Leggiero Tenor

One vocal fach that can be confusing even for the advanced diagnostic instructor, and one that must be addressed carefully during training is that of the leggiero Tenor. Often considered the male counterpart of the Coloratura Soprano, this type of Tenor voice is often taught or encouraged to employ too much chest voice connection in the middle and chest registers, causing major vocal problems in the upper register. The mistake of over-employment of the thicker vocal cord mass is often made due to the rounder color in the middle and low register, characteristic of this vocal fach.


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This type of singer often has an almost baritonal quality in the lower register, which can be confusing to even the more experienced instructors. So the first issue to address with such a singer is that of proper or correct diagnosis of vocal fach.

Because of a change in vocal timbre above the high A-flat, the leggiero Tenor is sometimes thought to be using falsetto because of the lighter quality as he ascends toward the high C and up to the E-flat above high C. Considering this range to be falsetto is a HUGE mistake, because in fact this is NOT a pure falsetto mechanism, but a mechanism that has full-voice connection. Even though there is a lighter timbre in the earlier stages of development, employing too much chest or heavy mechanism in this kind of voice does not allow for the upper register to develop properly. It also makes the strengthening of the thin edge function of the vocal folds difficult if not impossible. Sadly, many instructors hear this voice type as Baritone because the Leggiero Tenor usually has a strong and colorful chest register, often extending quite low. But like the Coloratura Soprano, it is not ethical to over-produce this part of the voice. If the cords are overly thickened, the singer will never realize the release of the high extension or higher register; a mechanism that must be nurtured and developed over time before it takes on the vocal timbre of the other registers. The dramatic change in timbre can be minimized with proper release of the tongue. Hearing the upper voice as falsetto might remind some instructors of the Bellini training of the tenor, yet in fact this is a characteristic of healthy registration of the leggiero Tenor. The main problems for this voice type are (1) use of too much breath pressure through the folds, often causing cracking and lack of register blend, and (2) over-production of the chest or heavy mechanism, making it impossible to go high. Remember that Caruso told Lindquest in 1914 that he always felt he sang below his vocal cords NOT through them. This minimized the possibility of over-blowing the vocal folds. Use of less breath pressure through the folds allows for the thinner edge function to be realized more easily.

Training the Upper Extension: The Leggiero Tenor usually possesses a high extension that can easily climb to the E-flat above the high C, sometimes even higher. Usually the pivotal transition note into this extension is the A-flat above the staff. As stated before, the main confusion in teaching this voice type is that when first strengthening this extension, it can take on the quality of the male falsetto. Because some schools of training do not encourage development of falsetto (with healthy vocal fold adduction), this part of the voice might easily be overlooked.  How does an instructor learn to hear the difference between a Leggiero extension and falsetto? What are the differences if the sound is similar? This question is answered first and foremost in the fact that, if vocalized correctly, the leggiero Tenor upper extension has brilliance and strength, especially when working with a forward tongue position and a high/wide soft palate and open naso-pharynx. A strong amount of ring and sound is not a typical characteristic of the falsetto, especially in the undeveloped singer. The falsetto usually possesses a slightly hollow sound that does not encourage a large amount of high overtones. Instructors might need to consider themselves investigators and work this mechanism, using exercises that encourage proper closure of the vocal folds (see article on Garcia’s ‘coup de glotte’). Alan Lindquest worked the male falsetto (or in the Leggiero Tenor’s case the upper extension) in all the male voices using the rounded ‘i’ vowel with sunken cheeks at the molars and the jaw released slightly down and back. Working in training the closure of the glottis in falsetto is a basic characteristic of the Old Italian School. This type of training will diminish the possibility of a Leggiero Tenor being mistyped or placed in the incorrect vocal fach. These are tools that should make it easier for the experience teacher to place the singer in the correct vocal category.

Proper vocalization (with a healthy approximation of the vocal folds) and time will assist in a more complete sound over time. One cannot rush the process of development of the upper extension of the Leggiero Tenor. It can take a time period of up to 3 years of hard work. But using an approach that encourages healthy vocal fold adduction will strengthen this mechanism and the blending of the registers will begin to happen more naturally. Patience is the key word here. Lindquest’s philosophy was that proper falsetto development in both male and female voices was key in development of the high voice or upper register. Remember that in order for the upper register to release, the thin edge function of the folds must be employed in the middle and lower registers. Working the falsetto correctly with proper vocal fold adduction will allow for the thin edge function to develop properly.

Considering Passaggio Pitches During the Strengthening Process of the Upper Extension: As stated before, the pivotal or transitional note into the Leggiero upper extension is around the high A-flat above the staff. Experience teaches us that one must handle the passaggio differently for the leggiero Tenor, using much less fullness of chest connection and much less sound in the high E-flat to F-sharp range, especially in the early period of training. If too much chest is employed in this type of tenor, he will develop a large crack in the upper voice, much like a female singer who brings the chest register up high in the scale and does not exercise or strengthen the head voice function. If too much chest register is employed, the singer will use too much thicker cord mass in the passaggio area, making it impossible to go into the upper extension easily and smoothly without a large change in timbre and color. I use the term “shades of gray” in working the upper passaggio of this voice type, which is a result of the release of the larynx and the healthy vocal fold adduction. Working staccato chromatically in the upper passaggio area can teach the singer the proper amount of vocal weight for those pitches, thus assisting in register balance. (Light staccato may also be used in the middle and low registers to assist in healthy development of thin edge function.)

One term that can work successfully with the leggiero Tenor is the idea of ‘dropping the weight’ off the voice while keeping the body connection. BUT it is critical to explain to the singer that dropping the weight really means thinning out the cord mass (without closing the throat or pharynx) Correct dropping of vocal weight is something that does not necessarily happen naturally. In fact this voice type is often tempted to use this larger, more chest connected sound with too much breath pressure and cord mass. But if the dropping of the vocal weight is imaged correctly and carefully, the singer can transition into the upper voice without a break or crack in the voice. He must use the concept of the Italian School indicated in the statement of‘inhalare la voce’ (inhale the voice) in this most critical transitional area of the E-flat through high G. The leggiero Tenor will hear little sound inside his head from the high E-flat to the high A-flat, similar to the experience of the female singers in the lower head voice mechanism. Feeling for proper sensations instead of going for more inner sound is one key to dropping the weight in the voice so that a smooth transition can occur at the high A-flat. Again, this is similar to the Mezzo-Soprano when she needs to thin out the cords in the upper chest register in order to smoothly transition into lower head voice mechanism.

One approach that can assist the instructor is to train the leggiero Tenor’s upper passaggio much as one would train the female lower passaggio. While not exactly the same, this concept could offer some insight for the instructor on how to carefully approach the Leggiero’s upper passaggio, making it possible to transition into the upper voice correctly.

The Option of More Chest Connection: When is more chest connection into the upper range of the voice appropriate? There are some tenors of this type that develop into larger voices through the years, making it appropriate to use a fuller connection to the chest register. Personality and desire to sing specific roles can be major factors in making this type of decision. But the voice will be the final indicator for both singer and teacher. How is this done carefully and when is it appropriate? If the transition of register at the high A-flat does not smooth even though properly vocalized, the instructor needs to look at the possibility of the singer using more chest connection and a fuller sound. As stated before, there are some larger-voiced tenors that first develop as leggiero Tenors and then connect to more full chest connection to the high C. Again this must be done slowly and carefully, dropping the vocal weight at the upper passaggio area. In 1914, Lindquest traveled to Paris to study with Jean de Reske. Considered the first tenor to connect the high C in what is now considered more traditional training, Lindquest decided to pursue study with de Reske. Lindquest’s coachings with Enrich Caruso earlier that year had inspired him to seek more vocal information, resulting in his Paris trip.

It is appropriate to connect to a more traditional Lyric Tenor production when a singer feels that the upper extension has strengthened and reinforced to the point of sounding completely full voice or if the cracking persists in the upper transition. Remember that it is critical to develop the thin edge function (more head voice development) in the middle and low registers no matter which vocal path is followed. Using exercises to release the tongue can help this type of singer to connect more chest without weight in the voice. In some tenors, this training is a choice, not a requirement. Individual training is the key here. Every voice is different and every singer’s voice is not only a direct outgrowth of physical function, but also of personality. One major part of vocal training to consider is the tongue.

As stated before, if the desire to sing more dramatic roles is present, then it is the instructor’s job to assist the singer in careful development of the upper voice with proper head voice dominant training of the middle and low registers. Many Tenors have great difficulty controlling the small and even breath stream, a requirement in singing high without as much tension in the larynx. Singing with too much breath pressure through the folds is counter- productive during development and can actually cost a singer his voice and career. Use of too much breath pressure thickens the vocal fold function, making head voice development impossible. Lindquest taught the ng position of the tongue posture at inhalation and as home base in order for proper head voice development to occur. The tongue can be the major culprit in confusing the teacher and what he/she is hearing. However it is important to consider that the tongue is usually a result of breath pressure and if the singer is not truly body-connected, then the true voice will not be heard. True head voice has a great amount of color from the open pharynx with the tongue forward. But if the singer lines up against a wall and presses the lower back into the wall at the onset and throughout the vocal phrase, then the true instrument will reveal itself. This lessens the chances of thickening the vocal folds.

The steps to careful development of more chest connected voice stem from precise and healthy handling of the middle register. Working the thin edge function of the folds begins the safer journey to higher connection. I recommend staccato exercises imaging the thin edge function. Applying too much chest connection too early in the scale can rob a singer of his high notes. The middle voice must be vocalized in the position of ‘voce chiusa’ or ‘closed voice’. This can be accomplished using an oval mouth opening (with the jaw slightly back) and opening the pharynx simultaneously. This gets the singer to what one might call the acoustical protection of the throat.

According to Lindquest, who befriended Jussi Bjoerling in 1938, Joseph Hislop used the connected umlaut sound. Vocalization was accomplished using an arpeggio on this particular vowel sound.  Because the tongue is very forward, the singer has less of a chance of taking up too much chest, allowing the lighter or headier side of the voice to be present in the fuller voiced connection. Working between more connected sound and the lighter mechanism can keep the voice healthy during this process. The falsetto function should always be kept in tact with healthy adduction of the vocal folds.  Lindquest spoke of what he called ‘super head’ mechanism and how this mechanism would strengthen to the full voiced sound over time. This ‘super head’ mechanism is usually found above the high C.

Monitoring Laryngeal Function: One critical point to make is the monitoring of laryngeal function during vocalization. If the sidewalls of the larynx narrow, then the singer CANNOT transition into the head register healthily. If the instructor notices a narrowing of the muscles of the neck, then it is time to begin to find ways of releasing this tension. Having the singer feel the neck wide with the fingertips assists in accomplishing a more open and wide pharynx. Have the singer watch in the mirror for any muscles that suddenly jump or shift at register changes. This problem is something that needs to be corrected immediately and it is a characteristic that many career singers develop. Men develop this ‘narrow neck’ from pushing too much breath pressure, therefore pushing the larynx in too high of a position. Women can develop this over time, especially during menopause when the hormones are changing in the body quickly. MOST singers develop this problem in an attempt to sing high and soft without enough body connection. Whatever the cause, it is a vocal problem that can cut a career short.

Tongue Release in Training: Working on the proper release of the tongue is extremely useful in helping tenors to connect the upper voice without weight. Vocal weight is usually a result of a muscular reflex in the larynx and/or the tongue. The singer feels he is singing on a thickness rather than healthy vocal acoustics. Virgina Botkin had her tenors vocalize with the tongue hanging over the lower lip.  This helps the singer feel the open pharynx in the back of the mouth space and slightly above in the naso-pharynx, making proper head voice development more possible as the singer connects the upper voice with more dramatic sound.

Case Study #1: London Leggiero Tenor: Several years ago, a leggiero Tenor come to me after his London-based training. Tragically, he had been confused as a Baritone and had been taught to over-produce the chest register with a lot of false color using the root of the tongue. At age 25 this singer suffered from a tremendously wide vocal wobble (wide and slow vibrato). It had become almost impossible for him to sing within the core of the pitch and most of his voice was flat and out of tune. This is a typical case of a young singer who was damaged by being taught in the wrong focal fach. In today’s world, many instructors are not offered enough apprenticeship opportunities or the experience of hearing the vocal development of this type of singer. In order to learn how to hear and diagnose different vocal categories, there is no substitute for hearing an experienced master teacher work through the total process over time. I had the opportunity to watch Lindquest and his student Virginia Botkin over a period of years, an experience that would establish the foundation of my teaching career.

I immediately placed this young singer on the cuperto exercise that I had learned from Alan Lindquest in 1979. The purpose of this exercise is to blend the registration from the high voice downward and to work the thin edge function of the vocal folds from the highest singing pitch down to the lower register. The voice began to immediately respond, BUT the first thing I noticed was how smoothly he seemed to move from the falsetto into the fuller sound on the way down within the two-octave scale. It was at this moment that I knew he was not using pure falsetto, but a mechanism that was more full-voice connected. This upper extension gradually became fuller and more ringing with quite a lot of power. I then placed him on the Swedish umlaut sound that reinforced the ring in the upper voice while keeping the open pharynx and the forward tongue position. The result was amazing. A voice that suffered all kinds of registration issues suddenly had no breaks.

The second approach I used with him was to take less breath. It is often the case that when a Leggiero Tenor over-produces the chest register, then he must take a lot of breath and use a lot of breath to sing, something Caruso discouraged strongly.  Over-breathing and pushing too much breath pressure during phonation creates imbalance in registration, sometimes effecting vibrato speed. After the Swedish umlaut, the vibrato began to spin more and more quickly and the voice began to enjoy singing higher and higher. It was evident that this was not a Baritone voice, but a Leggiero Tenor. How sad that this singer had to suffer so much because of being heard as a Baritone. It is a common confusion, one that can cost a singer his vocal health and career.

Case Study #2: San Francisco Leggiero Tenor: About 3 years ago, I met a tenor singer who possessed the same ringing upper extension that is a characteristic of the leggiero Tenor. At first, it was difficult to diagnose his voice type because he had a mature (about age 44) and extremely colorful and round vocal tone that was baritonal in timbre. However, when he employed this rich tone (using more vocal cord mass than appropriate for middle and low voice pitches) there would be a resulting large break in the upper voice at high A-flat above the staff. We began to vocalize using far less cord mass or chest connection. Working staccato notes to sustained pitches in order for the cords to thin out before approaching the upper extension worked very well in this circumstance. In his case, the middle voice had to be completely re-evaluated and vocalized with much more head voice connection than chest. This is usually a non-satisfying sound for the singer because he will get little internal feedback in terms of actual volume of sound. Alan Lindquest used to tell me to “feel don’t listen” in all of my lessons with him.  The singer must learn to trust sensations that will allow easy access to the upper voice. Otherwise, an easy approach to the upper voice will never be realized. This could be considered a healthy philosophy for the training of all voice types for that matter IF the pharynx is opened first.

Later in this Leggiero Tenor’s development he strengthened the upper extension with a healthy adduction of the vocal folds. The upper extension, when vocalized carefully this way, takes on a round and tremendously ringing timbre that will carry in any opera house or concert hall.   Sometimes this voice type will gradually develop into a dramatic tenor, but this should not be the goal in daily training. If a larger vocal fach development is appropriate, usually the singer will possess quite a lot of color in the middle and low registers even when the back of the tongue is free and the thin edge function of the folds is employed.

Case Study #3: Chicago leggiero Tenor: I was contacted by a young graduate student whose first-year teacher heard him as a dramatic tenor. This was a HUGE mistake and this young man (age 23) suffered from a bowing of the vocal cords. As I stated before, leggiero tenors are often heard as Baritones or Dramatic Tenors, ONLY because they typically have a full and larger chest register than the Lyric Tenors. It took 3 sessions to determine this young man’s true vocal timbre and color. The only exercise that truly revealed his voice was the wall posture (lining up with the back to the wall) and using the ‘pressing in’ of the lower back at the onset or attack. Immediately the weight dropped from this voice and it was indeed a true leggiero Tenor. The fascinating aspect of this case study is that this young man instinctively knew he was a leggiero Tenor, but he could not access the proper coordination to get to the true voice.  The wall posture allowed him a tool that completely balanced his registration, a result of the release of the tongue, which was no longer responding with the gag reflex from the pushing of too much air through the folds. After vocalizing on the wall, then he could easily go up to the high D above the high C. His upper extension voice began to speak and he was then able to access the ring in the voice. This is yet another warning to instructors. If a voice does not go up easily with a fuller sound, then question whether or not it is a lighter instrument.

Analysis of Juan Diego Florez’ Vocal Production: One important young singer today who is quite well known is Juan Diego Florez. My personal evaluation of his singing is that he is a true leggiero Tenor who has wisely developed blend of registration. If one carefully studies the sound of his high C, it takes on a ‘headier’ approach than the standard Lyric Tenor. This is not something Mr. Florez is creating, but a result of a more perfect breath-balance which results in more registration balance. Also there is an acoustical release in his voice at high A-flat above the staff. Mr. Florez has been wise enough to develop a lot of head voice connection in the middle and lower registers; a result of holding back the breath pressure with the lower back muscles or the lower lumbars. He never allows himself to over-produce the middle voice, a philosophy that is critically important in the training of any voice. Agility is based on the thin edge function and Mr. Florez’s easy access to this function in his voice is reflective of the fact that he is well trained and an extremely intelligent singer. Many singers in this vocal fach push the top of the voice into a shrill sound. He does not make this mistake because he manages his breath balance so completely well. It is also extremely important when studying Mr. Florez’s singing to pay attention to his middle register. He never employs too much vocal weight or thicker cord mass in the middle register. He allows this sound to ring without trying to force a bigger sound. This is a truly intelligent singer worthy of careful study and analysis by both teacher and student.

Exercise #1: Dropping the Vocal Weight: Do the following exercise first staccato, then legato while attempting to capture the sensation of “yodeling” the weight off the voice as the singer goes higher and higher. A healthy yodel function will give the singer the sensation of yodeling into the soft palate or further into the naso-pharynx. This is only an image of course, but one that works beautifully. The singer will begin the process of going higher without vocal weight.


a……a………a……a……a……a……a……a (first staccato and then legato with similar sensation.)

Do this exercise all the way through the upper passaggio and into the upper extension, allowing for little breath through the cords at the transitional point.

Exercise #2: Working less cord mass in the middle register. Do this exercise imaging that the cords are only touching on the fine edges. The tonic is repeated on staccato function.

.     .     .      .



Again, yodel the weight off the voice while ascending in pitch. (This will feel as though one is yodeling within the full voice.) The soft palate must be wide in order to feel this sensation. Be sure that the embouchure is rounded or oval, NOT spread. A spread embouchure will take up vocal weight even if the tone sounds lighter. This is the danger of the ‘smile technique’ (see article on “Damaging Vocal Techniques”). Also be sure that the larynx releases slightly downward at inhalation (without tongue depression) with the jaw slightly down and back.

Exercise #3: Line up against a wall with the feet slightly away from the wall. At the onset, press the small of the back or the lower curve of the back forward the wall. Immediately you should feel the lower abdominals engage as the back expands. This relationship between lower back and lower abdominals will work to balance the breath pressure, making it easier to stay on the thin edge function of the vocal cords.

Exercise #4: Use the voiced ‘v’ to get to the thin edge function of the vocal folds, making is easier to take the weight out of the middle register.


vi, vi,   vi,   vi,    vi,    vo  vi    vo   vi   vo   vi    vo   vi….

Gradually add more and more sound, using the above exercise.  Do the exercise against the wall and press the lower back into the wall. This will give any singer the ability to sound ‘loud and light’ NOT loud and weighted or heavy.  The true vocal timbre will develop from this vocal exercise.

Final Thought: Remember that many tenors will want to connect full chest register to the highest singing note.  If he is truly a Leggiero Tenor, this type of training will not work and the singer will experience more and more register breaks in the voice and possibly further vocal damage. I ask the singer to make friends with the upper passaggio break and remember that the audience is getting about 3 to 4 times more sound than he is inside his head. I strongly recommend that teachers have the singer record his sessions so that he can experience how much sound is actually being produced with the upper mechanism. Inner hearing can be confusing to all singers because there is an internal sound that can be confusing. We must learn to sing by sensations NOT by sound. Once we establish the proper internal sensations, then and only then can the singer establish truly consistent and healthy singing.

In my experience, I have heard Leggiero Tenors who had a larger sound than their Lyric Tenor counterpart. These individuals may have attempted higher full connection, but the instrument did not respond positively to this type of training. The voice will tell you. If the weight is properly dropped off the voice and the voice still does not attain enough head voice coordination in full connection, then the decision has been made to continue development of the lighter mechanism and bring that function down lower in the voice.

For history and information on the Swedish-Italian School, visit www.voiceteacher.com. David Jones’ Instructional CD, “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones, A Resource for Teachers and Singers” may be purchased on the homepage at www.voiceteacher.com.

© 2006 by David L. Jones