As singers we are always striving to release tension for a freer singing voice. Jaw tension, tongue tension, shoulder tension, breath tension...
What exactly do we mean by tension? According to the Oxford English Dictionary:
1. the state of being stretched tight.
"the parachute keeps the cable under tension as it drops"
tightness, tautness, rigidity; More
"a mind that is affected by stress or tension cannot think as clearly"
Though stretched muscles and mental and emotional strain can play a part (more on that later), this is NOT the tension we are usually talking about. What we usually mean by tension in terms of the body and singing is MUSCULAR tension:
Etymology: L, musculus + tendere, to stretch
the force that results from muscular contractions. Internal tension is produced when cross-bridges form between the actinand myosin filaments within each muscle fiber. The force generated by these contractile elements is transmitted to the bones via tendons and connective tissue. The bones move and produce external tension.
Mosby's Medical Dictionary, 9th edition. © 2009, Elsevier.
So we are looking at muscles in a state of contraction that impede the freedom of other muscles, movement of joints, and breath flow.
So let’s start with muscular tension and look at some of the causes and solutions.
1. Improper alignment and muscle imbalance. Our day-to-day lives leave us ripe for poor alignment and muscle imbalances. Sitting too much shortens our hip flexors. Hunching over computers, desks or even pianos allows our shoulders to round. Phones and computers cause text neck. Wearing heels affects the whole body shortening calves and throwing our hips forward, cause hyperextension of the back, and all the way up to your neck.
The typical solution in a voice studio is the teacher sees the misalignment and instructs the students to pull themselves into alignment. Let’s take rounded shoulders for example. The usual instruction is to pull the shoulders back. Unfortunately, this may cause more problems than it solves or at best is a momentary fix. You have now crossed into the Oxford definition of tension as you have elongated and stretched muscles, which is not correct medical term that we want to use. The contracted pectorals and neck muscles are now being stretched out beyond their current capability, which will cause discomfort to the student and have limited influence on the sound in this state.
The teacher may have advised to undergo a course of stretching exercises for the pectoralis major (chest muscle), but that is of limited use unless strengthening of the antagonistic muscles (Infraspinatus, teres minor, middle and posterior deltoid, latissimus dorsi, teres major) is also undertaken. Joint alignment of the shoulder must be taken into consideration, too.
Solution: If possible see a personal trainer or physical therapist proficient in postural assessment. They will be able to target where imbalances are and give corrective exercises. Do full body- conditioning exercises – do not focus on just one body part or muscle group. The Total Singer Challenge offers programs that can help with better alignment and strengthening, I am also trained in postural assessment.
2. Injury: If you have an injury, whether a broken bone or a sprained finger, it can affect your whole body, which can affect alignment and cause tension. Even the smallest injury can make you compensate with other muscles. Also the pain mechanism can cause clenching of muscles. Let’s take a not so obvious injury and see how it can affect the body – a sprained index finger of the dominant hand. The pain may cause tension in the shoulder, neck and jaw from clenching. You will be favouring use of other fingers that are not as strong, so the unfamiliar grip will cause fatigue of muscles not usually used, which can lead to more tension.
Solution: If it is a newer injury then you should be under the care of a physical therapist to aid with recovery. When singing try to position yourself in a way that will minimize tension. If you have a lower body injury, this may mean sitting (always observing good sitting practices). If it’s an older injury that has scar tissue involved you may need to seek other forms of therapy such as deep tissue massage or active release technique. Also see the solution to point 1.
3. Unawareness of bad habits: Every singer knows about the “terrible tongue”. It seems to have a mind of it’s own at times; retracting on high notes, tensing, pushing down on the larynx, etc. Most of this happens just because it hasn’t been trained properly. A good teacher can usually bring awareness to this and with diligent training the problem will be solved. There are other bad habits that can occur from no obvious reason. For me, as a young singer, I tended to sickle my foot while I sang. I finally managed to get rid of it, but then discovered the tension had moved to my butt cheek, which liked to clench. My teachers were unaware that this was taking place. It took a while by my own conscious efforts to get rid of it and there was really no obvious technical reason that it should have been happening.
Other areas of tension can be the wrinkling forehead, clenched fists, splayed fingers, and other manifestations or tension. Now some of these may be just a bad habit, trying to help with technique – all sorts of things happen in singers hitting high notes, for example, even singers with good technique have been caught rising on toes or wrinkling foreheads; possibly vestiges of a time before their technique was mastered.
Solution: Constant awareness. If this has been a longstanding problem you may need to address any issues as with point 1. If it is a technical issue see point 5.
4. Stress: Now some of the above types of tension can also be caused by stress. Mental and/or emotional strain is, after all, the second definition of tension listed above. This can manifest itself physically, sometimes as chronic tension when certain muscles in your body stay in a semi-contracted mode for long periods of time. When you are worried about something it can be difficulty to breathe correctly, you may remain in a tense position without realizing it, and find you can't relax and let go. A voice teacher or coach is not necessarily able to help with the root cause, but they can identify that it is impeding the freedom of the voice and advice the singer to get appropriate treatment if they are not already doing so.
Solution: If it is just the stress of daily life a meditation practice, yoga, or a good massage may be all that’s needed. It could be a fear of messing up - "Here comes that high note", which requires work on confidence and secure technique. If it is a more deeply rooted problem, such as anxiety or depression, then the care of a medical or mental health practitioner is recommended. Voice teachers often reflect on how their lessons can sometimes feel like therapy sessions, but it really is outside of our scope of practice and should be deferred to the professionals in this area.
5. Poor technique: Poor technique in breath management will especially have an effect on tension. An insufficiently deep breath and inconsistent airflow can cause throat and jaw tension. Breathing into the wrong area, whether from the incorrect instruction to sing from the diaphragm or over focusing on belly breathing, can throw out alignment. Insufficient lift in the soft palate can cause tension in many parts of the kinetic chain of singing as the body tries to compensate. And of course, there can be other aspects of poor technique.
Solution: A good voice teacher should be able to identify and address issues of poor technique. Your own diligent work must do the rest. Poor technique over many years can cause muscle imbalances, so again, see point 1.
In conclusion, to have a free vibrant singing voice we want a body free of unnecessary muscular tension. Finding the root cause of the tension and giving it the proper treatment is important, otherwise the cycle of tension will continue. However, a daily course of self-massage and foam rolling, plus a good full body workout can go a long way in aiding the management of tension until the root cause is addressed.
If you are looking for ways to improve your alignment and release tension then join our next Total Singer Challenge where you will get one-on-one attention to target your specific needs. Click here for more information.