Travails of the Tongue . . . particularly with the Chinese tongue when singing classical music. 

All parts of the human body get tired eventually – except the tongue. Konrad Adenauer ~

No doubt the tongue can get us into all kinds of trouble, socially and vocally. There can be tension in our tongue when we speak and when we sing, particularly with the Chinese tongue if singing western classical music.

Not anticipating the physiological expectations of the tongue when speaking Mandarin, I was surprised, nay, shocked to see the tongue’s ability to perform such amazing gymnastic stunts while speaking Chinese. Of course, the tip of the tongue is expected to touch the soft palate when pronouncing certain blended consonants, why would it not be expected to do the same when singing those same consonants in classical music?

It would be normal to assume that if a native Mandarin speaker hears “ch” that the speaker would transfer the same techniques used in the native tongue to “ch” in the foreign language. Our tongues use completely different actions when speaking English and when speaking Mandarin.

This “track switching” takes time. Of course, one cannot speak Mandarin seven days a week, then default so quickly to different uses of the articulators (i.e. tongue, teeth, jaw, hard palate, etc.) when singing Western world classical music one evening a week.

Impeccable intonation is created from excellent aural skills and efficient use of our breathing mechanisms, resonators and articulators. You can imagine that with constant engagement of the tongue and jaw in this manner, that the larynx would be suppressed. Often times, the air flow is significantly obstructed because of the arching back of the tongue. Sometimes, the jaw is required to clench and the teeth touch in order to correctly produce the tones.

Because of the requirements of not only the tongue but the jaw as well, our mature native Mandarin speakers usually have a very limited range. The process to unravel these defaults begin with understanding them, employing relaxation techniques, teaching suitable repertoire to reinforce new habits, and an ongoing commitment to the process – which requires patience and confidence!

Much of the vocal training exercises have been designed to reinforce relaxation in the tongue and jaw allowing the tongue to hang naturally. Even asking these Chinese singers to “stretch and yawn” does not replicate our stretch and yawn. The Pinyin pronunciation “fang song” was one of the first phrases I learned. It means “relax”. The women’s choirs always begin rehearsal with shoulder massages (a very popular relaxation exercise here). We move to massaging the jaw with the tongue hanging then move to phonating in the upper register sliding to the mixed register on “[a]. This reinforces the tongue to remain relaxed. We follow with several slides, then ascending lip trills on the pentascale. We use different exercises to pulse the diaphragm and its supporting muscles. In the beginning we only moved by step in any direction. It was a couple of months before we could sing exercises that included moving by intervals of a third.

The singing range of the average member of the ladies’ choirs was F4 – G5. This of course, meant the vocal placement of the speaking voice was too low. Because of the arching and tip of the tongue being used in so many consonants, the sound is forced almost entirely through the nose. I have found the use of Phillips’ (1996) voice placement exercises to be extremely helpful not only to the women but to the children as well.

Focus in the Mask:

  1. Direct students to make the sound “hmmmmm” with the mouth shut and the teeth clenched. Note the vibrations in the nose exclusively.
  2. Repeat the sound with the teeth apart as far as possible without parting the lips. Note the vibrations as far as possible without parting the lips. This will produce a dark sound.
  3. Repeat the hmmmmm with lips together but teeth slightly apart. The vibrations cause the lips to tingle and center in the oral-nasal area but also somewhat in the throat. This balance of resonance (one-third lower pharyngeal and two-thirds oral-nasal is the desired resonance for the mask.

My “Go-To” Tongue Relaxer has always included placing the tip of the tongue on the bottom lip so that the jaw hangs freely and the tongue can be felt on the lower lip. Many singers will think the tongue is forward and relaxed but until they can feel it on the lower lip they may not realize how lifted the root is or how the tip is recessed.

I discovered the following video produced by Sing Wise and Karyn O’Connor that shows specific exercises and further explanations.

The experience of working with these determined Chinese singers puts a song in my heart: You remember The Sound of Music piece that begins with . . .

“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very fine place to start.”

Investigating the structure, understanding and diagnosing the issues, prescribing a plan and dedicating oneself to the method without wavering has proved successful.

You can see from the images below how the tongue is engaged when producing various blends and vowels.

Images and explanations courtesy Liping, J. , Fang, W. , Feng, W. (2013).

zh, ch, sh – the tip of the tongue is turned up directed to the middle of the hard palate. Even though the tip of tongue releases to let air flow, the tension remains in the jaw and the tongue does not realize a resting position.


j, q, x tongue placement of consonants.


n, ng tongue placement of consonants. When forming the ng, the back part of the tongue forms an arch with the root of the tongue moving back and pressing the soft palate. The upper and lower teeth are also much closer to each other.

u vowel tongue placement. The tongue is in a back position and held backwards to produce the desirable sound.


We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less. Diogenes.

Using proven techniques and exercises, with patience and persistence, our ladies’ choirs have extended the overall range to E6. More singers, young and mature have less intonation issues. More singers know how to speak with a neutral placed larynx. More singers can sing longer phrases and certainly more singers hear the difference in their voice and love their singing even more. It’s a beautiful process to witness!


Phillips, K. H. (1996). Teaching Kids to Sing. New York: Schirmer Books.

O’Connor, K. (2016). Retraining the Tongue Root.

Fang, W. Feng, W. Liping, L. (2013). HSK 1 Standard Course. Beijing: Beijing Language and Culture University Press.

Quotes used from online Brainy Quotes: Diogenes, Adenauer.

An Interview with Arietha Lockhart, Award-Winning Soprano ~

“an artist of taste and intelligence with a very beautiful high soprano voice.”                    Robert Shaw

As an active recitalist and concert singer, Arietha is known for her performances of oratorio masterworks and new works by contemporary American composers. She has won numerous awards at various competitions and festivals around the world.

Please enjoy getting to know more about Arietha’s inspiring life ~

DV: First, Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where were you born? Is there a story behind your name? Where did you receive your education?

A: Brewton, Alabama. I was named after my Great Grandmother Reathy.  I am a proud graduate of W.S. Neal High School in East Brewton. I hold a Bachelor and a Master degree in Music Education from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I also have an Education Specialist degree from the University of Georgia.

DV: Tell us something memorable about your family from your childhood.

A: My mother and grandmother sang constantly.  There was a spiritual to get up in the morning Rise, Shine, Give God the Glory, songs while we worked, songs on the way to school, etc…  Mama sang in the church choir so I was there for rehearsals and of course learned all the songs. Even as a little person I sat in the choir each Sunday.

DV: What is your first musical memory?

A: I was four years old and sang It Is No Secret What God Can Do for a church-wide Sunday School program.

DV: Did anyone in your family sing or play an instrument?

A: My father was a tenor with a soloistic voice.  My mother and grandmother were sopranos. I heard singing even before I was born.

DV: How old were you when you began to study privately? What did you study and with whom?

A: I was eight years old when I began studying piano with Mary Hoard.

DV: You have balanced a career as a music educator and as a solo performer? How were you able to navigate through teaching all day and rehearsing/performing at nights and on weekends?

A: I limit my talking during performance weeks. Once I began singing the tiredness faded.  My mantra has always been: Stand erect, hydrate, and rest.

DV: How often do you practice? Do you have a specific basic routine/plan/goals?

A: Depending on what’s coming up, I do lip trills and humming every day for maintenance.  If there are no performances coming up, I rest, listen to the pieces I will be working on and lip trill or hum.

DV: How do you prepare for a performance? I remember when you visited my children’s choirs as Mystery Musician of the Month you told them you began hydrating three months before a performance.

A: When performances are three to six months away, I start by reviewing the music and getting difficult passages in my voice.  I will lip trill the passages, sing legato on vowels, sing staccato and if needed, sing with various rhythms for difficult coloratura passages.

DV: You’ve been able to maintain a healthy and very vibrant voice throughout your career, balancing teaching all day coupled with a busy solo performance schedule. What’s your secret?

A: Almost losing my voice to a vocal node in my first year in Atlanta set me on the path to maintaining vocal gold as Robert Shaw would put it. I began seeing an Ear Nose and Throat Doctor named Dr. Brown.  He said I had the beginnings of a node and that I should maintain silence for six weeks to prevent it from developing.  He told me that the vocal cords vibrate sympathetically. When they are exposed to sounds in my singing range, they will also vibrate. He taught me to value and practice silence.  I worked out a system on my job for non-verbal cues with my classes.  I think this was my secret weapon.  I developed looks (teacher stank eye), lights off for silences, and clapped responses that helped to get the attention of the students. I had a student reader for directions, etc. At home, I turned off all sounds and noises and maintained silence.  When I went back to Dr. Brown for the check up the blister was gone. I haven’t had those issues again.  I kept the idea of limiting my talking during the day and doing lessons that involved listening for the students during performance weeks.   I also have seasonal allergies and like many school teachers have had strep throat a number of times.   I tackled the allergies with medicine for many years noting that even more hydration was needed when I took antihistamines. Now I wash away allergens with saline solution and schedule regular check-ups to ensure my vocal cords are healthy.

DV: How do you manage your nerves just before stepping on stage?

A: I had crippling stage fright in my college years when I was a piano major.  It was very painful to watch and experience.  One day I was assigned to perform a vocal solo on a student recital. That changed everything.  Having only the melody and words to remember was a refreshing change. From then on, my confidence to perform grew.   I believe that it’s important to role play and practice on the stage where the performance will be held.  My experiences over the years with singing Atlanta Symphony Chorus concerts gave me more poise. When I stepped to the front of the stage it didn’t feel strange anymore. Each performance has bolstered my confidence.  For nerves, I do deep breathing. In the preparation process, I mark places in the music where I can find myself if I get lost.

DV: What advice would you give to performers about managing their nerves just before a performance?

A: First, they need to know their characteristics or how nerves affect them.  I have had cotton mouth … too dry, wet mouth… needing to swallow too often…  back spasms from tension, knees knocking, etc….  I found that breathing was the best way to try to keep me calm and I learned to work with the characteristics.   Chewing the tongue gently produces saliva for the dry mouth, taking a hard swallow during a rest wets the mouth, and relaxing the knees and the back to ease spasms are helpful tips.  Wear long skirts or dresses to cover the shaky knees!

Breathing to calm the nerves is great but there is such a thing as over compensating and being too calm. If that’s you, jog in place for a few minutes or take the stairs to the audition or performance hall.

DV: What were the greatest lessons you learned from your teachers?

A: Mary Hoard, elementary teacher: Music is fun.

John Baxter, middle school band director: Playing in the band is a great way to make music.

Bradford Dale, high school piano teacher: Use all of your talents.  He encouraged me to present my senior recital with all my instruments.  I sang and played the flute and piano for the ninety-minute program.

Bradford Gowen:  He taught me to appreciate American Music and composers.  He won an award for his playing of contemporary piano compositions.

Sheryl Cohen: Singing transfers splendidly to the flute. As a result, beauty of tone and musicality happens.

Karen White: “You have facility and colorature!” She encouraged me to continue my studies at the Summer School for the Arts, Chautauqua.

Larry Gerber: “Don’t stop studying voice!  Promise me you will continue.”

Florence Kopleff: She was a task master that held high expectations for performance. I gained confidence knowing that if I could sing for her, I could sing for anyone.

Robert Shaw: “Singing in a chorus can bring the most joy of all and it can offer lasting friendships.” “Amateurs can also be professionals.”

Elizabeth Nohe Colson: “The past should be left in the past or it can steal your future.  Live life for what tomorrow can bring and not for what yesterday has taken away. Every day is a gift.” She taught me to develop an ironclad vocal technique and helped me free my high tones, for which I am known.

DV: Even though I think I know the answer to this, who were your greatest influences in the world of music and what impressions did they make on you?

A: Looking back on my life…  the words “life changing” completely describe my experience when I sang for Robert Shaw. He didn’t care about degrees or titles. He allowed me to be a soloist because he took the time to prepare and coach me on exactly what he wanted out of the music. I was bound and determined to bring all I could to the table.  I believe that my work ethic is what was developed working with him.  If I did not succeed, he would work with me so I might do better the next time.

DV: I know you have been a member of the award-winning Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus for more than three decades. Congratulations! We at the Choral Foundation have always called you the Atlanta’s Sweetheart. It has been a pleasure to have you as principal soloist with the Festival Singers and our Summer Choruses. Is there a particular memory(s) about your performance history with the Choral Foundation that you would like to share?

A: First, I am grateful to Dr. William Baker and the Choral Foundation for inviting me to participate in these marvelous masterpieces that I first explored as a chorister with Robert Shaw.  I think our shared experiences of the Shaw Glory color each performance that we share.  I have enjoyed each and every time I have participated in a Choral Foundation performance.   I think performing the Requiem of Brahms is the most memorable piece for me.  When the Festival Singers performed it both here in Atlanta and in Kansas City, it was the four-hand version. That arrangement has a sound of its own that contrasts nicely from the orchestrated setting.

DV: What is your favorite genre of music or role/solo to perform and why?

A: American Music is my favorite. I love all genres of music. I love performing music that has a meaning to me and to my life today.

DV: What’s left on Arietha’s bucket list (life and singing)?

  • Traveling to places in the world where my ancestors went in the African Diaspora
  • Singing a role at the MET
  • Recording an album
  • Teaching teachers about how to be a teacher
  • More voice recitals

Performing: Barber’s Prayers of Kirkegarde; Brentano Songs,  Strauss.                            Roles:  Another opportunity to sing Zerbinetta and Queen of the Night.

Arietha Lockhart: Mozart’s  Exsultate Jubilate, Lynn Swanson, Conductor.

Ms. Lockhart’s recent performances: Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with Summer Singers of Atlanta, William O. Baker, Conductor.

SOLO EXCERPTS: 49:47, 56:30, 1:01:16.

Arietha and pianist Mary Au perform Dr. Sharon Willis’ Love Ritual for the Women’s Work Recital Series in New York.

Arietha and pianist Sunny Knable perform Curtis Bryant’s Laughing Monkeys of Gravity, a realization of the poems of Stephen Bluestone about the Vaudeville characters’ experiences.

Hear Ms. Lockhart’s performances on SoundCloud

Continue reading An Interview with Arietha Lockhart, Award-Winning Soprano ~

Nervous about your next audition? How I got over my nerves . . .

Everyone has different things going on in their mind before they audition or perform. I hope that some of my experiences in managing performance anxiety will help you!

First of all, it took me some time to realize that being nervous before an audition or performance is normal. Now, instead of trying to get rid of the nerves, I name the attributes that can come out of being nervous. I then focus on those positives.

Being nervous helps me understand that I really care about what I am doing. It’s a good feeling to be completely invested in something. So many times, we just can’t take the time to give anything our all!

But why do I care?  What are my ambitions?

Is it to be accepted by others? Is to win accolades? Is it to feel like I have accomplished something worthwhile? Is it an important personal goal I want to achieve? Is it so I can be a part of the group? If so, why do I want to be? Calling out the many things you can ask yourself is critical to having a good experience. Sometimes, putting pen to paper can really make a difference in aligning what’s in your soul and mind.

Secondly, assessing why I care helps me understand my priorities. Articulating the answer, helps me understand if this brings a true value to my being and propels my passion or if it’s a shallow thought driven by ego.  Maybe my goal was to win the approval from the adjudicators whether they sit at the table with a score card or are members of the audience. Of course, shifting their name from Adjudicator to Listener for Enlightenment helped my state of mind.

If I’m performing, I remind myself that on this given day at this appointed hour there is most likely no one in the audience that could perform this music better than I. Who has invested all that I have? Who cares as much as I do? Who can portray what it means to me except me? But, what if that audience has the Artistic Director of Chanticleer sitting in it? Ah! But what if that audience has my mother in it?! First of all, my mother couldn’t sing it better and whatever her thoughts are belong to her. I cannot change her thoughts and I am not responsible for her thoughts. Second, the Artistic Director of Chanticleer understands I am not a world- renowned singer and really came to be still and let the music flow over him rather than feel he is working it. Still, his thoughts are his thoughts. I cannot change that no matter what I do or who I am. I must shift my focus from singing for the approval of others to singing for my own satisfaction and experience of it all.

Thirdly, before I go into my audition, I assure myself that I have adequately prepared for this. I have chosen a piece I love singing. If I sing something I love they will enjoy hearing me! Sometimes, I will question if I need to sing the piece just one more time. At some point, countless repetition of the solo will stop having the desired effect. Meaning, the brain can only absorb so much repetition effectively. As my colleague Bill Baker says sometimes, “Enough practice, it’s time to just go out and play the game.”

Fourthly, I recognize that when I get nervous, my breathing is the first thing that suffers. I automatically default to shallow breathing. The diaphragm doesn’t even appear to be working! That’s why I move. I walk and sing and look about the room and engage in something mindless. I walk or sway until the minute I walk through the door. I also do a couple of minutes of lip trills. I might even sing the piece on lip trills rather than the words. Sometimes, however, I find it more effective to not think about the music but distract myself by looking about the room and gaze on the beautiful blue color in the stained-glass window. I might even appreciate the storm brewing outside and see it as being powerful and majestic. Or I might remember that after I sing, I’ll be attending a world premiere at Symphony Hall or treating myself to chocolate cake!

Sometimes, I find it helpful to think about the mechanics of the piece rather than the outcome of my performance. I might envision the colors of the phrases, or feel the pulse of the music by swaying or dancing. It might be that I hear myself singing the arpeggio scale passage as if I were a beautiful bird soaring from the top of a tree to the next mountain peak in the Colorado Rockies.

Fifthly, I always have present in my mind two thoughts ~ One came once again from Bill Baker: “There is no one performance that will break you. There is no one performance that will make you.”

I tell myself that all I can do is all I can do. It’s not what anyone else can do. What’s the worst that could happen? I could trip over my own feet walking in, forget my first word and blow the sustained F on the last page. But, if I do, at least it will make for a good story and I’ll walk away better for having tried than not tried at all.

Finally, as with all things, the performing/auditioning I do, the easier it is to manage.

I don’t know what your issues are, but I hope this can shed light some light if you experience nerves that you can’t seem to navigate through before an audition.

Some of these conclusions came about when I took the course on Navigating Performance Anxiety written and taught by Babette Lightner. I encourage you to check out her website for more inquisitive and thought-provoking insights.