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Thursday, November 10, 2011


The importance of understanding the use of the tongue in singing cannot be overstated. The proper use of the tongue is absolutely vital to great singing as it affects the breathing, registration, laryngeal position, pharyngeal and mouth resonance, the vowel, the vibrato and thus vocal efficiency. Therefore the tongue can either *help* the singer or greatly *hinder* the singer. My teacher, Dr. Thomas Lo Monaco, has a chapter in his unfinished book titled, "The Tongue: Friend or Foe?" That is a perfect title. Funnily enough, my soprano student suggested that the title be, "The Frigging Tongue!" as it can really be an obstacle to great singing as much as it can help great singing. Consequently, there is a plethora of incorrect or misguided information about how the tongue should work to help the singer. I will address as much of that as I can in the following paragraphs.

First, let me help to define three essential parts of the tongue and how the work ideally in singing:

1) The tip

2) The middle

3) The back or "root"

So we can divide the tongue into these three sections. The front third, the middle third and the back third. Generally, the tip of the tongue (front third) is used for articulation. Many of the consonants are articulated by the tip of the tongue. "L", "D", "N", "T" as well as partly affecting "S", "Z", "C", the "SH" and "CH" sounds etc. The middle third of the tongue is responsible for the formation of the vowels: "AH", "EH", "EE", "OH" and "OO" as well as their variations such as "ER" or "UH". The middle third also affects mouth resonance. The back third or "root" of the tongue greatly affects pharyngeal resonance - which is the main resonator of the voice - as well as laryngeal position.


I am sure many of you reading this article have been told by teachers that you should hold the tip of your tongue behind your bottom teeth in order to get the tongue out of the throat. This is one of the most disastrous instructions that has ever been taught to singers. It is also a clear example of the difference between what is actual and what is apparent. This is something my teacher made perfectly clear. The fact is that when the tip of the tongue in held behind the bottom teeth it causes the hyoid bone and larynx to be lifted up and forward - like it does in a swallowing action. This closes the pharyngeal space and causes the singer to pull out of "chest voice" and shortens the vocal tract. This results in a "lighter" more "constricted" sound. It also does not allow for the proper use of the vibrato action as the "chest voice" muscles no longer hold the larynx in place by which the vocal folds are then stretched and relaxed to change pitch for the vibrato. What usually results over time is a movement called a tremolo or caprino. In other words, a true vibrato cannot be produced and instead the singer gets a fluttery movement. Additionally, it is impossible for the singer to open the mouth vertically wide - which is necessary on high notes and very low notes - and singing the vowels clearly. Especially the vowels EE and EH. So teachers will often tell students to "modify" these vowels. That should not have to happen.

What should happen instead is that the tip of the tongue retracts while the back of the tongue comes forward. The tip and the back of the tongue work antagonistically against each other which holds the throat in the most open position. The pharyngeal space can then be utilized for full resonance while the middle third of the tongue moves to form the vowels. In this set up the mouth resonance also enhances the pharyngeal resonance. In the other set up, with the tip of the tongue against the bottom teeth, the singer is forced to manipulate the mouth and lips which dampens resonance. This also causes a lack of "squillo" in the sound which I call "core".

Another faulty position the tongue can take is where the middle third of the tongue is in a concave position. What often happens in this position is that the tip of the tongue goes up on certain vowels such as OH and OO. Again, this is a disastrous setup as it causes the hyoid bone to then be depressed onto the thyroid cartilage. This setup while cause the singer to have either one of the following problems:

1) Woofiness; i.e., a lack of squillo/core/clarity

2) a depressed layrnx

The woofiness sounds "dark", but it is the improper darkness caused by a lack of squillo/core/clarity. Proper darkness occurs when the larynx stays in a lower position thus elongating the vocal tract. This causes a darker sound. Also, the pharyngeal resonance is bigger which causes a fuller sound and the proper use of the falsetto muscles (mainly the cricothyroids) allows for a fuller lengthening of the vocal folds. This also gives a bigger, richer sound. When the tongue is in a concave position this "clarity" or "squillo" in the sound is often dampened resulting in woofiness. If the sound is not so "woofy" in this set up and the singer manages to have some clarity then often will have problems with movement or will have a distinctive "uhl" in their sound. Especially on the vowels ah, oh, and oo. It does not allow for a fully chiaroscuro sound.

Therefore, if a singer is to aim for a dark, resonant, operatic sound with proper clarity/squillante, or in other words a chiaroscuro sound, the position of the tongue is crucial in aiding the singer to achieve this. If, however, the tongue is held in the wrong position this possibility is lost. It is a contradiction for a teacher to advise a student to hold the tip of the tongue against the bottom teeth while asking for a fully dark and resonant sound. The singer is basically setting up an obstacle with the tongue in that position that will not allow for the larynx to lower. If the larynx does not lower the vocal tract is not elongated and the sound stays lighter. One cannot make a dark sound without the larynx staying low. On the other hand, if a singer lowers their larynx by making the tongue concave whereby the hyoid bone pushes the thyroid cartilage down, the sound will lose clarity, become woofy, and the singer will lose flexibility.

In the book, "Great Singers on Great Singing", Jerome Hines asked Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson, "Do you think of putting it (the tongue) against the teeth?" Birgit Nilsson responded, "No, but I don't want to have the tongue down the throat."
Of course she is right and it goes along with the proper functioning of the tongue. not held against the teeth and not with the root (back) in the throat. As long as the tip retracts and the vowel is clear, the root cannot be down in the throat. She was right on.

Here are some examples of singers retracting the tongue. Some of these singers I think are talented, but need work on other things. However, this is about the tongue in particular:

Watch from 2:57

Hadley, who was taught by my teacher, watch at 2:26

In his prime when he was still working most closely with my teacher:

In Jerome Hines book 'Great Singers on Great Singing' Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish Wagnerian who said outright she does not hold the tip of the tongue behind the teeth. Watch at 2:30. You see the tip of her tongue retract away from the bottom teeth:

The same thing with Melchior. Watch at 55 seconds:

Juan Diego Florez is not my personal favorite, but he does it as well. Watch from 1:20:

Also not my favorite tenor, but he retracts also:

And one of the top rated singers today Jonas Kaufmann. Watch from 3:12

So I am sorry David Jones. You are misleading people

From 2:57 on you can clearly see the tip of his tongue retracted while the back comes up and forward and the middle forms the vowels.

1 comment:

  1. Is it possible that some voices just don't have the squillo? Does it show at the beginning of training or is it a thing that appears after few years?