The Danger of Under-Singing Large or Dramatic Voices

While it is understandable that teachers do not want a singer to push the voice (pushing breath pressure), one of the major causes of vocal damage for the dramatic singer is under-singing, or trying to hold back the singer’s sound by lightening the instrument too much. Some teachers realize this problem and try their best to work responsibly with such singers, especially at University or Conservatory level. Other teachers continue to teach dramatic voices without understanding or researching the special need for specific training, a training that is necessary for healthily guiding a dramatic-voiced singer.

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Obviously the principles are similar in training lyric voices, but the specifics are different and require understanding how to coordinate the body more diligently. Body connection, understanding of registration, use of less air pressure than is often instinctive to the singer, and teaching an understanding of a proper vocal protection make up only a few critically important concepts that form the basis of healthy vocalization for the dramatic singer.

When Kirsten Flagstad first auditioned for Dr. Gillis Bratt in 1916, he said she suffered from breathy tone due to under-singing a dramatic voice. After hearing her audition in his Stockholm studio, he told her that she had the “voice of a child” and no one could hear her in an opera house or concert hall. Though slightly offended by his comments, she decided to work with Dr. Bratt twice weekly that year. Her testimony later states that in 3 months time her voice grew to twice its former size. She also felt more released in the throat and more connected to her body. After attending the Dalcroze School of Dance in Stockholm, she often spoke about her body connection and the feeling of “singing from the back muscles to the ring with the feeling of no throat”. This is only one case of a dramatic-voiced singer  who had to search for her full throated sound.

The following case studies reflect dramatic-voiced singers who have suffered severe vocal difficulties due to under-singing. The primary danger of under-singing is the tendency to disconnect from the body and push too much breath pressure through the vocal folds. While this can be common in lighter voices as well, dramatic-voiced singers tend to fall into this habit more easily. In 1939, Kirsten Flagstad sang “Flying Dutchman” with my friend Elizabeth Howell. At one point in the rehearsal process, Flagstad leaned over to Elizabeth and said, “Remember dear, we large-voiced singers tend to sing loudly all the time and we are the ones that don’t have to!”  This was obviously an older colleague trying to inform a younger one on the laws of acoustics and NOT over-singing. While over-singing is a problem, the following case studies offer experiences with dramatic-voiced singers who have suffered from under-singing.

Case Study #1: Anna is now a successful Dramatic Soprano who suffered many vocal problems over the years. Because she was a good student, she tried to approach her training the correct way, researching the voice departments of her University and also later at her Conservatory. She worked at practicing daily, looking toward her teachers for advice while respecting their knowledge. Then toward the end of her Conservatory training as her voice matured. Consequently, she developed major vocal problems including tremendous breath pressure through the vocal folds, shaking of the jaw and tongue, lack of body connection or support (caused by lack of healthy vocal fold adduction), and basic posture issues (caused by over-blowing the voice, which causes a collapsing of the rib cage). Her tongue shook quite uncontrollably (see article on “The Shaking Jaw and Tongue” in the article archive at and this contributed to her vocal wobble. Because of the use of too much breath pressure, her larynx would not pivot properly in the middle register. Obviously this young singer had not been taught proper body connection or what many call support. My teacher, Alan Lindquest often spoke of “holding back of the breath pressure” with the body resistance, using resistance at the intercostals, the lower lumbars, and the pectorals. Because dramatic-voiced singers can make a large sound without proper support, it is typical for them to sing ‘off the body’. It is important to understand that basically proper support is based on making involuntary muscles voluntary. Support is based on the functions in laughing, coughing, grunting, and moaning. These are all body functions that inspire the correct muscles to coordinate for healthy protected singing. Dr. Evelyn Reynolds taught me the in-depth details of body connection in her NY Studio.

It was not that Anna was not talented or was not an excellent student, but she had actually trusted teachers that guided her completely in the wrong direction for her voice type. Anna is an example of yet another Dramatic Soprano who suffered from muscular singing as a result of having her teachers under-sing her voice. By not allowing her to use the fullness of her instrument, she developed incorrect vocal habits that could take years to correct.

Many instructors are frightened when they hear a large-voiced singer open his/her fuller sound, so they say one of the most damaging statements: “Lighten the voice!” This one statement directed toward a dramatic-voiced singer could be the most damaging in his/her vocal history. Obviously there might be a proper time and place for that statement, but saying it without explanation of HOW TO accomplish it is simply irresponsible. True that every singer needs to discover a healthy range of dynamics. BUT the problem is that many singers are not instructed on how to sing softly ON the body connection. Anna ended up in my New York Studio after seeking vocal help for a number of years. We discovered that she had pushed so much breath pressure for so many years that she was singing in an unprotected function, something that cost Susan Dunn her career. Singing out the mouth without enough NG protection above the basic sound forces a singer to scream without a vocal protection on the throat. A vocal protection is when a singer sings on ring in the voice, a result of an open acoustical space, forward tongue, lowered larynx position and high and wide soft palate. Singing directly out the mouth with a dropped palate and high larynx causes vocal damage over time due to long-term pressure directly on the vocal folds. Many large-voiced singers can make a good sound with this type of classical belting, but the voice will not last over time. Longevity is not possible with this kind of vocal production.

Fortunately for this young singer, it was not too late. It took about 6 months, using some of the Flagstad exercises and Garcia’s ‘coup de glotte’ to accomplish healthy phonation with the vocal cords closely properly. The body connection had to be completely re-trained so that sufficient breath pressure was held back. This stopped the over-blowing of the vocal cords. After much frustration in re-training all these muscles, Anna can now sing the lighter dramatic repertoire free of the old vocal wobble. Her tongue now rests without the shaking motion, her jaw is relaxed, and her body posture is aligned.

Case Study #2: Steve came to see me in London after reading my article on “The Leggiero Tenor”. He had been to the most respected Conservatories and worked hard to accomplish his career. He was singing as a professional Baritone when he came to me, but he really did not know his vocal fach. His question was, “Am I a Helden Tenor, Baritone, Lyric Tenor or Leggiero Tenor?”  Even though he possessed a beautiful sound as a Baritone, he instinctively knew that there was a piece of his identity missing. His training had not accessed his entire voice and he was eager to find his true fach. Steve is another singer who was suffering from under-singing. However, when he tried to add a larger sound, the voice became pushed and out of control. Steve’s vocal cords became over-blown in the upper range because he had not been taught proper support and he was reaching for the high notes and disconnecting from the body. (Concepts may be found on David Jones’ Instructional CD, “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers”) By the end of his second hour of training, using one specific Bjoerling exercise, he accomplished a beautiful high C. Since he had a famous Grandfather who was a Helden Tenor, there was obviously a genetic link to that voice type. Even though this is not always an indicator, in this case, Steve was definitely a Helden Tenor. We then worked two Helden Tenor arias and the voice worked perfectly without vocal stress. The previous problems had resulted from under-singing without enough chest or body connection into the upper range. Of course this process must be approached carefully and with proper exercises. Steve now is in the process of re-training as a Helden Tenor and he is enjoying his true voice.

This is another example of a singer who could not find vocal answers and one who had been trained to under-sing. Luckily for him, he had a successful career as a professional Baritone. But he longed for his true vocal identity. Working the chest connection to the upper range frightens many teachers.  Vocalizing the high range with proper body connection (chest connection) will only free the upper range. Remember that chest connection is using chest vibration but not chest mechanism pushed up into the high range. This difference must be established in order for this type of training to be safe and successful.

Case Study #3: Diane came to me singing Lyric Mezzo by squeezing her throat with a high larynx. Unfortunately for her, she was studying with a teacher who did not hear the difference between a high larynxed squeeze and true ring in the voice. True ring is a result of the open pharynx and a lower larynx position. Diane’s upper range would not open because the larynx had been so high for so many years. Gradually, we worked on the release of her larynx and the result was a beautiful light dramatic soprano voice. One large clue could have been her size. She was a large bodied person with a large sized head. These kinds of women usually have large voices by law of vocal acoustics. One need only look at women like Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson, and Regine Crespin to see that large-voiced people are often large- bodied people. While not always the case, it is usually true. Thus the movement in hiring only small bodied people for the opera stage is bogus and ridiculous. We will lose the opportunity to hear a great deal of major and rare vocal talent because of this movement. Hopefully in the future, singers will be hired on their vocal ability.

I worked with Diane for 6 months and she soon could begin to investigate the Verdi songs, which helped her to discover the dramatic part of her voice without pushing too much air pressure. We worked open pharyngeal vowel exercises, laryngeal pivot exercises, and then added the NG to insure the ring in the voice. She could then work toward the dramatic arias and roles that suited her physically and temperamentally.

I can tell you that re-training a large-voiced singer who has suffered from under-singing is not an easy task. The voice must first be allowed to make a larger sound with body resistance to stop the over-blowing of the larynx and vocal cords. Garcia’s ‘coup de glotte’ exercises are necessary to employ a closure of the cords after inhalation. (The vocal cords do not necessarily close automatically after inhalation.) This is individual, but most dramatic singers who have been trained to under-sing suffer from this most major of vocal problems.

The Process of Re-Training:

Low Breathing: One of the first problems with high larynxed singing is that the breath is usually too high in the body. Have the singer align the spine with the back against a wall. Have them then close one nostril with a forefinger. The next step is to take 6 strong inhalations in a row without stopping through the open nostril. This forces the breath low in the body and helps the singer to release the lower body muscles, a step that is necessary in order for low breathing to be possible. Have the singer do this repeatedly without singing. Then have him or her perform this breath exercise, then sing a short 5-tone scale on an ‘o’ vowel, then exhale all the left over breath. You will find that in getting rid of old breath, the body will automatically inhale for the next phrase.

Pharyngeal Vowel Exercise: The next step is to work with the pharyngeal vowel exercise that I designed years ago. I have found it works with approximately 95% of singers. Have the singer sing a 5-tone descending scale with the tongue between the lips imaging the vowel space straight back behind the tongue. Then have the singer place the tongue inside the mouth and sing the five basic vowels in any sequence KEEPING the pharyngeal vowel space behind the tongue root. You will find a large, resonant, yet body-connected sound results. Vocalizing with the tongue between the lips in the middle register demands a body connection and this is a good way for teachers to vocalize any student who has difficulty with this concept.

Laryngeal Pivot Exercises: Use the interval of a major third.  Work from the lower note ascending upward using the Italian ‘u’ vowel. As the singer goes up to the upper note, have him or her alter the vowel toward the dominant sound in the English word ‘book’. Keep the tongue forward for this exercise. The intervallic exercise invites the larynx to lower while going upward in pitch. This process needs to be repeated and then added to the other vowel sounds. Use the image that the muscles in the base of the neck expand wide, much like the pre-vomit reflex.  Again, when doing this kind of work make sure that the tongue remains very forward in the mouth space.

Learning the Concept of Appogio: The concept of appogio or what the Italians consider “leaning of the body slightly forward from the sternum bone” is critical in educating the body for proper breath usage and control of the small air stream from which resonance is fueled. We hold back breath with the sternum, pectoral muscles, intercostals muscles and lower lumbar muscles. We fuel the small healthy air stream with the antagonistic pull between the lower abdominals and the solar plexus. Teaching a singer to resist at the sternum bone at the onset or attack is critical in order for the body to learn proper support.  The idea of using the deep moan or cry in the body can be quite helpful. Work this concept slowly and be patient because many singers are reversed in their idea of support and collapse the body, resulting in the over-blowing of the vocal folds. The body needs to open outward slowly and elastically while keeping a good stage posture. (See “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers” which is available on this site:

Arpeggios Designed for Register Balance: While we want body-connected singing with a young singer, we do not want to push up vocal weight from the lower register toward the upper passaggio. This can be dangerous. Be sure that you do not have a singer sing only one vowel. In the Old Italian School, arpeggios were designed with vowel sequences that assisted in the laryngeal pivot, while dropping the weight or heaviness off the voice as one ascends. Use the following vowel changes:





Working Body Support Against the Wall: While working the arpeggios, it is often helpful to have the singer align the spine against a flat wall surface. Walk the feet out slightly away from the wall. As the singer performs the arpeggio exercises, have him or her press the lower back into the wall. This will assist in connecting the body support with will close the folds.

Mirror Work: Remember that singers who come from this kind of abusive training usually have tremendous neck pressure and jaw pressure. Have them work with a mirror to try and minimize the forward thrust of the head or jaw, as this closes the throat.  Also have the singer use 2 mirrors in his/her practice room so that the profile can be observed. This is useful for singers who have a history of pushing breath pressure and thrusting the jaw and head forward. Remember that the ears need to align directly over the shoulders. This assists in keeping the open pharynx. Finding a good Alexander Teacher can be of great use in helping with body alignment.

Final Thoughts:  Have your students watch videos of singers that reflect healthy posture for singing. Nilsson is an excellent example and Bjoerling as well. Melchior also has quite good posture and is an interesting study. There is a video available through the Kirsten Flagstad Museum about her life. It was produced in 1995 on the hundred year anniversary of her birth. There are a few video clips that are both fascinating and a wonderful study of posture and body alignment.

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© 2006 by David L. Jones