Acoustical Deception in Singing Onstage

After recently teaching at the San Francisco Opera House, I decided to revisit a subject that I have written on before in a previous article; vocal acoustics in the theatre. In this article I will address the specific acoustical deception of singing onstage and our inability to really hear the volume or timbre of our own voice. Some of the singers at the San Francisco Opera House refer to the intimidation upon first walking onto such a large stage with over 4,000 seats in the house. The greatest concern for the singer is that he/she will not be heard over the orchestra in such a large opera house. I can certainly understand the feeling. I have had experiences in concert halls where I got none of my own sound back. It was like singing into a large pillow. Lindquest once quoted Flagstad as saying that she looked at the concert hall or opera house as 'an extended resonator'. This way she could look at the hall as a 'voice enhancement' rather than something she felt she had to conquer. I felt this was a wonderful quote and one that I often use with my professional singers who are often faced with the dilemma of being heard in large halls or opera houses. Lindquest always said that singers must "feel and not listen" and he was exactly correct.

For several years I had the opportunity to work with Sandra Warfield, well known mezzo-soprano and wife of the famous dramatic tenor James McCracken. I remember that she once told me that when both their careers began to flourish in Europe, they were often called upon to sing with large-scale orchestras in big concert halls. After having been contracted to sing several of such concerts, both of them noticed that they began to suffer slight vocal fatigue. Naturally this was followed by great concern regarding their vocal health and longevity. After searching for a voice teacher, they began studying with a German teacher who was Italian-trained and lived in the southern part of Germany. The results of that study would be instrumental in helping them to mold the rest of their careers. The experience would help them to solidify a very crucial technical aspect of the Old Italian School; the true understanding of the passaggio and how to sing on the 'narrow ring' (with large open pharyngeal space) rather than a large mass of sound.

The Vocal Diagnosis

Evidently Ms. Warfield and Mr. McCracken had fallen into a vocal trap that many performers experience at one time or another in their career; trying to listen to their own vocal sound. Singers develop the habit of spreading the mouth shape in too much of an east/west position in order to hear more of their own voice. Many singers tend to do this as a direct result of trying to listen instead of feeling the acoustical sensations of healthy singing. After almost 30 years of teaching this technique, I have learned that the result of this vocal trap of over-listening is always the same; a closed pharyngeal cavity resulting in vocal fatigue. This German teacher had a true understanding of the Old Italian School and knew the basis of both Garcia's and Lamperti's teaching techniques. Her training was in a direct alignment with Lindquest's lineage of teaching and her diagnosis determined that both singers were too wide open (voce aperto) in the upper passaggio, resulting in the unnecessary closing of the throat space. Since an open acoustical space serves as the 'shock absorber' for the vocal cords, the result was vocal fatigue accompanied by adverse effects on registration.

Getting to the Solution

The solution of solving this kind of problem is not particularly complicated or difficult. It involves training the singer with an oval mouth position that is not spread. Also, the singer must be invited to learn the correct sensations of proper singing, thus minimizing the desire to listen to his/her own sound. Sensations serve as the absolute guide for correct vocal production. It is important that the root of the tongue be trained in a wide position as the middle of the tongue be trained to arch, much like Lindquest taught with the Flagstad 'ng' tongue position. So the two singers mentioned heretofore were saved from a long and painful search for the solution to this vocal issue. However, many singers never find the healthy solution to this vocal problem. I have known singers who have searched for years and years for vocal answers and have come up empty handed. So what is the formula of healthy passaggio production? (See article on the training of the passaggio.) The problem of the spreading of the voice is easily solved with the correct application of the concepts of the Swedish/ Italian School. The oval rounded mouth position must be accompanied with a slightly back jaw position, wide root of the tongue with the middle arched in the 'ng' position, the lifting (and spreading) of the soft palate, and the slight lowering of the larynx at inhalation. The result of this coordination is an open throat with a narrow ring present in the voice.

Defining the Problem: The Acoustical Deception of Singing Onstage

Why do singers spread the passaggio wide open? Why does it often go unnoticed or ignored? Why does a singer have to suffer to the point of giving up singing before a solution is found? The answers to these questions are quite simple; the Old Swedish/Italian School and the concepts that were taught have been abandoned to a great extent for more 'modern' techniques. These modern techniques tend to be 'ego-based' and unfortunately do not work efficiently. Dr. Barbara Mathis has proven this scientifically through her research using the fiberoptic camera. I have witnessed her video research on the effects of the jaw position on the adduction of the vocal cords. When the jaw is forward, the vocal cords are apart. As the jaw is gradually and gently positioned back, the vocal cords come closer and closer together. Several years ago, Dr. Mathis was kind enough to offer her video research at a special presentation for the National Association of Teachers of Singing/New York City Chapter.

Allow me to answer the first question of why a singer spreads his/her passaggio wide open and sings on the throat. The answer is quite simple. When a singer spreads the passaggio, then he/she can hear himself/herself much more in terms of sheer volume inside the head. It is an acoustical trap that leads to major vocal problems. If a singer puts his/her hands in front (not in back) of the ears, then the singer will get the sound that the audience gets in the theatre only with less volume. The singer will get the sound as though is it far away. I do not recommend that a singer learn to sing by sound, but rather by feel and sensation. Lindquest would tell me many times in each lesson to feel but NOT listen. This is the ultimate challenge for a singer. However, the professional singers with whom I work are open to this kind of personal discipline because the result is vocal freedom.

The issue of the acoustical deception is heightened when the singer gets on the operatic or concert stage. Again I remember Alan Lindquest telling me to 'feel, feel, feel' NOT to try to listen to my own voice. It took me years to accomplish this but the result is worth the discipline. Since the act of singing is an aural art form, it seems strange that we must learn to feel sensations instead of listen to our own voice. Most people realize that their voice sounds different on tape than in person. Only repeated taping of the voice will help one get used to his/her own sound. This is the exact reason we must all learn to feel and not listen; the sound is completely different inside our heads. The most crucial aspect in the development of a professional singer is the development of healthy sensations in singing.

Why does the acoustical deception go unnoticed? Because not only is the 'smile technique' often approved but sometimes it is taught as a healthy way of singing. (See article on damaging vocal techniques.) This is a very damaging technique and the singer is usually the last to know of the damage until it is too late. Often the career is thrown into a downward vocal thrust and reversing the damage takes determination, concentration, and supervision by a teacher with excellent diagnostic ears and an excellent understanding of healthy vocal technique. I have been contacted by professional singers from all over the world who are suffering vocal stress. Several have been in career crisis and have traveled to my New York or European studios to study. These singers were obviously taught a closed-throated technique in a futile attempt to get 'ring' or 'brightness' in the voice. (Brightness of tone is controlled by a forward tongue position and a high and wide soft palate.) Many early music singers embrace this smile technique in an attempt to be 'authentic'. Some of them have entire careers singing flat and out of tune because of it. In my opinion, vocal health is a far higher priority than attempting to be authentic for the sake of style. Besides that, no one really knows how people sang in that era of music anyway. So to teach a wide and spread passaggio to try and imitate some kind of style is at this point ridiculous to say the least. Many cultures embrace the 'sweet and spread' sound as a cultural taste. Singers cannot move forward in a career with this confused idea of singing.

Why does the singer have to suffer so long before a change is found? Sadly sometimes a solution is never found. Singers have difficulty supervising their own practice because it is human nature to try and listen too much instead of feel for the appropriate sensations in the body. Some singers suffer vocal fatigue and think that it is part of the profession of singing. WRONG!! My code of ethics in terms of vocal fatigue is the following: if constricted muscles in the throat are taught to expand, then the result can be an ache in the throat. This is often natural. However, there should never be a sense of scratchiness at the vocal cords themselves or hoarseness after a lesson or rehearsal. The red light is the hoarseness. This should never be present in a singer's throat.

Observation of a Recent Operatic Performance

Recently I had the opportunity of viewing an operatic performance from backstage at a major opera house. It had been a while since I had been offered such an opportunity and I must say that it was an incredible learning experience. I observed that the soprano pushed too much breath pressure through the vocal cords in a vein attempt to force the upper passaggio open. This was also an attempt to hear her own voice, which is a complete mistake. I witnessed a forward thrust of the jaw that made it impossible for the singer to release the larynx and therefore balance the registers and sing easily. I must remind you that I witness these aspects of singing with great sympathy for the performer. Few have the courage to sing and perform onstage, therefore I have the greatest respect for those who do this kind of performing. However, it makes me sad to see a world class talent struggling onstage to get through an aria when the struggle could easily be avoided. This singer was obviously desperate to be heard and was fearful that the voice was not carrying in the opera house enough. (This was a large house.) This is the trap of singing in a large opera house with the desire of getting sound back. Flagstad said that she walked onstage and would evaluate the opera house or concert hall as a resonator, while she thought of her voice as the reed of the instrument. This gave her the idea that the hall was her friend and not her enemy to be fought or conquered. Also, from using the idea of the voice acting as the 'reed' of the instrument and the hall as the resonator, it set up a feeling of cooperation between the voice and the concert or opera space.

So the soprano whom I observed backstage was singing with the acoustical deception that she could actually hear her own voice. The reason that I call it an acoustical deception is the fact that the laws of acoustics deceive us into thinking that we are louder to the audience when we push breath pressure or spread the mouth opening. In my own experience as a singer I can tell you that inside my head my voice sounds louder if I spread my mouth rather than use an oval shape. Through taping my own lessons (I now suggest mini disc recorders.) and practicing correct vocal sensations, I have found that the direct opposite is actually true. Actually, the resonator is closed with a spread mouth position and the singer is only using mouth resonance rather than full-throated pharyngeal resonance. In the most recent edition of Opera News, I observed a photo of Olga Boradina, the Russian Dramatic Mezzo, as she was singing a high note. I first heard this singer at a famous music festival in 1994. She sang a complete recital of Russian songs. I must say that I knew then that this singer would be a great vocal success. She sang with the perfect oval mouth and NEVER spread or sounded throaty. She received a standing ovation and I must say deservedly so.

So all in all, I understand why a singer spreads the passaggio. He/she thinks that if they spread the sound, the voice gets bigger. In reality the voice is about 1/3 the size of the actual true acoustics of that given voice. I require the singers in my studio to tape their lessons because of this acoustical deception and to use a mirror to monitor the mouth shape.

Experiment in Theatre Acoustics

I must at least mention my experiment in a Lincoln Center Theatre in 1994. I performed a master class on vocal acoustics in the theatre. I deliberately had all the singers spread the mouth shape and sing with this spread technique. Each singer initially loved the sound. Then I had the singer sing the same piece of music rounding the mouth into an oval shape. The result was shocking; the voice became about 3 times larger in the theatre because the sound had focus. A spread-mouthed technique can never allow a singer the full power and beauty of his/her instrument. The major lesson learned in this class was to be learned when the singers heard the recording of the class and heard the response of the audience members. When they heard how much larger their voices became, then they wanted to use the oval mouth position permanently.

Searching for Vocal Answers

Just over a year ago, I had a Wagnerian Baritone contact me who was suffering great emotional stress. He had been told that his voice could not be heard in the opera house. Because of his frustration at finding a voice studio with answers, he contacted me directly and came to Amsterdam to study in the studio there. We worked and I found that indeed he was suffering from a spread mouth position that was creating a spread upper passaggio. Of course, the larynx was high as a result, the soft palate was down, and the jaw was too forward. He had lost notes in the extreme upper range and the extreme lower range. This singer was forced to pump lots of breath pressure to try and make the voice go higher. When a singer suffers from such a vocal situation, then the voice gets smaller and smaller. I know this from my own personal experience. I knew nothing of narrowing the passaggio, lowering the larynx, lifting the soft palate, or holding back the breath pressure with the back muscles as Flagstad recounts. This Baritone, who had experienced a large-scale career, was about to give up singing at age 33. Because of the proper acoustical training of the primary resonator (the phayrnx), he is back on stage performing again and his career is moving forward. He has also studied and mastered teaching this technique with great positive results.

Recent Tenor Experience

While teaching in San Francisco recently, I had a young tenor come to me for lessons. He was a friend of the family with whom I was staying. This young man suffered from the acoustical deception and the attempt to force a large sound. Worse yet, this singer was taught by a teacher who invited this behavior and was training him as a baritone. At age 30, his vocal cords would hardly approximate. This is a sad scenario indeed and this could have cost him his career. We had two one-hour sessions. I am grateful to Alan Lindquest for his very special tenor vocalises. The result was incredible. In the first session, this young man sounded more like a rank amateur who had not studied. He worked very hard for an hour and it took nearly 45 minutes for us to get the vocal cords to approximate. When they did, he could go up to E-flat above high C. This was no baritone I can tell you for sure. He suffered a wide open middle register that had been taught poorly through the use of a vocal fry. By the end of the second session, this tenor sounded like a young professional. I must state that he studied the first session 3 times before having the second session. (This is the value of taping.) Because he was very intelligent and because he had a great desire to sing well, the Lindquest vocalises repaired his voice in just 2 hours of study.

This young man suffered from the acoustical deception and spread the middle voice in an attempt to make the 'big sound'. Birgit Nilsson states in her master classes that you get your relaxed big sound from your relaxed small sound or the narrow passaggio (oval mouth shape.) Working with this young tenor proved once again that a professional sound does not come from self-listening, but from singing through proper sensations.

Practicing Solid Solutions

(1) Feel as though you are going to yawn in public. You will notice that you will place your hand over your mouth to cover the yawn. This feeling aligns the jaw down and back and rounds the mouth shape to a perfect oval; the healthiest shape for correct singing.

(2) Get two mirrors and place them at a 45-degree angle. Practice several vocal exercises while looking at the profile at an angle. Make sure that the mouth is oval and the jaw chews gently down and back when pronouncing. (I analyzed Jussi Bjoerling's jaw function at this angle in the article, "The Artistry of Jussi Bjoerling".)

(3) Offer yourself about 3 short practice sessions per day on the proper way of pronouncing with the jaw down and back. Each one can be about 5 minutes. Focus ONLY on the mouth shape and the jaw function. A singer needs to focus intensely on such an area.

(4) Study the great singers on videotape. Watch what they do. Listen to the effects on a singer's voice when the mouth is oval in shape i.e. Jussi Bjoerling. If the singer tends to spread occasionally, listen to how much color is lost in the vocal production when the throat closes.

(5) Learn to practice short exercises such as the Sieber Vocalises (suggested strongly by Alan Lindquest) and analyze the mouth shape and jaw function (gentle chew down and back). The Sieber vocal exercises are 8 measures in length, they are designed to balance the registers, and they are musical. All of these aspects benefit the singer. They are simple enough that the singer can concentrate technically as well as musically.

(6) Become self-aware of your jaw and mouth shape in daily life. Many people hold emotional tension in the jaw. If the jaw comes forward in the singing process, usually the mouth shape will spread too east/west resulting in a closed throat or pharynx.

(7) Learn some form of relaxation. It can be in the form of meditation or yoga. Learn to self-dialogue with your inner self. Remember you are not a singer, but a person who sings. Become familiar with your personhood and humanity. (I suggest Nathaniel Branden's Six Pillars of Self-Esteem as an excellent reading source.) The only way to learn to practice from a calm and centered place is through self-understanding.

(8) Practice without too much expectation. Remember that you are dealing with a process and it takes time and patience accompanied with a healthy and consistent work ethic. Lindquest suggested that singers practice 3 times a day for 20 to 30 minute intervals. This allows the singer an appropriate time span as not to loose concentration.

(c) David L. Jones/2001

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