We are all dealing with some form of tension every day. Just turn on the news (or better yet, don’t) and that’s all you need to feel yourself begin to tighten up. This tension can find its way to any part of your body. For some of you this tension shows up in the jaw and it can be difficult to just open your mouth even to speak. If this is your “normal,” then asking you to open your mouth to sing can sometimes feel like a monumental undertaking.
Your mouth is the doorway to your sound so it’s important to open up! Your unique voice is one way you take up space in the world (the way a dancer moves through the space) and it’s also a way that you leave your imprint.
The mandible, lower jaw or jawbone is the largest, strongest bone in the human face. Do you feel your jaw strain or tighten up whenever you try to open your mouth or lower your jaw while singing? At the end the day is your jaw sore? These are common difficulties for some singers or anyone who has to talk a lot during the day, especially if you are not used to opening your mouth.
Jaw tightness can prevent you from reaching certain notes in a song, creating the rich tone quality that you desire, or singing through the break area of your voice (the connection between your chest voice and your head voice or falsetto…more on this in another post). Tightness can show up especially as you try to reach higher notes (like a rock & roll star) or when you are belting (singing a Broadway tune, as in imitating Ethel Merman).
The keyword is to relax your jaw while singing and this includes the throat and neck muscles. Ideally you want to be able to open and close your mouth without strain or tension and without your jaw clenching. Your jaw should feel free to move up and down as well as sideways. In addition, it should never be forced open too wide beyond your comfort level. This can also cause related tension in your neck muscles and throat tightness.
Temporomandibular joint disorders
TMJ causes pain in the jaw joint and the surrounding muscles. It can also cause locking in one or both hinge joints. These are the temporomandibular joints. TMJ can also cause an aching or throbbing pain and feelings of tenderness in or near the ear, jaw, and face.
A word of caution: If you experience pain in your jaw or have popping or cracking when you open your mouth more than just a little, it would be beneficial to see a medical professional to have your jaw checked. An osteopath or high-quality chiropractor would be good, or even ask your dentist to check. If your jaw is not tracking correctly you may need some direct intervention to help your jaw move smoothly and without discomfort.
Jaw-opening and relaxing ideas
1. Say your first and last name as you stand in front of a mirror. You may be surprised at what you see. You may think that you’re opening your mouth but when you look in the mirror you may find that your mouth barely opens at all when you speak. Practice speaking your full name with a relaxed jaw while raising the pitch slightly as you say your name. Then try reading any text continuing with the same relaxed jaw and open mouth.
2. Open your mouth and gently shift your jaw from side to side while your mouth is open. You should be able to do this without much tension or strain on your jaw muscles. This will mean that your jaw is relaxed when it’s open.
3. Put two fingers between your front teeth with one above the other. Allow your mouth to open in a relaxed manner. (Does this feel really wide?)
4. In a seated or standing position, lean your head as far back as is comfortable for you. Then gently open your mouth, letting your lower jaw drop in a relaxed manner. Keeping your mouth open like this, gently return your head to a forward-facing position, with your eyes at regular eye-level. Feel how your jaw is open in a relaxed manner.
5. Use moist heat on both sides of your jaw just below your ears to loosen the muscles.
6. Massage your jaw by opening your mouth, placing two fingers from each hand just below your ears and rubbing gently in a circular motion. Massaging your jaw may help increase blood flow and reduce muscle tightness. Try this several times a day, including at the end of the day right before bed.
Singing with a relaxed jaw
1. Gently place one finger on your chin, your head in a relaxed and neutral position, your eyes at normal eye-level and sing “yah yah yah…” on any notes. Your lower jaw should ideally have sort of a “duh” relaxed feeling.
2. Stand in front of a mirror while singing a simple scale on one syllable like “mah” and see if your jaw is dropping and you’re opening your mouth for each note. See if you can maintain a relaxed feeling in your jaw on all the pitches, especially on the higher notes in a song.
3. Imagine “lifting” the top part of your head off from your jaw, whenever you open your mouth to sing. This can help you concentrate on the top part of your mouth, without putting too much strain on your lower jaw, which is the source of much of jaw tension. Place one finger from each hand just below your ears. You should be able to feel your jaw gently “unhinging” itself as you open your mouth.
4. Place one your finger on your chin and then gently pull your chin in as you open your mouth to sing “yah yah yah…” This will help prevent your from sticking your jaw out when you sing.
Your tongue is probably not something you pay much attention to (is it?), but it’s a large muscle that affects many aspects of your voice because of its position in your mouth and throat. Any muscle can become tense and so can the tongue. (There could be an entire blog post about this alone. Is there really that much to write about the tongue?…oh yes.)
When you open your mouth to sing, let your tongue be in a relaxed state resting flat in the bottom of your mouth, with the tip of your tongue touching your lower front teeth. This will help prevent your tongue from rolling back when you open your mouth and obstructing the back of your throat and the sound that your vocal cords produce when you sing. You can monitor your tongue position by feeling it in your mouth, as well as observing yourself in the mirror when you do the jaw or singing exercises. To stretch the back of your tongue, push the tip of your tongue against your lower front teeth and roll you tongue forward.
Breath Support Proper breath support is extremely important in taking the tension off your other muscles that don’t need to be involved in your singing. It will help to reduce unnecessary jaw tightness while achieving a relaxed and powerful voice. This involves getting the air deeply in to the bottom of your lungs and keeping your rib cage open as you sing. (This is an area I will address in more detail in another post.)
So now your know – if you want to be heard, you need to relax your ja-a-a-aw and open your mouth!