I read your article on the hyoglossus, and, since muscles can only contract, not push, I don’t see how it can depress the larynx. Other muscles would have to contribute to the downward movement. As Miller says, “the tongue/hyoid bone/larynx complex is actually a functional unit.” The elevators are more numerous and stronger than the depressors (sternohyoid, for example), but the hyoglossus cannot push the larynx down. Perhaps you can clarify that in your next column. I always appreciate it when someone asks a probing question or gives me a correction, so I hope you won’t take offense!
The article in question is Part 1 of “Don’t Gloss Over the Hyoglossus!,” my May 2015 “Musings on Mechanics” column for Classical Singer magazine. Early in the article, I defined the hyoglossus as the muscle that retracts and depresses the tongue. The article also includes several phrases implying that the hyoglossus depresses the larynx; for example, I wrote that “Depressing the larynx with the base of the tongue will indeed force it into a low position and will also expand the resonating space by lengthening and widening the supraglottal tract.”
When the tongue retracts, it travels back and down towards the hyoid bone and becomes rigid, displacing the hyoid bone (and consequently the larynx) down and limiting mobility of the entire structure. In these instances I used the word “depress” to refer to the way that retracting the tongue contributes to urging the larynx down. But if you interpret the use of the word “depress” in strictly biomechanical terms, then yes: It is accurate to say that that the hyoglossus depresses the tongue and inaccurate to say that it depresses the larynx.
“Musings on Mechanics” was created for the purpose of making the physiology and biomechanics of vocal technique and wellness accessible. It presents anatomy in layman’s terms so that singers can better understand how their instruments work and troubleshoot problems when things are not working so well. Many singers retract and depress their tongues for the reasons I described in this column: manifesting long-ingrained speech habits, affecting depth and resonance, and stabilizing the larynx. I want to help singers become aware of why and how they are doing this and recommend strategies for resolving the problem. I therefore used the language best suited to reach my intended audience, who are not concerned with whether I am using the word “depress” to refer to a precise muscle action or whether I simply mean “cause to descend” in the broader sense.
I adapt my writing style to the needs of an article’s intended audience. For example, “The Voice of Posture,” my recent guest post for the National Academy of Sports Medicine blog, was written for members of the sports science community, and thus employs anatomical vocabulary with far greater detail and precision.
My article on tongue tension references two Journal of Singing articles: Richard Miller’s “Taming the Terrible Triplets of the Vocal Tract: Tongue/Hyoid Bone/Larynx” and Marilee David’s “The Retracted Tongue”. While both of these articles provide outstanding descriptions of the role of the tongue in vocal production and articulation and detailed anatomical descriptions of its structure and relationship to other components of vocal anatomy, neither provides for an easy read nor offers a comprehensive strategy for resolving tongue tension, which is what my article seeks to accomplish. (My recommendations for resolving tongue tension, summarized below, will be covered in Part 2 of the column, slated to appear in the Summer Issue of Classical Singer.)
Singers so commonly present with a shortened, overactive hyoglossus that I often refer to it as the tight hamstring complex of the voice: just as most people develop tightness in their legs that makes it increasingly difficult to touch their toes, most singers fall prey to habitual speech patterns that create a problematic tightness in the tongue. Fortunately, it is relatively simple to alleviate tension and improve coordination in the hyoglossus. The tongue is composed of the same connective tissue and skeletal muscle fiber as most other muscle groups in the body (Eroschenko, Victor P., and Mariano S. H. di Fiore. DiFiore's Atlas of Histology with Functional Correlations, 145. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008.) and will therefore respond to the same strategies that exercise scientists have been applying for decades to relieve tight muscles throughout the body. My approach to this is drawn from the Corrective Exercise protocol developed by the National Academy of Sports Medicine:
- Decrease overactivity of neuro-myofascial tissue. For large muscle groups this can be accomplished with massage or a foam roller; for the smaller, harder-to-reach muscles of the tongue, the Vibrant Voice massage techniques developed by David Ley work extremely well.
- Lengthen the shortened muscle using static stretching. Engage the genoiglossus to protrude the tongue, then grasp the tongue with the fingers and gently pull to increase the stretch, which should be held for at least 30 seconds.
- Activate the tight muscle’s antagonists and engage them with isolated strengthening exercises. Using the genioglossus to hold a pencil under the tongue while vocalizing accomplishes this.
- Integrate the newly balanced musculature into the more complex movements required for performance. Vocalize on tongue vowels while using a mirror and/or gentle thumb pressure under the chin to ensure that the tongue sustains an appropriately arched position rather than habitually retracting.
While this procedure is not particularly complicated or strenuous, it can be emotionally challenging for singers to release the hyoglossus because tension in this muscle has likely been playing a compensatory role in their technique. Letting go of the tension may mean a temporary reduction in resonance, articulatory clarity, and/or laryngeal stability until they learn better strategies, which makes tone quality and vowel clarity poor indicators of whether the tongue is still retracting or not.
Now consider the Journal of Singing articles referenced above:
Miller discusses undesirable “tongue postures” but shares no advice for developing more desirable ones other than concluding that “the participants of the vocal tract should be allowed to cooperate in accordance with physiology and acoustics. Only in this way will the ‘terrible triplets of the vocal tract’ ever be tamed to behave as the singer wishes.”
David’s article is more solution-oriented. She proposes some vocal exercises that she has found helpful for alleviating tongue tension and encourages further exploration: “The absence of available information in voice pedagogy literature regarding the retracted tongue is a contributing factor in the lack of awareness of the problem among singers and voice teachers. While there are occasional references in the literature, teachers are forced to create their own solutions based on the physiology of the problem.” David’s anatomical terminology is at times far less precise than mine; for example, she writes, “Persons with retracted tongue positions often drop the base of the tongue before dropping the jaw, thus causing the mouth to open back against the neck.” “Drop” is not a muscle action. Releasing the masseter muscle and its synergists may cause the jaw to appear to “drop,” but a retracted tongue is actively contracting, not passively “dropping”. But I know what she means, and so do you. Similar language appears in the section on “Tongue Position” in her book, The New Voice Pedagogy. Her editors at Journal of Singing and Scarecrow Press clearly felt that her choice of language was appropriate to get her point across and chose not to nitpick for anatomical correctness.
Miller’s and David’s articles are extremely valuable sources of information on this topic. But like many of the pedagogical articles that appear in scholarly publications like the Journal of Singing, they expertly describe the phenomena they are observing but, without conducting a formal study, can offer only speculations about what it may mean and what to do about it.
I am not interested in conducting a formal study to measure whether and how much singers retract and depress their tongues. I have studied enough of them up close to know that most of them do – often to an extent that presents real obstacles for their artistry. I want them to understand how vital it is that they resolve this serious problem and equip them with the tools they require.
I was not offended by your message correcting my terminology; after all, your assertion was entirely accurate. That said, I did find it disconcerting, as it strikes me as symptomatic of a larger concern I have over how frequently one encounters a general lack of collegiality and mutual respect within our field. Choosing to nitpick on a minor point rather than engaging the substance of my article fosters a repressive atmosphere that can be quite discouraging to those of us seeking to explore new avenues of inquiry and expand our shared body of knowledge.
We would all do well to be more supportive of one another generally. I was recently approached by a colleague for advice regarding an interview for a teaching appointment. He was asked to give a master class, and told me he felt that it would be best to stick to stylistic and dramatic concerns while steering clear of pedagogical issues so as to avoid offending any of the senior members of the voice faculty who might disagree with his technique. I encouraged him to be forthcoming with his pedagogical approach and pointed out that any voice faculty he would wish to be a part of ought to be one where teachers are inspired by their differing strengths and areas of expertise. Perhaps my advice to him was naïve - it may well be that we have allowed ourselves to become so provincial and suspicious as a profession that it is a more expeditious course of action to say and write nothing on the subject of technique rather than risk backlash from those who may feel threatened by unfamiliar approaches and ideas. For my own part, I choose to share my ideas as widely as possible, in the hope that they will be engaged with more credulity than skepticism, and the majority of readers will pay more attention to the ideas I am attempting to disseminate than the language I use to express them.