The Tongue and Other Parts: What Should We Do With Them?

‘The tongue goes where?’ was the title of a talk organised by the British Voice Association. This question is frequently asked, and is typical of singers’ technical preoccupations.

Probably the most helpful response is, ‘leave it alone’. We might ask a pupil, ‘Can you speak?’ to which (unless we are talking about a foreign language) they will probably reply, ‘Yes’. ‘Can you sing?’ – the answer may be less sure. Should learning to sing create a problem for speaking? No, hopefully not! Sadly, it’s because singers get preoccupied with what to do that their voices become (or remain) fixed.

Theoretically the question of the tongue is simple and logical. The tongue is not put in any particular position for the purpose of singing. Even though it is responsible for shaping vowels it should have nothing to do with the production of the singing sound per se. If the tongue is ‘trying to help’ the production of the sound (to counteract a weakness in the suspensory mechanism) the articulation of words will be impeded. Then we have a problem. The solution is not to be found in the redeployment of the tongue but in getting the voice itself to work without the need of the tongue’s participation.

Deliberately putting the tongue in a ‘position’ is bound to impede the flow of sung tone. It is self-evident that on the one hand we have the singing voice – essentially a flow of tone – and on the other the wherewithal to articulate words, and that these elements complement one another only if they are both free to do so. Tongue-positioning is tantamount to ‘tongue-tying’.

Students of singing hear a lot of confusing jargon and contradictory techniques, so it is to be expected that technical questions will arise and be discussed. But a canny teacher will try to disabuse the questioning pupil of the idea that to sing you have to do things, move things and put things. Rather, the pupil should be encouraged to have faith in the naturalness and design of their emerging voice. They should be dissuaded from trying to force the pace of progress, but must wait until their voice can do what it does best by nature. Only then will it satisfactorily serve performing and communicating intentions without struggle.

Recently I watched a television broadcast of a Handel opera – not one with which I am familiar. While it was musically stylish, it took me several minutes to discern that it was sung in English! Handel wrote well for the voice – there is no excuse for ‘incoherence’. Singers waste a lot of time on trying to articulate their words when the problem actually lies in the ‘mechanics’ of the voice itself. Spend sufficient time on liberating the voice and most of the ‘what to do’ questions become redundant.


Harrison, Peter T. Singing: Personal and performance values in training. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd. 2013.


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