Vocal Coach Janine Le Clair shows you some tips from medical professionals and how to apply them.
Muscle Tension Dysphonia. Yes, indeed, that’s a thing. And far more common of a thing to affect professional vocalists than you may realize.
If our neck muscles are tight, there is no telling the extent of limitations and hindrances that can be caused to vocal execution.
Muscle tension dysphonia (MTD) is the technical term for stressful or strenuous overuse of the voice, resulting in vocal dysfunction.
Some signs that you may be suffering from Muscle Tension Dysphonia could be:
• The feeling of a rough or hoarse voice – even intermittently
• A deepening of the voice
• Inability to control pitch
• Difficultly projecting your voice
• A general vocal exhaustion or fatigue
• A sensation of being strangled or pressure in the throat
• An overall feeling that you need to exert more effort in order to speak or sing
I want to share with you some amazing tips I’ve learned from top vocologists and otolaryngologists:
1. Massage your mastoid & strap muscles
Massage these neck muscles deeply, beginning from just above your clavicle, up the length of your neck. Do so daily, even as much as five to ten times per day.
Doing these massages as part of your daily warm up and warm down routine, even once your neck starts to feel less tense, is a form of maintenance. As a vocalist, you are like an athlete and you need to treat your body as such. Consider massage therapy a part of your necessary world.
Perhaps try the use of fascia releasing suction cups on your neck. Cupping can instantly release rigid soft tissue. Or yet another ancient eastern medicine trick is to apply a gel such as ultrasound gel on the area where your skin is tight, then take the edge of the baby spoon’s handle and gently run it over this area. You will probably feel some light pain and your skin will turn red. This is an indication that you are in fact achieving your goal of breaking up the fascia.
2. A tight tongue is your nemesis
The tongue is a massive player in the vocal tract and can be difficult to coordinate. A tight tongue can inhibit singing with freedom.
The tongue is big and strong and some of its extrinsic muscles connect all the way to the hyoid bone. It can have a mind of its own.
So here’s a trick: using a clean towel or pillowcase, stick your tongue out and grab a firm hold of the end of it. Now gently pull your tongue a bit further out and from right to left side. You’ll probably get resistance from your tongue wanting to pull back in, but keep your grip firm and tell your tongue to relax. If you do this daily from today forward, you will notice a loosening in your throat and an overall easier time hitting high notes.
3. Massage your cartilage
Once you’ve found your hyoid bone, go ahead and gently wiggle it from side to side. It’s the only floating bone in the human body, so it may feel a bit freaky doing this, but you’re fine.
Now run your fingers underneath it, where you will hopefully feel a gap of space, and then underneath, the beginning of cartilage rings. You can use your fingers to gentle massage each ring or cartilage from left to right, slowly making your way down and more narrowly to the bottom of the neck.
In a way, this is like a little visit to the chiropractor specifically for your throat and though it may feel odd, doing this five to fifteen times per day is a must for great vocal health maintenance.
Whether you have any vocal issues at all or feel like your voice is in perfect condition, I promise you if you keep up with these exercises, they will make a difference to your ability to control your voice and sing those higher notes with freedom!
Here’s some more detail:
Our neck houses the infrahyoid muscles (more commonly referred to as the strap muscles) which originate from or insert on to the hyoid bone, along with the large mastoid muscle down the side of the neck.
These muscles can directly affect our ability to relax our throat and therefore the agility of our singing.
The mastoid muscle runs in fact right behind the ear. When this muscle is riddled with tension, it can cause discomfort in the ear, even ringing, irritation and pain. Breaking up the fascia and relaxing your neck muscles is imperative for improvement.
Your throat is home to many rings of cartilage. Believe it or not, it is possible for your cartilage to get compressed from tension to the extent that you will hear a clicking sound in your throat. This is an indication that your cartilage’s horn may be caught, and you will need work on loosening the area so as to encourage healthier gaps of space in between each cartilage.
In fact, ensuring you have a nice gap underneath your hyoid bone and your first ring of cartilage (thyroid cartilage) is a must for healthy, free singing!
As a vocal coach and performer myself, I have not only my own experiences from which to pull, but also those of my clients and I can tell you that it’s not just bad habits or accidental muscle tension that can affect our voice. It’s probably not surprising that stress can be a culprit all on its own. And likewise, inhibiting your own throat chakra can directly form pressure in your throat area.
For instance, if you’re experiencing conflict in your life or are holding back expressing your feelings, and in essence stifling your voice from not speaking your mind, this can be dangerous. It can manifest in a feeling of being strangled and an inability to free your voice.
Also be mindful of keeping your full vocal range used and exercised. If you are a teacher or a team leader, you may find yourself in a pattern of using an earthy, authoritative tone more often than not, and this can be dangerous. I myself, have fallen victim to inadvertently squishing my throat (so-to-speak) in this fashion. I was simply forgetting to use the full range of my other vocal tones often enough on a daily basis.
The moral of the story is to remember that you are capable of many different types of tones; from the grounding, guttural earth-like tone; to your passionate, higher-ranged fire voice; to your compassionate and softer water voice.
But don’t you despair! If you are suffering from any of these aforementioned issues, it’s okay. The voice responds very to relaxation therapy and you will be in better shape soon!