Vocal tension is generally a bad thing, often even a VERY bad thing. It is bad because it hurts voices. In graduate school I had some great teachers that helped me overcome some significant vocal tension issues. To them I will be forever grateful. I don’t claim to have arrived in the vocal freedom journey, but I have become a tension buster for my vocal and choral students, with highly effective results. I want to share three tips that can help you make sure your singers/students are progressing vocally in the area of tension/freedom.
Here are three things choral conductors and voice teachers can do to encourage and promote free singing in their choirs and singers.
- Promote Physical Awareness
- Hit The Reset Button
- Insist on Good Posture
***Note: I am assuming that those who will utilize the information in this post are already teaching proper placement, breath, support, and basic vocal techniques to their singers (or insisting on it with more advanced singers).***
Promote Physical Awareness
A major cause of vocal tension I have found when working with my singers (ages 5 to 19 in a variety of choirs as well as voice students) is a lack of physical awareness by the singers themselves. Many singers are desirous of pleasing and succeeding so much, that they will power through vocal tension and pain to their own detriment. Many need to be told that vocal pain is a bad thing, and if they feel pain, it is not ok. Furthermore, they need to know that the muscles around the voice and in the face should feel relaxed (there is engagement of facial and other vocally related muscles of course, which I will address later), and if it isn’t, something is not right. Awareness is not a specific fix for a problem, but it can often prevent little vocal issues in amateur singers from growing into titanic issues. Also, many individuals are incredibly adept at relaxing themselves or specific muscles, and having the proper awareness may be what they need (or mostly so) to prevent muscle tension from causing vocal tension.
Hit The Reset Button
A primary place of tension I have found working with developing singers is in the jaw. Muscles tighten and move or lock the jaw in unnecessary ways. I find this to be the culprit most of the time for the chin lifting, neck-tie tenor phenomenon. Another common place of tension is the tongue and the swallowing muscles (they often work together to negatively impact the voice). The last common place I will mention is the muscles of the neck.
For all of these areas of tension, “hitting the reset button” has proved effective for my singers. If they are aware of the tension, they can stop singing, relax the muscles and start up again. If the tension comes back, they reset again as often as necessary. This prevents habits from forming where the body associates certain pitches, dynamics, vowels, etc… with vocal tension. A person can insist on their own voice being tension free by “hitting the reset button”. The result is that they never allow themselves to sing with vocal tension (to the best of their awareness).
Many things we as conductors and voice teachers are prone to correct not issues of tension in and of themselves, but are rather symptoms of tension. We need to advance ourselves and address the cause, not just the symptom. Chin lifting is one such symptom of tension (almost always caused by jaw tension in my experience). We tell the singer not to lift the chin, but if we don’t address the cause, we may only be hiding the problem and never resolving it. In the case if chin lifting, remind your singers to use the “reset button” as often as necessary along with specific reminders about relaxing the jaw. Coupled with reminders not to lift or thrust the chin, and with the constant training (reinforcement for advanced singers) in proper vocal technique, the issue generally resolves.
Make sure that your singers understand the difference between engagement and tension. Engaging the voice, jaw, tongue, etc… for sound, movement, and articulation can be done with freedom and without tension. A great image that has worked for me in explaining this seeming dichotomy is that of a good batter in a baseball game. To effectively hit a pitch, the batter must be relaxed. However, there is a tremendous amount of engagement of many muscles to produce the swing. Though engaging muscles, the batter is always relaxed, never locking up any muscles which would create a hitch in the swing and perhaps an injury. The jaw, tongue, and other body parts will likewise engage when necessary, or sound will not be shaped and formed properly. But like the batter, there should be no locking up and unnecessary tightening of the muscles used.
A question could be asked, why is there tension in the jaw, tongue, neck, or swallowing muscles? I generally find it to be a compensation for vocal placement and/or support. It is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” dilemma as to which is causing which. Is the lack of support or improper placement causing tension, or is tension causing a lack of support and improper placement? My best results have come when addressing tension and support/placement together. Many singers find proper support when they successfully hit the “reset button” and eliminate vocal tension. Likewise, focusing on proper placement and support often helps many singers eliminate vocal tension.
At times I encounter a singer that has good support and placement concurrent with vocal tension. Stopping and restarting a sound once relaxed as often as necessary can be very helpful to this singer. Often they have physically associated the support and placement with tension. Using this technique of “hitting the reset button” greatly aids in disassociating the good physical habits from the unhealthy habits. They can thus be retrained to experience vocal freedom quickly and form habits conducive to a lifetime of vocal health.
Use the “reset button”!
Insist On Good Posture
Poor posture when singing negatively impacts the breath and support of a singer. If quality support is lacking, the body will find a way to compensate. The compensation nearly always involves tension, That tension, even if minor, can quickly become a habit which magnifies over time.
Standing or sitting with good posture can be tiresome at times, because often singers have been sitting poorly with rounded shoulders for extended periods of time in front of a computer, at a desk, etc…. Using some stretches to release and relax the muscles into feeling comfortable in good posture may be necessary. One such stretch involves bringing your arms behind your back, holding your hands together, lifting the arms, and then attempting to pull ones elbow together for a full 30 seconds. Be sure that the shoulders are relaxed and that one does not lean forward. A person way also wish to tilt the head back and look up during the stretch (if one has been looking down a lot during the day, such as at a tablet, phone, or book on a desk). This stretch is just one of many that work to pull the shoulders back, expand the chest, and relax the neck . The goal is that good posture will feel comfortable.
I hope these three ideas will prove helpful in promoting tension free singing and good vocal health with your choirs and singers. Remember to “promote physical awareness” of tension with your singers, “hit the reset button,” and to “insist on good posture.”