Muscle tension in singing: A three-step plan for release

tension illustrated by a tug of war

Have you ever suffered from tense muscles or vocal constriction? Has your singing teacher ever told you to relax? If only it was that simple! I mean, it’s not like you’re deliberately trying to be tense. Muscle tension is a problem that often plagues many singers. There are reasons why and strategies we can take to relieve tense muscles.

What is muscle tension?

Not all tension is bad! In fact, the reason you’re sitting upright and reading this blog is due to muscular tension. Many of the body’s muscles work in pairs. Antagonistic pairs of muscles create movement when one (the prime mover) contracts and the other (the antagonist) relaxes. This is an example of helpful tension.

However, some types of tension interfere or are not productive for the task you’re trying to perform and are described as unhelpful tension. Unhelpful tension in singing may be defined as anything that interferes with free and efficient vocal function.  Unhelpful tension in one part of the body (or process) can easily interfere with others. For example, a tight jaw will affect your ability to communicate text (articulation). A tight tongue will affect your ability to produce beautiful vowels (resonance). Similarly, tension in the abdominals will almost always lead to squeezing or tightness in the throat.

Singing involves an integration of many processes and many different muscles working together to complete a task – posture, respiration, phonation, resonance, articulation and expression.  Some examples of unhelpful tensions that singers commonly experience in these areas are:

  • Respiration: poor posture, tight abdominals can affect your ability to take in a low free breath or your ability to regulate your outwood breath.
  • Phonation: Tightness in your neck or engaging your swalloing muscles while you sing, can produce a consticted sound
  • Articulation: A tight jaw, TMJ disorder, or tight tongue will affect your ability to produce beautiful vowels sounds and words that can be easily understood.
  • Expression: internal tension, fear and self-doubt can affect your ability to sing expressively.

Why do I have muscle tension?

There are several reasons why singers experience unhelpful tension.

  • Habit: You’ve always done it this way because you don’t know any other way to do it
  • Emotional: You’re scared or nervous about singing or you feel like an imposter as a singer
  • Compensatory: Your muscles lack strength/control in one area and other muscles are trying to compensate or help.
  • Technique: Your knowledge of voice technique has gaps and you are not using your muscles in the most efficient manner.
  • Illness: certain diseases and illnesses, such as Tetanus, Parkinson’s Syndrome and arthritis can cause muscle pain and tension.

You can address unhelpful tension in your voice technique by following a three-step plan:

Step 1: Build Awareness of muscle tension

You may not be aware of tension until your teacher points it out to you. You may accidentally discover the tension or suspect it’s there. Whatever the reason, the first step in addressing unwanted tension is to build your awareness. Place your fingers on the area of tension and simply monitor what is going on while you sing. As a point of reference, you can score out of 10 how much tension you feel you’re using and whether you’re able to increase and reduce this. As a further awareness exercise, try gently massaging the area of tension while you sing.

Step 2: Release muscle tension

Tension is simply a contraction of certain muscles. The simplest way to release tension is to move the offending muscles because a muscle cannot be simultaneously held tight and moved. If your jaw is tight while you sing, then try singing with an exaggerated chewing action. If your tongue is tight while you’re singing, then try sticking it out and moving it while you sing a phrase. Using movement to release tension will help your body learn new habits.

Step 3: Develop coordination and strength

This final step is the only long-term and lasting solution to eliminate unwanted tension. This step is challenging because it requires patience and training! When they first discover unwanted tension, some singers may obsess over it. This can be unhelpful for, as I’ve pointed out, beautiful singing involves an integration of many processes and becoming hyper-focused on one area of technique may mean you miss a more fundamental or core reason for the tension. The solution is to work with a skilled teacher and systematically develop strength and coordination across all areas of vocal technique. This is the essence of the Total Voice Studio approach. If you teach your body new habits while at the same time taking a holistic approach to your technique, the need for compensatory tensions will fall away and a new voice will emerge.

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