Have you ever been on stage and you notice that when you start to speak in front of all those people, you have this overwhelming sensation that you need to cough? It’s a speaker’s worst nightmare. When you’re standing there, on a huge stage in front of thousands of people and you know that any second you’re going to break out into a coughing fit and there’s nothing you can do about it. You don’t know what’s causing it, so the only thing you can do is stop speaking, walk to the back of the room, pick up your glass of water and take a sip.
Has that ever happened to you? And if you’re saying, “Yes,” then you’re suffering from the dreaded speaker’s cough and tickle. Now, this is not a thing that happens to all speakers. It happens because you’re doing something wrong with your voice, and it’s going to cause a tickling sensation in the back of your throat or a choking sensation even as though you’re choking on your words. And some of my speakers, even really professional, very experienced speakers, all suffer from this little tickly cough when they’re speaking. And they don’t know what it is.
But as your voice coach, I know what it is. It’s called tongue root tension. So today’s episode is all about tongue root tension.
If you’re not a singer, you may be wondering, “What on earth is tongue root tension? And how do I get rid of it?” And that’s what I’m here to tell you today, because there are three things that I’m going to teach you today in a very short post how to get rid of tongue root tension, and of course, where does it come from and how am I even producing tongue root tension, when I don’t even know what it is?
A really great example of tongue root tension is all you have to do is go to YouTube and listen to some of the very famous singers in the world who have tongue root tension. It’s a very specific kind of sound. A great example is Cher. When she pulls her tongue right back into the back of her throat, the tongue actually goes, even though it goes flat, like this in the mouth, it actually goes down the throat as well. So if you pull your tongue backwards into the throat, you can actually feel your tongue is starting to choke you, because as it pushes against the larynx, it cuts off the airflow to the windpipe and the larynx and guess what? We need air to make sure that the vocal folds can actually do their motion.
If they can’t do their motion, if they can’t make that lovely flapping in the wind typ of movement, then you’re not going to get a really good sound. You’re going to get a choking sound instead. So if you simply pull your tongue back: Kermit the Frog, and you’ll notice that you can make a really nice Kermit the Frog sound by simply pulling your tongue back into the back of your throat. Now, when I mentioned Cher, she actually sings like that. Some pop singers develop tongue root tension as a way of sounding pop-y and tough and rocky or whatever.
So when she sings her very famous song, “Do you believe in life after love?” You can sort of hear the tension in the back of her throat when she sings, and the very famous singer from South America, Shakira, does exactly the same thing. She has a lot of shaking in her larynx, and she has a lot of tongue root tension. So you’ll notice when other speakers are speaking, you might notice they have a bit of tongue root tension and they sound a bit froggy when they speak.
So I’m going to show you how to get rid of tongue root tension, so that when you’re in front of thousands of people on that stage, you’re not going to be choking or coughing or have a tickly throat and need to reach for that glass of water. And you know why? There’s nothing more annoying and detrimental, I find, to a speech, than somebody having to go over and have a sip of water every five seconds. I see it on stage with singers all the time, too. If you’re not hydrated before you go on, it’s too late to be hydrated on stage. So the only reason you’d be sipping water is if maybe you have a slightly dry throat because of the air conditioning and you haven’t drunk enough, you might be feeling a bit of a dry throat.
But also, it does help when people are feeling a bit nervous. And you know you get that dry throat when you’re a bit nervous, like the peanut butter effect, and a little sip of water does help with that. But if it’s tongue root tension and you feel that tickly cough start to come up, you’ve got to stop speaking immediately, take a nice, big open throat breath. You might remember the frog breath from one of the previous posts, really just open up the airways, do a swallow, reset and start again. And it will all be fine.
But here’s some exercises that you can do in the meantime to make sure that you don’t have tongue root tension when you speak. Exercise number one: It’s called the raspberry. Now, we all did raspberries as children. We just have to remember how to play games and have fun. So we’re going to stick our tongue forward of our teeth, like you’re blowing a raspberry, and then you’re going to literally blow a raspberry.
Now. That may look easy for some, but believe me, some of my students, speakers and singers alike, can’t even do that. They cannot do the raspberry at all. They stick their tongue out and it’s so tight, they literally can’t make the sound properly. So your job is to really release the tension from the back of the throat, bring the tongue forward and make the raspberry sound. But you’re going to do it in two different ways.
Step number one: You’re going to make no sound from the voice box, like this. And try not to spit all over the camera when you do it. So when you’re making that sound, you’re not making sound with the voice box, you’re just literally making sound from here, from the front of the face. Then, when you do it the second time, you add sound from the voice box.
Now, if you’re really good at the raspberry, it’s going to stay vibrant and relaxed for you for at least between five and 10 seconds. That’s your goal, five to 10 seconds with no sound and five to 10 seconds with sound. So the goal is to do the raspberry with voice and without voice five to 10 seconds each.
Exercise number two: This is a similar type of exercise and they’re called non-voiced and voiced fricatives with the sound thhhh. With the ‘th’ sound. So this time, we’re going to start with a non-voiced sound, just airflow and then a voiced sound. So ‘thhh’ like thistle, thin, thick. And then with the sound: ‘thhhh’ as in this, these, that. Now, if you can do both of those sounds, no problem, you problem don’t have trouble with tongue root tension. But some people, when they literally stick their tongue forward out their teeth and their lips, it feels very uncomfortable for them, and their tongue is so tight it literally starts to pull back in the mouth.
You know you have some tongue root tension issues when you can’t do those first two exercises very efficiently and certainly not for five seconds. You might not even be able to hold it for two seconds. So you’re going to be a step towards getting rid of your tongue root tension for good when you just practice those first two exercises.
Exercise number three, last one. This is simple. You just take a big yawn breath, as though you’re taking a nice yawn and an open throat, or a nice big surprise, like that, and then make a really open throat sound, like this. Ahhhhh. Like literally let all the tension go. Now, when I actually describe how to do a yawn to some of my students, I hear this, “Aaahhh.” That does not sound relaxed at all, and that is not a yawn. We don’t yawn as though we’re being strangled.
The only way you’re going to be a better speaker is if you can relax your throat and have complete mastery over your system. And that means mastery over your breath, your support muscles, your tongue, your teeth, your lips, your jaw, your airflow, your projection. We have so much to work on as speakers. So you must be able to open your throat: “Ahhhh,” and make a really relaxed sound.
So there are the three exercises for this post today. I hope that was helpful. I’m here to help you get the best voice and get rid of your tongue root tension. I’ll see you next time.