Comprehensive Voice & Performance Program

Santa Barbara, CA


The Dangers of the Flat or Retracted Tongue - by Dave Jones 

It seems   that one subject that comes up frequently in the study of singing is that of   the retracted or flat tongue in singing. Because of much confusion about the   subject, some schools of singing and some private voice studios actually encourage   such a dysfunctional vocal concept. One need only look at the true shape and   physiology of the tongue structure (see p. 48 in Richard Miller's Structure   of Singing) to see that if the tongue is flattened or pulled back, then the   back of the throat or the pharynx is filled with the back mass of the tongue.   This completely distorts the possibility of authentic resonance and sometimes   leaves the instructor confused as to why there is no possibility of higher overtones   in the vocal production of the singer. With time the flattened tongue usually   creates a wobble in the tone, a tonal characteristic often connected with an   aging voice. Many singers begin to suffer loss of the ability to sing in the   upper register. The main question to propose is, "Since this is such a truly   dangerous technique then why are so many teachers and singers confused about   it and WHY is it being taught?" A singer need only experience the overly darkened   tone, the uncontrollable vibrato, the distortion of the basic vowels, then need   to force the vocal folds into phonation with too much breath pressure, and the   loss of the upper register to acknowledge that this is an incorrect and abusive   vocal technique. Does it ever occur to singers to ask the question, "Why does   a qualified laryngologist have a singer say the ee vowel in order to get the   tongue out of the back of the throat? The answer is because the bright vowel   allows a clear view of the vocal cords and takes the pressure off the glottis.


It seems unfortunate indeed that even with articles written by competent scientific   researchers, there is not a more common ground for professional teachers. Many   teachers simply carry on what they have learned without questioning the ramifications   for the student. However, there are other teachers who are constantly looking   for answers to help their students. When the fiberoptic camera came along around   1980, its greatest use was diagnosing a physical problem such as a nodule or   polyp. In the process it has also opened the opportunity to prove such a technique   as a flat or retracted tongue as abusive to the vocal cords and completely incorrect.   My friend, Dr Barbara Mathis has proven with her fiberoptic scientific research   that when the tongue is flattened or pulled back, then there is direct pressure   placed on the vocal cords themselves and the primary resonator or the pharynx   is filled with the back mass of the tongue. This is why singers who study a   flat-tongued technique experience pre-mature age in the voice along with a hooty   tonal quality. This overly darkened quality does not carry well in the concert   hall or opera house. Singers who have studied this technique usually suffer   an imbalance in the registers, pitch problems, vibrato problems, breath issues,   distorted vowels, depressed larynx, lack of nasal resonance and general pushing   of the voice to force it into function. Voice science stands strong as proof   that the tongue should be arched and out of the back of the throat in order   for the vocal cords to vibrate freely and naturally and for the primary resonator   (pharynx) to be open. It is critical that the root of the tongue and the larynx   experience healthy separation. Yet many teachers still cling to this totally   incorrect teaching of the flat tongue. Many consider the flat-tongued technique   to be present in specific schools of singing. The negative affects are obvious   and over time create vocal damage. When a singer begins to suffer vocal stress   from this incorrect vocal concept, he/she needs to take responsibility for his   or her vocal health in seeking a different direction in the study of the voice.   As stated before, the healthy position of the tongue for singing is the 'ng'   position. Use of this tongue position as home position of the tongue removes   the possibility of the gag reflex at the root of the tongue. This concept offers   vocal freedom and true resonance.






Observation of Teacher


Not too long after I had studied with Alan Lindquest, I heard about a teacher  in New York who taught the separation and reintegration of the registers. Her  name was Judith Raskin, the great Metropolitan Opera soprano. After having  a conversation with her, she was extremely cordial to me and invited me to  watch her teach in her New York studio. I learned one piece of information  that was to be of great use throughout my teaching career. It was a concept  that I had heard Lindquest teach similarly in regard to opening the upper register  through the release of the root of the tongue. Ms. Raskin once said: "in order  for any soprano or tenor or any singer for that  matter to sing a high A natural  above the staff and/or higher, that singer must  use a slight ae (as in apple)  at the root of the tongue. This concept is designed  to pull the pressure off  the vocal cords." I heard her teach this concept with   great success and was amazed at the difference in the singer's ease at entering   the high range. Ms. Raskin taught this concept with an oval mouth position  so  that the singer did not spread the mouth too much and create a throaty  tone.  I first learned of the arched tongue and the positive results at releasing  the  high voice from Alan Lindquest in 1979. I observed him teach many lessons  and  the result was amazing, especially for those of us who were struggling  with  the upper register. If a singer has difficulty with high notes, it is  critical  that he or she question the tongue position. If it is flat or retracted  then  there is no possibility of free vocal function in the high range.


The Swedish/Italian School and Tongue Function


Lindquest taught that the proper tongue position for singing was the 'ng'   position. He once said that the sides of the tongue felt attached to the back   inside upper teeth. He used to call this 'home position' for the tongue and   was very strong in his statement that the tongue should return to approximately   this position after every consonant as the jaw wraps slightly back. I thought   this to be an extreme idea at first, but when applied to both amateur and professional   singers in the U.S. and Europe, I saw every one of them open up their high range   with much more ease. The vocal cords could pivot properly to allow the upper   range to sing freely and easily. One need only study a video of Jussi Bjoerling   in order to view an example of an arched and free tongue position.


My friend Martha Rosacker, who had arranged for me to travel and study with   Lindquest, had come from extreme vocal difficulties. She had lost both her  upper   and lower range due to improper teaching of the passaggio and a retracted and   flat tongue. Teachers kept taking her lower and lower in range to avoid the    top or the passaggio area. This idea certainly did not work because she began   to lose low notes in addition to lost high notes. This is a critical problem    for singers who have not studied the proper narrowing of the upper passaggio   accompanied by the arched tongue and slightly lowered larynx. When Lindquest    began to guide the proper vocalization of her passaggio, Ms. Rosacker regained   both her low and high range. The largest problem then was to learn how to  deal   with the high range consistently. In the past in order to really make a mezzo-like   color; she had flattened her tongue. (A flat tongue especially seems to be  a   problem for lower voices.) Working the 'ng' tongue position was critical for   her and she began to open her range successfully. One concept that opened  the   upper range was the ae in the root of the tongue which I later studied with   Judith Raskin. When this was accomplished, Ms. Rosacker could sing arias with    sustained high notes using much ease and vocal efficiency. I witnessed this   successful process during my study with Lindquest while studying Ms. Rosacker's    lessons.


Martha Rosacker had taught me in Texas before I moved to New York. She tried   repeatedly to release my tongue. I remember one tape of a lesson in 1977. She   tried to have me speak an Italian u vowel. I could not speak this vowel correctly   because my tongue dipped like a spoon shape and pulled back into my throat.   My vowel was distorted and I could not even speak the vowel properly because   of the retracted and dipped tongue position. I must state at this juncture that   I do NOT believe in teaching the groove in the tongue. This is yet another popular   incorrect tongue posture that creates all kinds of registration and vowel problems.   Through the use of the 'ng', I began to clear my vowels so that they could be   understood properly and my upper range began to release. One need only study   the way Italians speak to experience an example of a free tongue position.


Dangerous Teaching Methods


One of the most shocking methods taught is that of the tongue depressor or   using a flat instrument to flatten the tongue. The idea behind this concept   is that it gets the tongue "down and out of the way". This could not be further   from the truth. In fact, quite the opposite actually occurs.. When the tongue   is depressed, the tongue depresses the larynx making it impossible for the vocal   cords to vibrate without forced breath pressure. This tremendous breath pressure   can cause such problems as vocal polyps or nodules. In my studio in New York,   I have taught singers who have studied the Stanley Method, a technique that   practices using such a device. The damage took years and years to repair and   in some cases the damage was permanent. Many singers were damaged by the Stanley   method in the 1960's. Many careers were destroyed because of such teaching.


Warning Signs


Many singers do not know the warning signs when they are in vocal trouble   or they simply deny that there is a problem with the hope that it will simply   go away or the idea that is must get worse before it gets better. WELL, it does   NOT get better. Simply hoping that the voice will get better when a technique   is creating tremendous forcing of the vocal apparatus is magnificent fantasy.   The reality is that when a flat-tongued technique is being employed, no singer   can survive in the long run with vocal health. What are the warning signs and   what should you do? I outlined the warning signs earlier but I will repeat them   because it is such an important message to get out to the public.


  • A dark tonal quality that may sound good to the singer inside the head       but does not carry in the opera house. A tape or mini disc recorder will       reveal this kind of dysfunctional tonal quality.

  • A need to push more air pressure to go into the higher range.

  • Loss of the high pianissimo

  • Jaw pushing forward due to over pressurization of the breath.

  • Hoarseness after singing.

  • Spread mouth position as an attempt to brighten the overly darkened quality       of the voice. (This simply closes the throat and creates many more problems.)

  • Shaking in the jaw and tongue as a result of the tremendous breath pressure      required to force phonation.

  • Loss of the upper range.

  • Loss of the lower range.

  • Vowel distortion.

  • Inability to pronounce clearly.

  • Wide uncontrolled vibrato or fast uncontrolled vibrato.

  • Low soft palate.

  • Head pushing forward as a result of the tremendous neck pressure; a direct       result of too much breath pressure. This breath pressure is a result of       the singer trying to force the upper range into function.

  • Dropping of the chest cavity. This is yet another attempt to force an       overly darkened and non-resonant tone through the use of too much breath       pressure.

  • Lack of healthy nasal resonance due to the flat tongue.


Case Study: Dramatic Mezzo


While teaching in Brussels recently, I had a young dramatic mezzo come to   me for a session. She had the confused idea that she was a contralto. Her  frustration   was that she had lost her high range. Immediately it became obvious that her   tongue was depressing the larynx making a false color. When she used Lindquest's    'ng' tongue position as home position of the tongue, she easily regained her   high C within the hour. The upper range literally popped open immediately.  Unfortunately,   this was a shock to the singer because she was used to the false color of the   flat and retracted tongue. Her vocal identity was too connected to a false  dark   sound, which was completely pushed with too much breath pressure. The singer   also suffered a fluttering vibrato which was uncontrolled and pushed. She  had   no real pitch center. It was difficult to know what pitch she was singing because   the vibrato was so wide and the vocal cords did not approximate properly.  All   of her problems stemmed from the flat or retracted tongue. The incorrect tongue   position demanded that the voice be forced open with tremendous breath pressure    (classical belting), therefore making healthy vocalism impossible. The sad  part  of this tragic story is that the singer was taught to create this completely    dysfunctional and false sound by a teacher at a music school. Had she continued   to sing with this breath pressure, there is no doubt that vocal damage would    have been the result.


Healthy Tongue Exercises


Release the jaw gently back (NOT down). Then speak the vowels a, e, a, e,   a, e, etc. without the jaw moving. Be sure that the vowel changes are made only   with the tongue. This exercise frees the root of the tongue and makes it possible   for the singer to separate tongue and jaw function.

Speak and then sing the following syllables first on a single pitch and then   on a 5 tone scale: di, lo, di, lo, di, lo, etc. Make sure that you use the front   and back tongue function. The syllables are designed to exercise both the front   and back of the tongue. Keep the jaw stable during this exercise without tensing   the jaw. Use this exercise only in the middle register.

Using an 'ng' created with the middle of the tongue as in the Italian word   'che', go from 'ng' to a vowel without the tongue falling. Open the sound by   lifting the palate instead of dropping the tongue.

Speak the following Italian syllables: da, me, ni, po, tu, la. Make sure the   tongue works separate from the jaw. The jaw should remain quite stable.

  (c) David L. Jones/2002