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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
A dark tonal quality that may sound good to the singer inside the head
but does not carry in the opera house. A tape or mini disc recorder will
reveal this kind of dysfunctional tonal quality.
A need to push more air pressure to go into the higher range.
Loss of the high pianissimo
Jaw pushing forward due to over pressurization of the breath.
Hoarseness after singing.
Spread mouth position as an attempt to brighten the overly darkened quality
of the voice. (This simply closes the throat and creates many more problems.)
Shaking in the jaw and tongue as a result of the tremendous breath pressure
required to force phonation.
Loss of the upper range.
Loss of the lower range.
Inability to pronounce clearly.
Wide uncontrolled vibrato or fast uncontrolled vibrato.
Low soft palate.
Head pushing forward as a result of the tremendous neck pressure; a direct
result of too much breath pressure. This breath pressure is a result of
the singer trying to force the upper range into function.
Dropping of the chest cavity. This is yet another attempt to force an
overly darkened and non-resonant tone through the use of too much breath
Lack of healthy nasal resonance due to the flat tongue.
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
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.
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
sound, which was completely pushed with too much breath pressure. The singer
also suffered a fluttering vibrato which was uncontrolled and pushed. She
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.
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