Career Crisis

Most of the articles on this website reflect the Old World principles of both the Swedish/Italian and Italian Schools of singing. Beyond the exceptional opportunity of studying the Swedish-Italian concepts with Alan Lindquest, I also studied with Dixie Neill (teacher of Ben Heppner), Virginia Botkin, (student of Lindquest) Dr. Suzanne Hickman (student of Virginia Botkin), Dr. Barbara Mathis (vocal researcher, and student of both Botkin and Lindquest), and Dr. Evelyn Reynolds who studied with several fine Italian-trained teachers, including Ralph Errol (teacher of Arlene Auger). Having previously found teachers who were more general in approach rather than specific, I had to search long and hard for these exceptional vocal pedagogues. They generously shared invaluable information that has been instrumental in the development of my teaching career.

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Applying the most effective of these Old World vocal principals toward problem- solving has been a fulfilling journey: one that has been extremely important in the development of my work in diagnostics. In order for a vocal technician to diagnose correctly, he/she must train the ear to the point that they ‘feel’ what is physically happening in another singer just from the sound. These skills have offered me the unique challenge of specializing in career crisis intervention for the professional classical singer. For over 35 years, I have fine honed instruction to include the most effective concepts; concepts that can move the singer forward more quickly and help them to regain lost confidence and to resume a successful career.

lindquestFamous for his vocal work with professional singers experiencing chronic vocal problems in mid-career, Alan R. Lindquest established himself as a well-known master teacher. A pioneer in therapeutic singing for damaged voices, Lindquest shared a great amount of his experience and knowledge during my study with him in 1979. Many of the Lindquest vocal exercises were acquired from two teachers with whom he studied in Stockholm in 1938 and 1939: Joseph Hislop (one of Bjoerling’s teachers) and Mme. Haldis Ingebjardt Isene, who taught Kirsten Flagstad from 1925 to 1939. Vocal pedagogue and researcher Dr. Barbara Mathis proved the therapeutic value of these exercises on damaged voices through her scientific research in the office of Dr. Van Lawrence, laryngologist for the Houston Grand Opera.

Reconnecting the instinct to sing with healthy body coordination is of major importance in re-establishing vocal realignment. It may take an investment of time for the singer to rediscover a positive emotional response in singing. Realize that the joy of singing is directly connected with vocal efficiency and ease of production and musical expression. As a singer studies these vocal exercises, and the physical act of singing becomes easier and easier, psychological anxiety dissipates, allowing them to re-establish a higher performance level.

Offering professional singers the vocal tools to help re-establish lost vocal function has become a large part of the work that I do in my New York Studio. Singers travel from many other countries to study these vocal concepts; concepts that were instrumental in the vocal training of such great singers as Kirsten Flagstad, Jussi Bjoerling, Birgit Nilsson, Karin Braunzell, Nicolai Gedda and many many others. To read the list of Lindquest’s teachers is like reading a star-studded list of master teachers, including two Garcia-trained teachers, Henry Walker and Maestro Barron in Chicago, Maestro Rosati, teacher of Gigli, Mme. Novikova, who taught George London and many other famous singers, Joseph Hislop, who taught Bjoerling, Haldis Ingebjardt, a teacher of Flagstad, and other vocal pedagogues from the 1930’s who were instrumental in developing his knowledge-base.

Pursuing the Dream of a Professional Career

Many singers work for years toward a career as an international operatic and/or concert artist. But it is important to understand that far from the mystique and wonder of such a career comes the reality of the hard work and pressure; a pressure that can be overwhelming at times. Usually inspired by a vocal gift and the desire to express it at an early age, many of these naturally talented singers perform strictly from instinct rather than through an established understanding of vocal technique. Performance instincts often motivate a singer’s stage career in the earlier years. In most cases these performance instincts serve as a tool to inspire a body-connected vocal response. I call this the power of intention: an intention to communicate to the audience.

But over the years smaller vocal problems can develop into larger ones. They can be caused by (1) a sudden maturing of the voice, (2) the development of chronic allergies, (3) hormonal changes brought on by menopause (or andropause for men), (4) consistently singing in different acoustical environments, (5) trying to find vocal balance in dealing with a grueling rehearsal schedule and (6) too much travel in a short period of time. The natural singer may not develop the self-understanding of how to diagnose and solve technical issues when they occur in mid-career. It is understandable that vocal problems can put the singer in a difficult and uncomfortable position, creating insecurity and self-doubt. It is usually more of a challenge to problem-solve in mid-career than early in vocal development. This is why I tell my students who are in their 20’s how fortunate they are to develop a solid technique earlier in vocal development. As for the career singer, working on the realignment process during performances and rehearsals is always more challenging. Nevertheless, it can be done with concentrated study and slow deliberate application. Old World vocal concepts offer solid vocal solutions. The purpose of this article is to help the seasoned professional singer define the typical causes of vocal problems, and offer concepts to help solve them.

Imagine the following scenario. An international singer is performing in major opera houses all over the world. One night, while waiting in the wings for their character’s entrance, a sudden fear takes over. There is a distinct dryness in the mouth due to nerves, a thick feeling of mucus under the cords (also a result of nerves), and a slight quivering in the solar plexus due to adrenal release. The breath feels too high, making a low preparatory breath challenging. Then there is that deep internal voice of self-doubt. Every emotion is running through the singer’s mind: fear, embarrassment, doubt, sadness, and possibly frustration that he/she did not develop a solid technical understanding of how to handle such situations. All these internal emotions are real and foster insecurity in the singer. Many speak of the glamour of singing opera or concerts, but few predict the development onilssonf vocal problems. In the classical singing world, one of the worst rumors of all is that of a singer has developed technical issues. In this area, the public is quite cruel and judgmental. Human beings are not machines. They are people with feelings and emotions and they are not going to sing exactly the same way every day. I once attended a master class given my Birgit Nilsson. I remember she said, “During my career, I had about 50 days when I woke up feeling fantastic vocally, physically, and emotionally. Unfortunately, I only had about 2 performances on those perfect days”. The subtext to this quote is that singers need to establish a daily vocal routine that assists them in accomplishing vocal consistency; even on days when they do not feel as well.

Avoiding the development of serious vocal problems is usually dependent upon finding high-level vocal information; information that will establish a solid foundation for security in singing. It is only logical that if a singer is fortunate enough to find an excellent technical teacher early in his or her training, then that singer will be less likely to develop vocal issues. The key to what Lindquest called vocal security in singing is the development of vocal and emotional self-understanding, or self-dialogue with body, mind, and voice. This is the seed to developing as a more self-reliant singer. Due to constant travel, career singers cannot always afford the luxury of having an excellent teacher in their same location. So it is important that they learn how to work the voice in a healthy and productive manner. Every singer needs to develop a healthy daily vocal routine that can be repeated in order to sustain vocal balance and vocal health. Many singers have purchased my instructional CD, “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Singers and Teachers”. I have received letters repeatedly from professional singers who say they use the exercises in the dressing room as a healthy vocal warm-up before a performance. It is designed to help the singer warm the voice without over-singing, aligning the middle and upper passaggio registers.

Vocal Changes: Dealing with Andropause or Menopause

 A fascinating part of my work is helping singers through hormonal changes that have in turn created changes in the voice. Most professional singers come to me for vocal help between the ages of 46 and 52, a time when the voice can change dramatically due to hormonal shifts in the body. Often professional singers are dealing with the emotional stress of feeling that the voice changes in sensation from day to day, making consistency impossible.
In the male singer dealing with andropause, and the female singer dealing with menopause, hormonal shifts can change the voice by making it larger, thicker, lower in tessitura, and less controlled. Sometimes the voice does not phonate cleanly at the onset. This is because the singer has unconsciously employed too much thick cord mass, a typical characteristic of hormonal changes in the voice. Successful realignment is dependent upon re-awakening the thin edge function of the folds, which re-balances registration. Lindquest used staccato exercises to legato exercises, having the singer imagine he/she is touching the finest point of the vocal folds when executing staccato.

Development of Typical Vocal Problems

orchestraBefore getting into problem-solving, we must first clarify typical vocal issues that can surface from years of singing in different acoustical environments, singing over allergies, with different sized orchestras, in dusty theaters, etc. One example of an acoustical disadvantage is that of a concert where both the singer and the orchestra are on the same stage-level. This situation always creates an acoustical disadvantage for the singer: one that usually invites pushing of breath pressure. There is a reason orchestra pits were designed, not only to house the orchestra and separate it from the stage, but to also create an acoustical cushioning which allows the human voice to sing over the orchestra.

Most professional singers experience vocal difficulties of one kind or another at some point in their career. Flagstad spoke of her vocal realignment process with Dr. Gillis Bratt. It was Dr. Bratt who helped her solve the breathiness and lack of resonance in her voice. Singers usually avoid discussing the subject of any vocal issues because of the public’s intense judgment of singers. The public is unrealistic in demanding that singers be almost super-human. The resulting pressure on the singer is beyond unreasonable.

Causes of Vocal Problems

Vocal problems often arise from attempting to satisfy the daily demands of the career opera singer. These demands can range from a conductor who takes a tempo too slow for a larger voice, to a stage director who wants the singer to move like a circus performer while singing, to coaches who want the singer to over-pronounce in the upper passaggio and high range. In the end, the singer has to become a self-sufficient person who can basically deal with many various situations, personalities, and egos. Learning to keep the voice healthy while dealing with the daily demands of a large-scale career is of critical importance and self-awareness is the singer’s only protection.

Let us first discuss what form these vocal problems may take, so that we can look at specific solutions and how to solve them. Remember that there is a physical reason for every vocal problem and a physical solution, unless you are dealing with severe vocal damage.
The following list is designed to clarify specific problems that often develop in long-term international careers:

  1. Forward or downward thrust of the jaw, caused by a sub-conscious desire for the inner ear to hear the voice. Remember that we sing well through sensations, NOT sound.
  2. Incorrect postural habits, i.e. dropped chest, leaning back on the heels for high notes, (which locks the breath), pulling down on the rib cage, (which over-compresses the breath).
  3. Loss of ‘thin edge’ function of the vocal folds, resulting in too much vocal weight. (Often results from pushing too much breath pressure through the larynx.)
  4. Tuning issues resulting from a thickening of the voice, which can be caused by andropause in men and menopause in women OR from pushing breath pressure.
  5. Loss of rounded embouchure, resulting in a high larynx position in one or more registers. This can be a result of over-listening instead of feeling for sensations.
  6. Breath control issues, often resulting from singing dramatic music without finding the balance between holding back breath pressure with the lower body connection and allowing the small breath stream to function evenly.
  7. Pushing for too much sound, or singing with too much breath pressure, often caused by trying to hear the voice. Remember that healthy acoustical singing often does not sound loud in the singer’s ear.
  8. Retracted or grooved tongue, which often paints a false color in the inner hearing.
  9. Laryngeal bobble for pitch change.
  10. Opening and re-approximation of the vocal folds between pitches, especially in smaller intervals.
  11. Lack of laryngeal pivot or ‘rocking’ motion in the middle register. (This allows head voice to engage at the proper pitch point.)

Solutions to Vocal Problems

  1. For the forward thrust of the jaw, use a gentle chewing motion, and/or use a mirror. You can also use two mirrors in order to see the profile.
  2. Incorrect postural habits can be corrected by going to an excellent       Alexander teacher. Avoid leaning on the heels for high notes because this locks the breath. It is a trap because it can feel like support.
  3. For thickness at the folds, use staccato exercises in the middle voice imagining touching only the fine points of the vocal folds. This is only an image and will help thin the cords.
  4. The tuning issues from menopause or andropause can be helped by using exercises that thin the cords, i.e. the voiced ‘v’ or ‘z’ to vowel function.
  5. A mirror can be useful when managing the spread embouchure or mouth shape. Also remember that the spreading can originate in the forward jaw thrust. Also remember that a forward jaw means a tense back of the neck.
  6. When singing dramatic music, feel an elastic opening of the lower back muscles at the vowels, NOT the consonants. This balances breath pressure during dramatic passages.
  7. Work toward feeling vocal sensations rather than ‘listening’ to the voice.
  8. Use the NG tongue position as home position after consonant function. Be certain that in the high range, that there is a slight alteration of the vowels toward ‘ae’ as in the word ‘apple’. This will help avoid the retracting tongue. Also remember that the actual cause of a retracted tongue is the use of too much breath pressure through the larynx. Work against a wall with the lower back into the wall and feel the resistance between the lower back and the abdominal muscles.
  9. If you experience a laryngeal bobble at pitch change or a bouncing motion of the larynx, work toward singing with the vocal folds fully approximated on small scales
  10. When the vocal folds open and close at pitch change, use small scales, stabilizing the jaw by caressing it with the hands. Imagine that the cords stay perfectly together while changing pitch.
  11. Vocalize on ascending major 3rds imagining that the larynx tilts slightly down and forward as you move upward in pitch.

Case Studies:

Baritone: Several years ago, a baritone came to do some technical study after finding my web site. He was performing quite a lot at the time and we did not meet often because he commuted to New York for lessons from another city. One evening in a performance at an ‘A’ opera house in Germany, his vocal folds stopped vibrating. This was his inspiration to come back for consistent technical work. What I enjoy about the Lindquest exercises is that they move the singer more quickly than any other technical work I have found. Dropping old vocal habits is fear provoking until solid technical balance is studied and developed. This singer took the courage to realign his voice, which can be emotional, frustrating, and fear provoking. His courage paid off, as he got his first Met contract after realignment.

Soprano: This soprano was referred to my studio by her voice therapist. Frustrated from her past performances at the Metropolitan Opera, she was suffering from imbalance in registration, which had led to pushing a large amount of breath pressure through the larynx. She also suffered from edema (swelling) on the right vocal fold. Her doctor had told her she might be a candidate for surgery. Within the first 10 seconds it was easy to diagnose what was wrong with her voice. Her jaw had developed the habit of thrusting forward. We adjusted the jaw position back, which was a challenge since the right side of the jaw had come forward out of its socket. Just 3 months later, she met me in Europe for 2 sessions. Her first good news was that the edema had disappeared and she no longer needed vocal fold surgery. The re-alignment of the vocal folds was due to the re-alignment of the jaw, which we had accomplished in the New York lessons. This singer has continued her career without vocal problems.

Soprano: This young soprano came to me due to loss of the ability to tune. She was suffering from a high larynx position and a forward thrust of the jaw. The jaw thrust was due to breath pressure, a result of a collapsing rib cage. We worked on the body connection, which included a suspended rib cage, lower breath connection into the lower lumbar region, and the antagonistic pull between the solar plexus and the lower abdominal muscles during phonation. We then worked on the laryngeal tilt (See William Vennard’s book), which created more closure of the vocal folds. After 2 months of realignment work, this singer continued her professional singing career in Europe with great success.

Helden Tenor: I was teaching in London when I received an email from a well-known Helden Tenor. He was extremely nervous because he was singing Tristan in Paris, and rehearsals had not gone well. I was on my way to Paris, so we met there in the early morning hours for 2 sessions. The jaw was thrusting forward, which created imbalance in registration, breath management problems, and general pushing of too much sound, rather than trusting the resonance of the voice. Immediately we worked on releasing the jaw slightly down and back. We also worked on NOT taking too much breath, but we concentrated on taking a smaller amount low in the body. His larynx then released, allowing his vocal folds to come fully together. We worked on passages in “Tristan” and also on his upcoming role in “Frau Ohne Schatten”.

Dramatic Soprano: An internationally known dramatic soprano contacted me after reading an article on my web site. She had developed a forward thrust of the jaw, resulting in a high larynx, and a lack of lower body engagement, due to a surgery. Along with the thrusting of the jaw, the tongue was dipping and retracting, due mainly to breath pressure. We worked slowly on the jaw releasing back and the sensation of the vowels originating under the base of the sternum. This helped her to begin the process of developing pharyngeal vowel formation, a must for large operatic singing. Because of her heavy performance schedule, this realignment process took about one year. She worked very diligently with CD recordings of the sessions, and the voice re-established its previous warmth, color, and youthful sound. The tongue retraction was also resolved due to re-connection to the lower body. The largest factor in helping her find a healthy vocal fold adduction was to reduce the amount of breath pressure used.

Searching for Vocal Help:

There are solutions to vocal problems that may have developed over decades of singing. One major first step for any professional singer is to find a good technical teacher who teaches Old World concepts as the basis for problem solving. This is perhaps the most daunting task for any singer and often he/she must ask colleagues for names of exceptional teachers. It is important to realize that one teacher is not for everyone. Try to find someone who is flexible in their approach and is willing to individualize instruction.

Questions may be addressed to David Jones at David Jones’ instructional CD “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers” can be purchased at

“Breath pressure is the enemy of the vocal cords!” Alan R. Lindquest


© 2010 by David L. Jones