raised sternum creates excess tension in the front of the torso and interferes with the ability of the rib cage to expand easily and completely.

The sternum should remain in a more neutral, non-raised position during daily life.  For singing, the whole area at the top of the torso across the breastbone and between the shoulders needs to widen, which gives a more integrated lift to the sternum to achieve the “noble” position.  Then the appoggio can be applied, the lean into the sternum while singing, which actives the pectorals and works in tandem with the back and abdominal muscles.  Use of the Winged Victory stance by mimicking the famed statue is also an effective way to apply the appoggio in a healthy way.

 

Shortening in the front

This is a pernicious, common issue for many people, singers included.  It means that the muscles in the front of the torso actually shorten in length, causing the top of the torso to pull downward and the muscles of the back to overextend. Think of the stereotype of a computer worker with a lowered sternum and rounded back and you will get the idea.  Shortening usually happens in the abdominal wall in the area of the solar plexus, exactly where it is so important that you as a singer remain open and free.  This tension affects the functioning of the whole abdominal wall.   Because it throws off the normal balance and ease of the whole torso, it of course affects the rib cage and breathing significantly.   Often an attempt to rectify shortening in the front is made by over-raising the sternum, which masks the shortening from a visual perspective, but does nothing to address the underlying tension.  In fact, it simply adds layer upon layer of tension, which then makes it more difficult to get to the root of the problem.

The torso should remain balanced and easily freeing upward both in singing and in daily life.  The front of the torso has to soften and release, the abdominal wall activating only when singing or doing some sort of physical exercise requiring abdominal work.  Rounding of the shoulders should be avoided, but they should be freeing outwards to the side versus being actively pulled back.

Singers are used to trying to “fix” their voices by adapting and making changes to counteract certain issues.  Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.  So, it is logical for singers to try that same approach with physical tensions in the body.  Unfortunately, the cure can often be worse than the disease.  Simply trying to overtly correct signs of tension can often bring on more tension in other areas.  Truly getting rid of tension has to be approached in a different, more subtle and systematic way.

Obviously, there is no overnight fix to the issues mentioned in Parts I and II of this article.  Many of those issues develop over time from a lack of proper breath resistance and other vocal technical problems, so use ofonly a physical approach without remedying the underlying coordination issues will not solve the tension problem.  However, what singers can frequently experience is learning a better singing coordination, but finding that the tension issues refuse to just disappear and in fact continue to interfere in ways that affect the vocal quality.  Effectively getting rid of tension requires both learning a solid technique that teaches healthy vocal coordination and a physical approach to releasing tension.

My favorite approach to getting rid of tension is using the fabulous tools of the Alexander Technique.  Releasing tension and building appropriate, new body coordination (not vocal coordination) are its specialty.  And the Alexander Technique helps release tension in such a way that no new areas of tension form as compensation for the released tension.  It is a win-win approach for singers and I highly recommend it for all aspiring professionals.

One tool from the Alexander Technique that is extremely helpful in getting rid of excess tension is inhibition.  Inhibition means pausing or stopping momentarily beforedoing, whether it is singing, walking, lifting an arm, sitting, etc.  During this pause, we can send a message to ourselves that we don’t have to work in order to perform that particular action.  Saying, “I leave myself alone,” during this pause is recommended and is extremely helpful.  With practice, inhibition calms us and our bodies down, so that we are more open, relaxed and less likely to return to our habits of tension.

A wonderful way to practice the Alexander Technique on your own and learn new habits that help release physical signs of tension in singing is lying in semi-supine.  The combination of inhibition and semi-supine is quite incredible and is the best way I know to release tensions and take a freer, more open body into an activity like singing.  Below is an explanation of how to incorporate the two.

As always, if you feel any sort of discomfort, please discontinue and seek advice from a medical professional.

 

Lie on the floor on a lightly-padded surface.  Lie on your back with your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.  Put several thin books under your head at a level comfortable for you.  In this position, you are completely supported.  You don’t need to hold anything up, you don’t need to balance.  Try to calm your thinking and allow your thoughts to gradually slow down.  As you mind calms, think a gentle thought, as soft as a whisper, “I leave myself alone.”  This is your mantra for semi-supine, a quiet, “I leave myself alone.”  You don’t have to react to the thought or do anything.  It gives you permission not to do anything for a change.  Notice if you feel any tension or discomfort in your body and send a special, gentle, “I leave myself alone,” directed to that place.

Allow yourself to relax more and more into gravity’s pull.  You are completely supported.  Keep repeating, “I leave myself alone.”  Now, start at your neck and say gently, “I leave myself alone.”  Your body needs time to release and open, so wait a few seconds and repeat.  Address your neck, head and jaw and say, “I leave myself alone.”  Wait and repeat.  Move down to your shoulders and upper back and repeat.  Wait and repeat.  Include your ribs and repeat.  Wait and repeat.  Include your whole torso, all the way down to the hip joints at the bottom of the pelvis, and repeat.  Wait and repeat.  Now, think of the whole area you have just covered – neck, head, jaw and the entire torso – and say, “I leave myself alone.”  Wait and repeat.  Move down to the legs and feet and repeat.  Wait and repeat.  Make sure to keep the repeated thought quiet and gentle.  It is a request, not an order.

Keep repeating slowly with pauses a general request for the whole body, alternating with the specific parts as detailed above.  Let your body feel heavier and release into the floor or table.  If you notice tension, say, “I leave myself alone.”  Remain in semi-supine for 20 minutes.

 

Use the above combination of inhibition and semi-supine to help release the physical signs of tension in singing.  Releasing tension in the throat and jaw also helps free tongue and lip tension.  Freeing in the torso will help ease tension in the solar plexus, sternum, rib cage and abdominal wall.  The relationship of the head, neck and back encouraged by semi-supine helps ease back-and-down and shortening in the front.  Semi-supine mimics the same relationship used in standing upright, but while being supported, so it is possible to open and free the body.  It is extremely helpful for singers to use this feeling of inhibiting in semi-supine as a baseline of what their bodies should feel like when singing, with the exception that breath resistance will be activated while singing, but not in semi-supine.

Lying in semi-supine and inhibiting as described above on a daily basis can make positive changes in the physical signs of tension that singers experience.  Try it yourself!  Many people, including a number of singers, have reaped the benefits and you can, too!

 

For more articles and information, visit my website, http://www.thebricelandstudio.com

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