Young Singers Club

Comprehensive Voice & Performance Program
Santa Barbara, CA

The Dangers of the Flat or Retracted Tongue – by Dave Jones
It seems that one subject that comes up frequently in the study of singing is that of the retracted or flat tongue in singing. Because of much confusion about the subject, some schools of singing and some private voice studios actually encourage such a dysfunctional vocal concept. One need only look at the true shape and physiology of the tongue structure (see p. 48 in Richard Miller’s Structure of Singing) to see that if the tongue is flattened or pulled back, then the back of the throat or the pharynx is filled with the back mass of the tongue. This completely distorts the possibility of authentic resonance and sometimes leaves the instructor confused as to why there is no possibility of higher overtones in the vocal production of the singer. With time the flattened tongue usually creates a wobble in the tone, a tonal characteristic often connected with an aging voice. Many singers begin to suffer loss of the ability to sing in the upper register. The main question to propose is, “Since this is such a truly dangerous technique then why are so many teachers and singers confused about it and WHY is it being taught?” A singer need only experience the overly darkened tone, the uncontrollable vibrato, the distortion of the basic vowels, then need to force the vocal folds into phonation with too much breath pressure, and the loss of the upper register to acknowledge that this is an incorrect and abusive vocal technique. Does it ever occur to singers to ask the question, “Why does a qualified laryngologist have a singer say the ee vowel in order to get the tongue out of the back of the throat? The answer is because the bright vowel allows a clear view of the vocal cords and takes the pressure off the glottis.

It seems unfortunate indeed that even with articles written by competent scientific researchers, there is not a more common ground for professional teachers. Many teachers simply carry on what they have learned without questioning the ramifications for the student. However, there are other teachers who are constantly looking for answers to help their students. When the fiberoptic camera came along around 1980, its greatest use was diagnosing a physical problem such as a nodule or polyp. In the process it has also opened the opportunity to prove such a technique as a flat or retracted tongue as abusive to the vocal cords and completely incorrect. My friend, Dr Barbara Mathis has proven with her fiberoptic scientific research that when the tongue is flattened or pulled back, then there is direct pressure placed on the vocal cords themselves and the primary resonator or the pharynx is filled with the back mass of the tongue. This is why singers who study a flat-tongued technique experience pre-mature age in the voice along with a hooty tonal quality. This overly darkened quality does not carry well in the concert hall or opera house. Singers who have studied this technique usually suffer an imbalance in the registers, pitch problems, vibrato problems, breath issues, distorted vowels, depressed larynx, lack of nasal resonance and general pushing of the voice to force it into function. Voice science stands strong as proof that the tongue should be arched and out of the back of the throat in order for the vocal cords to vibrate freely and naturally and for the primary resonator (pharynx) to be open. It is critical that the root of the tongue and the larynx experience healthy separation. Yet many teachers still cling to this totally incorrect teaching of the flat tongue. Many consider the flat-tongued technique to be present in specific schools of singing. The negative affects are obvious and over time create vocal damage. When a singer begins to suffer vocal stress from this incorrect vocal concept, he/she needs to take responsibility for his or her vocal health in seeking a different direction in the study of the voice. As stated before, the healthy position of the tongue for singing is the ‘ng’ position. Use of this tongue position as home position of the tongue removes the possibility of the gag reflex at the root of the tongue. This concept offers vocal freedom and true resonance.