How Tongue Position In Singing Can Change Your Voice
In speech we often use the front portion of our face to create our vowel sounds using the articulators including the teeth, the tip of the tongue and the lips. Your tongue position in singing is actually how you form each vowel sound. By physically moving and shaping your tongue in a particular manner while allowing appropriate resonant space in the vocal tract, you EQ your frequencies into the ‘illusion’ of each of the sung vowel sounds. Vowels are just one of the many differences between speech and singing, along with diaphragmatic breathing, use of your full range of frequencies, consonant articulation, placement, tonality and others. Learning how to form the right tongue position will absolutely change your voice forever and allow you to sing ANY song you have ever dreamed of, in ANY style you can imagine. Your tongue position is the key to efficient resonance and strain free singing. Are you pronouncing your vowels, or forming them correctly with your tongue? Lets find out.
One of easiest ways to illustrate the importance of tongue position in singing is for you to alternate between an EE sound like the word “See” and an AH vowel like in the word “Car”. No doubt you will feel a subtle shift your tongue position in singing these sounds – the back of your tongue will be raised on the EE, and your whole tongue will be lowered to a concave on the AH – congratulations, you just shaped your first two vowel sounds.
All vowels are formed from AH, EE and OO
In essence, there are really only three “pure” vowel sounds – AH, EE and OO. All other vowel sounds and combination vowels and diphthongs are created from these sounds, or a combination of these tongue positions. A great example is to start with an EE vowel, then lower your jaw in a non-tensed way. The resulting sound will be an “AY” or “EH” sound that can be used for any EH or AY word like Pet, Pay, Say or Get. Every time you sing these words, instead of trying to contort your pronunciation and speech voice into these sounds, instead you should form the EE vowel and open your mouth like we just discovered – this will give you a consistent, pure and powerfully resonant vowel that can be used for any similar word.
Now, the AH vowel is also the base for other vowels like OH and AA. The OH vowel is formed with an AH vowel shape (concave and low) with an oval aperture at the mouth from top to bottom – in short, singing an AH vowel and bringing your cheeks in towards the centre of your mouth will create any OH sound words like Go, Four, Lock or Don’t. Now, to achieve a bright AA vowel like the word “Cat”, you simply need to form the AH vowel with your tongue low and concave and move the middle portion of your tongue forward slightly – one of the most simple and bright vowels you can sing.
OO is the only sole vowel that has it’s own pure shape, which occurs when you move the bulk of your tongue back into your throat and elongate your lips forward. The resulting resonant OO sound will be relaxed but powerful and can be used for any pure OO word like Food, Due or To.
Resonant space is key
Along with forming the right tongue position in singing, it’s important that you alter your resonant space to allow resonance in the pharynx to occur as you create higher frequencies towards the top of your range. One of the best ways to develop this is to alternate between closed and open sounds, like an OO to AH, or an EE to AY through your vocal break. As you ascend towards the open sound (OO to AH), you will feel an increase in resonant space in the pharynx by way of movement of the tongue root and the soft palate. Now, if you try this a second time with an open vowel to start and you send the perception of your vowel up into the same resonant space, your range will expand exponentially with the increase of resonant space.
Once you get the hang of your voice travelling back and upwards into the soft palate, you can start with this same intention from the very beginning of your warmup – taking your liptrills and basic resonant sounds like N along the same path to ensure appropriate resonant space. Then when you start working on your vowel sounds you will have built a powerful foundation that connects between chest and head voice while also maintaining resonant consistency no matter where you sing.
Support is king
While vowels and resonant space are key, support is king in any style of music. Now, much ado has been made out of terms like support, lean, prop and appogio – all which mean exactly the same thing. Support is simply a proportional balance between air flow and air pressure – meaning that as you ascend in range and your vocal fold require a faster vibration, you increase air pressure while decreasing physical airflow. This natural balance between airflow and air pressure is called support, and is the difference between a powerfully resonant range, and a breathy, weak tone.
Achieving good support is actually a result of healthy posture and management of air flow. While many singers out there are instructed to clench or push to achieve support, it’s actually a process of balance between the intercostal muscles and the diaphragm itself. A great way to do this is to focus ‘down’ as you ascend in range, as though you’re holding a heavy book in each of your hands. This retains the wide rib position achieved in a healthy posture and proper diaphragmatic breathing, while also retaining controlled extension of the diaphragm instead of allowing it to ‘push up’ and force air out as you sustain a phrase or ascend to your high range. Imagine that there is a basketball underneath each of your arms around rib height – if you imagine holding each basketball in place with your inner arm, this is similar to the sensation of supporting your voice. Simply repeat this sensation internally as you sing for a powerfully support and consistently resonant voice.
Foundation, Foundation, Foundation
Foundation in singing is literally like the foundation of a house – the concrete base that you build the rest of your voice upon. Your singing voice will only ever be as strong as the foundation you have built it upon. Vocal foundation includes the base elements of the voice such as posture, vocal fold closure, vowel shaping, diaphragmatic breathing and the “concrete slab” aspects of your voice. By setting up a strong foundation, you will ensure every additional step you add to your vocal routine, and every octave of range you learn to access will share this strong base and perpetuate the strength built in your foundation.
Your tongue position in singing really does make the difference between a powerfully resonant and consistent voice – remember, pronunciation only occurs in speech, not singing! To sing your vowel sounds properly you first need to shape your tongue correctly and allow appropriate resonant space. If you need some help with developing your vowels and fixing your tongue position in singing, you’re welcome to book a Skype Lesson with me and we’ll start working towards extending your range and building control and consistency in your voice EVERY time you sing.
If you have any questions about tongue position in singing, feel free to leave any feedback or questions below!
Kegan DeBoheme is Bohemian Vocal Studio’s resident vocal coach and voice expert. He teaches professional singing and voice technique to students all around the world and enjoys providing tutorials like this one on how to improve your voice.