Episode 134 – Mind Your Tongue

The tongue is a critical part of good, balanced singing, but our awareness can often be lacking.

In this episode, John discusses why tongue placement helps with registration and balance, and how to control the tongue when belting high, strong notes.


Boldly Belting

Episode Transcript

Episode 134 – Mind Your Tongue

Hey there, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist. I do so appreciate you spending your precious listening time with me this week. My book, Voice Teacher Influencer will be available. This podcast is coming out on November 12th. So what is that – the Friday, November 15th, you will be able to get the book on Amazon Kindle, and paperback, assuming all things go well. The paperback process is a little bit trickier because you have to submit all the artwork and they’ve got a whole review process. In my last book I hit some crazy snag and I had to resubmit the cover artwork like five times, even though it barely changed. Even Amazon couldn’t figure it out for a while, so that was delayed. But, assuming all goes well on the 15th, you’ll be able to get Voice Teacher Influencer on Kindle and paperback.

And get on my email list because I’m going to have the book available for free and I’m going to be announcing that, the Kindle version, announcing that to my email list. So just go to johnhenny.com and sign up for my list. And my list always gets the first heads up. First dibs on new things that I have going on.

All right, today I want to talk about the tongue, your tongue, because that in singing and in vowel adjustment, in resonance adjustment and vowels, for me, vowels really are the best way to control resonance. I’ve done podcasts on this before talking about placement and this idea of placement and where you feel the voice either more in the head, more in the chest, off the hard palate, behind the eyes, forward, backward. That’s all just a result of the resonance and how your body’s absorbing the energy and then how you process those sensations.

And those can be a little misleading and it’s really hard to guide the voice by a result. You really have to go to the causation of this result. And the cause is the actual resonance and how you’re adjusting the resonance. And the best way to adjust the resonance is through vowels. You really can’t think aligning the resonances with certain parts of the sound wave. I mean you can, but that’s a little convoluted. But thinking about shades of vowels – that is much, much easier. And it’s how we do language all day long, and the different shades of the vowels and the lips are usually quite easy for students to pick up on. And you open the lips a little more, you round the lips a little more, they’re there. We’re very aware of what our lips are doing, but the tongue much less so. However, the tongue is such a vital part of singing and resonance.

As you move the tongue backward and forward in the voice, you are changing the size and shape of your resonators. The back of the tongue, that back hump, really does separate the throat resonator from the mouth resonator, but it’s movable. So if you say “ooh,” feel your tongue when you do that. So just say this for me. Drop your jaw, say, “ooh, ah, ooh, ah, ooh,” and you will feel the tongue move back. So that resonator of the throat becomes a bit smaller and the mouth resonator becomes a bit bigger. Now a smaller space will boost higher frequencies or higher parts of the sound wave. It’s like a DJs filter. If we’re just boosting the low parts of the track that’s coming through the DJ rig, you get, and then if we just start boosting all the highs and then we get. The DJs use that to build intensity.

They’ll just boost the lows and then they’ll just start boosting the highs and then they’ll bring in the whole full balanced track. That’s a typical break down effect. So what we do when we say OO is we make the throat resonator smaller, which is going to tend to boost a higher part of the sound wave we’re creating. And we make the mouth resonator bigger, which is gonna tend to boost a lower part of the sound wave. However, our lips rounding down for the OO drives the resonances towards the low part of the sound wave. So an OO doesn’t have a lot of high frequencies in it. That’s why it’s very hard to belt an OO but it’s very easy to flip on it on an OO. That’s why yodelers use it. 

And what that does is that makes the throat resonator longer so it’s boosting lower frequencies, and the mouth resonator’s smaller, so that’s boosting higher frequencies. And without getting too deep into the science of this, cause I know we can get into the weeds very quickly. The E is also kind of an extreme vowel because of the throat resonator becomes so much longer in the E because the back of the tongue has moved so much more forward that it is also an easy vowel to flip and a hard vowel to belt. That’s why yodelers say yodel ey E and OO. There’s that E. But the tongue aside from those extremes of OO and the E, there were all different shades and combinations we can do with the lips and the tongue. But the tongue in particular is one that we’re not always very aware of. And there are two main groupings of vowels. There are the family of vowels called back vowels, and then there are front vowels. The back vowels refer to vowels and related vowels where the tongue stays basically back. And that is the aforementioned OO. And the more open version of that is AH, as in the American pronunciation of father. AH, UH, OH, OO. Or you can say bought, but, book, boot.

The forward vowels where the tongue moves forward. AE, EH, IH, E. Our E you’ll notice on that family, the tongue is doing the work and the first grouping, the tongue is staying still and the lips are rounding. But on the forward vowels, there the lips don’t move so much. It’s the tongue that’s doing the adjustment and this family of vowels tends to give singers more trouble. It’s usually quite easy or easier to get singers to adjust the back vowels or the lip vowels because I can have the singer place their hands on their cheeks and when they go for the trouble note that tends, the vowel tends to be too broad. You just press the cheeks together as I’m doing now and that will force the issue that will make the vowel more rounded and you will tend to get the right resonance, which will give you the right vocal balance. But the tongue, not so much. The tongue, you just have to develop an awareness of and very often I will just have students move from that AE to the E position slowly.

And you want to play with that and just feel the different shades of the tongue moving and what that does to the vowel because when you go to sing those high strong notes an AE or an EI cannot have the tongue as far back. Essentially the mouth resonator is too big and it’s not going to pick up the higher parts of the sound wave that you need for that energy on your top belted notes. So EI you have to move the tongue slightly forward, almost like an Irish EH, faith. Seeing that with an Irish brogue and that EH with a bit of an E tongue will tend to get you in the right place. Now on notes, or I’m sorry vowel sounds, where the tongue is very forward like E now the tongue acoustically, the mouth resonator is too small and the throat resonator is too long and it’s not going to align with the sound wave in order for you to belt it properly.

So what you need to do is the tongue needs to pull back. I don’t know how this is going to look on the transcription of this podcast cause I’m planning on getting back into transcriptions and creating nice PDF downloads of everything. I’ve got my team starting to work on that. Yes I do have a team. I have people that help me with all this stuff. But so if you’re reading this, you may want to listen as well. But E, Ey. That’s what the E’s gonna have to do. It’s going to have to pull back a little bit and you need to remember vowels are not just specific sounds. There’s no one setting that we recognize as E. There are all kinds of shades that we hear as E and all kinds of shades that we hear as OH and EI.  vowels are on a continuum.

It’s on a spectrum. And what we need to do as singers is we need to find the acoustic balance. Cause this is no longer speech. There are completely different demands in terms of acoustics because of the pitches we are doing a language on and creating these vowel sounds on way out of the realm of speech. And so the sound wave has drastically changed. The math of the sound wave is very different. The interaction with our resonators is very different, especially if we want to be balanced and create a nice robust sound, a belty sound. So what we need to do is we need to move the tongue just enough to create the perception of E without falling all the way into a spoken E sound. Now, I often recommend that you find a base sound, a centered vowel sound that tends to work for you in most parts of your voice.

And for most singers, it is some shade of UH as in up. And that is a neutral centered vowel sound acoustically. That setting of your resonators will tend to align well with the sound wave. Now there will be variations of it depending on the pitch, but you can kind of set yourself on an UH to find where you need to be. You adjust towards the vowel you need just enough to hear and create the perception of the vowel to boost the acoustic energy just enough into that part of the spectrum that we hear E or OH or OO because if you go all the way to a spoken E OH or OO, you will tend to flip. It won’t hold acoustically. There’s not enough upper energy in that and there are things that will happen with the interaction of your resonators and the sound wave that won’t work for a strong, robust sound.

And that’s usually what people are working on. I mean, singing in falsetto is usually not what people spend the bulk of their practice time figuring out how to do. Everybody wants to sing higher, stronger, louder. So it is getting that centered vowel and adjusting just enough so that you begin, you get the perception of the vowel need. And listen to really good singers. You will hear them do that when they are belting out a word such as “you” or “me” in a balanced way, not somebody screaming. Although that can be okay for certain artistic, but you gotta be really careful with that. Going into a shout is difficult and it will kick up things in your nervous system that will tend to make you clamp. And it is really hard to do that safely. And I don’t recommend it for most singers until you’re really advanced and you’ve really got control over your nervous system.

But most elite singers are not yelling those words “you” and “me.” They are finding a shade of the OO and E vowel that will give you the perception of the word while still staying within the acoustic balance that they need to create the tone, color and the intensity. You can’t get that on certain sounds, especially those very closed down sounds of OO and E. The throat resonator is just too long on the E, so it’s going to cause you to flip. The OO doesn’t have enough high frequencies in it. It’s gonna cause you to flip. Again, that’s why yodelers love it so. So develop this awareness of the tongue and play with those. If vowel sounds like IH of bit has to come back a little bit. Even saying the sound like “is,” that is just such a little thin, nasty sound that to sing a robust note on it doesn’t quite work. So you got to start more towards the UH and then whilst maintaining the UH condition, move your tongue, adjust your tongue until you can start creating the perception of the vowel you need while maintaining the acoustic balance that the UH is going to give you.

Hey, if you want to know more about me, please visit my website, johnhenny.com. And if you want to learn to belt in a new way I’ve come up with a really cool course that takes an approach that’s quite different. The course is called Boldly Belting. You can go to boldlybelting.com to learn more. If you use the coupon code podcast20, you’ll save $20. Just enter that at checkout. But I’ve created what I’m calling “lyricises,” these little snippets of songs that will get you balanced through specific use of consonant and vowel combinations. So you can begin to cross over that bridge between pure exercises and then trying to sing the songs you want to sing. There’s often a real lag in that ability because exercises have their purpose, and I do have exercises in the course, but when you go to language, language is not set up to help you. People, songwriters are not worried about you staying balanced. You’ve got to figure it out. So I found a way to bridge that gap. Anyway, go to Boldly Belting. You can find out more about it. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye. Bye.