Tension Is the Enemy of a Singer, Part 1: Jaw Tension

One very important concept for any singer to remember is that your body is your instrument, not your vocal cords. Anything that negatively impacts the open flow of energy and sound through your body will negatively effect the quality of your singing. Chief among these is physical tension. Tension is the enemy of the singer because it blocks the free flow of energy, breath, and sound throughout the body, necessary for communication.

When a new singer comes to work with me, one of the very first things I do is to help them become aware of any physical tensions they have that are getting in the way of their most efficient production of sound. Mother Nature gave humans an incredibly efficient mechanism for producing sound, but singers often do not trust it. Instead, they develop habits which they believe help control their sound, but which really just create all sorts of tensions that negatively impact the sound they are trying to improve.

The most common tensions I see singers dealing with are jaw tension, neck tension and tongue tension. In my next three articles, I will explore each of these tensions, how and why they creep in, and I’ll give you some simple tips and exercises you can do to release them. Let’s start with jaw tension.

If you have trouble with your higher register, one of the culprits might be that you are trying to grab and control the notes with your jaw. If the jaw is not free, then your ability to stretch your soft palate is compromised, as soft palate stretch is necessary to access your upper register successfully. The more locked and controlling your jaw is, the less you can expand into your soft palate for those higher notes. We need to have a free and fluid jaw while singing. Most singers do not even realize they have been locking or holding, because they have never felt it any other way. Here is an exercise to access more freedom in the jaw and let go of tension.

Find a soft, easy smile and let the jaw hang in that smile. Remember that when we talk about the jaw, we’re really just talking about the two hinges on either side of your head in front of your ears (don’t mistake the jaw for the chin). From this easy smile, allow the jaw hinges to soften and open. The feeling will be one of the jaw hanging down and back as you smile. Do not hold your jaw in this position; it should feel free and softly hanging. Keep the energy of the easy smile by feeling your ears widening away from each other. Then, alternate between chanting “ya-ya-ya” and “la-la-la” on a single pitch as you go down a five-note scale. You want the tongue to be doing the work of moving to change the vowels and consonants, not the jaw. We need the tongue and jaw to be able to move independently of one another. If you find your jaw locking, closing, or moving up and down in tandem with the tongue as you change consonants, then close your mouth, swallow, take a nose breath into a smile, feel your ears widening, then let the jaw drop again and resume. Doing this exercise in front of a mirror can be helpful as well.

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Arden Kaywin
Arden Kaywin is voice teacher, vocal coach, and vocal producer in Los Angeles with over 10 years experience working with developing singers and nearly 20 years as a professional singer herself. She holds a master’s degree in music and vocal performance from the Manhattan School of Music in NYC, where she studied classical voice and opera.
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