How open does your jaw need to be for your voice? As is often true in 'all things vocal'... it depends.
I just read a great article in the NATS "Journal of Singing". In the latest segment of his article series, author and professor Stephen F. Austin discussed the controversies concerning how far one should open the jaw for singing. I was very happy to see that he also believes 'it depends'. Mick Jagger, Barbara Streisand and the great Wagnerian tenor Loriz Melchior had a very open jaw on high notes in common (an interesting grouping, don't you think?). On the other hand, Willie Nelson and Luciano Pavarotti (another interesting association) sing with jaws opening much smaller. Austin added that Leontyne Price's jaw opened differently according to the range, dynamic level and artistic goals of the phrase at hand.
Why does the answer depend?The degree a singer or speaker opens the jaw will determine the resulting tone of voice and style of articulation. Willie, as well as Bob Dylan and other thin-tone-branded artists would not want to sound like Mick, Steve Perry or other great rockers (and vice-versa). Pararotti and Loriz sang different types of classical material, and would not have been able to do what they did with the other's jaw opening propensities. Ms Price's style of singing required great diversity of tone.
It's important to get this right!I've had students in my office that had either received or interpreted wrongly suggestions to keep the
jaw too still. Upon helping them loosen that joint, they were able to make vocal ability improvement in leaps and bounds. I've also had students who opened their jaws too wide, causing a sort of knee-jerk reaction of the joint to freeze. Giving them permission to relax the jaw opening opened brand new avenues of vocal ability.
So what should YOU do?Experiment and see what works best for your voice and the style you sing. As you do, consider the following that I have found true for ANY voice:
- When you do open your jaw, open it in a motion like a monkey wrench, not pliers. If you don't know what that is, go down to the hardware store and play with some tools:)
- If you experience vocal fatigue or strain, try opening your jaw more at that point
- If you move your jaw like a ventriloquist (whose jaw is quite still) try a slight sideways chewing motion to loosen the joint. This has freed up stuck jaws -even those diagnoesed with TMJ - in my office.
- Know that when the jaw freezes, the soft palate also freezes. Don't believe it? Try yawning without moving your jaw. If you want the ceiling of your vocal resonance cave to open more, the floor has to drop, too.
- If you want your jaw more open but can't quite make yourself trust that openness, try practicing singing or speaking with your knuckle between your back molars. Notice the rich tone you get.
- Don't try to keep your jaw open in the same width throughout everything you do. I find it best to give the jaw permission to move and then let your voice dictate what it wants your jaw to do to accomplish the vocal sound desired.
- No matter what openness you choose for your jaw, don't freeze it. Flexibility rules.
- Keep articulation coming from the front of your mouth, not your jaw.
- Do tongue tanglers to free up the jaw before speaking or singing. Some examples to say over and over: "red leather yellow leather", "eleven benevolent elephants", "good blood bad blood".
- Ask yourself when altering your jaw opening, as in everything you try differently, does it work? Is it easier to sound the way YOU want to and sing the material you choose?