The Case: A very tense jaw
The Singer: Larry was 23 years old, in his final year of a three-year undergraduate course in contemporary music; he was presenting five songs for his final showcase.
For you? Anyone who has to locate an area of tension and reduce its effects.
Larry had begun to experience debilitating jaw tension and was also grinding his teeth at night and sometimes during the day; his range had reduced and he was experiencing discomfort in his larynx when singing.
Stretching thoughts before stretching muscle!
Larry was approaching exams and a graduate show with low confidence; his level of tension seemed to reflect his anxiety about succeeding.
He was open about his doubts and concerns so it was easy to get to the root of the issue.
Larry told me that he had been challenging his tension with jaw stretches so I asked him to demonstrate and it was clear that this approach was exacerbating the problem; I sensed that he was a cerebral learner (someone who thinks through before they do).
So, I suggested that he alter his concept of ‘push and try’ to ‘release and allow’ and we talked a lot about what this meant to him before we got started.
He relaxed a little when he began to perceive that his symptoms were due to his emotional state as much as they were physical at the same time; I needed to have his acknowledgement of this but to assure him that I was approaching this as a singing tutor and not as a pseudo medical practitioner.
I sat opposite Larry and we mirrored each other pinching and kneading our jaw lines, under our chins and up beside the upper and lower jaw joints; then we gently shook our jaws (by shaking a pretend rag doll in a taut forearms and maintaining a relaxed neck and mouth).
Larry found this amusing but actually experienced a flapping lower jaw after ten minutes of working this sequence.
Then we sang scales with a stuck out tongue; Larry sat upright at the piano and stretched the tip of his tongue out towards his reflection in the wood; he sang some scales in this way on a short series of shapes like ‘yay’ ‘way’ ‘lah’ and so on.
At the end of the session Larry described a feeling of ‘room’ inside his mouth.
He sang through some material with the same tongue stretch and enjoyed some powerful and more easily reached notes at the high end of his range.
An upward spiral
The right tension is vital for performance of any kind; once Larry grasped this he entered the exercise regime willingly and did manage to reduce his tension to the point where he could drop his jaw and open up without craning as much; his performance was all the better for this loosening up and his very warm timbral quality had clearly begun to emerge in a less strained delivery.
Jaw tension makes quality singing very difficult as the jaw and tongue are tightly knitted in the mouth, working in tandem to create phonetic shape and to govern the singers’ ability to release
If we can address this tension from inside the mouth as much as outside we can create a positive impact on the muscle memory.
I recently met Larry at a music hub, networking and busy with his band; he is practising yoga now!