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.

Lynn Swanson

Music Director & Organist, Grace Episcopal Church, Gainesville, GA Music Director & Conductor, New South Festival Singers, Atlanta, GA Music Director & Conductor, Cobb Summer Singers, Marietta, GA Advisor to The Institute for Healthy Singing, The William Baker Choral Foundation former Assistant Director, Zhuhai Classical Children's Choir

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Lynn Swanson

Music Director & Organist, Grace Episcopal Church, Gainesville, GA Music Director & Conductor, New South Festival Singers, Atlanta, GA Music Director & Conductor, Cobb Summer Singers, Marietta, GA Advisor to The Institute for Healthy Singing, The William Baker Choral Foundation former Assistant Director, Zhuhai Classical Children's Choir

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