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.

Nuance ~ Beyond the notes and the rhythm ~

Who has the time to consider the details, much less demand them?

With enough practice, anyone can learn to sing the pitches, the rhythms, the text in the correct tempo. Is that all there is? I find that too often, we’re so focused on manufacturing the sound that we haven’t stop to consider anything else. Music that speaks to the core of the soul must also consider:

  • Silence created by the rests
  • Intonation: Relationship between pitch and harmonic structure as well as to other pitches
  • Modification of the vowel
  • Timbre of the ensemble
  • Consideration of when the note should reach its highest amplitude, the front end, the back end, the middle?
  • Syllabic stress (which most often occurs naturally from well-constructed rhythm)
  • Agogics? Tenuto?
  • Articulation – Staccato, Legato, Marcato, and everything in between
  • Geometry embedded in the crescendo and decrescendo
  • Dynamics – are all voice parts equal when f is written above the staff?
  • Ensemble Dynamics vs. Personal Dynamics
  • Vibrato cycle – more shimmer or ?
  • Placement of voices for balance and blend~ to whom is the choir listening? who is the choir hearing?
  • Arrangement of singers for maximum acoustic benefit

The list goes on.  All of these elements and more can be summed up in the meaning of nuance. If only we had the time, we would care. If only we cared, we would take the time. If we knew all of these things mattered, would we learn the notes quicker so we could delve deeper?

So much of our preparation time must be managed according to the schedule. Why! We have a performance to give! Who has the time to talk about details? Besides, all of that doesn’t really make that a big difference does it?  The Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir is working on it. . . albeit slowly, but certainly.  Still, pretty darned impressive to be singing multiple languages not often heard or spoken, much less understood.

Don’t be a Hummer!

Don’t be a Hummer, Be an Audiator

We have established the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies in Zhuhai, China as a “No-Humming Zone”. Our Chinese character:

Rather than hum, we audiate. Audiation is a cognitive learning process by which the brain receives input , digests it, then defines it. In other words, one internalizes the pitch before one produces the pitch. Retention and production of the pitch must take place in the head before it can be accurately produced via the mouth.

There are other benefits to audiating:

+ Listening to an entire phrase with an engaged brain organizes sequences and patterns so they may be recalled with greater precision.

+ It decreases intonation issues. If you can hear it in your head, you can sing it correctly. As my colleague Dr. William Baker of the Choral Foundation always says: “Choirs that sing in tune, don’t hum the pitch!”

+ Focus is maintained. Humming along to the piano or while others are singing interrupts the audiation and production process of others. It also contributes to a noisy learning atmosphere encouraging others to hum along.

+ Sight-reading and tonal memory aptitude improves. Singing too quickly can bring about confusion with other patterns already stored in the brain. Hearing then thinking about the current intervals and rhythm will bring about more success with the initial attempt.

+ Avoids adding noise to the rehearsal room. Noisy rooms produce the Lombard Effect which has a negative impact on the singers via the instructors compensation for this situation. Any noise levels that are increased during instruction causes the instructor to increase phonetic fundamental frequencies, sound intensity, volume and overuse of articulators.  This can cause vocal fatigue and produce other negative results. 

Increase your musical aptitude by becoming a disciplined audiator.

The more you audiate the more others will audiate.

And the more pleasant our world will be.

        Don't Hum The Pitch!

The American “R” and the Chinese “R”

I am privileged to be appointed as the Assistant Director of the Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir in Zhuhai, China. It is a chorus under the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies. The children are taught Western world classical music in the British Choral Tradition.

I have had initial rehearsals with all of the children’s ensembles in the short week I have been working with the Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir.  There is also a beginner women’s chorus and an intermediate women’s chorus. The children are eager to learn and therefore learn very quickly. Chinese families are motivated to give their children every possible educational opportunity available in order to advance themselves. Expectations to succeed in areas that will help them operate on a global level is very high. The work ethic is very strong. Higher education is revered and sought after. They are a very competitive people. In essence, they strive to excel in all that they do.

Regarding observations I have made, in my first rehearsals, on the impact of language and singing Western-world classical music –

Mandarin has few words that end in consonants. Generally, the words are one syllable. Vocal inflection is not part of the phrasing. Consonants used at the ends words include n, ng, or er.

Tones are used to differentiate word units even though the spelling is the same. The first tone is the same pitch throughout the pronunciation. It’s pitch is also high. The second tone starts mid-range and rises. The third tone starts mid-low and falls then rises again. The fourth tone starts high and quickly falls. Occasionally, there are unstressed syllables that possess a neutral tone. The use of these tones can be very nuanced and therefore sometimes difficult to identify especially in the flow of a sentence.

If you know me at all,  I am constantly talk about nuance and the difference this makes in music coming alive or leaving one empty. Anyone can sing the notes, but how they sing the notes breathes life into the phrase.

Every dialect and every language has its difficulties when producing a unified choral sound according to Western-world standards. The r sound creates the most problem for, as we like to say, corrupting the pitch. There are so many colors and variations of the pitch when an r is present. We teach our choirs to default to the ah sound if in the middle of the word or to flip the r replacing it with the letter d.

In Mandarin, the use of the er allows for variation of pitch and what can sound like a glissando or intentional bending of the pitch. The use of the Chinese er can create extreme intonation problems and lingering tones.

The use of the er also creates tension in the jaw and teeth. It can handicap the resonators. To cleanse the young singers of the use of this harsh default (certainly where Western-world classical music is concerned) we have included exercises that encourage the lifting of the soft palate and zygomatic arch muscles. I have added kinosthetic actions that have positively and almost immediately resolved the issue. These don’t require explanation, just modeling.  The children copy perfectly.

These exercises include stretching and yawning. Yes, stretching, yawning and sighing are universal. Using the thumb and index finger to draw the sound up from the cheeks to above the head has also been a good remedy. Explaining that the vowel must be reinforced on successive notes and not produced by using articulators has been a great revelation. Even though these singers may need to be reminded about these issues, they quickly fix them when asked.