W hy does talking about the mouth, a main resource of a singer, seem like an intimate, uncomfortable, and slightly taboo topic? The eyes are the window of the soul, and the ears are the closest organ to the brain. Why does talking about the mouth make us uncomfortable. For example, if you saw someone with a piece of fluff near their eye, wouldn't you point it out? But if you see someone with lettuce on their teeth, I bet you try your best to ignore it because it is awkward.
Another example - someone says, "I am an eye doctor," and it seems impressive. But if someone says, "I am a dentist," it is somehow less impressive and slightly bewildering; why would anyone want to be a dentist? My apologies to any of you with a love of mouths - I have undoubtedly offended you deeply by now. But for most of us, the mouth is almost an unmentionable.
So imagine a student's surprise, especially if the student is a teenage boy, the first time his voice teacher says, "I've been looking at your mouth and your tongue is really tense!" "What! You were looking at my mouth and tongue! Ewww."
I don't actually know why discussion of the mouth makes most people uncomfortable, but I have a theory. My theory is that we think of the mouth as part of the digestive system. Or, ahem, the reproductive system. We don't make out with our eyeballs and ears after all.
Well, as singers we have to think of it in a different way - a third way. The mouth is a resonance chamber. A resonance chamber is a space that sound bounces around in before leaving the space, to enhance some sound waves and diminish others. The mouth is the human equivalent to the box of a guitar, the bell of a trumpet, and the empty space of a bottle you blow into. The mouth is one of the most essential parts of the human instrument, so get over it. We are going to talk about the mouth.
Singers Must Think About the Mouth A Lot! And in particular, tension as it relates to the mouth. Many styles of singing require very specific tension in the tongue or jaw to create the signature sound for that style. A few require almost complete relaxation of all tension in the tongue and jaw for an optimal sound. And some styles require something akin to professional level gymnastics from the tongue.
The singer needs to figure out how to sing and sound great for their style, but reduce tension as much as possible so that they can perform for one, two, or more hours, several nights a week, without doing harm to their voice or sustaining repetitive use issues. The big goal is finding the optimal balance of a sustainable technique while staying true to the genre. The singer has to sound "right" but be able to make a consistent sound all the time.
Looking at the jaw alone, the jaw is a big killer of resonance. To sing with a tight jaw is a sure way to sound like you're restraining, holding back. Gripping the jaw is a hallmark of anger and repression. I dare you to sing 100% of a grunge or emo song with a relaxed jaw. If you can do it, post a video so we can all see it.
Sometimes we want a tight jaw. It is up to the singer to figure out how much tension is too much, and how much tension is too little. Controlling the jaw muscles - or maybe convincing the jaw muscles to give up control - is perhaps the hardest job for many singers. Possibly no other muscle group is tied more closely to emotion than the jaw.
Next up is the tongue. Tongue tension cannot be avoided. Every vowel is formed by tensing the tongue in a different way. It is a phenomenally impressive muscle group. I think the tongue is what makes the human instrument the most special instrument on the planet.
So what is the secret of appropriate tongue tension? Use as little as tongue tension as possible while listening for the best sound. Then layer on as much tension as is needed to get the job done. Anyone who has ever sung a song on just vowels has practiced this technique. I bet that group includes anyone who has ever been in a choir or in classical voice lessons. There are huge lessons to be learned in all genres by singing a song with just the vowels.
If you know what I mean by singing with just the vowels you can skip this paragraph. If you don't, here is the deal. Take the lyric, "Bye, bye, Miss American Pie." Sing it without any consonants. "Eye, eye, i ah e i a eye." Sing those vowels with a completely relaxed jaw and tongue. Keep trying until it is simple and natural. It should sound terrific - great resonance! Now your job is to sound that great after you add the consonants back in.
Singers, you might think that nailing pitch and breath control are the keys to being a great singer. But the mouth is the secret weapon - the big difference between the pros and the amateurs. In fact, in some genres the mouth is the most important player. Think of Willie Nelson, Neil Young, Roger Waters (Sorry, I can only think of guys. Put some girl names in the comments for me.) These guys do not depend on breath control or pitch control for their artistic expression. It is all about the mouth - story telling.
I was at a concert by Seu George. He has been one of my favorite singers since the movie Life Aquatic came out. If you know the movie, you won't be surprised that dozens of people in the audience were wearing red stocking caps and blue jumpsuits.
Seu has an amazing way of balancing vocal skills comparable to men like Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, with the story telling skills of Willie Nelson. In my mind, Seu George has found the perfect balance of relaxation/tension to create the optimal sound for his genre. The man sings in Portuguese and yet attracts thousands of English speaking Americans to his concerts! We don't care what he is saying, we just want to hear that voice!
So help yourself level up. Close your eyes. Sing your song. Feel what your tongue and jaw are doing. Experiment with the tension levels. Focus on your mouth, the main resource of a singer. Listen to the difference. You will love the options that open up for you.