Understanding the Helden Tenor

The first priority in any article is to define the subject matter as closely as possible, offer valid questions, and give solid solutions toward clarification of these questions. Considered one of the largest and most dramatic voices in the tenor fach, the Helden Tenor is also considered one of the rarest of voices.  During my almost 33 years of teaching this technique I have taught only a few singers of this voice type that I could consider to be true Helden Tenors. I have more often taught dramatic tenors who sang both the Italian and German repertoire but would be considered of the Italian Dramatic Tenor vocal fach.


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It may not be obvious to many, but the pure Helden Tenor is a different instrument altogether from the Italian Dramatic Tenor. The Helden tends to possess a thickness and depth of color as well as an ability to visit the tenor upper tessitura. Usually the Helden Tenor is not a voice that tends to sustain quite as high a tessitura as the Italian Dramatic tenor. One of the first names that comes to mind when one thinks of the Helden Tenor is Lauritz Melchior, who does not sound anything like an Italian Dramatic tenor such as Corelli. While Melchior’s instrument was both great and rare, many argue that it was not particularly beautiful. I personally disagree with this opinion. Larger voices are quite beautiful if produced without the push element, a term I heard used by Lindquest in his teaching. Melchior definitely had an understanding of breath (low breath) and breath management (budgeting the outflow), a must for the creation of vocal freedom in any voice, but it is especially critical for the Helden Tenor. Breath management involves the perfect compression of breath in the body WITH the presence of the perfect flow of air as well.  There are exercises on how to achieve this on my instructional CD, An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers. (Available at www.onesoulrecords.com)

The Helden Tenor is usually a large, thicker, and more dramatic tenor voice that sometimes produces a similar timbre in the high range, as it possesses in the middle voice. Many call it a ‘Baritone with a high extension’. In actuality, this singer is strong enough to sustain higher dramatic phrases because there is an upper register flip (upper register mechanism) that is completely different from a Baritone.  While a Baritone may have similar acoustical changes, the Helden Tenor has a stronger upper passaggio and upper register mechanism that allows this voice to soar higher with more dramatic color and intensity than even the Lyric Baritone. While the definition of the ‘Baritone with an upper extension’ is somewhat true, this description is misrepresentative of the true nature of the Helden Tenor voice and how it is produced well. It is important to note that the Helden Tenor does not change timbre as much as a Lyric Tenor or even an Italian Dramatic Tenor when he goes up through the upper passaggio range. A large operatic sound, if well produced, can best be described as a coordination of two factors: largeness of sound through intensity of ring in the voice, and largeness of sound due to an ablity to produce purely a large and thicker mass of sound, a result of an open pharynx. The heroic sound in any singer is produced through the marriage of these two elements without the push of too much breath pressure through the larynx.  It is important to note that the Helden Tenor cannot be trained to go easily into the high range until the vocal weight (usually caused by depressing the larynx with the root of the tongue and too much breath pressure) is taken out of the middle voice and upper passaggio. Every singer needs to learn to release the root of the tongue, achieve a slightly down and back jaw position with a forward and arched tongue position, and accomplish a freedom of body connection and breath flow in order for the upper range to function properly. For the Helden Tenor, it is critical to produce the voice with the perfect vocal protection that results in mastering these concepts. This vocal protection is absolutely critical for any singer to achieve vocal longevity. (See article on “The Vocal Protection”.)

Defining the Push Element

I remember when I was studying with Alan Lindquest in 1979, he spoke of the push element; the single element that is most responsible for creating throaty and inefficient singing. Lindquest was absolutely correct in his assessment of this vocal issue and he often referred to his discussions with Jussi Bjoerling regarding the push element and how to avoid it. They both discovered in their study that the single largest vocal problem for the tenor singer was the issue of pushing too much breath pressure, overloading the larynx and the vocal cords.

I remember a very exciting experience during the time I was studying with Alan Lindquest. I had the opportunity to hear him teach a 70-year-old dramatic soprano. During the first few minutes of her lesson, she suffered an extraordinarily wide vibrato (wobble) in her tonal production and she had resulting intonation problems. Amazingly, after he vocalized her for about 10 minutes, this singer sounded focused and beautiful with a shimmering vibrato. Lindquest worked almost exclusively on solving what he called the push element or the driving of breath pressure. He used the concept of cord closure through specific exercises and worked toward the thin edge function of the vocal folds. He also used what he called the Flagstad ng to assist in creating more focus in the voice without closing the pharynx. Using these previous concepts plus teaching the body to hold back a major amount of breath pressure quickly resolved this singer’s major vocal issues.

The natural human reflex is to push harder on the breath pressure as one goes higher in pitch.  In essence, the singer needs to hold back more breath pressure with the body support system rather then driving harder on the breath. Of course this is the exact opposite to the singer’s natural response. Breath pressure must be replaced by space and ring, two elements on which a singer can thread his/her voice and be heard in a concert hall or opera house.

Certainly the Helden Tenor is not immune to the push element instinct.  In fact, Lindquest considered it one of the more difficult voices to train for several reasons. The following list outlines vocal characteristics that often accompany the Helden Tenor and other larger voices.

  • The singer tends to be a large bodied person or a person of great strength. This strength often encourages the push element or over-compression of the breath, resulting in expulsions of breath pressure that over-blow the vocal cords.

  • The massiveness of this voice type tends to invite a subconcious desire to sing loud most of the time. This can be a problem related to the fact that head voice has often not been developed enough for the singer to experience vocal freedom in the upper passaggio. If the voice is heavy mechanism dominated (chest voice dominated) and tends to produce a sound that is too thick, it will not go up freely into the higher range.

  • Musicality is sometimes difficult because the ability to sing different dynamic levels is compromised by the singer’s confused technical approach to singing. Again, this can be due to the lack of head voice production. (Head voice must be trained into the middle register of this voice type with the proper tilting motion of the larynx. The singer cannot sing the middle register with the same amount of vocal weight as a baritone, even though he may be able to produce a similar color. This is often a false color that is produced by depressing the base of the tongue.)

  • The perception of singing dramatic music, especially Wagner, is confused by many dramatic singers and the Helden tenor certainly tends to join in the pushing of too much breath pressure. Often this is due to the confusion that singing dramatically is basically singing loudly most of the time. What many singers do NOT understand is that the dramatic intensity heard on recordings is NOT created through the push of breath pressure, but rather with a healthy acoustical coordination; a result of correct body connection, intensity of ring resulting from a forward tongue posture and high soft palate, slightly lower larynx position, low breath, and the proper holding back of breath pressure with the lower body connection using the appogio (sternum resistance).  I invite these singers to learn to sing loud and light; a concept that I have heard rarely. Volume does NOT have to engage thicker cord mass. Lindquest was a master teacher when it came to the proper training of the dramatic tenor middle register because he insisted on working with the thin edge function of the vocal cords. He also used the laryngeal tilt, which allowed head voice to become present lower in the grand scale; about G or A-flat.

  • There can be a subconscious ego reflex: the singer sometimes perceives the instrument as a “responsibility to the world of music” just because it is large. (See article on “The Right of Entitlement Singer vs. the Professional Mind”). While not always the case, singers possessing dramatic voices sometimes suffer this emotional disorder. It blocks the singer from expressing the music as a first priority. Flagstad once said to a friend of mine who was singing with her in 1939 at the Cincinnati May Festival: “Remember Dear, we large-voiced singers are the ones who tend to sing loudly all the time and we are the ones who do NOT have to do so.” This statement reflects the fact that Flagstad was an artist who was interested in serving the music first.

  • Because the Helden Tenor instrument is often large, the singer’s energy is often too outward. Again this can be due to over-breathing and/or improper vocalization which does not develop the head voice mechanism and/or the open throat. In reality, correct singing does NOT feel external as much as internal. It is important for the Helden Tenor to develop the head voice register and remain connected to the body support without pushing too much breath pressure.

  • The jutting forward of the jaw. Often when singers sing loudly, they engage the back of the neck with tension, especially if the side ribs are slightly collapsed. If the singer’s jaw is pushing or jutting forward, 90% of the time there is a tremendous tension in the back of the neck.  This neck tension tends to encourage the jaw to push forward, creating too much of a hole at the glottis or the vocal cords. If a singer suffers this vocal dysfunction, the vocal cords will not come together properly and the only way to force phonation at that point is the pushing of breath pressure.

Of course every Helden tenor does not possess all of these vocal issues. At least some of these characteristics tend to be present in many true Helden tenor singers.

Danish Helden Tenor Experience

A few years ago, a Helden Tenor came to my studio for instruction in the New York.  His attraction to this studio was the fact that I use some of the concepts that were used in the training of Flagstad and Bjoerling. Possessing an extremely large voice, he was especially interested in the concepts of the Flagstad training and at first he was quite eager to learn these concepts and apply them. This man was quite young for a Helden tenor (about 30 years of age) and the instrument was in the process of growing and maturing.  As in any voice type, this often causes such an individual to become confused in terms of vocal direction. He began to sing for me with tremendous vocal weight or heaviness in the voice, which sacrificed true freedom in the upper register. This Helden Tenor was able to literally scream loud pushed sound for many years, but musicality was impossible.  At a certain point, he had begun to lose his ability to sing high. This is a direct outcome of improper vocalization that does not organize the muscular reflexes properly. His voice was based on use of the thicker vocal cord mass, which made singing quite an effort.

When this singer first vocalized for me, it was like being overcome by a huge tidal wave of sound. Previously trained on a chest-dominated vocal technique, he had little head voice development in the instrument. His jaw was thrusting forward and he used tremendous neck pressure and breath pressure to go up high in the voice. It was physically one of the strongest instruments I had ever heard because he could literally scream a huge chest dominated sound improperly for hours at a time.  When I had a laryngologist look at his cords, they were found to be short and extremely thick. This did not surprise me knowing the kind of sound he could produce.  The singer had difficulty finding any type of falsetto and the cuperto exercise was an impossibility for him at first.  However, after a few weeks of instruction, he found the cuperto and singing began to become easier. The upper register of the voice began to function without tremendous breath pressure, which had forced the voice to go high before. The instrument began to work more from the ring and less from the mass of sound. The jaw began to fall slightly down and back in more of a natural posture, resulting in more ring and more pharyngeal space. He began to achieve color from body connection rather than a false color from depressing the larynx with the tongue root.

This singer made the supreme mistake: working out hours per day at a gym. (I DO recommend reasonable exercise on a daily basis for any singer, but NEVER heavy weights that build up the neck muscles.) His abdominal muscles were so tight and tense that he could not breathe properly.  This made it extremely difficult if not impossible to relax a low breath into the body. After 6 months of study, I suggested that he make a choice: continue to embrace extreme exercise and STOP singing or adopt moderate exercise in order to sing well. This created such an emotional crisis for him that he left the studio to seek other instruction. In his mind I am sure he felt that he could continue bodybuilding and still sing well.  This did not happen and, due to a lack of musicality, he never became an accomplished singer. His inability to create a musical phrase was a direct result of over-exercising the body to the point of locking the breathing muscles. It reminds me of a phrase that a friend of mine made many years ago. “Real talent is choice making!” This singer made a choice that cost him his career.

American Helden Tenor

Presently, I teach several Helden Tenors in my New York and European studios. One American Helden Tenor is a larger person with a dark and beautiful timbre.  It is unfortunate that he was trained at University as a light tenor. Let me say that it takes consistent lessons and time to understand the Helden Tenor voice. It took approximately 2 years to find this singer’s true voice because of his closed throat, a direct result of his previous dysfunctional training. The biggest vocal issue for him was that of the high larynx position. Amazingly, even with the larynx in a high position, he was able to function vocally for quite a number of years, yet there was always vocal fatigue and imbalance in registration. This is typical of younger singers. They can get away with a high larynx position for a number of years (usually about 10 years) and then the voice begins to fall apart.

At first in his study, he could only come into the studio about once per month. He also had a church job singing in the tenor section, a deadly situation vocally for a Helden Tenor. Later, he came more frequently and it was then that the true voice revealed itself, mainly as a result of low larynx work and the low body connection. (NOTE: Low larynx work can only be done effectively with ng tongue position and a forward tongue tip. Otherwise, a singer can begin to depress the larynx with the root of the tongue.) Just within the last 6 months, this singer’s voice has bloomed, growing in depth of color and ring. It is critically important that school studios allow larger-voiced singers to sing with their full sound. Instructing an 18-year-old singer with a large voice is challenging. BUT the worse type of instruction is to tell such a singer to ‘lighten up on the voice’. This makes a large-voiced singer disconnect from the body and sing with the throat muscles, a training that can take years to correct.

German Helden Tenor

I have a student in Berlin who is a wonderful singing artist and has a successful voice studio in Berlin. He has sung for many years as a Baritone, a choice that many Helden Tenors make when the upper register has not been properly aligned. I instructed this singer on my trips to Berlin. While he had a beautiful quality, the true ring of the voice was not fully realized. About one year ago I was teaching him and realized that the root of the tongue was bunching to help create the Baritone quality. The solution to this was to have him think a little wider in production and learn how to widen the root of the tongue. The result was absolutely amazing. A huge Helden Tenor ring immediately began to be realized with little effort.  Suddenly singing became much easier and he looked more and more relaxed while singing in the upper register. In fact, he was happier singing higher than lower in range at that point. This is a situation where a singer has been misdiagnosed in terms of vocal fach. He now is singing with ease and the act of singing has become much more of a positive experience.

Helden Tenor / Paris

A few months ago, a Helden Tenor having a fine solo operatic career contacted me. I was on my way to Paris to teach at the Laboratoire de la Voix when he contacted me in London. He was singing at the Paris Opera and was having vocal challenges in singing heavier repertoire. We met for two sessions in the Paris studio and the vocal issue that had been causing him so much difficulty was immediately clear to me. His jaw was jutting forward, making it impossible for the vocal cords to close completely. The upper chest was not open and the back rib cage was slightly collapsed. The Lindquest vocal concepts made an immediate positive response in his voice.  The upper passaggio began to align so that he could sing higher with much less effort. The suspended rib cage allowed for a fuller body connection, which played a major role in balancing his registration. We then worked on a major Strauss role with great success. These vocal issues are now manageable for him with the use of the mirror. (See article: “Self-Supervision and the Singer”.)

Training The Psycho-Emotional Response

I am quoting Alan Lindquest when I speak of the psycho-emotional reflex in training the Helden Tenor.  Most of the time this aspect of singing is not addressed thoroughly.  Because of time restraints, College and University teachers often do not have time to cover this aspect of training. Training the physical singing reflex from a psychological reflex was a specialty of Joseph Hislop and it is critical in the training and preparation of any career singer.  Does the singing response mean joy, frustration, or sadness to the singer? Singing is a direct outgrowth of training the mind. In the Helden Tenor’s study, it is imperative that this be addressed. What muscles engage when taking the preparatory breath? Do these muscles serve the singer for a successful performance or disturb healthy vocal coordination? Joseph Hislop had Lindquest perform the same vocal exercise in the same key using the three contrasting emotions: joy, sadness, and anger. When taught this exercise, Lindquest was asked to try and match the muscular or singing response for the three emotions. This allows a singer to experience the different colors in vocal production without changing the acoustical space or open pharynx, thus creating technical consistency. What this does for the Helden Tenor is priceless because the singer then develops an awareness of whether the preparatory breath is helping or hurting his vocal function. Singers need to train this way using a mirror as a feedback tool. Mirror work will help the singer draw a true picture of what is happening when the mind thinks of preparing to sing. This kind of analysis can help any singer, but for the Helden Tenor, who often experiences the desire to push a big sound, it is critically important.

Vocal Exercises for the Helden Tenor

There is nothing more frustrating than reading yet another vocal pedagogy book that defines vocal problems without offering solutions. The following exercises are designed to help the Helden Tenor coordinate the laryngeal tilt and experience balance in space and ring.

Exercise #1:


“French ain”….Ah……..aw….uh……aw…….ah

(Keep the feeling of the “French ain” sound over all the other vowel sounds keeping an open throat of pharynx.  The laryngeal tilt (slightly down and forward) will assist in bringing point to the voice by releasing the root of the tongue. Often, this does not sound good too the singer. Also use the French ‘un’ over the ‘uh’ sound.  This will bring in more release of the tongue for the upper note and make it easier to go higher. This exercise must be done with a released larynx, open pharyngeal space and forward tongue posture.

Exercise #2:


Gah……Gaw…Guh….Gaw…..Gah.  Make G with middle of tongue not the back of tongue. (Like the Italian ‘c’ sound.) This should release the tongue and the palate away from each other creating a larger sense of space in the soft palate naturally. Remember NOT to create too much sensation of space in the middle register.  This will weight the voice and make it difficult to get into the upper range. Usually when a singer has the sensation of a LOT of space in the middle voice, they are feeling the root of the tongue depress the larynx.

Exercise #3:


Zo…lo….no….to……………. …rno.   Flip and dentalize consonants with tongue working separate from the jaw. Remember that the jaw must release slightly down and back as you ascend higher toward the upper passaggio. Voice the beginning ‘z’ and the ending ‘n’ so that focus can be realized in the beginning and the ending of the phrase.

Final Thought: In the final analysis every singer has to meet the critical challenges of developing a career mind set. Moving toward confidence and self-awareness are two basics for any career singer. Confidence can offer the singer the courage to perform in the public arena. Self-awareness is the key to consistent growth, establishing the element of daily discipline.  Remember that singing is a life-study and we are always learning more and more. We never reach a point where we know everything. BUT we can reach a level of awareness that helps us sing consistently well. This is the measure of a true artist.

Concepts covered in this article may be found on David Jones’ double CD pedagogy course of study entitled, “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers”.

© 2005 by David L. Jones