The Dangers of the Flat or Retracted Tongue

It seems that one subject that comes up frequently in the study of singing is that of the retracted or flat tongue in singing. Because of much confusion about the subject, some schools of singing and some private voice studios actually encourage such a dysfunctional vocal concept. One need only look at the true shape and physiology of the tongue structure (see p. 48 in Richard Miller's Structure of Singing) to see that if the tongue is flattened or pulled back, then the back of the throat or the pharynx is filled with the back mass of the tongue. This completely distorts the possibility of authentic resonance and sometimes leaves the instructor confused as to why there is no possibility of higher overtones in the vocal production of the singer. With time the flattened tongue usually creates a wobble in the tone, a tonal characteristic often connected with an aging voice. Many singers begin to suffer loss of the ability to sing in the upper register. The main question to propose is, "Since this is such a truly dangerous technique then why are so many teachers and singers confused about it and WHY is it being taught?" A singer need only experience the overly darkened tone, the uncontrollable vibrato, the distortion of the basic vowels, then need to force the vocal folds into phonation with too much breath pressure, and the loss of the upper register to acknowledge that this is an incorrect and abusive vocal technique. Does it ever occur to singers to ask the question, "Why does a qualified laryngologist have a singer say the ee vowel in order to get the tongue out of the back of the throat? The answer is because the bright vowel allows a clear view of the vocal cords and takes the pressure off the glottis.

It seems unfortunate indeed that even with articles written by competent scientific researchers, there is not a more common ground for professional teachers. Many teachers simply carry on what they have learned without questioning the ramifications for the student. However, there are other teachers who are constantly looking for answers to help their students. When the fiberoptic camera came along around 1980, its greatest use was diagnosing a physical problem such as a nodule or polyp. In the process it has also opened the opportunity to prove such a technique as a flat or retracted tongue as abusive to the vocal cords and completely incorrect. My friend, Dr Barbara Mathis has proven with her fiberoptic scientific research that when the tongue is flattened or pulled back, then there is direct pressure placed on the vocal cords themselves and the primary resonator or the pharynx is filled with the back mass of the tongue. This is why singers who study a flat-tongued technique experience pre-mature age in the voice along with a hooty tonal quality. This overly darkened quality does not carry well in the concert hall or opera house. Singers who have studied this technique usually suffer an imbalance in the registers, pitch problems, vibrato problems, breath issues, distorted vowels, depressed larynx, lack of nasal resonance and general pushing of the voice to force it into function. Voice science stands strong as proof that the tongue should be arched and out of the back of the throat in order for the vocal cords to vibrate freely and naturally and for the primary resonator (pharynx) to be open. It is critical that the root of the tongue and the larynx experience healthy separation. Yet many teachers still cling to this totally incorrect teaching of the flat tongue. Many consider the flat-tongued technique to be present in specific schools of singing. The negative affects are obvious and over time create vocal damage. When a singer begins to suffer vocal stress from this incorrect vocal concept, he/she needs to take responsibility for his or her vocal health in seeking a different direction in the study of the voice. As stated before, the healthy position of the tongue for singing is the 'ng' position. Use of this tongue position as home position of the tongue removes the possibility of the gag reflex at the root of the tongue. This concept offers vocal freedom and true resonance.

Observation of Teacher

Not too long after I had studied with Alan Lindquest, I heard about a teacher in New York who taught the separation and reintegration of the registers. Her name was Judith Raskin, the great Metropolitan Opera soprano. After having a conversation with her, she was extremely cordial to me and invited me to watch her teach in her New York studio. I learned one piece of information that was to be of great use throughout my teaching career. It was a concept that I had heard Lindquest teach similarly in regard to opening the upper register through the release of the root of the tongue. Ms. Raskin once said: "in order for any soprano or tenor or any singer for that matter to sing a high A natural above the staff and/or higher, that singer must use a slight ae (as in apple) at the root of the tongue. This concept is designed to pull the pressure off the vocal cords." I heard her teach this concept with great success and was amazed at the difference in the singer's ease at entering the high range. Ms. Raskin taught this concept with an oval mouth position so that the singer did not spread the mouth too much and create a throaty tone. I first learned of the arched tongue and the positive results at releasing the high voice from Alan Lindquest in 1979. I observed him teach many lessons and the result was amazing, especially for those of us who were struggling with the upper register. If a singer has difficulty with high notes, it is critical that he or she question the tongue position. If it is flat or retracted then there is no possibility of free vocal function in the high range.

The Swedish/Italian School and Tongue Function

Lindquest taught that the proper tongue position for singing was the 'ng' position. He once said that the sides of the tongue felt attached to the back inside upper teeth. He used to call this 'home position' for the tongue and was very strong in his statement that the tongue should return to approximately this position after every consonant as the jaw wraps slightly back. I thought this to be an extreme idea at first, but when applied to both amateur and professional singers in the U.S. and Europe, I saw every one of them open up their high range with much more ease. The vocal cords could pivot properly to allow the upper range to sing freely and easily. One need only study a video of Jussi Bjoerling in order to view an example of an arched and free tongue position.

My friend Martha Rosacker, who had arranged for me to travel and study with Lindquest, had come from extreme vocal difficulties. She had lost both her upper and lower range due to improper teaching of the passaggio and a retracted and flat tongue. Teachers kept taking her lower and lower in range to avoid the top or the passaggio area. This idea certainly did not work because she began to lose low notes in addition to lost high notes. This is a critical problem for singers who have not studied the proper narrowing of the upper passaggio accompanied by the arched tongue and slightly lowered larynx. When Lindquest began to guide the proper vocalization of her passaggio, Ms. Rosacker regained both her low and high range. The largest problem then was to learn how to deal with the high range consistently. In the past in order to really make a mezzo-like color; she had flattened her tongue. (A flat tongue especially seems to be a problem for lower voices.) Working the 'ng' tongue position was critical for her and she began to open her range successfully. One concept that opened the upper range was the ae in the root of the tongue which I later studied with Judith Raskin. When this was accomplished, Ms. Rosacker could sing arias with sustained high notes using much ease and vocal efficiency. I witnessed this successful process during my study with Lindquest while studying Ms. Rosacker's lessons.

Martha Rosacker had taught me in Texas before I moved to New York. She tried repeatedly to release my tongue. I remember one tape of a lesson in 1977. She tried to have me speak an Italian u vowel. I could not speak this vowel correctly because my tongue dipped like a spoon shape and pulled back into my throat. My vowel was distorted and I could not even speak the vowel properly because of the retracted and dipped tongue position. I must state at this juncture that I do NOT believe in teaching the groove in the tongue. This is yet another popular incorrect tongue posture that creates all kinds of registration and vowel problems. Through the use of the 'ng', I began to clear my vowels so that they could be understood properly and my upper range began to release. One need only study the way Italians speak to experience an example of a free tongue position.

Dangerous Teaching Methods

One of the most shocking methods taught is that of the tongue depressor or using a flat instrument to flatten the tongue. The idea behind this concept is that it gets the tongue "down and out of the way". This could not be further from the truth. In fact, quite the opposite actually occurs.. When the tongue is depressed, the tongue depresses the larynx making it impossible for the vocal cords to vibrate without forced breath pressure. This tremendous breath pressure can cause such problems as vocal polyps or nodules. In my studio in New York, I have taught singers who have studied the Stanley Method, a technique that practices using such a device. The damage took years and years to repair and in some cases the damage was permanent. Many singers were damaged by the Stanley method in the 1960's. Many careers were destroyed because of such teaching.

Warning Signs

Many singers do not know the warning signs when they are in vocal trouble or they simply deny that there is a problem with the hope that it will simply go away or the idea that is must get worse before it gets better. WELL, it does NOT get better. Simply hoping that the voice will get better when a technique is creating tremendous forcing of the vocal apparatus is magnificent fantasy. The reality is that when a flat-tongued technique is being employed, no singer can survive in the long run with vocal health. What are the warning signs and what should you do? I outlined the warning signs earlier but I will repeat them because it is such an important message to get out to the public.

Case Study: Dramatic Mezzo

While teaching in Brussels recently, I had a young dramatic mezzo come to me for a session. She had the confused idea that she was a contralto. Her frustration was that she had lost her high range. Immediately it became obvious that her tongue was depressing the larynx making a false color. When she used Lindquest's 'ng' tongue position as home position of the tongue, she easily regained her high C within the hour. The upper range literally popped open immediately. Unfortunately, this was a shock to the singer because she was used to the false color of the flat and retracted tongue. Her vocal identity was too connected to a false dark sound, which was completely pushed with too much breath pressure. The singer also suffered a fluttering vibrato which was uncontrolled and pushed. She had no real pitch center. It was difficult to know what pitch she was singing because the vibrato was so wide and the vocal cords did not approximate properly. All of her problems stemmed from the flat or retracted tongue. The incorrect tongue position demanded that the voice be forced open with tremendous breath pressure (classical belting), therefore making healthy vocalism impossible. The sad part of this tragic story is that the singer was taught to create this completely dysfunctional and false sound by a teacher at a music school. Had she continued to sing with this breath pressure, there is no doubt that vocal damage would have been the result.

Healthy Tongue Exercises

Release the jaw gently back (NOT down). Then speak the vowels a, e, a, e, a, e, etc. without the jaw moving. Be sure that the vowel changes are made only with the tongue. This exercise frees the root of the tongue and makes it possible for the singer to separate tongue and jaw function.

Speak and then sing the following syllables first on a single pitch and then on a 5 tone scale: di, lo, di, lo, di, lo, etc. Make sure that you use the front and back tongue function. The syllables are designed to exercise both the front and back of the tongue. Keep the jaw stable during this exercise without tensing the jaw. Use this exercise only in the middle register.

Using an 'ng' created with the middle of the tongue as in the Italian word 'che', go from 'ng' to a vowel without the tongue falling. Open the sound by lifting the palate instead of dropping the tongue.

Speak the following Italian syllables: da, me, ni, po, tu, la. Make sure the tongue works separate from the jaw. The jaw should remain quite stable.


(c) David L. Jones/2002

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