Tongue-Tied (mini-series part 1)

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As a singer, you don’t want to face vocal problems that stand in the way of reaching your full (skill and earning) potential. Often vocal health issues are the result of a lack of sound or regularly-used techniques, you’ve probably heard of Adele’s vocal health battles or maybe Sam Smith’s. Often voice problems are linked to too much voice use and less-than-ideal vocal technique. Yet that’s not how I ended up in vocal rehabilitation… No no, my problem was physiological from birth but undiscovered till I was 33. I was tongue-tied!

What was the journey to finding out and the impact on my singing to that point? Well, I am extremely introverted so as a teenager my budding love for singing was largely confined to my bedroom and I tried my best to avoid being heard by anyone else in the house! I was quiet by nature so my singing voice developed through my teens following that pattern, I was often told I wasn’t speaking clear enough or (in moments of braveness) singing loud enough to get the choir solo.

By the end of my A Levels I was set on being a singer/songwriter so I did an Artist Development Course and seriously perplexed the well-respected visiting vocal coach no end as I seemingly ‘refused’ to change my tongue position and bring my sound forward, much to his dismay and my frustration. Once back home I got regular coaching from one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know (and work for) yet, although my voice hugely developed and strengthened under her guidance - in particular helping me technically exercise my voice really well and improve my cord closure (breathiness is a common and fatiguing voice problem as the multiple parts of the laryngeal structure grow at different times and rates, it’s common in women in their early 20s like I was) - time and time again we’d hit a wall with trying to get me to belt and open out the sound after my Bb4/B4 transition. I got on with things though, I got into leading vocal workshops and choirs at this time, and wrote and recorded an entire album by myself, and had some success in singing competitions too.

Jump nearly a decade (and two kids!) later, and I’m back receiving regular vocal tuition from a vocal anatomy specialist, and I’m still in the same field of work - developing other singers and the singing of others and dabbling in my own music from time to time whilst tackling the final year of a Performance Industries degree. Not many months after working my butt off to get a great mark for my Vocal Performance and Songwriting module, it was summer 2018 when the penny finally dropped. This was the exercise that finally exposed my specific tongue-tie: stick your tongue out (done, not that far, but it’s poking out), now drop your jaw and keep it there while you touch just behind your front teeth (the alveolar ridge) with your tongue (uh, err? Nope, not even half way). My lingual frenulum - the stringy white thing under the tongue - was way too restrictive. I have a tongue-tie! A-ha so that’s why I’ve never been able to roll (trill) my tongue to do those great ‘trrrrr’ technical exercises (despite a lot of trying), oh that’s why I have so much tongue root tension (try swallowing 3 times with your tongue sticking out, if it’s pretty difficult you likely now know why), oh that’s what’s stopping me change the resonance, oh that’s why my alignment is such a battle, oh that’s why we have to modify so many vowel shapes, oh that’s why back pressure is such an issue when I sing, and more…

I was shocked and suddenly very interested in the presented possibility of getting a tongue-tie op to correct the problem. Of course at that point I had no idea what lay ahead but there was a probable reason to a lifetime of bizarre ailments, not just the direct affect on my singing, making me seriously consider this new option. Some of those other ailments* potentially linked to my tongue-tie are: talking fatigue, chronic shoulder and neck tension, overly sensitive gag reflex (worsening my 24/7 pregnancy sickness two times over), and jaw tension and movement (TMJ) issues that I almost had an op for in my early 20s. (*I’m unlikely to ever conclusively prove the connection unless I embark on a giant research study! Never say never!)

I thought about where I’m at in life, I thought about the risks, I thought about not ever reaching my true potential, and that one got me - you could say curiosity got the better of me. So after a GP appointment to get a referral and a consultation to check I was a candidate - physiological checks and wanting to have the procedure due to the (hopefully positive) impact on my career - and a few months later in December 2018 I found myself in a dentist-style chair in my local hospital having a lingual frenectomy. More on that next time…

~ Josephine

Hey there! If you are a singer and have had a lingual frenectomy or are reading this considering whether to go for it, or if you are facing other vocal health issues, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment here, on social media or head to the Contact page!