Why Singers Need to Stop Obsessing Over Their Throats
If you’re one of the (many, slash most) singers who freak out over throat tension, you’re going to think I’m crazy for even suggesting that you need to stop focusing on it.
I know that feeing well - the straining for that high note, the anxiety that it’s not going to make it, the swollen sensation at the end of a gig and staying silent to repair the vocal fatigue that’s inevitable.
Breezing past that and not giving it a second thought is not where this post is going.
You SHOULD be concerned with any pushed or tight feeling at your throat when you sing.
You SHOULD hear alarm bells ringing when the only way to hit that note is to squeeze your throat as though you’re wringing out a towel.
So why do I want you to stop thinking so much about your throat then?
IT’S USUALLY NOT THE THROAT’S FAULT
Throat tension is more often than not, the result of something else going awry.
Ideally we want singing to feel as though the voice “starts’ or “connects” to your lower abdomen - this is the power source or the engine to help you project.
It then feels as though it moves through this open pathway (the throat is a part of this) and falls out of your mouth without any “kinks in the hose” as it were.
Throat tension is the effect, not the cause.
OKAY, SO WHO’S TO BLAME THEN?
This is going to depend on the singer (you), the experience you have and the instruction you’ve been given.
But often we can narrow it down to one of THREE main culprits
breath support (or lack thereof),
vowel shaping or
SUSPECT #1: BREATH SUPPORT
How do we know if it’s a support issue?
I often ask my students where it feels like the sound “comes from”. Do they feel like the sound is being “made” or started from the throat, or are they projecting from lower in their body?
Breath support as a process has a number of moving pieces, but you’ll want to use this as a starter checklist:
Is my inhale shallow in the chest or feeling like an expansion at my belly (belly gets the gold star)?
Does my belly move in at least a little at the start of the note/line at the same moment I’m vocalising (good) or does it feel like my throat starts the note before my support kicks in (not so great)?
Is the movement of my abdominal muscles connected to the intention to project or are they moving separately to the sound you’re creating?
On high or strong notes, do you feel like your abdominal muscles are making the belly swing in with flexibility or are you “yanking” them in and gripping?
If all of this sounds like gobbledy-gook nonsense to you, here’s a little video I did that should get you started.
Want to understand more?
I have a free workshop you can watch all about breath support here to help you get a handle on it.
SUSPECT #2: THE WAY YOU SHAPE YOUR VOWELS
If everything is running smoothly with your engine/breath support, it’s time to check in with how you’re pronouncing your lyrics.
Particularly the shape of your vowels.
If you’ve never thought about this and sing the words in the same way as you’d speak them, you’re going to want to explore this further.
If vowel shaping is something that rings bells for you, this might simply be a reminder about how to adjust this.
What word does the tension occur on?
Is this a closed (Oo/Ee, small I words like “it”, “in”, “is) or an open vowel (Ah, Eh, Oh, A)?
If it’s closed, your go to is going to be to check on that soft palate of yours.
What am I doing with my lips (relaxed or tightly spread)?
What am I doing with my jaw (locked in place, jutted out or ideally relaxed and dropped)?
Here’s a short video for those of you who might want to play around with your soft palate.
Want more help with this (and to hear how your vowel shape can change the colour of your voice to suit different styles)?
Check out my free full length workshop on this topic here.
SUSPECT #3: THE TONGUE
If you’ve ruled out breath support and the vowel shape as the culprits, I have one more suggestion for you.
Check on your tongue - particularly the tip and the root.
Where does the tip of your tongue go on the note/s that are causing you the most tension (aside from articulating several consonants, we want the tip to rest behind your bottom front teeth)?
To investigate whether or not the root is your problem child, place both thumbs underneath your chin into the soft part between the jaw and your throat.
You should be able to feel a pressure into your thumbs if you curl the tip of your tongue back as though you’re trying to touch your tonsils with it. THIS is the pressure we’re looking out for.
When you sing the note/phrase that causes throat discomfort, do you feel this tension or this downwards pressure on your thumbs?
If so, this is our old nemesis tongue root tension and we ideally want it to stop this annoying behaviour.
For both of these we can usually disarm them but keeping our focus on what they’re meant to do, but I will say that tongue root tension in particular can lead us back to our foe incorrect breath support, so do double check that again.