We’ve all seen and heard vocal shredders. Veins popping out of their neck as the singer goes for the high note. Tone that is squeezed and pinched off, becoming more and more strained the higher they go. And after the gig (or even just the one song they sing), they’ve blown their voice out and will be feeling the effects for days. We’ve all seen and heard them, and maybe what I am describing sounds uncomfortably close to the dynamics you feel in your own voice.
There is another path. An approach to singing that offers freedom, flexibility to create exactly the tone you want to achieve, with the opportunity to sing for a lifetime in a healthy and sustainable way. That path begins with eliminating vocal tension.
Vocal tension is any muscle outside the voice box (larynx) that manipulates the voice and its production. And while these different tension areas do “help”- you can sing a little higher or a little louder, or “survive” a challenging part of a song – the limitations that come from these tension areas far outweigh the help they provide.
Identifying the Barriers
There are five main areas of vocal tension: jaw, neck, throat (laryngeal), facial and tongue.
- Jaw Tension occurs in the jaw muscles, right at the hinge of the jaw. It is characterized physically by the jaw thrusting forward and locking itself into place. Jaw tension makes it very difficult for the voice to “shift” and the voice gets locked. As a result the upper range is generally pushed and forced because the voice is not “releasing”.
- Neck Tension is probably the most “popular” area of tension and is easily detected by the rising of the chin and the stretching of the neck muscles. The sound generated by someone singing with neck tension is a forced tone that gets thinner and thinner, and more and more strained the higher the singer goes.
- Throat (Laryngeal) Tension is characterized by the larynx (“voice box”) rising up and constricting the space in the back of the throat. The sound associated with laryngeal tension is thin, whiny and often nasally.
- Facial Tension is present whenever a singer’s face is doing something “weird” in order to sing a high note, navigate a certain passage or achieve any other challenging vocal production. The face should be relaxed and free to express emotion, independent from your vocal production.
- Tongue Tension occurs when the back of the tongue pulls back in the throat and pushes down against the top of the larynx. This tension usually results in a dark and muffled sound to the tone.
Beyond the limitations vocal tension places on your vocal flexibility and desired tone, their long-term effects can be much more serious and lead to vocal damage that may sideline a singer for months, years or even the rest of their life.
Practice, Practice, Practice
As a singer, you need to think of yourself as much as an athlete as a musician. Regular exercise with a trusted vocal coach or proven vocal program to reprogram muscle memory is essential to eliminating vocal tension. Your voice is addicted to tension, mostly because it doesn’t know any other option. Consistent workouts that will offer new approaches are the only way to replace old habits and dependence on areas of vocal tension. A singer should plan to practice with these exercises a minimum of 20-30 minutes, 3-4 times per week…working on exercises, not singing songs.