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 www.voiceteacher.com)
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
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: www.voiceteacher.com.)
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.
© 2006 by David L. Jones