Make the Most of Your Mouth!
The mouth is one of the most essential parts of the vocal instrument. So why does talking about it make us so uncomfortable?
The eyes are the windows to the soul. The ears are the closest organ to the brain. The mouth is our most important tool for shaping the sounds that we make and communicating. So why does it seem like talking about the mouth is such an intimate, uncomfortable, and slightly taboo topic? If you were to see someone with a piece of fluff near their eye, you’d likely point it out. But if you were to see someone with a bit of lettuce on their teeth, I bet you would try your best to ignore it and avoid pointing it out because it would be so awkward.
I don’t actually know why discussion of the mouth makes most people uncomfortable, but I have a theory: We think of the mouth as part of the digestive system. Or, ahem, the reproductive system. (We don’t make out with our eyeballs and ears, after all!)
So imagine a student’s surprise – especially if that student is a teenage boy – the first time his voice teacher says, “I’ve been looking at your mouth and your tongue is really tense!” To which he responds, “What?! You were looking at my mouth and tongue? Ewww!” For most of us, the mouth is almost unmentionable.
But as singers, we have to think of it in a different way – a third way. The mouth is a resonance chamber. A resonance chamber is a space in which sound bounces around before leaving the body. Resonance chambers enhance some sound waves and diminish others. The mouth is the human equivalent of the box of a guitar, the bell of a trumpet, and the body of a flute. The mouth is one of the most essential parts of the human instrument… so get over it! We need to talk about the mouth. Singers have to talk about the mouth a lot!
In particular, we must think about tension as it relates to the mouth. Many styles of singing require very specific tension in the tongue or jaw to create the signature sound for that style. A few require almost complete relaxation and release of all tension in the tongue and jaw for optimal sound. And some styles require something akin to professional level gymnastics from the tongue.
The singer needs to figure out how to sing and sound great for their style, but reduce tension as much as possible so that they can perform for one, two, or more hours, several nights a week, without doing harm to their voice or suffering from repetitive use issues. The big goal is finding the optimal balance of a sustainable technique while staying true to the genre. The singer has to sound "right," but be able to make a consistent and healthy sound all the time.
The jaw is a big killer of resonance. Possibly no other muscle group is tied more closely to emotion than the jaw. Singing with a tight jaw is a sure way to sound like you’re restraining; holding back. Gripping the jaw is a hallmark of anger and repression. I dare you to sing 100% of a grunge or emo song with a relaxed jaw and still sound true to the genre!
Sometimes we want a tight jaw, though. It’s up to the singer to figure out how much tension is too much and how much tension is too little. Controlling the jaw muscles – or maybe convincing the jaw muscles to give up control – is perhaps the hardest job for many singers.
Tongue tension cannot be avoided entirely. Every vowel and consonant is formed by tensing the tongue in a different way. It is a phenomenally impressive muscle group! I think the tongue is what makes the human instrument the most special instrument on the planet.
So what is the secret of appropriate tongue tension? Use as little tongue tension as possible while listening for the best sound. Then layer as little tension as needed to get the job done. Anyone who has ever sung a song on just vowels has practiced this technique, which includes anyone who has ever been in a choir or taken classical voice lessons. There are huge benefits to be gained in all genres by singing a song with just the vowels.
If you know what I mean by singing with just the vowels you can skip this paragraph. If you don't, here is how it’s done: Take the lyric, "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie" and sing it without any consonants. "Eye, eye, i ah e i a eye." Sing those vowels with a mostly relaxed jaw and tongue. Keep trying until it is simple and natural. It should sound terrific - great resonance! Now your job is to sound that great after you add the consonants back in.
The Secret Weapon
Singers, you might think that nailing pitch and breath control are the keys to being a great singer. They ARE important. But the mouth is the secret weapon. The big difference between the pros and the amateurs is mastery of the mouth. In fact, in some genres the mouth is the most important player. Think of Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Patty Smith, Nicki Minaj. These singers do not depend on breath control or pitch control for their artistic expression. It is all about the mouth - story telling.
I went to a Seu George concert. He has been one of my favorite singers since the movie Life Aquatic came out. (If you know the movie, you won't be surprised that dozens of people in the audience were wearing red stocking caps and blue jumpsuits.) Seu has an amazing way of balancing vocal skills, (comparable to singers like Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby), with the storytelling skills of Willie Nelson. In my mind, Seu George has found the perfect balance of relaxation/tension to create the optimal sound for his genre and style. The man sings in Portuguese and yet attracts thousands of English speaking Americans to his concerts! We don't care what he is saying, we just want to hear that expressive voice!
So level up! You can start now. Close your eyes. Sing your song. Feel what your tongue and jaw are doing. Experiment with the tension levels. Listen to the difference. You will love the options that open up for you.