Q&A - How to Keep NG Tongue Position
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
- The Importance of Fach (vocalwisdom.com)
- Q&A – Losing My Voice (vocalwisdom.com)
- Q&A – Freely Accessing Upper Register (vocalwisdom.com)
- Q&A – Vocal Abuse in Modern Society (vocalwisdom.com)
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