Singing voice specialist Kerrie Obert sets the record straight on the issue of ‘tongue tension’.
Listen for a few minutes to Kerrie Obert speak about her research into the tongue, and two things quickly become apparent. Firstly, this is a woman who knows her stuff. She’s conducted thousands of endoscopies during her career as a speech and language pathologist and has written four books on the voice.
Secondly, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more passionate advocate for the tongue. “The tongue is a robust, amazing, magnificent structure,” she says. “Treating it like this delicate thing doesn’t match up with the anatomical magnificence of this huge structure that resides in our oral and pharyngeal cavity.”
So why is Kerrie on a mission to demystify the workings of the tongue? She says that for too long it’s been neglected and villainised.
“It’s time that we start understanding the structure a little more, why it’s been villainised, and how we can reframe the conversation,” she says. “This is a cause that needs to be championed.”
Given her expertise in this area, BAST Training recently welcomed Kerrie onto the Singing Teachers Talk podcast. She shared many fascinating insights, including this one on ‘tongue tension’.
“I like to think of the tongue as being akin to the game tug-of-war, where you get teams of players on either side of a rope, and each team tries to pull the other team over.
“When we get the tongue pulling back, and we only have team members on one side of that tongue (meaning the muscles that are pulling it back), and we don’t have enough energy in the front of the tongue, we’re going to get uneven muscle activity. And those are the cases where I think we say, okay, there’s a problem, there’s a placement issue.
“I don’t love the term ‘tension’. I’ve been vocal about this because ‘tension’ implies muscle activity that remains after the [initial] activity has stopped. And I think we would be hard-pressed to find people with chronically contracted tongues in those back positions, and you wouldn’t have normal chewing, swallowing, speech and other functions. Now, do we sometimes feel muscle fatigue? Yes. Do we sometimes feel a little bit of muscle ache? Yes. But I think that’s different from the term ‘tension’ that we might use when we get chronic tension in the back or someplace else.”
So what should we say then?
Rather than using the term’ tongue tension’, Kerrie prefers to describe these problems as ‘placement issues’.
“What we’re really dealing with is people who have placement issues. They don’t understand how to balance the use of the tongue. Releasing it is certainly an option – but we lose opportunities and potential when we release every bit of activity in the tongue. Historically, this has been our go-to when we hear somebody who has a tongue placement issue. Our instinct is to release everything and get the tongue forward.
“But then we lose possibilities with it because we are using the back of our tongue to shape every sound we make. We have a whole lot of contouring and possibilities back there. If we simply let go of everything, we are letting go of some timbre-shaping possibilities. I am of the mindset that we should delve in and understand the tongue, how it works, and how we can control, with some degree of independence, the back and the front.”
Listen to the full podcast, and you can also hear Kerrie talk about:
- How the tongue forms during pregnancy (trust us, it’s fascinating)
- Forward tongue placement
- Muscle tension dysphonia.