I’ve observed that a vast majority of opera singers and even contemporary singers have a constant quiver in their tongue as they sing, it tends to quiver more so when they sing the higher notes. how does this happen? my singing teacher does it, and when I asked her about it she quickly changed the subject and stated that it was simply her “putting too much pressure”.
Yes, I have noticed this as well. I notice it more in women than men. An example that jumps to mind is Teresa Stratas who was in a lot of broadcasts in the 80s and 90s. Her tongue had a very pronounced movement when she sang. But many other famous, and wonderful, artists displayed this same trait.
In this scene from La boheme we can see what we’re talking about at 2:45. I originally assumed this was related to age. But I don’t think it necessarily is. There are videos on YouTube of Teresa Stratas from the 1960s and she had the same quiver when she was young. I remember a classmate in college had this also.
Notice also the manner of the breathing. There is too much movement of the chest with the breath cycle. This tells us that the chest is being used to provide the air compression instead of the abdominal muscles, as is natural for the body. (The chest is used for compression but it must not move. We should not be aware of the participation of the chest) The reason this is a problem is it is more difficult for the body to regulate the pressure from the chest vs. from the coordination of the abdomen/ribs. Since more women tend to have this sort of breath coordination it might have something to do with why more women tend to have this quivering.
Your teacher’s attitude is not surprising. (We don’t usually like to be questioned about our short-comings :) But my take on this common condition is it is a result not simply of “putting too much pressure” on the voice, but rather having too little stability in the larynx and too much “looseness” in the breath. (Where the result is like having too much pressure. But we can’t reduce the pressure because it is needed. It is more like too much uncoordinated pressure.) This imbalance of pressure causes the whole mechanism to move with the natural oscillations. (It is related to fundamental principles of vibrato)
The tongue is not the only thing moving. It is connected to the larynx and windpipe. This whole structure is moving because it is not providing an appropriate resistance against the necessary air pressure. (Usually the lips move sympathetically as well) We can’t sing without air pressure. This air pressure must be of an appropriate level and type. But it also must be balanced with a stable opposition from the laryngeal structure.
As we sing higher there is a natural increase in air pressure. This must be met with an equal increase in structural resistance to keep
the two balanced. When there is balance there appears to be ease and relaxation. But it is caused by the opposite of relaxation –
coordinated activity. Notice it is not tension that I am describing. Because of our aversion to tension we tend to avoid appropriate levels of necessary activity. This then tends to result in instability. And the body responds to instability unconsciously by creating tension.
Ironically we create tension, the very thing we were trying to avoid, by trying to avoid it rather than taking appropriate action.
So this shaking tongue is a result of the instability of the larynx structure, partially caused by poor breathing coordination. It is a lack of appropriate opposition to the necessary air pressure for singing, which would keep the breath in a “compressed” condition instead of “loose”. It can be caused by an “air-flow” concept of phonation, or just by being too relaxed. Phonation must be a balanced relationship between the larynx and the breath-pressure. Most vocal problems can be traced to some disruption to this balance.
If the larynx is stable it won’t be displaced by the breath pressure being applied to it. When the larynx is displaced it can rise, shake,
constrict, any of these and other problems. If it is stable the throat will stay open and the folds will stay in an optimal vibrating
condition, which results in natural amplification of the tone. This type of tone is the quality everyone is searching for, usually through
ineffective techniques that are more like imitation.
Another aspect of balanced phonation is an appropriate vibrato, rather than a shaking or excessive one. Balance also releases the mechanism from the holding that causes straight-tone singing that can be damaging over the long-term.
I hope this has been helpful. Please add questions of comments below. Thanks.