My Jaw Loves Me – so Why Not Love It Back?

Last week, I suggested that there are 5 things you need to know before you can learn to relax your jaw.

1 – Your jaw is your best friend; 2 – Your jaw will protect you to the death; 3 – Your jaw is a workaholic; 4 – Your jaw will not voluntarily take a holiday; 5 – Your jaw will love you even more when you manage to convince it that you can manage without it from time to time.

Your jaw is your best friend. It has been looking after you with great care all your life.  It has taken responsibility for protecting you from the outside world, and it is very, very good at it.

Watch any newborn baby expressing itself. It doesn’t hold anything back. If it’s hungry, tired, lonely or in pain, its whole body is involved in the story. The belly and the chest expand hugely, its arms and legs flail around, and especially its jaw is wide WIDE open. The baby needs something, it is very vulnerable and has to get help any way it can, so it can survive. This is normal, and necessary.

However…  We are a social species. We have evolved to live in communities, and we simply can’t go around all our lives as individuals letting our emotions out in a full-bodied, full-voiced way. We have to learn how to contain some of our feelings, to express ourselves in more considerate, less violent ways.

01 Iain aged 2 weeks with Grandma Mabel

Iain aged 2 weeks. Notice how easily and naturally his mouth falls open in a relaxed position.

So look at the baby again. From birth, it expresses its needs in a totally uninhibited, unrestrained way, with no tension in the body. One of the skills it has been born with is to be sensitive to sights and sounds, and these include the ability to sense when its primary caregiver is upset.  So after a few months, the baby will start to attempt to control its outbursts, and the jaw is one of the primary agents for holding back.  This is not a conscious behaviour modification, it is yet another survival tactic.  The baby begins to learn how to stop itself from crying.

By the way, I don’t have photographs of my children crying…

Iain aged 6 months

At six months, the mouth still drops open easily, the jaw relaxed, even in the rather tense situation of a formal photography session.

It might not seem like that to the parents/caregivers, but then it takes a long time, years in fact, to learn how to control our desires and our needs, to socialise ourselves.  By the time we’ve become good at it, our jaws have become accustomed to holding tight, along with our bellies and our buttocks.

But tension kills vibration.  As communicators, whether we speak or sing, we need all the vibrations we can get. We need to have a flexible, relaxed body and attitude. We need to be vulnerable, to be uninhibited in a grown up, structured way. We need to be able to choose when and where to express ourselves openly, freely and fully, with the ability to close down again whenever we want to. Learning to relax the jaw fully is one of the first steps to having that level of control.

Let’s think about that word Control.  It resonates with Tension, with Tightness, with Held, Captured, Imprisoned, Restricted.  Being Uncontrolled or uncontrollable is not thought of as being a desirable state to be in – or to be around.  So let’s be very, very clear.  I am not talking about Control in that sense.

I mean control in the sense that you have a choice. When you have muscles that are tense, or held in a fairly rigid situation from habit, and you can’t voluntarily relax them at will, you have no choice. When you have learnt how to relax them at will, you have a choice: to tense, or not to tense. You can choose to ENGAGE the appropriate muscles, or you can choose to TENSE them. There is a difference.  Learning how to relax these muscles fully means learning how to KNOW what you are doing with them, learning how to recognise when they are contracting from habit, and when they are doing so because you need them to.

Knowledge means you are in control.  Having a choice means you are in control.  But knowledge, in the sense that you understand this intellectually, is not enough.  You have to train your brain, your intellect, your conscious awareness, to be able to acknowledge what your body is doing. Paying attention to your body, being honest with yourself about what is physically happening within your body is the kind of knowledge I am talking about.

So why not begin with your jaw?

Try this, just to get a sense of what your jaw is actually doing.

Sit, or stand, comfortably, with your back supported in its natural curves flowing between your pelvis and your skull.

Float, gently, your whole head back as far as it will go. Do not force or strain.  Open your mouth, and relax in the open position. Open your eyes, and check what you can see on the ceiling.

Place your two thumbs under your chin, and your fingers on top of your chin. Hold it firmly, and bring it down towards your chest as far as it will go, leaving the rest of your head hanging backwards. Do not hurt yourself!

Rest your arms against your chest, drop your shoulders and hold that chin very firmly, do not allow it to move!  Having said that, it WILL move, so notice how it wants to, and see if you can gently and courteously encourage it to rest, each time you notice it wanting to move.

Now, with your chin/jaw relatively immobilised, slowly lift your head from behind the back of your skull, up and over, tilting it back to its facing forward position.

[Imagine the lower back curve of your head being gently supported from behind, and lifted out and upwards to its normal, “looking straight ahead” position]  

As you do this, your chin/jaw will want to take over the closing action.  This is normal. It has been responsible for the closing-of-the-mouth action since you were born. It feels weird and unnatural for it to allow you to close your mouth in this crazy way. This is also normal. It is normal to respond to any unusual action by finding it weird.  If it feels weird, you know you are getting somewhere!

Having completely closed your mouth, check how your chin/jaw/head/neck feels. Check this from inside your body. In other words, don’t think about what it looks like, don’t wiggle it about, just stay still, relaxed, and notice what it feels like, physically, inside your face, head and neck.

Joanna Amy and Flloyd.jpg

Joanna Cazden (Voice of Your Life), Amy Stoller (Stoller System) and Flloyd Kennedy (Being in Voice)

My good friend and colleague, Joanna Cazden, of Voice of Your Life, is a highly qualified and experienced Speech and Language Pathologist, as well as being a fine vocal coach and singing teacher (and singer!).  Here are some of her thoughts on the topic of jaw tension, from an SLP perspective (recently posted in a discussion on LinkedIn):

Joanna Cazden •
If jaw tension is a long-standing problem…I ask a different question: WHY are jaw muscles overworking? And I mean why Mechanically, NOT psychologically.

A thorough oral-motor exam usually shows some no-blame possibilities. I repeat: No Blame! (side sermon excised, re. not considering “muscle tension” to be a personal flaw… muscle WORK is what the body Does). Most commonly, when I work with people with this complaint: jaw has been compensating for some inability of the tongue to do its articulatory job.
Tongue may be small-ish compared to mouth size; may be mildly tethered down (shortened frenulum under the tongue); or its intrinsic musclesmay be subtly weak. If any of these anatomical-physiological things exist, and tongue can’t easily perform high-tongue consonants (t, d, n, l), jaw will be moving up, repeatedly, to support it.
But jaw muscles are organized for strength rather than speed, so being required to do all that little artic stuff for normal speech keeps them in chronic mode of over-use. By adulthood this begins to take a toll. TMJ, grinding, and neck tensions (plus afore-mentioned self-blame) just build & increase. Singing teachers, dentists, and friends saying “You need to relax!!” will increase frustration (which, of course, tightens the jaw even more).
Simple relaxation exercises and massage can temporarily help, but careful work with a speech therapist (and possible frenulum clip, if that appears to be a component and ENT agrees) might help more. Feel free to email me off-list for a skype session or a referral near you.

Joanna has published the definitive book on everyday care for the voice, aimed at all speakers and singers.  Everything you need to know about how the voice works, and how to look after it can be found here. “Everyday Voice Care: The Lifestyle Guide for Talkers and Singers”.

How do you care for your jaw?  Do you have a favourite jaw release exercise? Please share in the Comments section below.

Next time, variations on the jaw release exercise.

Tip: Download the Being in Voice Warmup App, for some basic exercises and programs for caring for your voice. More exercises and tips will be added as time goes by.