Q&A – How to Keep NG Tongue Position

Dear Michael,
I have a question for you: I know that the tongue must stay in the “ng” position, but sometimes I loose the sensation, especially when pronouncing words. Maybe you can help me with that, maybe there is a particular feeling in the mouth which can be helpful.
Thank you, all the best.


For a lot of people the “ng” position of the tongue is unfamiliar, and so it is a challenge to establish it consistently as a new condition. But it can be helpful to stay mindful of the context that it falls in.

Unfortunately there are many aspects that influence each individual thing, so it is hard to just give a tip here or an idea there. Everything is interconnected. Just like all of the parts involved in vocal coordination, the ng tongue does not exist in isolation. Rather it is part of a complex structure that needs to work together to accomplish optimal coordination.

And like other parts of the vocal situation there are many different influences involved that need to be coordinated in order to keep this one aspect consistent.

ESTABLISH POSITION

The first thing that can help is to make sure the position is being established accurately. Like other aspects of vocal function I like to use the natural behavior of the body in related functions to guide us in learning the proper behavior in vocal function.

In this case we can use a swallow to show us where the natural place for the tongue is. This is a simple process of observing ourselves swallowing and feel where the tongue places itself in the act.

You should notice that pretty much the whole tongue presses up against the roof of the mouth while the jaw closes and the larynx rises to close the throat. As the larynx goes back down in the release we can easily keep the tongue up against the roof of the mouth, even while the teeth separate with the relaxing of the jaw.

(This is also an effective tool for releasing tension in the swallowing muscles that show up as a raised larynx. We then work to retain the released condition as we phonate. But the details of that are another topic.)

NG HUM

At this point, after releasing the swallow, the tongue is in a natural ng position. From here a logical progression would be to experiment with vocalizing on ng hums. If we consider the placement of the tongue as the first potential pitfall, adding vocalization would be the second potential pitfall.

As I said above, going into the coordination of proper vocalization is another topic that deserves its own thorough explanation. (Which has been given on this blog previously)

What I mean by potential pitfall is these are the points where a problem can occur and coordination can fall apart. So these are the points where we need to make sure the proper coordination is happening.

Assuming we are able to find the placement of the tongue and are able to add phonation with a stable larynx, so as to not lose the balance of the coordination, then the next step is to open to a vowel sound.

VOWEL SOUNDS

This would be potential pitfall number three. You see, each time we add another element to the situation something can go wrong. Because how we behave in each of the elements has an influence on each other element. So how we place the tongue, how we vocalize, and how we pronounce will all have an influence on whether the tongue is able to remain in the ng position.

At this point, when we open to pronounce vowels, how we conceive of how this happens has a huge role in how things actually behave. So now that we’ve gone over what we’re dealing with we’ll go a little into how these things work together.

One key suggestion that may help to successfully open to a vowel is to think of opening in an upward direction instead of down. For example, if we think of opening for a vowel there is a very good chance we will think of dropping the jaw or at least dropping the tongue.

That is obviously opposite of what we are talking about so it is not the best choice. But that is the normal thing to do. The whole process of learning to sing is really a process of learning to behave as an acoustic musical instrument.

So in order to embody the acoustic principles of the vocal instrument we need to learn how to pronounce in a different way than we do when we talk. One major way we do that is by conceiving of the vowel being formed by the whole length of the pharynx. Not just the part behind the mouth but including the top behind the nose and the bottom just above and slightly behind the larynx.

PURPOSE OF THE “NG”

The main reason the ng position of the tongue exists is because that is where the greatest freedom in the resonator is possible. Or put another way, where the least interference exists. We need to remember that the ng position is not something that someone made up and declared that everyone should hold their tongue in that manner.

No, this position of the tongue has been observed as the position the tongue takes naturally when a voice is resonating optimally. Since the position is new to us we may assume that it was new to everyone and someone “discovered” it. But actually the position came first and the naming of it came after observing the natural behavior.

Like any natural behavior of the body that we don’t typically actually do naturally, the behavior exists in some people but not in most. So the ones it doesn’t exist in naturally have to learn how to behave naturally.

But it isn’t part of some method that was invented or “discovered” by some savior who then named the method after themselves. Just like everything that we should do with our voice, it is an observation of optimal natural behavior. Which is defined by how the physiology is designed to operate.

WHAT THE BODY WANTS TO DO

Keeping this in mind can help us to realize, especially if we are having difficulty with it, that it is actually what the body wants to do. But in most of us our habits override this natural behavior. So it shouldn’t be hard work or difficult. If it feels like that, then that is a sign that there is something working against what the body wants to do.

If I think of my vocal coordination, this aspect of the ng resonance was not really something I ever fixed. What I mean is I never specifically worked on keeping the tongue in the ng position. When I started my journey it was not there, so it’s not that I didn’t need to change it.

But what I mean is the tongue position changed as I changed my concept of the overall coordination. How we conceive of the act of phonating, the act of resonating, how these combine to make up the overall act of pronouncing. These are what determine if the tongue stays in the ng position or not.

So if we just try to keep the tongue in the ng position as an isolated idea, then we will likely have great difficulty. But if we conceive of the overall coordination correctly, where each part is doing things as it is designed to, then we might forget that it was even a problem.

For example, if you feel like you lose the ng when you are pronouncing words you have to look at how you are pronouncing. We do that through asking questions. The questions I would ask follow.

QUESTIONS TO ASK

Are you singing in a condition of excitement and enthusiasm? This is critical because it is the only way we can keep the necessary physical condition and vitality. It also makes the posture conditions we want a natural result rather than things we have to try and do.

Are you keeping the lift in the face that naturally goes along with the emotional states of excitement and enthusiasm? This is actually the first place I would look when having difficulty with the tongue. In my experience it is basically impossible to have the proper condition of the tongue without an appropriate lift of the face.

Many are concerned with the soft palate, but it is just a part of this combination of the facial-tongue-soft palate system. What many teachers hear as a dropped soft palate I hear as a dropped face and tongue. So remember that if you drop the face the tongue will drop also. And more than likely so will the soft palate.

Remember that the tongue is a major determining factor in the resonance balance. The lift in the face is responsible for opening the upper resonating space of the naso-pharynx. Without the involvement of that resonator the tongue has no reason to keep the higher position.

This is especially common with classical singers because we have been taught to drop the tongue to “open the throat” to get that “classical sound”. If we are opening behind the mouth like a yawn to get the color and size of resonance expected in a classical singer we will make it impossible to keep the tongue in position.

The two are mutually exclusive because the very concept of the tone quality and production requires the tongue to drop. This is an example of what I mean when I talk about intention.

THE POWER OF INTENTION

Just like all of the parts of our coordination the position of the tongue serves a purpose. If the purpose it serves is not part of our concept then it has no reason to exist. I think for many this is where the difficulty lies. Their intention doesn’t include the upper resonator so the tongue has no reason to take that position except that someone said it should.

This relationship exists in all of the parts of the vocal coordination. And this is the ultimate reason people have difficulty with any one or many aspects of vocal function. The body doesn’t care if someone told us that this or that should be a particular way. If the reason for that behavior doesn’t exist in the intention of the singer the body has no reason to create that condition or take that position.

The key thing to understand is – what the body does is more dependent on reflex coordination to fulfill our intentions than it is on our deliberate acts. What this means is the body will more likely perform a reflex act that causes the result the person intends to do than the deliberate controlling acts of “technique”.

So if you are trying to do something deliberately it will never be as successful in result as having a clear intention in your mind and stimulating the body through the nervous system to fulfill that intention.

The reverse is also true. If the singer is deliberately trying to perform a correct act, like keep the tongue in the ng position, but their intention of tone quality is a yawning type of resonance there is an obvious conflict. I always say that if there is a conflict between human and nature, nature will always win.

Obviously, as always, I can’t say that any of these situations are existing in your coordination since I’ve never heard you. I can only cover things generally to give you places to look.

CONCLUSION

So to recap, use the swallow to find the natural position of the tongue. Make sure you have a pure vibration and a stable larynx so there is no unvocalized breath passing through the glottis. (If there is the tongue will automatically drop some or a lot to compensate, how much depending on the person) Pronounce keeping the vertical hollowness of the pharynx. (If we pronounce at the level of the mouth the tongue will drop to allow for that) Keep the upper resonator open through the lift of the face. (If that resonator is not included the tongue will have no reason to take the appropriate position and will stay down causing heaviness)

There is an element of strength involved. Not really forceful or powerful strength, but a strength of ability to be active. This activity works in partnership with the activity of the larynx. If the tongue is limp the larynx will likely be limp as well. This is one of many reasons why I disapprove of teaching that emphasizes relaxation.

Tension exists to compensate and make up for activity that is missing. It doesn’t just come into being randomly. And we don’t need to do anything to try and get rid of it. It exists for a reason and all we need to do is eliminate the reason it exists. Usually that reason is a poor functioning of the larynx.

In addition to the exercise of observing a swallow, a couple good exercises for the tongue are imitating an excited dog. This can also be a fun breathing exercise as well. Basically you just let your tongue roll up and out a little like a dog does.

Anything that encourages the tongue to roll and flex up and out of the throat is beneficial. I wouldn’t recommend vocalizing like that very much. A little is OK but I’ve found that vocalizing with the tongue extended encourages too much mouth resonance.

So I feel we should stretch and then allow the tongue to retreat back into the mouth so we can pronounce in the pharynx.

I hope this helps.

Please comment below.

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28 Responses to Q&A – How to Keep NG Tongue Position

  1. What do you mean by a lift in the face to keep the upper resonator open? I feel heaviness and need help sounding more clear. What is the upper resonator and what exactly does the lift in the face look like?

  2. Hi Michael, I suffer from TMJ on the right side and I always feel like the position of my tongue prevents me from breathing correctly and contributes to my TMJ. What exactly is the Ng or correct position of the tongue. If you could please email me, I would appreciate it.

  3. Leonel – thanks for the link. Unfortunately everybody likes to talk about everyone else. I’m sure David has had singers come to him from this teacher as well. There is a certain amount that depends on the singer. The most important thing about a teacher is that the information is accurate. I know it is with David ad it seems to be with this other teachers as well. The problem sometimes is the application of the information is not always successful. Sometimes it is because of the teacher and sometimes it is because of the singer. I don’t feel that necessarily makes a teacher bad.

    Regarding your situation, I wouldn’t call what I do “Classical Technique”. That, just the same as Pop technique or Musical Theater Technique, is a limitation. I feel we should not be interested in a limitation. I try to teach people to understand the natural function of the vocal instrument ad then apply that understanding to whatever style of music they are interested in.

    So if you understand my interpretation of that statement my answer is no, I don’t think you could apply Classical technique to your singing. Because if you did you would likely sound like a Classical singer, and that may not be what you want.

    But I do think you could learn to understand how the voice is designed to function and apply that understanding to your singing. Then you would have a healthy voice that is capable of comfortably expressing the music of your choice in a satisfying and fulfilling way.

    The example you gave does sound good, but the voice is not really settled and unstrained. If you listen you can hear the throat constricting when pronouncing higher in pitch. But even with that happening he still sings expressively and pleasing.

    This is why I always say training and development are not just about sounding good. Plenty of people sound good with the limited “techniques” that I talked about before. Plenty of Classical singers sound good but are wearing down the voice. Plenty even sound good without training. But the key is using the voice in a way that it is not going to break down over time.

    Because what is the use of investing in learning a technique to sound good if the voice still breaks down? So that is why I focus on learning the natural function of the voice based on how it is designed. It can be thought of in much the same way as other instruments. They are designed to operate in a certain way.

    I hope this gives you something to go on. Thanks for reading.

  4. Hello Leonel – thanks for your question. I took a look at the link you provided. I didn’t see anything about the ng, just about the tip of the tongue. I also didn’t see where he talked about David, although I did read some comments he made that I might assume he had David in mind.

    To clarify, when we talk about the ng position of the tongue it refers to the back of the tongue being up out of the throat. Something this Silver person mentions as well. The idea of the tip of the tongue being behind the teeth is just a starting place. Which is very natural for the tongue.

    It is appropriate for the tongue to flex some when vocalizing. This flexing makes the tongue take a shape similar to a saddle. The back flexes forward and it is acceptable for the front to flex back some. What we don’t want is for it to flatten or worse, dip in a concave shape.

    These are basically the same things this Silver that you referenced is saying. I don’t know of David making any assertions that the tip of the tongue should stay behind the front teeth always and not move. In fact I know this is not the case because the tip needs to move to articulate consonants.

    So I don’t see any contradictions like Silver says. But thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. Hi Michael. i am really confused about this topic. I would like you to clarify this for me. I was in another website which discorages the use of the tongue in the Ng position http://silvervoicestudio.blogspot.com/search?q=Tongue. The creator of ths website also desacredited David Jones saying that he has instructed David’s previous students with problems with vibrato. And he also said that Brigit Nilsson also discoraged the use of this tongue position

  6. Wow. I have been a student of voice for the improvement of speech for the past two years. Books, videos, pictures ….you name it, Ive seen it…..There was a quality of voice that I noticed in all the voices I admired…Sir Patrick Stewart…Ian McKellan….Morgan Freeman…..Jeffrey Wright….etc …..there was this sound that seemed to really involve the whole face and not just the mouth….emerging from the nose almost….your description made it so clear….also I feel ok working this angle knowing that its natural…

  7. Wow!Truly its vocal wisdom.I must confess i really enjoyed your post micheal. It sensible to what my common sense tells me. Each time i try to think of my voice when singing, it makes me sound un-natural but each time im in the spirit i sound better because im sincere being in that state. I Wil really appreciate you send more tips on coordinated reflex action. I guess that what i need to be original and better than before. God bless you.

  8. I would say that the tongue position for EH and NG are basically the same thing. It is up and out of the throat allowing the resonance free passage through the whole vocal tract.

  9. help me to understand because some say that the best placement of the tongue is EH and that this position encourages cavita especially when approaching passagio..and that its argued the position as seen in terms of harmonics allows for for more depth while ascending and more overtones while descending..how do the issues of resonance strategy bear when placing in NG position instead

  10. Hello.I am 66 years of age.In 1976 I sang with the City of Los Angeles Music Terapy Department.Accompanied by a pianist my repertiore consisted of Broadway show tunes.However,Now everything is different from that period of time.Dentures have completely changed my throat structure.I don’t have a SKYPE setup,but will make the purchase.Am I within reach of using the voice to learn your singing techniques?If you want to telephone my number is 305-785-6929.Call Anytime.

  11. Excellent, Dinko. This is a great way of describing it. I always think of vowels as like a spectrum. like colors. So when we change vowels we should feel like we are just changing shades of the same vowel rather than making a complete change of the whole vowel structure. We need to figure out how to feel like all vowels are related in some way. Your description helps with that.

  12. I also had a huge huge problem with the italian ‘o’ and ‘a’ vowels before while the tongue was in the ng position. They are even now more difficult to sing than ‘i’ which is always perfect, but I can sing them all well now.

    What happened to me is that I had an ‘aha-moment’ while looking at one of those famous vowel triangles, where ‘i’, ‘a’ and ‘u’ are on the points of a triangle, as the 3 extremes of vowel formation, and all the other vowels are somewhere inbetween, meaning a combination of those 3 vowels, to a bigger or lesser degree. The middle of the triangle is a vowel sound which is equally far away from all the extremes, something what we in my mother tongue (a slavic language) call a ‘half vowel’, and something I suppose you can hear in english if you pronounce ‘the’, or if you speak german it is close to ‘รถ’.

    The ‘aha-moment’ happened, because a while before that happened, I have read a very old 19th century book on singing by a teacher called Vincenzo Cirillo ‘A lecture on the art of singing – the Neapolitan school’ in which he mentions a so called ‘compound vowel’ which is a combination of all other vowels, and as a result of mastering that compound vowel, the pupil supposedly has less difficulty transitioning to all the other vowels, because this vowel has all the others inside itself. And so, I figured out that the mentioned inbetwen sound, the so called ‘compound vowel’ by maestro Cirillo was in fact the vowel sound in the middle of the vowel triangle. The vowel which has parts of all the others. The ng position of the ‘i’, the openness of the ‘a’ and the roundness and open troath of the ‘u’. And I immediately tried vocalizing and noticed that this was in fact much much easier to sing than an opened ‘a’ or ‘o’. In fact, in the upper range it even sounds as an ‘a’. After practising scales on that ‘compound/half’ sound for an hour, I managed to transition to all the other vowels without much problem (because you start noticing how far you can “strech” yourself to all the extreme directions without loosing the ideal middle position, ring and a balanced tone). In fact I even corrected my ‘i’, which got a bit more of openness which it lacked before.

    Today, more than a year later, if I have a problem in a certain aria or song, or when warming up, or while singing a phrase, or difficulty with the ‘a’ and ‘o’ vowel for any reason, I sing it on this middle vowel first and then manage to transition to original vowels without much problems. It made me discover a proper ‘o’ and ‘a’ and helps each time.

    This vowel is also ideal to transition to when I am going from ng-hum to a vowel type of exercising.

    I also figured that it was good for exercising the trill. Because it helped me to expand the trill to other vowels and never loose the ‘ng’ tongue and a balanced tone.

    And until I mastered that I never managed to sing an ‘o’ and an ‘a’, because either my tongue would drop, or the sound would stay hooty without ring.

    Just thought of sharing my experience with this problem…

    All the best

  13. Hello Tom – Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment. Yes, I experience that myself. Especially on oh. This is exactly why we have to learn how to pronounce differently than we are accustomed to. We have to keep the acoustic properties consistent regardless of what vowel we are singing.

    If you have trouble with certain vowels it is a sign that you are allowing the acoustic properties change. And we can’t do that. It is likely that even the vowels that do “work” for you will need to be relearned to some degree. Maybe a smaller degree but probably some.

    This is what the common “vowel modification” is trying to accomplish. I’m not really a subscriber to that, at least in the way it generally is performed. What I encourage is what I call acoustic pronunciation. This is vowel pronunciation that is much more general that what we are accustomed to.

    Physically the difference is the resonator is always in a general open posture. It has been referred to as the “one vowel” feeling. Meaning it feels like we are always singing the same “one vowel” and we make almost unconscious changes for the actual vowels being pronounced.

    Another characteristic of this is the one vowel feeling includes the characteristics of both types of vowels at the same time. There is always some degree of “up” in the back of the tongue like exists in the bright vowels. and there is always some openness as exists in the round vowels.

    The key is we never go so far in one direction that we lose the opposite characteristic. So we actually have elements of the opposite vowel type in each vowel. For ex. there is some round openness in the e and i. And there is brightness in the form of the aw and oh and oo.

    Hope that helps.

  14. Hi Michael,
    Very good post, thanks.
    I have great control of my ng tongue position and this has given me a plenty of squillo. If I could get away with only ever singing on front vowels I would surely have a career! The voice is homogenous and uniform on the uh, eh, i and ewe. But I cannot sing a convincing ah and oh with the ng tp, in the passaggio. The extra space needed for the back vowels seems to defeat my technique. Have you experienced this? Any advice would be welcome.
    Excellent site. Thanks.

  15. Hi Mike – The tip does come up when you swallow. But what we are interested in is the release after the swallow. Then it comes back down behind the lower front teeth, but is free to move and articulate consonants as necessary. The back of the tongue stays up generally, or more accurate it doesn’t drop down. Hope that helps.

  16. Michael,

    It sounds like from the email that the tongue should be at the roof of your mouth when speaking. The part I can’t grasp is what position the tip of the tongue is in while swallowing. It seems to me that the tip is rolled back up against the roof of the mouth. Is any of what I am saying correct?

    Mike

  17. Hi Michael,
    Two things you said in this article have really impacted me in a practical way in the last week or two. One was “how we CONCEIVE of the act of phonating, the act of resonating” and the other was about our “intention of tone” being everything (we can sabotage our ‘deliberate acts’ of control because it’s our intention which really acts on our reflexes)

    Those ideas really stuck with me and I’ve discovered the truth of how dangerous it is to want to control the way you sound.

    By this I refer to (I think) David Jones’ assertion that “What is beautiful to the singer in his or her inside hearing is usually unattractive to the audience. What sounds unattractive to the singer sounds beautiful to the audience or listener” and “When a singer is really on the perfect breath flow and using a resonant sound, the inside tonal quality can sound truly ugly to the singer inside their head.”

    I have been recording a few performances and singing for friends recently…. and really going for the ‘ugly’ (what the hey). I thought to myself “this couldn’t possibly be right cos it sounds so awful in my head” but the facts were 1. it FELT really great – free and easy 2. It felt surrendered 3. I was using almost no breath, just coasting on the crest of the wave so to speak.

    I was told (and can hear for myself on tape) the difference – what seemed loud in my head was really tight, small and squeezed to the audience and the sound I thought nasal and ugly in my head had a real ‘ring’ and projection when I heard it back.

    I think we get so caught up in mechanics sometimes without letting go of the pretty sound we want to make… and don’t realise our bodies and voiceboxes are actually instruments.

    Keep up the blogs, I am now a subscriber and find they are very helpful.

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