How to Avoid Throat Tension & Vocal Strain When Singing

deep breathing to avoid throat tension

Throat tension can be a significant roadblock for singers, hindering vocal range, affecting tone quality, and causing discomfort during performances. Far from being a minor annoyance, this issue strikes at the very core of your vocal potential.

But here’s the good news: understanding how to manage throat tension and avoid vocal strain is entirely within your grasp. This guide will arm you with essential relaxation techniques and insights to liberate your voice and elevate your singing game.

Pre-Vocal Warm-Up: Body Prep

When it comes to singing, your body is your instrument, and like any finely-tuned machine, it needs a proper vocal warm-up. Being relaxed isn’t just about feeling good; it’s a physiological necessity for optimal vocal performance. Tense muscles can inhibit airflow and put unnecessary strain on your vocal cords, leading to a restricted range and even potential damage over time.

Here we delve into relaxation strategies, from deep breathing techniques to targeted muscle exercises, ensuring that you’re fully prepared before you even hit that first note.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Excersises

Proper breath control forms the bedrock of quality vocal performance. When tension creeps into your shoulders and chest, it restricts your ability to take full, supportive breaths. 

Breathing from the diaphragm, rather than shallow chest breathing, is critical for optimal vocal performance. This method allows for fuller, more controlled breaths, which not only supports your voice but also minimises throat tension and vocal strain. Here are some practical ways to encourage diaphragmatic breathing:

1 The Book Technique

Place a book on your abdomen while lying down. As you breathe in, aim to lift the book using your stomach rather than your chest. This visual cue helps you understand whether you’re engaging your diaphragm effectively.

2 The 4-7-8 Exercise

Inhale deeply through the nose for a count of 4, hold the breath for 7 counts, and then exhale fully through the mouth for 8 counts. The focus here is on the extended exhalation, which encourages full engagement of the diaphragm.

3 Hands-on Approach

Place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. As you breathe, make sure the hand on your abdomen rises higher than the one on your chest. This will help you become aware of where your breath originates and where it should be focused.

4 Straw Breathing

Inhale through a straw to create slight resistance, making sure the abdomen expands as you breathe in. Exhale naturally and focus on keeping the shoulders and chest relaxed throughout. This exercise can provide back-pressure that encourages diaphragmatic breathing.

5 Pursed-lip Breathing

Inhale deeply through the nose, ensuring your abdomen expands. Exhale through pursed lips, as if blowing out a candle, while keeping your jaw and throat relaxed. This technique slows down your exhalation and makes your breathing more deliberate.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercises

This is a two-step process involving tensing and relaxing different muscle groups. The idea is to heighten your awareness of physical sensations when your muscles are tense and how that tension releases. Working from your toes upward can be a practical approach, but focusing on the neck and shoulder muscles is especially beneficial for singers.

By integrating the following exercises into your warm-up routine, you can better recognise when tension starts to build and take steps to address it before it affects your singing performance.

1 The Shoulder Shrug

  1. Stand or sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Inhale deeply while lifting your shoulders towards your ears, holding them there for a count of 5.
  3. Exhale while letting your shoulders drop back down.
  4. Repeat this 3-5 times, paying attention to how the tension releases from the shoulder and neck area.

2 The Jaw Clench

  1. Open your mouth slightly and take a deep breath.
  2. As you exhale, gently clench your jaw, keeping it shut for a count of 5.
  3. Inhale again and release the clench as you exhale.
  4. Do this 3-5 times and observe the sensations of tension and release in the jaw area.

3 Neck Rolls

  1. Stand or sit up straight.
  2. Slowly rotate your head in a circular motion, making sure to extend the rotation to both sides, down to your chest, and up towards the ceiling.
  3. Do 3 rotations in one direction, then 3 rotations in the opposite direction.
  4. Focus on any tension you feel in your neck and how it diminishes as you continue the exercise.

4 Tongue Stretch

  1. Open your mouth wide.
  2. Extend your tongue out as far as possible, trying to touch your chin.
  3. Hold the stretch for a count of 5.
  4. Release and bring your tongue back into your mouth.
  5. Repeat 3-5 times, focusing on the sensations in the throat and tongue.

Yoga and Stretching

Don’t underestimate the power of a good stretch or yoga session. Targeted stretches can help alleviate muscle tension and improve posture, which are both crucial for singers. Consider incorporating yoga poses like the Cobra or Cat-Cow into your routine to open up the chest and release tension in the neck and back.

1 The Cobra Pose

  1. Lie face-down on a yoga mat, hands beside your shoulders.
  2. Push off the floor, straightening your arms and arching your back.
  3. Hold this position for 5-10 seconds, focusing on opening the chest and relaxing the neck.
  4. Return to the starting position and repeat 3-5 times.

2 The Cat-Cow Stretch

  1. Start on all fours on a yoga mat, ensuring your knees are under your hips and your wrists are under your shoulders.
  2. Inhale deeply as you arch your back, dropping your belly towards the floor and lifting your head and tailbone towards the ceiling (Cow Pose).
  3. Exhale deeply as you round your back, tucking your chin to your chest and drawing your belly towards your spine (Cat Pose).
  4. Perform this sequence 5-10 times.

The Importance of Posture

The alignment of your body doesn’t just affect how you look; it significantly impacts the quality of your vocal performance. Science shows that maintaining an upright posture enables better diaphragmatic breathing, optimises vocal cord vibration, and reduces unnecessary muscle tension. Here’s a more detailed look, along with some practical tips to help you perfect that upright stance.

The Science of Posture in Singing

  • Optimised Breathing: A slouched or hunched posture limits the amount of space your diaphragm has to expand. In contrast, an upright posture allows the diaphragm to move freely, enabling better breath control and stronger, more sustained vocalisation.
  • Enhanced Resonance: Good posture helps align your vocal tract, making it easier for you to produce a fuller, richer sound when you sing.
  • Reduced Muscle Tension: A poor stance can create unnecessary tension in the muscles surrounding your vocal cords, leading to quicker vocal fatigue and potential strain.

Practical Tips for Achieving the Perfect Upright Stance

  • Check Your Alignment: Stand against a wall with your heels, bottom, and shoulders touching it. Your head should also be level and looking forward. This is the basic upright position you should aim for when singing.
  • The Balancing Book Method: Place a book on your head and walk around. This old-school trick can quickly make you aware of any postural issues and help you correct them.
  • Shoulder Roll: Periodically roll your shoulders back and down to relieve tension and to remind yourself to keep them relaxed.
  • Chin Check: Make sure your chin is parallel to the floor. Tilting your chin up or down can add tension to your throat and negatively affect your tone.
  • Mirror Work: Practice singing in front of a mirror to observe your posture and make adjustments as needed. It’s one of the most straightforward ways to keep yourself in check.

Self-Assessment Techniques

To truly progress as a singer, it’s essential to see and hear yourself as others do. Being your own critic is a skill that can dramatically improve your performance over time. Here, we discuss the advantages of using mirrors, tape recorders, and video in your practice sessions, along with some recommended apps and tools to make self-assessment more effective.

The Mirror Test

Using a mirror allows you to keep an eye on your posture and facial expressions as you sing. It provides immediate visual feedback, helping you correct any problems with your stance, or facial tension on the spot.

Audio and Video Recordings 

Listening to a recording of yourself can reveal imperfections that you might not have noticed in the moment. And don’t worry if you haven’t got a home studio setup—you don’t need professional mics and equipment to get started; using Apple Notes or Garageband is a great place to start.

Video takes it a step further, letting you scrutinise your sound and body language, helping you iron out any kinks in your overall performance.

Exercises to Release Throat Tension

So, you’ve got the basics down, but your throat still feels like it’s holding onto a bad note? This is the section you’ve been waiting for. Below, we’ve compiled a series of detailed exercises to target tension hot spots.

1 Larynx Lowering Exercise

  1. Place your fingers gently on your throat, finding the Adam’s apple or larynx.
  2. Take a deep breath in through your nose, feeling the diaphragm expand.
  3. As you exhale, imagine your larynx lowering into your body, becoming grounded and relaxed.
  4. Repeat for 3-5 breath cycles.

This exercise will help you be aware of and control the position of your larynx, easing tension around your vocal cords.

2 Tongue Relaxation

  1. Open your mouth wide and stick out your tongue as far as it can go.
  2. Hold this stretched tongue position for 5 seconds.
  3. Relax your tongue, letting it settle back into the mouth.
  4. Repeat 3-5 times.

This simple method keeps your tongue from tensing up, which can cause undue strain on your vocal cords.

3 Yawn-Sigh Technique

  1. Start with a deep yawn, opening up your vocal tract.
  2. As you finish yawning, let out a relaxed sigh.
  3. Notice how your throat muscles have relaxed.
  4. Repeat the yawn-sigh cycle 2-3 times.

This technique is an intuitive and effective way to open up your vocal tract and relieve tension in one go.

4 The Hummingbird

  1. Begin humming at a comfortable pitch.
  2. Place your fingertips on either side of your throat.
  3. Gently massage your throat muscles in small, circular motions.
  4. Continue for 30-60 seconds while maintaining the humming.

This exercise involves humming while gently massaging the throat muscles to release any tension built up during singing.

Hum Your Way to Relaxation

Humming is more than just a laid-back way to pass the time; it’s a vocal exercise that’s teeming with benefits for singers. Done correctly, humming can be your new secret weapon for vocal flexibility, resonance, and of course, relaxation. Here’s how to maximise its effectiveness:

Why Humming Works

Humming is a closed-mouth exercise, which naturally focuses the air pressure and sound back into the vocal tract. This allows the vocal cords to experience less strain and encourages healthy vocal fold closure. The resonance created can help you get familiar with the sensation of where your voice ‘sits’ and how to produce a well-supported tone.

Proper Humming Technique

  1. Posture: Stand or sit up straight, ensuring your neck is aligned with your spine.
  2. Breath: Initiate the hum from a diaphragmatic breath, not from the throat.
  3. Closed Mouth: Keep your lips lightly together and relaxed, allowing the vibration to resonate around your facial mask.
  4. Pitch: Start at a comfortable pitch and aim for a smooth, uninterrupted sound.

Maximising the Benefits

  • Duration: Aim for a continuous 30-60 seconds of humming.
  • Pitch Glide: Incorporate pitch glides from low to high and back to low while humming.
  • Intensity: Gradually increase and decrease the volume to give your vocal cords different levels of challenge.
  • Resonance: Experiment with focussing the sound on the front of the face, the nose, or even the skull for varied resonance.

Humming + Relaxation

Not only does humming give your voice a mini-workout, but the vibrations can also stimulate relaxation by activating the vagus nerve, which plays a role in your body’s relaxation response.

Why Natural Expression Wins

If you’ve ever watched a seasoned performer, you’ll notice they seem effortlessly themselves. There’s no contorted face or exaggerated mouth movements—just raw emotion and natural expression. In this section, we’re going to explore why keeping it real is not just a philosophy but a technique that every singer should master.

The Allure of Authenticity

Firstly, audiences can spot a fake from a mile away. Authenticity resonates with people; it helps to build a deeper emotional connection between you and your listeners. When your expression is genuine, it draws people into the narrative of the song, making for a far more engaging and memorable performance.

The Functional Aspect

Over-articulating or tensing up your face can interfere with the quality of your sound. It may introduce unnecessary strain on your vocal cords or even alter the shape of your vocal tract, affecting resonance and pitch. The less you force it, the better you’ll sound.

Debunking Myths About Facial Expression

  1. Facial Gymnastics Enhance Performance: One of the biggest myths in the singing world is the idea that exaggerated facial movements contribute to a better performance. Not true. In fact, overdoing it can lead to vocal strain and a less-than-natural sound.
  2. You Need to Look Dramatic to Convey Emotion: While theatricality has its place, particularly in genres like opera or musical theatre, in most styles of singing, less is often more. A simple, heartfelt expression usually does the job.
  3. Mimicking Famous Singers: Many budding singers believe that copying the facial expressions of iconic artists will elevate their performance. However, what works for one person may not work for another. Your aim should be to find your unique style and expression.

While stage presence is crucial, trying too hard can not only look fake but can negatively impact your vocal quality. Keep it simple, keep it real, and let your voice—not your facial gymnastics—be the star of the show.

Find Your Own Voice

While mimicking your favourite artists can initially seem like a good way to find your musical feet, it’s essential to tread carefully. Here, we look into the perils of too much imitation and how it can lead to poor singing habits and even jeopardise your vocal health.

Queen tribute band

The Imitation Trap

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you can sound exactly like your musical hero, you’ve cracked the code. However, this can lead you down a dangerous path where your own unique voice becomes buried, limiting your versatility and artistic growth.

Bad Habits Sneak In

When you continually imitate another singer, you may inadvertently adopt their bad habits as well. These can include poor breathing techniques, throat tension, and even harmful vocal styles that could cause strain or damage to your vocal cords over time.

The Long-Term Impact

In the worst-case scenario, these habits can lead to vocal fatigue, hoarseness, or more severe issues like vocal nodules. What might have started as a fun exercise can turn into a significant hindrance to your singing career.

Finding Your Own Voice

Rather than mimicking, take inspiration from a range of artists to help you forge your unique style. Recognise their strengths, appreciate their technique, but don’t lose sight of your voice. Lessons, coaching, and continual practice will help you develop your unique vocal qualities.

The bottom line? Be a student of the game, not a clone. Your voice is uniquely yours, and that’s your greatest asset.

Conquer Tension, Unleash Your Voice

Throughout this journey, we’ve navigated the labyrinth of throat tension and vocal strain, demystifying the complexities and offering actionable solutions. Whether you’re an aspiring vocalist or a seasoned performer, these tools and techniques are your allies in avoiding vocal pitfalls.

So, don’t wait for strain or discomfort to creep in; take proactive steps to ensure you’re singing not just loudly, but also clearly and healthily. Remember, in the world of music, your voice is your instrument. Keep it finely tuned, and you’ll never miss a note.