I’ve had a request to include more description of the massages we used in my therapy sessions, and which I now use with all of my voice students as well. I will give the descriptions here along with some visual aids, but I really do strongly suggest that if any of you are experiencing excess laryngeal tension that neither you nor your voice teacher can fully address to please go see your local ENT and/or voice-specializing SLP. Excess tension can be a sign of many, many things…and it can also be the sign of nothing more than the not-so-solid technique we all sing on at some point in our lives…so it’s good to get it checked out just to know what’s officially going on. Now, on to my personal set of laryngeal stretches, massages, and relaxation techniques*:
First, start off with some neck stretches. I usually start out with the standard: tilt your head so that your ear gets close to your shoulder. Now put your hand (same side as shoulder you’re tilting toward) on your head and let the weight of the hand gently (no pushing!) stretch your neck while you breathe deeply. Or, what we did in therapy, was to gently push the head against the hand for one count, then release for one count, and do that three times. Then, you take the hand away from the head while leaving it in its tilted position while you nod gently back and forth. Repeat on the other side. You can also do any amount of rolling the head to the side, forward, and other side—not going to the back (cause that doesn’t stretch anything)—if that feels good to you. I believe this stretch mainly targets the scalene muscles of the neck, but I suspect it also loosens some of the infrahyoids (or strap muscles) as well. (Scalene shown first followed by infrahyoids:)
Next, I move on to some massages. The first one involves tilting your head to one side yet again to shorten the sternocleitomastoid muscle.
This is a huge and powerful muscle of your neck. (While it is not an extrinsic muscle of the larynx (meaning it does not originate nor insert into the thyroid cartilage, cricoid cartilage, nor hyoid bone), it flexes and rotates your head, so it can get pretty tight. It also has some action in inhalation if you’re doing the “high,” clavicular breathing ...that we singers strive never to do.) On the same side as where your ear is closest to your shoulder, try grabbing at the large strap of muscle on your neck with your thumb and middle finger. Then, you’ll want to gently (it shouldn’t hurt) act like your turning a key in a lock with this muscle. You can follow this muscle all the way down to the clavicle and all the way back up to near your jaw line doing this motion. Do the other side…remembering to tilt the head first to shorten the muscle!
The next one is my favorite: you take your pointer finger and middle finger together, place them right behind your ear (right on your mastoid process…that hard “bump” behind your ear), press in somewhat firmly and trace your jaw line with your fingers from behind the ear, under the jaw, and under the chin. Repeat this three times on one side before doing three times on the other one. This is a great one for those laryngeal elevators, and it feels really good!
Next, go ahead and do some deep, big massage circles into your checks. The idea here is to massage your masseter muscle, which is your most powerful chew muscle (as my Anatomy and Physiology of Speech teacher says, this muscle is the reason you don’t want to hold an alligator’s jaw open!) It is often a big source of jaw tension. (It's the big muscle in the middle of this guy's cheek to the right of the blob-looking thing which is your parotid gland:)
Go ahead and do some gentle massage circles into your temples. Along with relieving stress and feeling good, a lot of your facial muscles connect up near there which are involved in jaw movement and facial movement, so it’s good to massage as well.
Next, run your fingers down alongside the larynx just for one last neck massage. Do some tongue stretches: just stick out your tongue as far as it will go for one count, and then relax it back in your mouth for one count. Do it five to ten counts depending on how tense you might feel at the start.
Follow this all up with three belly breathes (just letting your stomach relax out like you’ve had a big meal and then gently pulling the stomach back in to let the air out…not a big “singer” breath, you should barely be aware of the air going in and out those. Honestly, if you try to keep the belly breathes as inaudible as possible, you’ll probably feel that relaxation in your throat after the first breath or two.)
And that’s my little laryngeal relaxation routine that my SLP taught me in a nut-shell. When it came time to get back into singing, this routine is one I would use before singing, in the middle if things started getting tight, and also at the end so I didn’t hold on to any tension I might have been unaware of. I now use all of these exercises with my voice students…especially any of my high school or college students during exam or mid-term weeks. (All of that hunching over to look at your test can really tighten up the neck!)
*As I said before, I am NOT a licensed SLP, so none of these descriptions are intended to diagnosis or treat any tension of anyone reading this right now. If you are experiencing a lot of unmanageable laryngeal tension, please see a good SLP or ENT in your area for a voice screening, scope, and/or treatment options. And, since I suspect someone out there will try to do these based on my descriptions, please STOP IMMEDIATELY if you experience any discomfort, pain, or feel a “choking” sensation. These are all signs that you are doing it wrong, so please…please stop at the first sign of discomfort and/or pain. Good deal, guys?