The Counter Tenor

Often I receive questions regarding the counter tenor and the correct training for this vocal fach. It is a voice type that is often misunderstood and there can be mystery surrounding the average perception of the counter tenor. People sometimes think of it as almost a 'freak of nature' even though it is a very non-mystical voice type. Interest toward the counter tenor has peaked over the last 6 years with the launching of several international careers. I recently had a letter from a teacher who had begun to teach a counter tenor. Her concerned questions were quite valid. The singer was basically singing soprano and she had the idea that he was singing in full voice. There is some question regarding this issue which I will address later. What are all the basic issues of the counter tenor? How does a teacher address these problems when teaching a counter tenor? Why do these vocal issues seem to be so challenging? Are the vocal issues physical, psychological, or a combination of the two?

Defining the Counter Tenor

In my experience, the counter tenor is basically a singer who has developed the falsetto with such strength that it has similar power and resonance of a full-voiced sound. Often these singers possess a lower male voice; baritone or bass in the changed voice function. I have found that the lower male voices usually (not always) have stronger and more beautiful falsettos. In studying the successful counter tenors, I have found the singer often possesses the ability to hold back tremendous amounts of breath pressure with the body, which allows the falsetto to develop great strength and beauty of tone along with excellent agility. This agility makes it possible to sing the florid phrases demanded in the earlier vocal literature. Several years ago, I remember teaching a counter tenor for quite a long period of time and I feared that it would be a difficult task. However, after a short time, I came to realize that the concepts of Lindquest were equally applicable to the counter tenor and in fact the singer benefited greatly from such Old World Italian vocal exercises. I personally have discovered a few different terms given to this voice type; falsettist, soprano, contralto, mezzo-soprano, mezzo-contralto, and counter tenor. I tend to use the vocal fach term such as contralto, mezzo, or soprano even though I do believe that the counter tenor is basically a falsettist only using occasional full voice tones. Like a mezzo-soprano, the counter tenor only occasionally dips down in to the lower full register for dramatic effect within the lower phrases of an aria. Counter tenors usually try not to use the changed voice mechanism because it tends to weaken the falsetto too much. I strongly recommend that the counter tenor train the low falsetto daily in order to strengthen that area of the voice. It is also important that the counter tenor learn to dip into the full voiced sound occasionally in order to fill out the lower tones; exactly the same training I would offer a fine mezzo-soprano.

Making the Decision: What Shall I Sing?

Deciding to become a counter tenor is usually a conscious decision. The singer has the choice of singing his full voiced traditional male sound such as tenor, baritone, or bass, or the choice of singing with a reinforced or strengthened falsetto mechanism. (Rarely if ever does one find a counter tenor who is not using falsetto.) Some call this pure head voice. The reinforced falsetto is what most would call the female sound; alto, mezzo-soprano, or soprano. Most counter tenors can sing the alto or mezzo range with little difficulty. However, many begin to strain the voice when they attempt to sustain the soprano range. That is not to dismiss the fact that there are some who are capable of the soprano tessitura.

Recently, especially with the career of such counter tenors as David Daniels, there has been a newfound trend to train in the counter tenor fach. Why? What is the attraction? The answer to this question could be complicated. I believe that a counter tenor possesses a specific psychological and physical coordination in order to sustain a decision to be a counter tenor. Certainly there is some deep desire in the early music business to hearken back to the castrati days. Experiencing a male contralto or mezzo or soprano in performance brings a shadow of history to the present day. So there is a built in market which produces a built in desire to be employed as a professional singer. I remember hearing David Daniels in the summer of 1994 at Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York. His performance was brilliant, beautiful, and extremely musical. The voice could easily fill the opera house because he produced the correct 'ring' in the voice. His gift of special beauty has been a tremendous advantage in the counter tenor market. Many counter tenors do not possess both qualities of beauty and power. It can often be said that some have 'that counter tenor sound', a sort of smokey and somewhat hooty sound that many of us have heard. So how does a counter tenor develop both beauty and power? I will certainly address this vocal issue later in the article.

Social Stigma or Social Fascination?

What drives a person to become a counter tenor besides the career opportunity? I believe we all have an emotional component connected with our particular vocal category. The counter tenor is no exception to this phenomena. Basically you have a singer who chooses to sing what is viewed as a female sound in a male body. Perhaps this gets attention. It is certainly the aspect of the counter tenor that fascinates audiences. Still, there is definitely a specific type of personality connected with the counter tenor. Usually this type of personality exemplifies a somewhat softer kind of human behavior. Many perceive this kind of 'softer behavior' as feminine rather than masculine. This perception is based on lack of knowledge and prejudice. Hopefully we live in a world that is more accepting of contrasting behaviors (masculine and feminine) within the same personality. On the evolutionary scale, this would be a tremendous step forward from the traditional social disease of 'over-maleness' or 'macho singing' in our world. Yet because of backward thinking and ignorance, a counter tenor is often viewed somewhat as a more feminine person because of his vocal sound. This is a ridiculous and judgmental attitude often fueled by obsessive religious belief systems. It is important that the individual realize that he stepping into this vocal category can hold both social fascination and social stigma. I personally support the decision of any person making the choice to become a counter tenor if it feels right for that individual. It is time we create a world where all people are accepted and celebrated for their individuality. The world needs to let go of backward beliefs connected with the 'group mentality'. (See Nathaniel Branden's Six Pillars of Self-Esteem; available in paperback at Barnes and Noble.)

Common Vocal Issues: Finding Vocal Beauty

I have had the experience of playing a recording of a counter tenor and having the person immediately say, "that is a counter!" Often this is spoken in not such a flattering fashion because the underlying subtext is that the sound is ugly or unattractive. True, some counter tenors have not found their beauty of tone and the sound is not quite what I would call complete or a finished or a marketable product. (Yes, we are marketing a product.) What would help a counter tenor to find his beauty of tone? What element has been missing in the past and why is vocal beauty sometimes so elusive?

I suppose it is important to define what exactly creates an unattractive sound. Usually it is the direct result of too much breath pressure coming up through the larynx. Some call this 'over blowing' the voice. But what happens when a singer produces a sound with too much breath pressure? In my experience, a somewhat 'hooty' sound comes from a low soft palate position and a high larynx position. What causes a low palate and high larynx is the pushing of too much breath pressure in an attempt to make more sound. This does not work! It creates vocal blockages that force the voice and it creates a situation whereby the singer is struggling to make a big and beautiful sound. The 'over blowing' of the voice simply creates an unattractive sound, regardless of vocal category. However, the trademark 'hooty' sound that some counter tenors develop is held in the mind of many as a vocal characteristic. This sound need not be present in the sound of a counter tenor and later on I will discuss practical measures to correct this vocal difficulty.

Learning Balance of Breath Pressure

Why would a counter tenor tend to push more breath pressure than any other singer? The psychological response is a very big problem. Lindquest always said singers get into trouble by trying to 'listen to their own voice too much'. He was exactly correct and the counter tenor is facing a huge trap in the vocal arena because there is often a fear of not being heard or that the voice is too small. I think the reason for this is that you are dealing with a singer with a strong upper body yet working with a lighter mechanism. Holding back the breath pressure (see articles on breath and breath balance.) is crucial for the counter tenor because the extreme between the body strength and the strength of mechanism is great. This must be bridged using the concept of 'drinking the voice' rather than having a singer push hard on the voice. Believe me this is not easy feat. Often counter tenors really push hard on the breath with a sense of desperation to be heard. What is the answer? What can solve this problem?

OK, let us consider one practical and easy concept that will help the counter tenor produce an unpushed and beautiful sound. Just holding back the breath pressure with the body is a great step forward. This is done by using the intercostal muscles and the pectoral muscles to sustain a suspended rib cage and open sternum, the upper glutial and lower lumbar mucsles to control the slow upward movement of the diaphragm, and the upper and lower abdominal muscles working in opposition to each other to control the slow and regulated outflow of air.

Exercise #1:

Use a flat part of a wall or a door. Posture yourself with your back against the wall. The feet can be a bit away from the wall or door. However, the lower curve of the back needs to be flattened against the wall or door. Take a breath and then make a 'hissing' sound. Notice that as the lower back muscles push into the wall that the epigastrium gently turns and the lower abdominals slowly pull in, up, and under to fuel the breath stream.

Exercise #2:

Sit on the edge of a chair and lean slightly forward from the hip sockets. Get rid of all the breath in the body by pulling the low abdominals upward. Hold all the breath out of the body for a few seconds until the body insists upon breathing again. The new breath will rush in suddenly and you will feel an excellent low breath. Then use the 'hissing' sound to direct what Schumann-Henk called 'budgeting the breath' or the slow and controlled outflow of air. This will offer your body the experience of moving air in a slow and controlled fashion.

Breath control alone does not solve the problem of lack of beauty in the voice altogether. The missing piece is not just a high soft palate and lower larynx position, but one huge key is the tongue position. If the tongue is trained in the 'ng' position, then the singer can begin to feel nasal resonance, a concept that allows many higher overtones into the vocal production. Without these higher overtones, a counter tenor (and any other voice type for that matter.) can sound hooty and pushed. The result is an unattractive sound. The answer to the problem is quite clear. Study the 'ng' position as home base for the tongue in the pronunciation of text. Of course the tongue must be free to move freely. However, immediately after each consonant the tongue needs to return to the 'ng' position. Suddenly the singer will experience higher overtones in the voice and the voice will immediately find much more beauty of tone. Note: if the breath pressure is not managed, the tongue will pull back into a gag reflex and the beauty will be lost yet again. It is crucial that the tongue feel free, somewhat like a sponge and the breath pressure feel as though it is contained low in the body. With the proper breath control, the singer can then control the position of the tongue without the gag reflex distorting the quality of tone.

Repertoire Limitations Regarding Professional Career

I spoke earlier of the counter tenor in relation to earlier musical repertoire. It is crucial in a singer's awareness that in making the decision to become a counter tenor, that person will be somewhat limited in terms of repertoire. Bach and Handel wrote a great deal of music. It is my hope that anyone who makes the decision to become a counter tenor really loves these two composers. There is certainly a lot of repertoire for singers to learn within these two composers and there is certainly earlier repertoire that singers can study as well. However, it is only realistic to consider that the counter tenor will perform a great deal of early music. It is going to be his main repertoire for public performance. I would like to see the counter tenor have more options open, but it is audience expectation that the counter tenor singer Bach and Handel and also earlier repertoire. This is why I strongly suggest that each counter tenor study Baroque ornamentation in great detail. It is crucial that the singer become somewhat of a Baroque specialist.

The Lower Passaggio

I strongly suggest that any reader refer to the article on the female lower passaggio. I clearly define how to vocalize in the lower head voice/upper chest registers. It is imperative that counter tenors not use too much chest mechanism (full voice). Vocalizing the lower head voice with a narrow or oval mouth position will insure that the palate stay high and the larynx stay low. Why do many mezzos and counter tenors have problems with the lower passaggio and why do the vocal cords split apart? One simple answer to these questions: the singers lift the larynx in order to 'listen to their own sound'. Again I refer to Alan Lindquest's teaching and his constant reminder not to listen to one's own voice. When the larynx is high in the lower passaggio, then the singer gets a lot more sound internally. This is a trap that can be avoided. I suggest that singers tape-record their practice in order to learn not to push on the lower passaggio. Also, I suggest the following exercises:

Exercise #1:

Sing a 5 tone scale as follows: Begin in F major (C being your first pitch) and work downward:


5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

aw...o…..u…..o……o…..u (The 'u' vowel on the lower note encourages the larynx to stay in a lower position and the soft palate to stay in a higher position. Be sure to have a high and wide palate above the vowel in order for ring to be present in the 'u' vowel.)

Exercise #2:

Again, a 5 tone descending scale: Begin in F major (C being your first pitch) and work down to C or B major.


5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

a……o….aw…ah…o… (Keep the feel of 'u' in the 'o' vowel.)

Exercises: The Sieber Vocalises for Mezzo-Soprano or Alto: These exercises are based upon the concept of balance in registration. The vowels and consonants are arranged in such a way that the voice achieves both beauty and control.

The Sieber exercises will balance the lower passaggio and encourage more ring in the lower head voice. It is permissible to dip into chest register lightly and then come out of it with a high soft palate. Remember the tongue needs to stay in the 'ng' position and the root of the tongue must be wide and not bunched. The jaw position needs to be back. The mouth will not be open very much in that register. This will encourage the palate to stay high.

Exercise #3:




Sing this exercise beginning around B-flat major. Make sure the soft palate is high AND wide. Decrease the breath pressure as you go across the transition of register between low head voice and upper chest voice. The counter tenor needs to lighten the chest (full voice) register a great deal in order for this register to match the upper register.

Case Study

I recently taught a counter tenor in San Francisco. He was a delightful person with whom to work because he had a wonderful and positive attitude. He had dropped any ego and was really into the process of learning. (Remember ego or arrogance really stops the learning process. These are two toxic emotions that have nothing to do with creativity and growth.)

This singer had been studying with a teacher who was encouraging him to train both in his traditional changed voice and in his falsetto. The problem with this training is that the falsetto mechanism tends to be weaker anyway and having a singer produce full voiced sound tends to continue to weaken the falsetto mechanism. I asked this young man what he wanted to sing. He said he was interested in the the higher falsetto singing. So we focused the work on the falsetto mechanism and by the end of the first hour this singer was making much fuller sounds in the falsetto. It was quite simple; we worked on the Lindquest vocalises exclusively in the falsetto and the mechanism was much stronger because the cords began to come together much more efficiently. We worked on Garcia's 'coup de glotte' exercises gently and he found his solid tone without any breathiness. The result within one hour was truly amazing. It was a testament yet again that the Lindquest work produces positive results in any voice type in a very short period of time.

Final Thought

Remember that if you are a counter tenor the positive vocal results comes from vocalizing in a healthy way (low larynx/high and spread palate with the tongue forward and arched.) with a consistent routine every day. Again referring to personality and voice category, it takes a singer with determination, love of the music, discipline, and true pride in his work (not arrogance or ego) to accomplish the art of beautiful counter tenor singing. Remember that a gift is simply a gift, nothing more supernatural than that. It is not mystical, but just a gift. Appreciate the gift and embrace and nurture it daily with a positive sense of purpose. You will find enrichment and fulfillment through realizing your true art and sharing the gift with others. After all, this is our purpose in singing anyway.

(c) David L. Jones/2001

Please direct questions to