Damaging Vocal Techniques

It has been requested repeatedly that I write about vocal techniques that can result in vocal stress or even damage. I have hesitated to write about this because it is a difficult and controversial subject. Nevertheless, I believe it is a subject that needs to be responsibly addressed. Most singers know little if anything about the voice when they begin to study singing. Nor do they know what is healthy or unhealthy vocal technique. Having suffered vocal damage myself, I can only speak from my own experience. In the following paragraphs, I will list the causes of such vocal damage. Not only have I witnessed vocal damage, I can say I have suffered vocal damage and have recovered from it through the concepts of Alan Lindquest, his students Virginia Botkin, Martha Rosacker, and Dr. Barbara Mathis, and Dr. Evelyn Reynolds, my present teacher who has studied the Italian School extensively. All of these teachers have accomplished a deep understanding of the concepts of the Italian School in great detail and they all developed diagnostic hearing plus tools to solve vocal problems. All of them have been extremely influential in my development as a teacher and they have given me an expertise that I value greatly today. This is why I encourage young teachers to find a real master teacher with whom to study. Lindquest continued his vocal research until his death at age 93. This is the sign of someone who pursues the deepest truth in vocal concepts. Singing is a life-study. It is exciting in the sense that one can learn at any age and the journey need never end.

The Damaging Effects of a Flat-Tongued Technique

So many teachers and singers are confused about the healthy position of the tongue in singing. I have worked directly with singers who have studied a 'flat tongued' technique and attempt to sing on this type of production. The flat-tongued technique is basically a non-productive futile attempt to find more acoustical space in the throat. I can tell you without hesitation that this is an incorrect and damaging technique. If the tongue is flat, then the mass of muscle at the back of the tongue (tongue root) is forced into the pharynx. This fills up the primary resonator (pharynx) with tongue mass which can be compared to singing with a pillow in one's throat. Trying to teach a singer with such a background can be a difficult journey at best. Healthy nasal resonance cannot be present in a flat-tongued technique. It is important to understand that healthy nasal resonance (not nasality) is the only concept that completely releases tension at the root of the tongue.

In a flat-tongued technique, the singer is primarily using a technique which does not allow for a healthy change of register as one ascends upward within any scale or arpeggio. The root of the tongue places direct pressure or stress at the vocal cords or glottis. After hearing a singer trained in this destructive technique, it becomes obvious that this incorrect vocal concept does not allow for the healthy pivoting of the vocal folds. Therefore there cannot be a healthy transition into the head voice register. Loss of high notes is typical in such an approach to singing. When the tongue is too flat, then the singer has to force the voice into the upper register with a tremendous amount of breath pressure. This breath pressure irritates the vocal cords and the result is usually hoarseness and an inability to phonate healthily. Some singers have also suffered damage such as vocal hemorrhage, bowed vocal cords, nodules, or polyps from singing with the tongue depressed or flat. This constant pressure on the larynx and vocal cords created by this technique is completely unhealthy for the voice. I warn teachers and singers that those who pursue such a technique to get a 'bigger sound' (this kind of sound is only big in a small room and is quite small in a theatre.) can destroy their vocal health.

Case Study: Tenor Singing Baritone

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a young professional baritone. At 23, he was loosing his voice through hoarseness after each performance. There were two primary culprits that worked together to destroy healthy production: tremendous breath pressure and a flat-tongued technique. Because he was trying to create false color with the back of the tongue and because he thought he was a baritone (see article on Vocal Fach), this young singer was flattening his tongue. There were four negative results (1) absence of healthy nasal resonance, (2) inability to achieve 'ring' in the voice through nasal resonance, (3) chronic hoarseness from a flat tongue position creating direct pressure on the vocal cords, and (4) absence of an easy transition into the upper passaggio and high range. After working with this singer for a period of about 10 minutes and having heard the absence of true resonance in the voice, I decided to vocalize him higher. Because of Lindquest's great understanding of the tenor voice, partly from his association with Jussi Bjoerling, and because his exercises invite balance in the upper passaggio, this singer could quite quickly go up to the high C and even to the high D without major difficulty. I began to analyze the singer's tongue position and realized that at times it was completely flat in an attempt to manufacture a baritone color in the voice. Since he was not really a baritone, this was impossible. After listening to his first lesson, he described his own voice as sounding simply like a "tenor who was trying to make a baritone sound".

By the third lesson, this singer was singing the tenor solos in Handel's Messiah with great beauty of tone. It became more and more obvious to me that this young singer was singing in the wrong fach. The flat tongue position was only one of the negative results of singing in the incorrect vocal fach. As I mentioned above, chronic hoarseness would follow each performance. This is yet another case of a young singer who was on the road to vocal damage because of an insistence from his instructor that he was a baritone. There is absolutely no denying the truth; that he is a high tenor. This is an example of a situation where a teacher's ego dominates over real concern for the singer. This is criminal and there should be laws to protect singers. True, he could sing in the baritone range by depressing the larynx with the root of the tongue. However, this created false color and forced the voice to phonate lower than intended. As a light skinned blond person, (usually these singers have blood vessels right on the surface of the vocal cords.) had he continued to sing with this false and unhealthy technique, he most certainly would have suffered vocal damage, probably through a major vocal hemorrhage.

Tongue depressors: The ultimate in vocal abuse: I have taught singers who were taught to depress the tongue with a tongue depressor while looking into a mirror. This is absolute vocal abuse that most certainly results in vocal damage. In this kind of circumstance, there is absolute and obvious confusion by the instructor. The confusion lies in the idea that what appears to be filling the mouth space can be flattened to make more space in the throat. This concept represents a basic ignorance in the physiology of the voice. In actuality, flattening of the tongue is filling up the pharynx or back wall of the throat with tongue mass. Singers trained in this way often sound as though they are gargling marbles and trying to sing at the same time. On the other hand, when the mouth space appears to be filled with the forward and arched tongue; the back of the throat (pharynx) is actually much more open. Remember Lamperti's quote: "The singer's pronouncer is in the pharynx NOT the mouth." When the tongue is arched healthily as in the 'ng' position (Lindquest's home position of the tongue), then the singer can pronounce the vowels clearly. The integrity of the clear Italian vowel sounds is never sacrificed. The tongue should never be frozen in place. Otherwise clear pronunciation is impossible. Those who have forced the tongue flat cannot make a clear transition from vowel to vowel. The result is a large forced ugly sound with lots of breath pressure forcing the voice to go higher. Many singers have suffered vocal hemorrhage or nodules from this tremendous breath pressure alone. I warn teachers and singers alike that this is extremely dangerous. A singer who has suffered from this kind of instruction and suffered vocal damage should seek legal action. One famous court case in the United States awarded a singer a very large sum of money. The technique taught this singer was extremely destructive and included an unhealthy depressed tongue approach. I had one lesson with a New York teacher who taught this technique because he had a big name. I was searching for another teacher at the time because Mr. Lindquest had died. This teacher gave me a vocal hemorrhage trying to make me a high C tenor when I was actually a lyric baritone. I left his studio unable to speak and cancelled all of my teaching for the next 3 days. Later when I had my vocal cords videoed at the University Hospital at Groningen, The Netherlands, the scar on my right vocal cord from the hemorrhage was evident. I now have a scar on my right vocal cord because of this teacher's dalliance and irresponsibility (he had a huge ego!) Luckily the scar is on the fold and not on the vocal lip. Therefore it does not impede my singing ability.

Jaw Forward Technique

I remember the first time I had a singer who had been taught to place or relax the jaw forward. The resulting sound was that of a small child; extremely breathy and throaty. The throat was completely closed and the vocal cords would not approximate properly. The voice lacked any kind of color or warmth and would fatigue very quickly. When the jaw is forward, there are several negative results: (1) the vocal cords do not approximate correctly. (2) The tongue usually goes back into the pharynx, filling the primary resonator with tongue mass. (3) The larynx functions in a high position allowing only a thin immature sound to be produced. (4) The soft palate assumes a low position, often resulting in nasal or thin tone. (5) Legato line is impossible because the tongue is so tense that there cannot be a healthy separation between the jaw and tongue function. (6) There cannot be a healthy breath line because the breath is choked off by the root of the tongue. (7) It is impossible to create a musical phrase because the singer cannot crescendo or decrescendo healthily. (8) The vowels are usually distorted because of a large of amount of tension at the tongue root. (9) Since the back wall of the pharynx is closed, there cannot be healthy resonance present in the voice.

High Larynxed Technique: Often Associated with the Boy Choir Sound

I can speak from personal experience about this subject. I was trained as tenor even though I was actually a lyric baritone. This is extremely damaging to a young singer. My personal belief is that many teachers are not taught to hear the difference between healthy ring in the voice and a 'squeeze' of the throat. Often college, university, or conservatory teachers are teaching very young singers and are afraid to address the issue of the high larynx. Their fear, and I understand that fear, is of a depressed larynx technique which is truly incorrect and damaging as well. However, it is crucial that the singer learn a slightly low larynx production without overly depressing the larynx with the root of the tongue. If taught with the nasal resonance and the 'ng' tongue position, the slightly lowered larynx makes for a healthy, warm, and balanced vocal tone which includes both higher and lower overtones. I understand that many teachers are afraid to allow young singers to make a big sound. However, it is critical that teachers understand that if they are teaching a young large-voiced singer and the singer is not allowed to use the fullness of the instrument, then the result is usually a squeezed throat which can be damaging. The singer is trying desperately to 'lighten up the voice'. This concept of lightening the voice needs to be taught with a deep body connection. The only way a large voiced singer can lighten up his/her tonal quality is to connect deeper to the body.

One of the largest problems for me personally was when I was required to sing as a tenor in choirs when I was in reality a lyric baritone. This created constant hoarseness, especially when I was required by a conductor to sing a boy choir sound with a straight tone. I would have difficult speaking clearly after any choral rehearsal. This was primarily due to the fact that I could not sustain the tenor tessitura with a lower larynx position. The result was a constant irritation of my vocal cords. A depressed larynx or a high larynx can cause irritation. I am fortunate that the scar on my right vocal cord is not at the vocal lip. However, this scar could have been catastrophic to my singing and I could have suffered damage that would not allow me to sing again. Scar tissue does not stretch as healthy tissue does. The 'boy choir' sound is not a sound that is designed for any adult to make. Demanding this kind of sound by voice teacher or choral director from an adult singer creates all kinds of vocal difficulties as I listed at the top of this paragraph.

Straight Tone Singing:The Early Music Trap

Some of my favorite music is of the Baroque period. I love Bach and Handel and the beauty of their music. I personally sing this music with a healthy shimmering vibrato. A healthy vibrato shimmers with fast vibrations. It is not to be confused with a wide vibrato or 'vocal wobble'. I certainly understand that choral directors do not want any of their singers to 'wobble' because tuning becomes impossible. However, attempting to solve this problem with straight tone singing is futile and destructive vocally. Usually the singer with the wide vibrato gets even worse because of the holding in the throat. This is of course a response to trying to 'straighten out' the tone.

Why is straight tone singing damaging? The answer to this question is simple. When a healthy tone is produced, the result is a taut and shimmering vibrato. The vibrato is a result of the healthy function of the vocal cords. It has a direct relationship to Flagstad's comparison of a 'silver sound' or 'silver thread'. If a singer is required to sing a straight tone for any choral director or teacher, then that singer has to squeeze the vocal cords in order to stop the vocal cords from fully vibrating. This does not allow a healthy amount of air through the vocal folds. This holding of tension in the throat can create all sorts of negative results including a closed acoustical space. The largest problem is vocal fatigue accompanied with an imbalance of the registers. Most straight tone singers find it impossible to allow for a healthy transition into head voice. This kind of singer is actually unaware that he/she is belting from the lower register upward. However, the straight tone sound is so thin and light with a high larynx that it disguises chest voice as head voice. I speak from personal experience on this issue. When I was singing as a high larynxed tenor, I thought I was singing head voice when in actuality I was belting the middle voice as high as I possibly could. The vocal cords became extremely fatigued and beauty of tone was impossible. The healthy pivoting process of the vocal folds was impossible and I had no sensation of a high soft palate. With age, my voice became more and more brittle in sound. There was a complete absence of warmth of tone in the voice. By the time I got to Alan Lindquest, I was suffering vocal damage at age 29.

The Smile Technique

There is one large-scale incorrect technique that I must speak about; the smile technique. So many teachers and singers think that it is important to smile at the mouth opening while singing. This absolutely is destructive to the throat. The Italian School teaches the inner smile which is actually a high and wide soft palate, lifted cheeks under the eyes, sunken cheeks at the back teeth (this creates more acoustical space in the pharynx), and all this with an oval mouth shape. The smile is actually in the eyes, NOT the mouth.

So many singers are taught the smile technique in an attempt to brighten the tonal quality of the voice. Instead brilliance of tone should be produced by bringing the tongue forward and arched out of the throat. The smile technique is related to the 'boy choir' sound in an adult voice; something that should never be taught. It does nothing to enhance the voice and the results can be extremely damaging over time. This smile of the mouth technique raises the larynx, drops the palate, invites the jaw to move forward, the tone to be bright and thin, and usually the singer is flat in pitch. The vocal cords also do not close properly. Absolutely NO body part is in the correct position for healthy singing to occur. The absolute negative result is a closed throat that causes hoarseness after singing. Again this is another technique which is widely excepted as one of vocal health. The truth is that is it extremely dangerous and detrimental to true vocal health and should never be taught. This has been scientifically proven through the use of fiberoptic research.

Although there are some excellent early music singers, this smile technique is quite popular amongst many in that genre of music. Those who use this concept in an attempt for authenticity will and do suffer the consequences. I can name several early music singers who have large scale recording careers, yet they sing constantly flat and out of tune. I have never understood why their recordings sell. Do people not hear that they are singing flat? Over time the voice will deteriorate completely. Again, I am speaking from personal experience. I was taught by a high tenor who had me smile while singing. The result was an extremely high larynx position and constant vocal fatigue. By the time I got to Alan Lindquest in 1979, my voice was stiff, rigid, and had a flat and unpleasant tone. It was impossible for me to go into the upper passaggio and high range because the larynx position was too high. The vocal cords could not pivot properly for the correct register changes. There is not doubt that the smile technique is quite dangerous.

The Pulled Down Facial Posture in Singing

I have witnessed many singers who pull down the cheeks and cover the teeth completely while singing. This simply makes singing very difficult and hooty. Again, the Swedish/Italian School attempts to create a balance between higher and lower overtones. The lift of the cheeks under the eyes brings the soft palate up. Quality of tone is directly effected by one's facial posture because of its effects on the interior posture of the throat. If the facial posture is pulled down, then singer must work twice as hard with breath pressure to blow the soft palate out of the way. The result is usually pushed and unpleasant tone. When the facial posture is lifted, then high overtones come into the singer's production. Without lift, the singer's voice does not carry properly in a concert hall or opera house. The lift brings ring into the voice and therefore carrying power.

It seems that men are often the singers who use this technique the most. I remember hearing a British baritone who was flown over to sing Elijah in a concert in Connecticut. This was a catastrophic performance. The production was hooty and dark and he sounded somewhat like he was imitating a moose call. I actually felt sorry for the singer because of his own obvious discomfort. The audience was shocked and disappointed at the lack of beauty of tone. I believe that people can keep their voice as long as they can keep their health. This is also very related to exercising the voice properly. If a person is physically healthy and exercises his/her voice properly, then vocal longevity is quite easy. This baritone was only about age 55 and should have been at his peak. Sadly the voice was quite stiff and ugly and the high notes were completely flat in intonation. All this was directly related to his confusion regarding correct facial posture. Since I had a mezzo in the performance, then I got more of the inside story. This man was quite arrogant because of his own insecurity. It made him quite a bad colleague. His own unhappiness and insecurity turned him into a difficult and demanding performer. I will be writing an article on facial posture and the acoustical relationship to healthy tone shortly. It will also be a long chapter in my upcoming book.

The Belting of Breath Pressure: Over-Development of the Chest Register

The more of this article I write the more it becomes obvious that every vocal concept is connected to another. If one element is out of alignment, then the result is that other aspects of the voice become unhealthy as well. When I was incorrectly trained as a high larynxed tenor, I had to use a tremendous amount of breath pressure to force the voice upward. This was not a conscious or aware reflex, but there was really no other choice. My tongue not only was flat, but in the upper range it also dipped like a spoon. This tongue problem was a direct result of the breath pressure that I had to use to try and go up into the higher range. I especially wanted to try and go higher because teachers had told me I was a tenor. I was actually a lyric baritone. This tenor training was extremely damaging. This was because it resulted in every body part being in the wrong position for healthy singing. This includes a larynx high, flat and back tongue position, breath high under the chest and little or no lower body support. The result was the support of tone by the tongue, little or no vowel clarity because of the forward jaw and low palate, and tremendous lack of resonance because of a complete lack of acoustical space. It became obvious in later years that I was constantly doing a close dance with vocal damage and no one really offered me any answers until I met Alan Lindquest and the other teachers I mention at the first of the article.

One thing is for sure; hard belting is damaging to the voice. There is absolutely no way to belt with breath pressure and have the vocal cords survive without damage. It is unfortunate that pop and Broadway singers feel the necessity to belt in order to compete. Usually the singer must use a lot of breath pressure or breath compression in order to push the chest register upward further than it is designed to sing. I was fortunate to survive with only one vocal hemorrhage. I have the scar on the right vocal fold to prove my vocal distress. I was intelligent enough in my instincts to seek help and it took years to find a teacher who knew about vocal technique.

Locked Solar Plexus Technique

Tragically, many young singers are taught a technique that tries to get only to the 'big vocal sound'. Some teachers think that a singer must have this in order to compete in the business of classical singing. True that any singer needs a large amount of 'ring' in the voice. But this is not created by pumping a 'big sound' out of the mouth space with lots of breath pressure. Healthy resonance is created with the help of nasal resonance that takes away the pressure at the root of the tongue.

This 'big vocal sound' (which has become popular!) is manufactured by pumping a tremendous amount of breath pressure through the larynx. I call this the over-compression of the breath. Often in such a technique the teacher puts his or her fist in the singer's solar plexus area and then has the singer 'push out' with a great amount of pressure. The result is a loud and pushed sound with little or no healthy nasal resonance. In healthy singing, the solar plexus gradually turns freely as the singer gradually fuels the small stream of breath through the larynx. Remember that Caruso said he needed no more breath to sing than to have a casual conservation with a friend. With this pressurized technique it is quite impossible to achieve vocal freedom. The root of the tongue becomes locked and yet again direct pressure is placed at the vocal cords by the root of the tongue. Usually these singers suffer an overly-chested technique. Again there is no possibility for head voice development. The singer suffers difficulty with high notes and there is a large imbalance of registration present. I once had a French mezzo who had studied a teacher who used the 'fist in the stomach technique'. She was admitted into a very exclusive conservatory and at the end of her study she could no longer sing thanks to this damaging technique. She was not allowed to perform her graduation recital and after a threatened law suit, she was allowed to study with me outside the school for credit. It took one and one half years to rehabilitate her voice. Her teacher used the 'fist in the stomach' technique which creates a gag reflex at the root of the tongue. Once this extreme reflex is taught to the body, it is difficult to correct. After tremendously hard work at recovering from the damage taught her, this singer graduated and is now a successful voice teacher. She was indeed a victim of a damaging technique taught by someone who was ignorant of the resulting damage. She paid a large sum of money to attend a conservatory, which not only did not serve her, but also damaged her voice.

Breathy Technique

I first learned of the damage of breathy singing from my friend and colleague Dr. Barbara Mathis. Her research is ground breaking to say the least and she is on of the finest voice scientists and teachers in the United States. She teaches at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

During her vocal research, she decided to have a 'vocal abuse' session using the fiberoptic camera. The discovery was nothing less than amazing. She told me that after singing with a breathy tone, the vocal cords turned more and more red and the vocal lips swelled almost twice their normal thickness. This was indeed an eye-opening event. I have had the privilege of seeing Dr. Mathis' research. I consider her to be a great vocal technician and she has done amazing work with damaged voices.

My personal experience with breathy tone was revealed when I worked with Alan Lindquest. My vocal cords would not come together properly because of years of using breath pressure and a high larynx. The vocal cords were 'bowed' and would not come together like healthy cords. He offered me exercises that changed my singing life. Suddenly after only about 2 days my tone became healthy again. Lindquest used some of Garcia's 'coup de glotte' exercises that healed a great deal my vocal damage. I had acquired this damage over about 15 years of incorrect instruction. It is scientifically proven that breathy singing is damaging to the voice. It is sad to say that this technique is being taught in an attempt to 'lighten the voice'.

Recently I had the experience of hearing a Cabaret performance in New York City. The singer used a lot of breathy tone for dramatic effect. This was a huge mistake. After only about 3 songs vocal fatigue began to develop and by the end of the performance the singer was trying desperately just to get through the performance. All of this occurred because of the swelling of the vocal cords due to breathy singing.

The Final Analysis: Causes of Vocal Fatigue

In closing, I think it is crucial that I list the causes of vocal fatigue. Because singing is such a coordinated function, the list of causes might seem repetitive. However, I feel it is important to review the causes of vocal fatigue. Allow me to say emphatically, a singer should NEVER experience vocal fatigue. If he/she is singing correctly, the voice should not tire. I speak and teach 7 to 8 hours per day 6 days per week and I never experience vocal fatigue in my voice studio. Never should a singer feel fatigue after a lesson. I have heard so many singers tell me that their last teacher told them that the 'muscles had to get used to the new technique'. This is irresponsible for any instructor not to take vocal fatigue as a red light for future vocal damage. Hoarseness should NEVER occur after any voice lesson unless the singer is executing the instruction incorrectly.


(1) Smoking or drinking alcoholic beverages.

(2) Belting: using too much chest voice pushed up to high in the scale.

(3) Using a technique with a tight solar plexus during singing.

(4) Singing with a high larynx.

(5) Singing with a low soft palate.

(6) Singing with a forward jaw position.

(7) Singing with the vocal cords too far apart or too squeezed together.

(8) Pushing too much breath pressure through the larynx.

(9) Incorrect posture; dropped chest or hyper-extended chest.

(10) Singing with the head posture pushed forward from the spine.

(11) Use of mouth vowels instead of pharyngeal vowels.

(12) Unsupported singing; lack of connection to the resistance of breath pressure in the lower back and abdominal muscles.

(c) David L. Jones/2001

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