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.

Laughing in Music

2 videos attached.

It never occurred to me that the singing of Fa la la could be the translation of laughing in song.

In many of our rehearsals at the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies, the singers have a difficult time moving while singing. The notion is that singers have a stance almost like that of a soldier. They plant their feet and they don’t move. Of course, no movement at all only sets up a perfect scenario for tension throughout the entire body. This in turn affects the breathing. This tension and shallow breathing will of course have an impact on intonation and phrasing.

We are working hard to add movement, even if very slight, with everything we do. Kinesthetic movement with the well- known canon Dona Nobis Pacem has become the standard way we end our rehearsals. It surely sends the ladies home completely relaxed and dreaming of the beautiful sounds they have experienced in our lovely acoustic space.

We have added many vocal exercises that move from a very bright ah to a very relaxed ah. We are working to keep the tongue down and throat open so that we may support our sound with air. We have actually gone to the other extreme in creating a very aspirate onset in the beginning of all of our phrases. It is important for our ladies to precede words beginning with a vowel with the voiceless h to remind them of the sensation of singing on the air. Aspirating the h mimics a sigh which naturally opens the throat.

While we are busy at work understanding the difference between resonators and articulators, we are also working on our musicianship. Since we have conquered learning rhythms by putting the sequences in our feet, we have moved the sensation to our voice and are applying count singing to our study.

In this video, you will see these brave, intelligent and hard-working Chinese women, transferring  rhythms from the feet to the voice by count singing on a repeating tone. Then, you will hear the lovely English tune Now Is The Month of Maying by Thomas Morley. First, we speak the English text in rhythm, then we sing it. With the singing Fa-la-la, our focus is to let the tip of the tongue do the flipping to create a light-hearted laugh with the singing of “Fa-la-la” being sure to not engage the jaw.

You will also hear the r used in the word merry. We later changed the American r to a flipped r because it was just causing too much trouble for our non-native speakers.

I highly recommend this piece as it is a great teaching piece that differentiates the articulators from the resonators. The imagery of the piece is depicted beautifully in the melodic line. The phrasing is two to four measures and the text is repetitive emphasizing the importance of contrasting dynamics. In the key of F Major, it also aids in learning to sing an ascending major scale on a neutral syllable. Of course, it’s even more fun explaining what is meant by the words lad and lass, words we don’t use much anymore.


Sequential Consonants “TH”

Please see video attached.

One of the most challenging consonants for our Chinese singers is the sequential consonants th. Quite honestly, I have found it to be difficult for many English speakers especially those that sing in English choirs.

Singers often do not put forth the effort to get the tongue between the teeth when making the th sound. Depending on the effort, the tempo and preceding consonants, the th can become a z. As the tip of tongue travels to the front teeth, it can get stuck at the alveolar.

For our Chinese speakers, the d has become the default for the th. There is no sound like the th in the Chinese language. There are however, many words that use the English d. The tongue simply does not pass through the teeth for any sound. As a matter of fact, because of the tones used in this language, the tongue is rarely in a relaxed position. The sounds must be made with an elevated and recessed tongue.

At the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies, we have created a small exercise to reinforce the placement of the tongue for th. Singing a non legato unison pitch in the mid-range we sing this-that-and-the-other. It has been an effective exercise to add to the choral training that happens at the beginning of each rehearsal.

Of course, if one is singing the word the one must also consider if the long e or short e is used. Can you imagine the confusion with Chinese speakers? For instance, the word harp technically begins with an h. But, since it is the exception to the rule, the h is silent. Mind you, they don’t necessarily understand every word they are singing, but can pronounce almost any word put before them.

In the video on this post, you will hear the Welsh tune The Ash Grove. This is a great piece for young singers especially those that need practice finding the correct articulators to clearly pronounce th and those needing to understand the long e or short e usage in the.

 The Ash Grove is written in the key of G. The range is D4 to D5. The melodic line is very tonal and pleasing to the voice and ear. The phrases are short enough for young lungs and the only leap is the initial interval of a fourth. It is repetitive in melody and rhythm, although there is a slight variety of both in the second verse. Even though it could easily be sung A cappella, the use of the piano supports the singer vocally and aurally through its pure harmonic structure.


Teaching German text to Chinese Singers

Teaching German to Chinese Singers

In some ways, it’s easier for a choir to sing a foreign language than it is to sing in its native tongue. The reasons may or may not be obvious. Every language has socially distinct varieties that will differ from its standard language.

In the Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir, the children sing in Latin, English, and Italian. They are now preparing two pieces in German. The first is Beethoven’s Merkenstein for alto and soprano voices. The second is Schubert’s Psalm 23 for four-part treble voices.

The two select choirs named Elgar and Britten are capable of reading English. For the most part, they have been singing Latin and English for a few years. They performed the choral score of Madame Butterfly in Italian of course, with orchestra and professional soloists this past June.

Now, we are teaching them German. Just a quick note, many of the English sounds made for our language are not a part of the Chinese language. Imagine the confusion, when after having read English for a number of years the “w” is suddenly pronounced as a “v”. Then, there is the even more explosive ending consonant necessary in the German language. “Und” must be pronounced with an exploding “t”.  The final syllable “en” becomes an “un”. Let’s not forget that singers must suddenly remember to make an “sch” sound for what is an “st” sound in English. The umlaut has not been as big of an issue as expected even though they do not encounter this production in English or Chinese. For the most part, the greater issue is the brain making the switch as to how a certain vowel or consonant differs from English to German.

They are relieved to know that the “th” sound only appears in English. I have found this sound to be by far the most difficult blend for Chinese children to produce. Of course, I believe it is a difficult blend for English speakers as well. Even in well-rehearsed English singing choirs, the “th” often comes across as a lazy sound because the tongue is allowed to remain behind the teeth.

I have included two excerpts from a tutorial session with three of the boys that sing in both select choirs.

They have only been learning this piece, notes, rhythm and now text for three rehearsals.