Nasality in the Tenor Voice

How often have you sat in a performance and said to yourself, “If only the tenor had a beautiful sound instead of that nasality!” What is the missing factor in some of today’s training of the tenor instrument? The many concepts that contribute to nasality and possible solutions will be discussed later in this article. Possibly the major complaint about the tenor singer is the presence of too much nasality in the tone, lack of warmth, and as a result, lack of tonal beauty in a performance setting. But what causes this nasality factor and what can be done to solve this unattractive tonal quality issue?


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The answer to this question is not one dimensional, but involves discussing several aspects of vocal technique. Usually one problem causes a chain reaction, resulting in a domino effect that makes for unattractive and often tense singing. A nasal approach is actually a band-aid and does not address the real vocal issues at hand. Unfortunately this leaves the singer is performing under a high level ofnervousness due the resulting throat tension. Reoccurring nasality is a large indicator that a singer’s technique is either incomplete, or there are major technical problems at hand.

Defining the Difference between Nasal Resonance and Nasality:

Nasality: Unfortunately, as a young singer I was trained as a tenor even though my true voice is a lyric baritone.  It was Dixie Neill who saved my throat by taking my down to the baritone fach. My tonal quality as a tenor was almost totally nasal and it took a long time for me to achieve true resonance in my voice without nasality. One technical understanding that must be learned by any performing tenor is that nasality is not a healthy approach to singing well. Most often, nasality is a result of a few factors: (1) a low soft palate, (2) the pushing of too much breath pressure through the larynx (resulting in high-larynx singing or a closed throat), and as a result, (3) tremendous tension at the root of the tongue accompanied by a forward jaw position. The forward jaw position does not allow for the full adduction of the cords.

Nasal Resonance or Squeeze? One major issue at hand when studying may be whether or not the instructor hears the difference between squeezed nasal sound and authentic nasal resonance. Nasal resonance is the true ring in the voice RESULTING from an open throat or the three primary open pharyngeal chambers. This factor serves the singer in many ways. One of the major benefits of healthy nasal resonance is the release of the root of the tongue, making healthy vocal fold adduction possible.  In order for the sound to filter through the nasal resonance, the tongue and palate must be out of the way. The singer needs to achieve the ng posture of the tongue, (using the middle of the tongue to approximate the ng position), a small stream of air through the nasal port, three open pharyngeal chambers (naso-pharynx, oro-pharynx and laryngeo-pharynx), and a sense of sustaining resulting ring in the voice by involving the lower body support system. When true resonance is achieved beyond nasality, the singer can produce a pure legato line.

Remember that a voice should never be placed forward.  Jussi Bjoerling once said to my teacher Alan Lindquest when they were studying in Stockholm together, “Ring reflects toward the nose and mask area from an open back throat or pharynx, but the sensation is subtle.” This statement infers that the true work is focused on the open throat and getting the tongue and palate out of the way. Lamperti once said, “A singer’s primary pronouncer is in the pharynx, NOT the mouth.” This open pharynx approach or pharyngeal vowel approach assists in releasing the root of the tongue, making it difficult to produce a nasal sound.  The laryngeal tilt is achieved through this open-throated approach (pharyngeal vowels) as well, creating a healthier balance in registration. The need to drive breath pressure is eliminated in the voice, even thought it may take the singer time to stop the push of breath pressure. The resulting tonal quality is warm and ringing, but NEVER nasal.

High Larynx: When any singer uses a high-larynx position in singing, the root of the tongue becomes extremely tense in order to try and hold the larynx down out of the way. This tension at the root of the tongue tends to drive the voice forward. Along with this tongue tension, there is usually a pushing of too much breath pressure toward the nasal port, a technique that results in a brittle or harsh sound. This high larynx position is due to a couple of factors: (1) lack of support in the lower body muscles, which diminishes breath pressure under the larynx, and (2) lack of pharyngeal vowel training, which opens the back of the throat.

The Half-Moon Neck Shape: Recently I had the experience of viewing an operatic performance of a very famous crossover tenor. I must preface this with saying that when I first went to Dixie Neill in 1983, my larynx was extremely high and my neck was collapsed, making a nasal and strident sound. The sides of my neck shaped themselves similar to the shape of a half moon on each side, creating a function where the neck muscles curved inward. This is the largest red light; when I witness a performer on stage with the sidewalls of the throat collapsing. It means that the pharynx is collapsing during the performance. The tenor’s neck took this exact shape and it saddens me to witness a singer with a beautiful quality struggle so much to sing. The same scenario is present in the singing of a young British Soprano. Because this flaw has not been corrected in her singing, she cannot perform and keep a consistent schedule. Basically both of these singers could have been saved from vocal difficulties with the correct training.

False Ring from Tongue Tension: Imitating a Sound through Internal Deceptive Hearing:  As stated before, one major problem for the nasal tenor is tongue tension due to high larynx singing. When the larynx is high due to lack of throat space then the root of the tongue becomes bunched and tense.  The result is what many call a ‘tonguey sound’ or a sound that is manufactured. To the singer, this sound is good inside the head, but what the audience hears is a knurdled sound. Why does a singer make this choice?  Because he is attached to an internal sound that he or she thinks is good or the singer is just not getting what true resonance represents. Any tenor singer (all singers for that matter) must learn to guide the voice through physical sensations rather than listening. The resulting tongue tension through listening tends to increase pressure under the nasal port area making the voice placed in such a way that nasality is almost unavoidable. Because I was a lyric baritone trained as a tenor, I tried every way to sound like a tenor.  By the time I got to a good teacher, my tongue dipped like a spoon and shook rapidly. In fact, it was impossible for me to release the tongue or even leave it stationary. This was due to the tremendous constriction of the tongue muscle. Usually when a singer has a history of a high larynxed singing, then the root of the tongue is extremely tense. This is a problem no matter what the vocal fach.

Locking of the Airflow:  One issue that is rarely discussed is the ability to lock the airflow with the back of the tongue. I have never taught a nasal singer that did not lock the breath flow with the root of the tongue.  This usually is a factor because the singer is subconsciously creating an internal sound that sounds good to him and has a characteristic timbre of the ‘tenor sound’.  However this sound does not translate to the audience.  The listener simply hears how held the vocal sound is and experiences the uncomfortable feeling of hearing a singer struggle to get into the upper voice.

Registration problems: We established earlier that nasal singing is reflective of a closed throat. The result of singing on a closed throat is imbalance of registration. Usually the singer whitens the sound to imitate true head voice when in actuality the chest register is taken too high and the upper register becomes more and more harsh and strident. This is exactly what happened in my vocal instruction because I am NOT a true tenor. Intonation became harder and harder to achieve because the larynx was too high and the palate too low resulting in feeling squeezed from both the upper and lower direction. In other words, registration flips cannot occur healthily if the throat is closed and the vocal sound driven toward the point of nasality.

Jaw Posture Problem: As I said in the opening of this article, nasality is a combination of several vocal issues working together to distort true vocal resonance. One issue in a nasal singer is the thrusting forward of the jaw, a habit of which many singers are not aware.  This thrusting forward of the jaw encourages a backward pull of the tongue, a major factor in driving the voice toward the nasal port without enough opening of the back of the throat. The forward thrust of the jaw creates a brighter sound inside the singer's internal hearing, a major factor in why singers assume this kind of jaw function. The jaw should actually gently wrap back after every consonant. One need only view videos of excellent singers and views them from the profile to witness this behavior.

Vowel Distortion: In 1977 I had a long lesson with my friend Martha Rosacker. It was she who convinced me to go to Alan Lindquest in 1979. I give her credit for beginning my journey of searching for vocal answers.  The lesson was over 1 and 1/2 hours in length, mainly focusing on the Italian u vowel. During the entire session, my u vowel was distorted because my tongue shaped like a spoon and shook with tremendous tension. I applaud her patience and determination. Even though I did not get my vowel correctly produced in that session, through listening to it I was able to later diagnose and correct the problem.  Vowel distortion can be a huge problem in nasal singing because the tongue is not allowed the proper position for the pure vowel sound to be produced. I will never forget one quote of Mr. Lindquest, “You alter the vowel with the pharyngeal stretch and you speak the integrity of the vowel with the proper tongue position.” I use this quote all the time in my teaching because it is important to know how to speak pure vowel sounds with an open throat.

High Breathing: If the tongue is bunched or back, creating a nasal sound, then the quick breath will be high in the body. In all of my teaching, I have never seen a tight-tongued singer breathe low in the body. The first of the following series of exercises will help to release the tongue, making low breathing more possible. One good way to achieve a low breath is to place the tongue between the lips and take a slow nasal breath. The singing breath will drop much lower in the body and you will teach the tongue NOT to bunch or pull back at inhalation.

Exercises: Releasing the Blockages that Create Nasality:

  • Small ‘a’ vowel exercise: 5…5…5….5….5…4….3….2…

(As you phonate at the cords, roll the tongue slightly forward in an arched position. This is the exact opposite to the gag reflex and the tongue will not want to behave in this way.  But with practice, the singer will realize the brilliance of the a vowel with phonation on the thin edges of the folds.)

  • Breathing over the hand: Shape your hand flat. Then place it laterally in the mouth and breathe above the hand.  There will be a tremendous stretch of the soft palate, a wonderful tool in ridding the voice of nasality. I received this exercise during my study with Dr. Evelyn Reynolds in New York.

  • Learn to achieve a healthy facial posture when breath is taken.  Lift the cheeks gently under the eyes (opens the uvula away from the back of the tongue and lifts the soft palate), sink the cheeks at the back molars (opens the back wall of the pharynx at inhalation), and breathe the jaw gently back in order for the larynx to release downward. Use a mirror to self-supervise this facial posture exercise. This exercise was presented to me by Alan Lindquest during my study with him in 1979.

  • Use the neutral vowel ‘uh’ in the larynx before bringing focus into the tone. For example, start with the ‘uh’ in the larynx and then bring the tongue forward as in the ‘i’ vowel.  This way your open pharynx is established first, then the brilliance can follow while keeping the open feeling in the throat. I worked with concept during my study with Dr. Reynolds.

Achieving both High and Low Overtones: One constant search for any singer is finding balance in his/her singing by balancing high and low overtones.  The following exercise is designed to achieve balance in the middle register and to inspire the production of upper and lower overtones

The overtone balancing exercise: 5…4…3…2….1…5…4….3….2….1

(Sing the hum portion of the exercise with the tongue gently between the lips. As you do this, feel as though you are stretching a vowel space behind the tongue. Then sing the 5 vowels. You will find that there will be a balance in upper and lower overtones or a combination of ring and open acoustical space working together.

I designed this exercise and it is represented on my instructional CD, “An Introductory Lesson with David Jones: A Resource for Teachers and Singers”. Please feel free to direct any questions to David Jones at

© 2006 by David L. Jones

This article was first published in Classical Singer Magazine