The Danger of Singing Heavy Repertoire with a Lyric Voice

It seems that the reverse extreme of having a dramatic singer sing off the instrument (or off the body support) is the situation of a lyrical singer who is given overly dramatic repertoire for his or her voice type. It is quite important to explain what happens when a lyric-voiced singer studies repertoire that is too heavy for that specific sized instrument. What damage results? What are the long-term repercussions? How much does it shorten a career? Why do some vocal professionals guide singers in this inappropriate direction?

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Several years ago I was teaching a young lady who possessed an incredibly beautiful lyric soprano voice. Her ability to sing the role of Sophie with such ease would send chills down my back. She had come to the New York Studio after hearing a master class and we had worked for about 2 years when she made a critical mistake: She wanted to stretch her voice by singing more dramatic music. This singer felt that as a soprano she could not compete in the classical world without a larger sound. I strongly warned her against this decision and told her that the instrument was incredibly beautiful and that her vocal health would be in danger by singing heavier repertoire. Nevertheless, she decided to pursue this vocal journey on her own and she began to sing Wagner arias in her practice. The result of this vocal journey was indeed shocking. In not more than 3 weeks this singer could no longer sing a pianissimo ANYWHERE: not high, low or anywhere in between. Before this time, she could sing high pianissimo easily and there was great musical ability to sing all dynamic levels. The registers, which had been so perfectly blended before, were now separated by breaks in the voice. Because of altering the vowels with tongue depression, the voice could not longer spin a beautiful silver quality within a tone. I have never forgotten nor will I ever forget this experience. What happened to this beautiful voice in a matter of three weeks? Why was the damage so immediate and severe? More importantly to me, what could repair this damage and give this singer her voice back?

Any singer who possesses a lyrical instrument and pumps it larger than the voice is designed to function healthily is asking for major vocal trouble. In order to force a larger sound, a singer must begin to use tremendous tongue pressure (which depresses the larynx) in fundamental vocal production. This engages a thicker vocal cord mass which is unhealthy for the voice and distorts the registration. (Some call this vocal weight.) Too much heavy mechanism is pushed up too high and the result is vocal fatigue, register imbalance, vibrato problems, breath problems, and usually tremendous tongue tension. When a singer engages the depressed tongue as a support, the body connection is usually diminished. The fatigue is a result of both the depressed tongue and the thicker vocal cord mass being employed in the upper range. Some call this operatic or classical belting. Tragically, this is what happened to Renata Tebaldi's voice. Around 1967, her voice teacher told her that her voice had matured and it was time for her to perform dramatic roles. This quote is taken from an interview directly with Tebaldi from an early 1968 video called Four Ladies of the Opera by VAI. It seems bogus indeed that after her interview, her singing could be viewed as intolerable. The voice was so damaged at that point that she could not begin to reach the upper notes in tune. The high notes are completely under the pitch or false. What had one time been an easy and beautiful upper range was pushed and screamed. She had no ability to reach the upper register even with a lot of breath pressure. This video is a tragic example of the destruction of a once beautiful instrument; a tragic sacrifice of a voice for the sake of ego, competition, and basic ignorance about the voice. After employing such a depressed larynx technique, Sadly, Ms. Tebaldi never found anyone to help her solve her vocal issues. Her career gradually disappeared because of this major vocal decision. As many witnessed, the resulting vocal damage ruined her voice in a relatively short period of time. She was able to push her way through for a few more years. However, this technique of depressing the larynx ended her career prematurely. This is not to downplay the importance of Ms. Tebaldi's earlier career or the fact that she possessed a beautiful instrument and a great amount of vocal talent. But her mistake of pumping the voice larger than it was intended function by using a tremendous amount of breath pressure and tongue pressure destroyed her voice.

There is an account of Marilyn Horne in her earlier autobiography referring to her study with William Vennard, a student of Alan Lindquest right before 1955 and throughout that year. At one point, Ms. Horne wanted to sing larger more dramatic repertoire. William Vennard refused to teach her this heavier repertoire, so she went to another teacher who allowed her to sing anything she wanted. In her own account in her book she says that she came "crawling back to Bill Vennard's door after six weeks with no high notes left". At least Ms. Horne felt the early warning signs of singing too heavily with a lyric instrument. The healthy instinct to come back to William Vennard was an important one indeed. This decision brought her voice back to a place that prepared her for her long career.

Most singers want to have a large sound; however, no one need sacrifice their instrument for it. Our voices can carry in any hall if the sound it produced on the ring or the Flagstad ng. I found this to be proven true when I once performed a master class at Merkin Concert Hall in New York. (See article: Vocal Acoustics in the Theater.) If the ng were present in the sound and the singer did not spread the mouth position, then the sound carried beautifully no matter how large or small the mass of voice. I produced a concert at Philharmonie Hall in Berlin in 1989. A conductor from the Hanover Opera came to speak to me after the concert. He knew that the singers were trained with the same technical background. His question to me was, "Who were the large-voiced singers and who were the smaller-voiced singers? I know they all come from the same training, but I cannot tell." The absolute truth is that pushing the voice to make it larger NEVER works. The result is only throaty singing and a nervous audience.

So what does a singer do when the vocal damage is done? How does the repair process work after this wrong or incorrect technique has been employed? The answer lies in addressing the root cause of the problem. When a singer over-produces the voice, he or she usually does so with depression of the root of the tongue that in turn depresses the larynx. Usually the singer is using a tremendous amount of breath pressure to force phonation because the vocal cords are overly locked. This direct pressure on the vocal cords does NOT allow the singer to produce sound on what Lindquest called the thin edges of the vocal cords. It is the same principal as trying to play a high note on the piano with the thickness of string of a very low note. It does not and cannot work efficiently. The key to vocal recovery is to get back to the thin edges of the cords and to relieve the pressure at the root of the tongue. The first step in correcting the tongue issue is a true analysis of the tongue position. (See article on Dangerous Vocal Techniques.) The tongue MUST always approximate the ng position in order for the cords to phonate healthily. This tongue position also brings the root of the tongue out of the throat and allows for pharyngeal resonance. I suggest (1) that the singer learn to breath in the ng position. This allows a healthy arch of the tongue and releases pressure from the larynx. Then I suggest (2) the singer learn to pronounce or sing text using the ng as home position for the tongue root; (the tongue tip must be allowed to use the integrity of the vowel.) This concept allows the tongue to return to the ng position after each consonant along with a release of the larynx. These two steps will begin the process of vocal recovery.

Exercise: Have the singer go from the ng to an open vowel such as the Italian 'o' or 'a'. (Remember that the root of the tongue cannot be bunched.) When opening from the ng to the vowel, allow the soft palate to lift away from the tongue; NEVER should the tongue be allowed to drop down from the palate. The image of the palate elevating away from the tongue invites the singer to use upper overtones efficiently in his or her tonal production.

The second major concept to offer the singer is to get to the thin edges of the cords. This is a concept that I never heard before studying with Alan Lindquest. It may seem a somewhat unusual concept, but it works wonderfully and aligns the voice with great efficiency.

Exercise: Have the singer sing an exercise going from the 'e' vowel to the 'a' vowel. Use a 5-tone major scale. (Rounded mouth position is crucial; vowel change is done ONLY with the tongue.) Before going up the scale, have the singer sing the 'e' on staccato. At this point, the singer must imagine that he/she is simply, as Lindquest said, "touching the thinnest point of vocal cord". This allows the thin edges to be employed before going up the scale. You will notice that the singer suddenly has many more high overtones in his/her vocal production.

Check List of Critical Vocal Concepts

At this point, have the singer take very little breath. Most depressed larynx singers have pushed an enormous amount of breath pressure. It would be most important for the instructor to check to actually see if the larynx drops slightly without forcing it down with the root of the tongue. (This can be checked by feeling under the jaw line to see if the tongue root pushes down.) If the singer monitors the root of the tongue under the chin, then he or she can tell immediately if the tongue root knots or tenses too much.

Remember that the recovery process takes some time. Once the voice has been ill-produced, the recovery time can vary greatly. One major determining factor is the mental attitude of the singer. Is he/she ready to give up the old way of singing psychologically? (Depressed tongue technique give the singer a LOT of his/her own vocal sound which is always a red light.) Does the singer fear not having a big enough sound? This can slow the process considerably. However, if the singer is really ready to change the habits, then the process can happen somewhat quickly. I have had singers in my studio in New York correct this problem in a matter of a couple of months. However, the singer's vocal identity must change to that of a lighter production.

Exercises that can help repair such vocal problems can be found on the instructional CD "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones" which can be purchased at

(c) David L. Jones/2003

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