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The Science Behind Vocal Tension

On the Visceral Voice podcast with Christine Schneider, Visceral Manipulation Specialist Peter Coppola explains that tension is reactivity.

There isn’t one singer who hasn’t worked through vocal tension. And though the common myth surrounding tension is that it’s our enemy, could it be that tension actually points us toward our greatest ability to release?

Tension is our body’s way of trying to protect us. As with any muscle group, if one muscle isn’t functioning properly, another muscle will swoop in to help it. While this is very noble, if the original under-working muscle issue isn’t addressed, eventually the muscle that has rushed to the rescue will overcompensate and develop tension.

Similarly, vocal tension is due to an over-compensation from a lack elsewhere.

Tension in singing could be linked in the body due to a lack of

  • breath support,

  • healthy posture,

  • proper laryngeal placement,

  • sustainable speaking technique,

  • muscular release,

However, vocal tension isn’t just an over-compensation from something lacking physically. Vocal tension can also be due to something lacking psychologically.

You see, many of the functions in singing happen autonomically, meaning without consciousness or manipulation. And while we can see a voice teacher, physical therapist, or masseuse to work out our bodily tensions, there are many causes of vocal tension that have roots running deeper than just the physical.

For tension to occur, we don’t have to actually be lacking something, we just have to believe we’re lacking something.

Our bodies will rush to our rescue and create tension whether what they’re over-compensating for is real or imagined.

Beliefs around singing like,

  • “I need to sound different than what feels natural in my body right now,”

  • “I’m not safe to just let go,”

  • “I can’t trust my voice to take care of this phrase with my control,”

all manifest themselves in the over-compensatory nature of tension. Luckily, we can remedy what we can create awareness around.

For any tension in the voice that’s due to an over-compensation in the body, we at Meisner in Music recommend that you:

  • See a voice professional

Experienced voice specialists like voice teachers, manual therapists, or speech pathologists can help you to understand where the over-compensation is coming from and give you tools to work healthily through it.

  • Stretch after physical activity & before singing

When we exert ourselves physically, we are shortening our muscles and putting them under stress. To keep this tension out of your singing, prioritize stretching after workouts & before singing.

  • Warm up to cool down

Too often, we use our warmups to rush to the end result of being vocally agile instead of calming our systems down from the stresses of the day. Use your warmup as a gentle welcoming of relief rather than an abrupt call to action.

For vocal tensions that come from an over-compensation due to beliefs about what your voice lacks, we recommend that you:

  • Talk to your inner child as you sing.

It may feel weird at first, but before any challenging phrases or when your voice wants to revert to old habits, try reassuring your inner child. Thoughts like, “I know you think I need help on this, but we can let go” can reroute our brains’ neural patterns and lead us toward extremely positive results.

  • Rework your thoughts about singing.

Jennifer Hamady demonstrates this beautifully in her therapeutic work with singers. When you feel yourself thinking negatively about your voice or a phrase, replace the thought with another one like, “Singing is just like speaking” and “Singing is easy for me.” Your body will respond, we promise you.

  • Ask for your body’s consent.

As Meisner in Music teacher Sakile Camara teaches, there’s power in asking for your body’s permission before trying something. As you’re working vocally, ask your body, “Is it ok if we try something different here?” “Are you willing to let go of control and just play?”

“Relaxation is who we are. Tension is who we think we should be.”

  • Qigong proverb

Don’t let the beliefs about what you think you should be deny you of the rich relaxation that lives within you. Your body will never do anything to actively work against you. It will merely rush to your rescue if it thinks it can help with something you lack.

Tension is not your enemy. It’s a sign from your body that you’re safe to realign and let go.

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