If you live with jaw tension and pain you are all too familiar with the ways it can impact your singing. You may have observed and experienced how tension in the jaw tends be seen in conjunction with tension in the tongue as well as the larynx and the rest of the neck. That tension can lend itself to struggling to produce the voice easily and sing notes in certain registers, to dealing with a jaw that locks open, clicks, pops, is in pain or is simply too tense to open easily.
Because the jaw is a portion of what determines the shape of our resonator tube and is so intricately linked with the tongue, hyoid bone and the larynx suspended below, jaw tension is not a problem you want to live with when you need your voice to function at its best.
The question we want to get at is this: is the jaw responding to the rest of the body or is it the source of the problem?
The quick fix paradox
We are trained as a culture to focus on the part of the body that is in pain and identify the fastest way to fix it. In this case, the quick fix is often popping a pain pill and/or a massage of the jaw area and maybe the neck and shoulders. Something like massage (or taking a pill) can bring you short-term relief, which is great if you are standing backstage about to go on. Sometimes a one-time fix takes care of the issue in a long term way. Very often though once the quick fix wears off you are back to square one of experiencing tension and/or pain. When that happens you can easily get caught in a cycle of pain/tension, treatment, pain/tension, treatment, with no long-term relief in sight. If you are returning to the quick fix repeatedly, it is time to expand beyond the local area and look for clues in the rest of body.
Long-term relief from jaw tension (or any other tension/pain based issue) begins with embracing the concept of the whole body being connected and developing an awareness of current patterns that exist across the body. Once awareness is raised we can move on to skill building – finding new ways of moving that improve functionality and suppleness in the body.
Before we continue with the physical elements, I want to address the mental/emotional side of tension and pain. There are always emotional/mental connections to the issues we experience in our bodies. Unexpressed emotion can get housed in the tissues of our being. I often recommend to clients that they begin by becoming an observer in the week following our session. They are to notice under what circumstances their tension or pain increases. For many, simply making that connection is enough to create an a-ha moment, that rather than expressing their rage over great aunt Tillie asking when they are going to get a real job and stop doing this little singing thing, they clench their jaw.
For those who discover they have a long pattern of unexpressed anger or a sense of not being safe to express feelings or be heard in their life, and it manifests in their jaw, I always recommend they find a qualified mental health professional to engage with to resolve the emotional component of the root of their issue. Releasing the emotional component frees them up to being to implement skill building to re-pattern better function in the body.
Exploring the Whole Body Connection
While the whole body is our instrument, we still have long way to go before we better understand how all of our parts inter-relate. If you think of the body like a chain created by all the joints, tension and pain are most likely to occur at the weakest link in that chain. But, the way the other joint links are behaving while we are moving and not moving are also impacting that weak link.
The relationship between the jaw and the pelvis
The jaw and pelvis have a unique connection in the body. Located at opposite ends of the spine, they are bridged by all the tissues of the torso. We can discover several cross body connections between the jaw and pelvis. When there is tension in the jaw it is often mirrored in the pelvis – for example, tension in the left side of the jaw and tension in the left side of the pelvis. Along with that mirroring we can see an excessively tight pelvic floor. Another mirroring connection across the jaw-pelvis spectrum is tension at the base of the skull and a corresponding tension in the front of the lower belly. Bracing at one end or the other, or both, meaning you are holding a higher than normal level of tension as a way of providing stability, is not uncommon.
One quick way of understanding the connection between the pelvis and jaw is to sit comfortably and simply squeeze your anus. While you do that see what you notice in your jaw. Can you feel the muscles of your jaw engaging? Can you feel your breathing change? Now relax everything. Next, purse your lips really tensely. Can you feel a corresponding engagement in the anus? A change in the breath? It’s okay if you don’t. Sometimes connecting the body on a subtle level is tricky, especially if this is the first time you’ve tried.
Looking at how these two ends relate through alignment, breathing, and functionality of the core, all give us big clues as to how to work with the body to address jaw issues.
The first place to can assess is your alignment, or how the body is stacked. When the head is not stacked well over the pelvis, meaning it is sitting in front of the shoulders, then we know there is a problematic relationship between the two ends. From the waist down we often discover many people ‘wear’ their pelvis in front of the body – meaning the mid-hip sits in front of the ankle because the pelvis is pressed forward. The pelvis can also be habitually tilted or tucked and not neutral.
Alignment is a wonderful assessment tool. However, it is one thing to look at a picture of a skeleton and understand the concept of alignment. It is quite another to translate alignment into your own body that is covered in clothing, adipose tissue and muscle.
Breathing patterns are very telling of how well the body is functioning overall.
The breath provides us with a continuum that spans the distance between the jaw and pelvis. The more supple our body is between ribcage, belly and pelvic floor, the better our breathing patterns are.
Assessing the breath to determine your everyday breathing pattern, gain a better understanding of the quality of your inhale and exhale, and movement (or lack thereof) in the ribcage and belly can go a long way towards filling in the picture of what’s behind jaw tension.
Immobility and tension in the ribcage, observed while engaged in every day breathing and/or in singing are indicators that there is an issue in the torso that relates to the jaw. And yes, even singers can stand to improve their breathing patterns! When we lack fluidity and suppleness either caused or reinforced by poor breathing patterns, we will not align or move well.
Breath work is always a part of resolving issues with our body.
Getting to the Core of it
To resolve alignment issues we need to create circumstances through movement that invite change. We can’t just shove body parts into the location where we know they should be. First, they will quickly fall back out of that position. Second, we need to understand that they are in that position because it is the safest place for the body. Those tensions, no matter how problematic they are, are present to keep you from being further injured.
Insufficient function in the core is frequently the underlying factor contributing to jaw and pelvis tension, bracing and mirroring. The core, as I’m referring to it here, is the entire torso of the body, from where the neck attaches to the torso all the way down to the base of the pelvis and where the upper arm and leg bones meet the shoulder and pelvis respectively.
I’ve written before in Why Core Training Is Important for Singers about the importance of the deep layer of the functional reflexive core which includes the pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, psoai, multifidi, diaphragm, and muscles of the throat.
There are other lines of muscle connections that can impact jaw function. For example, in Tom Meyers’ Anatomy Trains he explores the connection between the deep front line: the muscles in the bottom of the feet, those in the inner line of the legs, the psoas, deep neck flexors, tongue and mouth.
Further up in the torso, the muscles surrounding the shoulder girdle are impactful to jaw function.
We also know there are broader connections of the shoulder area with the lower leg – I’ve written before about the tensions mirrored in the two areas. Additionally, tension in the shoulder girdle will both be present when the lower core doesn’t function well and the tension can keep the lower core from being able to work. Even the way your leg bone is moving in the hip socket can have implications for jaw function.
All of this is to say, just looking at one area of the body in isolation just doesn’t give you a complete picture of what’s going on or how to work to improve function. Starting to get the bigger picture here?
All of this work comes together when you move slowly and really feel the body. That can be challenging when we are used to addressing individual parts and quick-fix solutions. When mobility is improved, strength and stability can replace tension and weakness, bringing about better alignment and breathing as well as alleviating tension and pain in the jaw.
Where do I go from here?
You may be able to immediately identify that you have issues in the areas of the body I mentioned above.
Because every body is unique, there is no one-size-fits all approach that will serve everyone well.
If you would like someone who can assess your body and bring a better understanding of how parts of your body are moving, how they are moving relative to other parts and how some of them are not moving at all, please set up a 1-on-1 Singer Synergy Assessment.
IF you’d like to begin to understand more about alignment, breathing and have access to a workshop that goes in depth on the issue of the jaw and pelvis connection, join me in the Aligned and Aware: Solutions for the Singing Body, online movement library!