Nothing says "self-care" like a relaxing massage, but did you know that massage is also a powerful tool to create ease and freedom in your singing?
Photo by Polina Kovaleva
Stress manifests itself in the form of muscular tension. This not only creates discomfort in our movement in everyday life, it also makes singing more effortful. Our muscles and fascia share complex relationships where everything in the body is connected. A muscle group being overworked will likely cause an imbalance with a corresponding muscle group.
Vocal massage is not just limited to professional singers, but is beneficial to anyone who uses their voice a lot. It's not uncommon for teachers, speakers, parents, salespeople, etc to feel their voices are fatigued and even painful at the end of a long day. Much like you may experience headaches or a sore back as a result of stress and muscle tension, so too can you experience vocal symptoms.
Through massage, we aim to release muscle tension and relieve vocal symptoms. It can also be useful to use static stretches after the massage for further release and relaxation. You may like to give yourself a vocal massage as part of your warmup, or use it as a restorative measure when you are winding down for the night (the latter is my favourite).
When people complain of "vocal strain" they are often referring to the uncomfortable feeling of a high larynx. There are 26 (!) muscles in the neck and this network supports the larynx (or voice box) in place, much like a hammock. This means the position of the larynx is flexible. If the surrounding muscles of the larynx are tight, the entire larynx is pulled up into a high and tight position. Not only can this feel uncomfortable, but your voice may also sound shallow, forced or tense.
Typically we want the larynx to stay in a neutral (or even slightly lowered) position to achieve maximum resonance in singing, which is only achievable when all of these muscles are nice and relaxed.
Common problem areas
It's common for "accessory muscles" to try and get involved when we are singing. These are over-engaged muscles most commonly in our neck, jaw, face or tongue. As mentioned, the muscles of the neck have a direct relationship with the position of the larynx, but other nearby muscles groups are also connected indirectly. For example, a tight jaw will tense some of the muscles in the neck, which in turn with affect the larynx.
As you discover the areas where you are carrying tension, typically the areas that may feel the most sensitive will be where soft tissue is inserting into hard tissue.
The jaw is made up of two main muscles, and both are very common places to hold tension. If you suffer from TMJ issues, tension headaches, or grind your teeth at night, you likely know the affects jaw tension all too well!
The masseter is the main muscle people often associate with the jaw. It is the strongest muscle in the entire body based on weight (store that away for trivia night!), which proved to be useful back in the days when we ate woolly mammoths. The muscle is significantly stronger than necessary for most things we do in modern life, especially singing, so it can very easily carry excess tension.
When we think "vocal massage", the area around our temples and ears that is our temporalis muscle may not immediately spring to mind, given they aren't exactly in the closest proximity with our larynx. But this large area works in tandem with our often overactive masseter. It's also a very common place to hold a lot of tension, so it is important to release this (this is probably my favourite place to massage, it's amazingggg).
The muscles of the neck are usually divided into three categories depending on their location, anterior (front), lateral (side) and posterior (behind). From here, they are further divided into groups most superficial to deep. When we are giving ourselves a manual massage, we will likely find tension first in the superficial muscles, as that's what our hands are making direct contact with.
Large, superficial muscles
When someone says "can you please rub my neck and shoulders?", we automatically go to the trapezius muscle. As well as being a virtually universal place to carry tension ("the weight of the world on your shoulders"), this large muscle group also has an impact on the larynx.
- Sternocleidomastoid (SCM)
This set of thick muscle is easily visible and palpable through the skin, forming the outer part of the muscular hammock that supports the larynx. To easily find the muscle, turn your head to the side and you will see it connecting from behind your ear to your sternum (breastbone) and clavicle (collarbone).
Smaller or deeper neck muscles
Just because a lot of the muscles in the neck may be not as easy to specifically find doesn't mean that they won't be released in a vocal massage. Keep in mind the mass of muscles in the neck is cradling the larynx like a hammock, so as we mobilize the larynx (yes, we are going to move it around!), they will be getting a nice little stretch in the process.
This is a video tutorial detailing the techniques I like to use for a full circumlaryngeal massage (meaning a massage of the muscles around your voice box). It covers all the common problem areas listed above. Ensure you find an aligned posture before your start. You may find some areas are tighter or more sensitive than others, take your time to gently explore and listen to your body.
If you find a sensitive spot, this is a great clue! You've uncovered some tension that you can relieve, which will not only help you relax, but also help you achieve easier, healthier and more efficient vocal function. However, if for whatever reason you experience acute pain, make sure you visit a healthcare professional.
Jump to 10:30 for the tutorial.
If you want to wrap up a few self-practices into one for a session that not only saves time, but is extra indulgent, complete your skincare regimen just beforehand and use the slip of your moisturizer for your massage! I also like to include my gua sha and quartz roller for more concentrated access to acupressure points, plus I find it's a little less work for my hands.
At the end of the vocal massage comes some static stretches of the neck, so this is a wonderful segue into your stretching or yoga routine. Doing this massage followed by a whole body stretch is the perfect addition to a relaxing night time routine to prepare you for a restorative sleep.
Let's do it together!
Here's a real-time follow along video of my go-to vocal massage. Feel free to take a few minutes out of your day to join me for some relaxation!
I recommend you watch the techniques video first so you have a clear understanding of how to do the massage yourself; this is a very delicate area, so keep safe!
We all carry our tension in different places, which part of this massage did you enjoy the most?
Singing for Self-Care