Understanding the “Cover

Many who have studied singing have come across a terminology called the cover.  This term is often used, especially when referring to the male voice when he approaches the upper passaggio. There is much confusion associated with this term and the conflictive types of technical study have sometimes led to shorter careers and, in some cases, vocal damage. Usually when we witness a male singer who is having vocal difficulties in the upper passaggio range, it is due to misunderstanding the idea of vocal cover or protection. This article is designed to define and clarify the proper training of what many call the male voice cover and offer ideas to help singers and teachers who are drowning in a sea of conflicting opinions.


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Defining the Protection of the Throat

Before going into any detailed explanation about the concepts that compose the male voice vocal protection, it is important to give a clear and simple definition. The vocal cover (I use the term acoustical protection in my teaching) in the professional male singer relates directly to proper acoustical space and balance (open throat) and a healthy release of tongue. This basically consists of a healthy upper register transition so that the upper passaggio (the core of it being high E-flat to high F-sharp) sounds like one voice even thought there is a slight difference in sensation in each half step of vocal range. It is important to consider that if the middle register is in balance, allowing for some alteration of the vowel through a slight change in the shape of the pharyngeal wall, then there will be fewer problems as the male singer approaches the upper passaggio. Considering that singers need to learn proper laryngeal function in the middle register, I will be offering specific exercises to accomplish the laryngeal tilt  in the upcoming book and DVD.  One exercise to accomplish this is on the instructional CD, "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers". When the middle register is exercised correctly, there will be a smooth and even transition between registers around the high E and F. This is not a range that can be problematic only in the male voice, but also in the female voice. However it is important to note that if the upper passaggio is managed with tongue pressure, then the problem is quite a bit more noticeable in the male singer. Some schools of training teach a muscular cover, whereby the tongue is depressed to cause a sudden adjustment in the vocal mechanism. This is extremely dangerous over time and it never produces a smooth transition between the registers.

Seven Major Causes of Vocal Problems in the Male Upper Passaggio

  1. High larynx in the middle register (usually caused by the mouth being TOO OPEN).

  2. Pushing of too much breath pressure through the vocal cords while ascending.

  3. Flat, low, or retracted tongue position (tongue cover)

  4. Spread mouth position or lack of the perfect oval shape resulting in too much spreading of the middle register.

  5. Forward thrust of the jaw.

  6. Locking or shaking of the solar plexus.

  7. Lack of head voice release early enough in the scale (no laryngeal tilt in the middle voice).

Outlined above are the exact causes of imbalance in the male voice upper passaggio. Tenors are especially concerned about this range because of the high tessitura required for this type of voice. However, if the lower male voices do not learn to manage this range, the result can be the shaking solar plexus creating a vocal wobble.  This characteristic is usually noticeable in older voices, but it has little to do with age and more to do with incorrect production.

It is important to address each of the seven causes individually in order to understand the male voice protection clearly.

  1. High Larynx in the middle register is caused by the lack of what Vennard calls the laryngeal tilt or 'rocking of the larynx'. This can be achieved in two ways: either have the singer think the vowel deeper and wider as he goes up, or alter the vowel enough to allow for this process to occur. Different singers respond differently and one might respond to the vowel alteration, while another might respond to the laryngeal tilt concept. Healthy middle voice function cannot be achieved if the mouth is overly opened or the jaw locked in an open position. Lower male voices seem to fall into the trap of over-opening. This has been called the "Baritone bark" in some circles. Besides the laryngeal tilt, a singer may be instructed in the pre-vomit reflex, what the Italians called the vomitare. This will insure the laryngeal tilt will occur properly.

  2. Pushing of too much breath pressure through the vocal cords is a typical issue with most singers. (See article on Garcia's coup de glotte.) The cause is a lack of lower body connection or what many call support. This can be corrected by using postural exercises that are listed on my instructional CD, "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Singers and Teachers", available on the home page of this web site. The muscles that hold back the breath pressure are the intercostals (front and back rib cage), the pectorals, the lower back and side waist muscles, and the upper gludial muscles. On the other hand, the muscles that control the smooth and regulated outflow of air through the larynx are the solar plexus and the lower abdominal muscles. It is important to remember that many male singers cannot find freedom in their upper register. This is largely due to the fact that their body connection is not low enough, therefore there is too much breath pressure coming up through the larynx.

  3. Flat, low, or retracted tongue posture: Called the false cover, this can be most difficult to correct unless a singer is willing to delve into the study of the ng tongue position. Remember that the correct ng is NOT done with the back of the tongue, but with the middle portion. The front of the tongue must be forward and arched in the mouth space. This concept can be applied to repertoire by slowly moving from an ng to a vowel, lifting the soft palate away from the tongue-root in order to expand the upper overtones. Once the vowel feel is established then this feeling may be kept for a line of text. At first the singer will sometimes feel uncomfortable and report an overly bright or harsh sound. This is mainly due to the fact that the singer has a history of listening instead of feeling. This creates a false color in the internal hearing. With practice, the warmth will come into the sound as the larynx and tongue separate in function. When the tension at the root of the tongue releases, then the singer can realize free flying tonal quality. The color comes into the vocal production as the tongue releases.

  4. Spread mouth position or lack of the perfect oval.  Again a detailed explanation can be found on my instructional CD. Every singer must learn to achieve an oval or rounded mouth position in order for the oro-pharynx to open (straight back space behind the tongue). Learning to achieve this is not difficult, but it requires working with the mirror and concentrating on achieving a healthy embouchure or mouth posture.

  5. Forward thrust of the jaw: This is easy enough to correct, but it takes patience and determination. The correct jaw position is SLIGHTLY down and back. Most singers thrust the jaw too low and then the jaw moves forward out of its socket. When this occurs, then the vocal cords cannot approximate to maximum efficiency. Working with a mirror and feeling the jaw move slightly down and back can correct this problem. The gentle chew of the jaw can also assist the singer in finding the correct function of the jaw.

  6. Locking or shaking of the solar plexus: This can be a most difficult habit to correct. There can be 2 or 3 different causes. One is that if the tongue posture and soft palate posture is dropped, then the singer cannot find the thin edge function of the folds. Often the shaking of the diaphragm is caused by over-use of the concept of "pushing out" on the abdominal wall to support. If taken too far, there is a point of tension that causes a locking of the solar plexus muscle.  Correct function of the solar plexus as a muscle that helps to move the small air stream is that of a slow turn.  While the top of the solar plexus moves gently forward, the lower part moves in, up and under very slowly and gradually through the sung line of text. This is not an extreme motion and I do not teach this unless a singer has a history of locking the solar plexus. With study, the singer will learn to release this muscle with correct motion as the musical phrase is sung. Trying to have a singer completely relax the solar plexus is counter-productive.  Dramatic singing is often a trap for the locking response because the crescendo has been taught or learned with the locking process.

  7. Lack of head voice early enough in the scale. There is so much writing about registration and most of it is continually confusing for the singer. First of all head voice (within the changed male voice) occurring at a specific pitch within a scale, is a result of the thickness and length of vocal fold.  It can be a different acoustical changing point depending upon the structure of the singer's folds. Remember that within a given vocal fach this point of change can be slightly different. Lindquest defined the entire head voice register as a passaggio; meaning that small acoustical changes must be allowed to occur each half step within the head voice register. In my 32 years of experience, I have found that most tenors need head voice by B-flat on the staff, Baritones A-flat, and Basses and Bass-Baritones can vary from as low as F to as high as G. This may seem slightly lower that many books quote, but if the singer finds head voice earlier, then he has a better chance of freeing the upper register. Head voice occurs as a result of the laryngeal tilt and if that tilt does not happen, then the singer will experience extreme difficulty in the upper passaggio. Getting into head voice early enough in the scale allows the singer to release in the upper passaggio in such a way as to create a perfect blending of the registers. The male voice singer needs to feel an 'aw' starting around C-sharp and then 'uh' by the D or E-flat, depending upon the vocal fach. (The 'uh' should be felt in the palate not in the larynx. This discourages a depressed larynx.) If the rounding of the vowels does not happen around the head voice transition, then the singer is pulling up too much weight (thicker vocal cord mass). The resulting gag reflex that builds in the root of the tongue forces the solar plexus to shake in an attempt to force phonation. Remember that any vowel alteration must be done with the feeling of the vowel strength in the soft palate, mirroring that strength of vowel at the folds. Typically, if vowel space is only imaged in the larynx, then the tongue will often depress.

There is no doubt that this vocal protection is connected to an acoustical release that is a direct result of a free throat. This free throat space is reflexive as the vowel is strengthened (strong vowel in the high and wide palate) and altered properly. The correct laryngeal tilt in the middle register allows the singer to feel a release in the root of the tongue thus allowing ease into the high range. The resulting acoustical release in turn allows for a healthy balance of upper and lower overtones within a singer's vocal production. The correct feeling or sensation is one in which the voice seems to be somewhat contained in the body, yet drawing out of the body under its own energy.  Singing becomes mainly an internal feeling, not an external one. Most often, if a singer feels as though he or she is getting the voice "out there", the result is a closed throat from pushing too much breath pressure through the larynx. In younger singers this type of production can sound quite acceptable, but vocal problems will develop later over the years.  Remember Garcia's "Inhalare la voce" or "inhale the voice". This is a critical part of the male voice upper passaggio.

One example of a singer from the Swedish/Italian School is Jussi Bjoerling. One can study his recordings or videos and hear how well blended the upper registers are and how critically important this is in order to balance the male voice upper passaggio. The mouth cannot be overly opened (locked open jaw position) and still achieve vocal protection. Yet the jaw must be out of the way enough toward the upper passaggio for the correct register flips to occur. When a singer is out of balance, often from the hyperextension of the jaw (jaw thrusting forward out of its socket), the upper passaggio range is problematic. There is no doubt that major vocal problems for both the male and female singer stem from one major source: confusing the difference between muscular pressure (usually tongue and neck muscles) and an authentic open throat or pharynx (lifted and wide soft palate, open back wall behind the tongue, and slightly lowered AND wide larynx). The typical vocal problems that result from this confusion can include the vocal wobble, (unhealthy wide vibrato usually accompanied by a depressed tongue), vowel distortion, loss of upper range due to a high-larynxed singing position, lack of ring in the voice (making breath management difficult), and engagement of laryngeal muscles in an attempt to shift the voice or make the voice flip registration. This sudden shift, which is often heard in male singers (especially Basses and Baritones), is a futile attempt to access the high range using a retracting or pressing of the root of the tongue. The voice looses its register blend and it begins to sound like different voices rather than one smooth sound. This is extremely dangerous and is a difficult habit to break because this muscular cover is connected to the gag reflex in the back of the tongue. Unfortunately, it is a practice that is often taught in some schools of singing.

The interior pharyngeal space actually closes when a singer uses a muscular cover and tremendous pressure is then placed on the vocal cords by the root of the tongue. If the muscular cover has been engaged, the only choice for the singer to go high is to push a tremendous amount of breath pressure to force phonation.  All of these efforts could be simplified and clarified in just a few sensible exercises that I will later share with you at the end of this article.

Covering Too Early in the Scale

Many singers begin to round and darken the vowels too early in the scale.  This can be called over-covering. This can cause the singer to darken the voice by pulling down the back of the tongue, a practice that leads to shortening the higher register.  Most singers who have difficulty with the top of their voice either do not round the vowels at all, resulting in a spread smile technique, or they overly-darken the vowels which invites the tongue to depress the larynx.  If either extreme is employed, the singer experiences tension in the upper register.  The operative word in the study of the correct transition in the upper passaggio is gradual.  The study of rounding the vowels needs to be done slowly and carefully, paying strict attention to the slow and gradual rounding of the vowel forms. Darkening of the vowels should only be done by increasing the acoustical space, NOT by using the pulling down of the palate or the pulling down of the back of the tongue.  These techniques lead to inconsistency and frustration for the singer. They also cut out the upper overtones.

I have found that many who study, teach, or sing go to an extreme in the study of any given vocal concept. Remember that extremes in behavior can be a direct reflection of personality or emotional problems. All who teach and sing must strive for emotional balance in order to create singing or teaching balance. An extreme in studying the cover can lead to frustration and can leave a singer desperate for vocal answers. Personally I have found the healthy protection of the voice is more difficult to teach men than women because they are strong in the throat muscles and upper body and can push their way through the high range. However, there are those more dramatic female voices that have gone to an extreme in the study of the vocal protection. I have seen lighter-voiced singers try to over-develop their voice by singing inappropriate repertoire; mostly in an attempt to compete in a world that often holds the belief that "bigger is better". It is unfortunate that Renata Tibaldi was led to this choice (muscular cover) by an instructor. The price tag for this decision was her wonderful singing career, a career cut far too short by this most inappropriate decision.

Defining the Healthy Vocal Protection or Cover

Before going into a detailed outline of the vocal issues connected with this concept of vocal cover, let us first define what is the healthy protection of the voice and how to study it carefully.

A healthy protection of the voice is a polished balanced acoustical production that moves through the registers smoothly and without a great deal of effort. There is a similarity of vocal color and the singer never has to struggle to move through the registers. This protection results from the proper tilt of the larynx in the middle register resulting in open acoustical spaces in the soft palate, behind the tongue and behind the larynx. This, coupled with proper alteration of the vowel (with ng tongue position), makes for a seamless and smooth sound through the low, middle, and higher registers, without muscular effort or too much push of breath pressure. There is a polished acoustical release in the upper passaggio, which sounds as though the singer could sustain the higher notes loudly or softly, keeping an ability to float the voice no matter what the dynamic level. Jussi Bjoerling achieved this acoustical balance, as did Flagstad, Karin Braunzell, Birgit Nilsson, Svanholm and many others.

Differing Opinions in Training Vocal Protection

Over-Covering:  Historically, different schools of training have attempted this training of the cover with varying approaches.  The term cover in the German school is called deckung or darkening of the voice. If taught without close attention to tongue posture, this technique often creates a depressed flat-tongued production and results in an unacceptable and harsh sound. The term "darken the vowels" may work if the tongue-root and laryngeal muscles are not employed with what can be called a throat heave (attempting to open the throat by jamming the tongue down on top of the larynx or by over-stretching the outer laryngeal muscles.)

The idea of darkening really means to open the authentic acoustical space. Remember that using the root of the tongue to create a cover puts pressure directly at the glottis where the vocal cords come together. This is a damaging practice and any teacher who teaches this is professionally irresponsible, creating many vocal problems for many singers. It is a form of vocal abuse and singers need to be made aware of this problem. There is too much fiber optic research reflecting vocal damage from this practice to allow it to be continued to be taught. When accompanied with tremendous breath pressure in order to phonate, over time this can result in a bowing of the vocal folds, nodules, or sometimes polyps. Some singers have careers using this most damaging technique, but few sound good into their 40's or 50's. The voice ages prematurely with this kind of technique.

The Overly Spread Technique: In frightening contrast, there are other schools of training whereby the singer is encouraged to sing a wide open or spread production. (Some call this the "boy choir" sound.)  This results in a high larynx and the need to push too much breath pressure, forcing phonation and attempting to make a large sound with a closed throat. Over time, this technique is equally as damaging as over-covering. In direct contrast to both of these extremes, the Swedish/Italian School uses less of a muscular adjustment and the term often used to define vocal protection is copertura or coperto, terms that are an obvious result of the influence of the Italian School. The healthy protection is the result of singing with an open pharyngeal chamber (Italian u in the pharynx) accompanied by an oval or rounded mouth position. This allows for gradual adjustments in the larynx as the singer ascends the scale, making the voice sound free, relaxed, and perfectly blended in registration.

I tend to use Alan Lindquest's term cuperto in my teaching. It is associated with an open acoustical space that is stabilized through the training of the interior wall of the throat at inhalation. This training also involves the alteration of the vowel without using the tongue. (The tongue ALWAYS speaks the integrity of the vowel even if the vowel is altered in the pharynx.)  If employed correctly, this concept of cuperto can protect the throat and encourage healthy singing.

In my studios in New York, San Francisco, and Europe, I explain the cover as an acoustical result connected with a free and open throat. While the throat seems to be quite open, there is a narrow ring in the middle of the tone.  Flagstad used the ng in order to achieve this, calling it the sense of a "silver thread". In my experience, I find that if the ring is free and not placed in the voice, then the result is a natural protection. Young singers need desperately to find this protection early on in their training. If trained properly at a young age, the singer is saved from years of vocal frustration and perhaps damage or a shortened career. The major key in training younger voices is to make sure the upper middle voice is functioning in this manner.

How to Cover without Damaging the Voice:

I find there are many books on singing.  However, few of them include the element of how to in their list of vocal concepts. Vocal solutions need to take a high priority in any voice studio.  Each solution needs several explanations and several exercises to produce healthy results. This way the singer can usually identify with at least one of them. I often have requests from teachers of singing to please address the issue of vocal cover or protection.  It is not rare that a teacher can hear and diagnose a problem but perhaps he or she does not possess a tool with which to address the issue. My teacher, Alan Lindquest often told me, "If you want to be in the 90% level of effectiveness in your teaching, you must find at least 4 or 5 ways to explain each vocal concept and have 4 or 5 exercises to accomplish the result." I have found this to be absolutely true.  I can certainly understand why he spent his lifetime collecting information about vocal technique and how to diagnose and solve vocal problems. During his 70 years of teaching, he collected exercises that work quickly and effectively.  They move the singer into a high level of professional vocalism.

The vocal cover or protection consists of a coordination of several functions both in the lower body and in the throat. I will explain in this section what the body must do in order to protect the voice. Each body function must be studied individually and then coordinated. After this coordination is achieved, the singer can then perform without thinking so deeply about vocal technique.

Exercises for the Male Voice Protection:

(1) 1..2..3..4..5..6..7.8..9..8..7..6..5..4..3..2..1..


The exercise above is designed to help the male singer to fine the vocal protection by altering the vowel. If performed with an open acoustical space, then singer will experience a smooth blending of the upper register.

(2) 1....3....5.....oct....10......oct.....5.....3.....1


Exercise #2 must be performed with the 'uh' feeling in the soft palate, NOT in the larynx.

(3) Start a descending octave arpeggio from the upper note downward: i.e. 8...5...3....1. Speak the feeling of 'uh' in your soft palate while you speak a clear 'a' vowel with your tongue.  You will notice how easy it is to start the high note if the back muscles are engaged at the onset.  This mixing of the 'uh' and the Italian 'a' will create a balance of what is called cover or vocal protection without muscular involvement with the tongue root. It will also discourage a heaving of the throat muscles.

(4) Trouble-shooting:  "Why am I still over-covering and feel a dramatic or sudden change in my vocal color as I approach high E, F, or F-sharp?" This question is often asked at this web site which receives over 86,000 visitors per month. The answer to this question is two-fold: the tongue is depressing and the solar plexus is locking as you sing high.  There is most likely a pulling down of the soft palate. To solve this problem, vocalize the first two exercises thinking a slight lift at the root of the tongue as you ascend into the upper range along with a slight tilt downward of the larynx in the upper middle register. If vocalized with a high soft palate, these exercises will offer you balance in the upper passaggio.

NOTE: Any singer must use correct lower body support to hold back the breath pressure.  This is the only way any singer can achieve a protection of the voice.

All concepts of this article are included in "An Introductory Lesson with David Jones, A Resource for Teachers and Singers", available on the home page of this site


(c) 2004 by David L. Jones


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