Locked knees, tight jaw, rigor mortis fingers… Tension manifests itself in a multitude of ways, but oftentimes finding the source of the tension can be an awful pain in the neck!
At one point or another, you’ve probably felt that your body has physically constricted your ability to perform. Physical stress (or tension) can be felt, but for some, is incredibly difficult to locate and correct.
When it comes to discovering tension, you can usually tell that you have an issue because either something doesn’t ‘feel right’ or the tension is clearly obvious in your posture.
Tension can be caused by physical stress and also by mental or emotional stress. Tension can be visible, which is easier to identify and correct, or tension can be hidden, making it harder to pinpoint and problem solve. Many of you may be familiar with tension manifested similar to rigor mortis, or claw-like, gnarled, stiff fingers. Usually if tension appears there, it is considered visible. For singers, this can be solved by occupying your hands in a different manner, by placing your hand on the piano, for instance.
In my days at UWO, I had tension that ran the gamut, including in my fingers, sometimes in my neck, and, like many of my colleagues, in my shoulders. Mind you, this was nothing in comparison to some of my friends who played instruments, especially the piano and stringed instruments. I often heard my choir conducter Jennifer Moir mention TMJ disorders (Temporomandibular disorder), a term that refers to problems with the jaw and its functioning. People who have this disorder often suffer from painful joint popping and cracking, a terrible discomfort for anyone who uses their voice professionally. This can also be a great cause of physical and mental tension – more on TMJ (also called TMD) later.
By far, one of the worst places to have tension is in your throat / neck. You get the feeling that every time you open your mouth, you’re putting pressure on areas that need to be free. This can lead to hoarseness, Laryngitis and other complications. Ever had the feeling that you were working too hard to be heard? Straining to perform is just terrible, and it often happens when your throat feels rotten already.
In another area related to the formation of speech, tension can also seep into your tongue. The only way to get rid of tension in your tongue is to release it gently with some exercises and yawning. Yawning in general is quite healthy for you and helps to stretch the muscles in your face and aids in deep breathing. If you study with a voice coach, they will be able to identify your tension areas for you and help you to release the tension. I was chatting with Bettye Zoller, a voice coach in Dallas, TX, and she had some wonderful tips to share with you about how to release physical tension so that you can get back into the swing of things, enabling you to rehearse and perform comfortably.
Here are some tips from Bettye that are sure to go a long way.
When you’re tense, try the following:
Relax the shoulders and neck. If possible, have someone massage your shoulders gently and, as you inhale air deeply through the mouth, ask that person to stand in front of you and hold your shoulders down so that they don’t rise up as you inhale air. Now, exhale the air slowly through your mouth, thinking relaxing thoughts as you do. Do this five times. The yawn-sigh: Drop your jaw and relax the jaw muscles. You may need to gently massage, with the tips of your fingers, the jaw hinge area in front of your ears.
I call this the “village idiot pose.” Keep the jaw dropped and just let it hang. Now, starting at the upper part of your vocal pitch range, on an “ah” vowel, do a slide downward to lower pitches on that “ah” while the jaw hangs in that loose pose. No tension should be present. Repeat this about five times. By the way, this is also useful for warming up the vocal folds before performing.
When you smile, you release endorphins. You can “fool your brain” into thinking your happy and relaxed by smiling, physically spreading the lips wide–very wide–into a grin. Do this in your car after you park it outside the studio or do it where no one can see you. Spread your lips wide and do this about ten times. You will feel a mood change! Try it!
I’ll be publishing Bettye’s full article on tension this week. Keep your eye out!