Jo Estill always began the presentation on Tongue Control by saying that the Tongue was the cause of more trouble to singers than anything else -says Anne-Marie Speed.
The intervening years have proved time and again just how perceptive and accurate this simple observation was and in many more ways than I appreciated at the time.
Conventional training often encourages a low flat tongue position in the mistaken belief that increasing the vertical space in the mouth by sending the tongue as far south as it will go will generate a bigger sound, assist in high notes and generally benefit the voice. None of this is true as an understanding of both the physiology and some rudimentary acoustics demonstrate.
A Low, Flat Tongue Makes No Sense
It is always difficult to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy but with some knowledge of how the tongue works, its impact on both larynx height and influence on vocal function, a basic knowledge of acoustics (the science of sound), the insistence on a low flat tongue position in singing simply makes no sense. It must also be acknowledged that the requirement for this low tongue position while still current among many teachers is by no means universal.
It is important to remember just how strong the tongue is, so the pressed low position is far from benign. It creates tension, rigidity and vocal strain. It also makes the production of voice unnecessarily effortful with a high risk of dysfunction that can lead to the need for therapeutic intervention.
Entrenched patterns of muscle tension cannot be released by vocal exercises alone and sometimes need the attention of a specialist physio.
Relax Your Tongue
The Estill Model advocates a relaxed mid to high forward tongue position as this allows for freedom of laryngeal movement, efficient acoustics and greater clarity of diction. As for the ‘need’ for vowel modification, if the tongue is being pulled unnaturally low and held there, there is no option but to modify the vowel.
The tongue simply isn’t able to move to produce an accurate or recognizable vowel. Another consequence of this position is to convince the singer that they are producing a ‘bigger’ or more powerful voice than they actually are. An overly lowered larynx produces a darker tone that while sounding impressive to the singer’s internal ear, simply does not have the acoustic energy to carry much beyond their immediate radius.
This is demonstrated incontrovertibly by the use of a basic spectrogram programme such as Estill VoicePrint alongside an acoustic understanding of what volume or ‘loudness’ actually is (a combination of the intensity of sound pressure wave and frequency).
Tongue Training is Important
A free, mobile tongue capable of precise and controlled gesture is essential training for all singers and actors. It can take many months to properly release established muscle tension, requiring commitment from the singer and regular, appropriate and accurate input from the teacher.
If the performer is to fully realize their vocal potential, then constructive, practical tongue training must be attentively and seriously addressed and assiduously practiced.
Anne-Marie has been working as a voice teacher to actors and singing teacher for 20 years. Her varied and extensive practice includes working with classical actors, international film stars, artists in national theater companies, leads in West End musicals, actors in film and television and platinum selling pop artists.
You can learn about courses and workshops run by Anne-Marie by visiting The Voice Explained.