As a beginner singer, it’s important to understand how unnecessary tension affects your tone and your breath support. Here, NY teacher Nadia B. shares what to keep in mind and how to combat that tension…
Singing is, in many ways, a very natural activity. We all have a voice, and it is meant to be used to communicate in speech and in music. However, when one delves more into the art of singing through voice lessons, practice, and performance, tension sometimes creeps in. It can seem uncontrollable and the source unidentifiable. The reasons for tension are many, but with the following tips you should be able to better identify how to sing without tension and enjoy a singing practice that is full of expression and requires much less effort.
Understanding the Common Causes of Tension
To combat tension, the first step is to understand some of the common causes for tension while singing. The most common ones I encounter are a mix of psychological and physical. Trying to be right and using too much effort are two of the biggest factors in tension.
To identify whether these apply to you, notice as you’re singing if you’re always trying to “fix” something. Are you set on singing each passage perfectly, no matter what it takes? You might especially notice this in your singing lessons, when your teacher is observing you. While the intention is good, trying to sing something perfectly can lead to excess mental and physical tension. Using too much effort goes along with this idea. Although singing is a very natural activity, sometimes singers use too much effort in an attempt to sing loudly, more expressively, or faster.
So, What Can You Do?
Pay attention to your physical reaction and your thoughts as you approach a passage that calls for one of the above qualities. Do you notice an increase in tension, or of negative or panicky thoughts? If so, simply noticing these trends and taking steps to reduce your engagement with these unproductive methods can greatly reduce the amount of tension you’re using. Instead of placing your mental and physical energy in these methods, focus on staying open as you allow the expression to come up and out of you, connecting with the ground to sing louder, and using the breath as a means to propel a fast passage instead of muscular effort or unhelpful thoughts.
What Else Causes Tension?
Two additional mindsets that lead to excess tension are over-focusing and anxiousness. As you sing, are you overly focused on the voice and the vocal mechanism? While the vocal mechanism is undoubtedly important, singers can forget the rest of the body, which is an important part of resonance, power, and connection. If you are fixated on the vocal mechanism, try to bring your awareness to the whole torso, and then include the legs, arms, head, and feet as well.
Similarly, feeling anxious or nervous while performing can create tension. To work with nerves while practicing or before a performance, give yourself a few breaths to notice what areas of your body are responding to the feelings of nerves, and see if you can mentally connect those areas to the whole of you. For example, while your neck might feel tight and tense, remembering that it is part of your whole spine and supported by all the buoyant connections within the spine and the ribcage can help you release the tension.
Don’t Let Tension Take Over!
Whatever the cause of tension, it always has a physical manifestation that can be very uncomfortable and can interfere greatly with singing naturally and beautifully. As you become more in tune with how to sing without tension, use your awareness of your body to release tension in the following areas:
- The root of the tongue (it should be soft, not tight and hard)
- The jaw (release the muscles of the jaw to free the whole vocal mechanism, including the throat, the back of the neck, the head and mask and the tops of the shoulders)
- The soft palette (allowing it to rise up, or releasing any depression in the soft palette, can create more room for resonance)
- The throat (not tightening or constricting the throat allows the air to move easily)
- The mask (releasing any deadening in the sinuses, contraction in the eyes and forehead, and allowing the nose to be wide can create much more space for the sound)
- The intercostal muscles (in between the ribs; allowing these muscles to release allows the breath to move easily in and out without excess effort)
- The diaphragm and the back (the diaphragm’s connection to the ribs and back makes it essential for ease in singing, and the back is a wide and long swath of musculature that you can allow to expand to create more flexibility and freedom in your singing)
- The back line (think of this as a line that extends from your sacrum down through the buttocks and legs and into your heels; allowing it to lengthen into the ground ensures that you are not over-contracting the buttocks, legs, and ankles)
With these tips, you can easily discover how to sing without tension! And in the process, you may also find even greater delight and enjoyment in exploring the craft of singing. Use these tips as a jumping off point for your own exploration of how your whole self — body, mind, and soul — acts as an open vessel for expressing everything a rich, meaningful voice has to offer.
Nadia B. teaches flute and piano in New York, NY, as well as through online lessons. She acted as principal flutist of the orchestra and wind ensemble at California State University, Sacramento, and then went on to receive her degree in Music Performance from New York University. Learn more about Nadia here!