Balance in the art of teaching singing
consists of teaching opposing concepts that create a balance in the voice.
These opposing concepts have been called antagonistic pulls in
the body. A lack of balance in instruction and in understanding can put
professional singers at risk for career difficulties or even the loss
of their career altogether. For example, one primary difficulty in sustaining
healthy technique is that act of singing many performances, usually involving
different acoustical environments. This is why singers must guide their
voice through sensation instead of sound.
Self-Doubt and Low Vocal Self-Esteem:
What factors dictate the singer’s vocal self-esteem and
what primary factor is responsible for the loss of healthy vocal self-esteem?
Every singer has an inner voice that determines when he/she is NOT singing
in balance. One major factor in a career crisis is self-doubt. This vocal
self-doubt results in low vocal self esteem, mainly due to lack
of authentic technical knowledge about one’s own voice. This
lack of a balanced vocal self-perception can originate from a false or
incomplete understanding of healthy vocalism. Sometimes (but not always),
confusion about technique stems directly from the individual’s
early training or misperception of concepts the instructor has presented.
Perhaps the instruction was too general or vague or perhaps the singer
was not told the how to part of the learning process. More often
than not, the singer is not a victim of abusive teaching, but of incomplete
teaching. It can be difficult to determine whether a singer’s
technical knowledge has been confused by overly intellectual language,
cultural expectations, or difficulties in communication. Whatever the
source of the problem, the fact remains that most singers that come to
my various studios in the U.S. and Europe are in vocal trouble due to confusion about
vocal approach. Typically they do not know how to use their voice efficiently.
It has taken almost 30 years to understand, interpret, and employ the
intricate details of the Swedish/Italian School of Singing. In excellent
teaching, opposing concepts must be taught simultaneously in order for
the singer to achieve positive results. A young professional is lost
without a strong technique that works consistently from the voice studio
to the practice room to the audition or performance stage.
The Lindquest Experience
While studying with Alan R. Lindquest in 1979 he once said, and I quote, “Singers
typically come into a voice studio out of balance. They come in with
too much imbalance of registration; either too much chest voice development,
(heavy mechanism accompanied by depressed larynx.) or too much head
voice development (light mechanism accompanied by a high larynx
position and lack of body connection.)” As an aspiring teacher
and singer, I remember asking Mr. Lindquest, “How do I find and
keep the balance in my singing? How do I know when I have achieved the
perfect balance of space and ring in my voice and in my instruction of
others?” His answer was, “Son, you will be researching this
balance all of your entire singing and teaching life.”
He then went on to present specific vocalises that would help to create
and maintain vocal balance. Fortunately Lindquest offered me the vocal
exercises he had received from the Swedish Italian School of Singing.
Many of these exercises he and Jussi Bjoerling studied together while
working with Joseph Hislop in 1938 and 1939. Designed to create quick
results reflexively, these exercises began my journey toward achieving
a re-balancing process in my voice. What I was about to experience from
this master teacher was the beginning of my personal apprenticeship:
a specialized training process that would shape and form my future career
and the careers of many of my students. There is no doubt that Alan R.
Lindquest was truly a master teacher. Witnessing his teaching such complete
vocal information was truly a life-altering experience. It was to shape
my sense of what creates a total teacher and total instruction. It would
also act as a stimulus toward helping me to reap important information
from other excellent teachers. He taught me how to learn effectively.
Almost 25 years later, I am still experiencing the rewards of the Lindquest
experience. I later worked with other instructors and because of the
information I learned with Lindquest, I could benefit much more from
their particular expertise.
The Career Singer: The Search for Technical Balance
It can be an intense search for a career singer to find healthy exercises
that offer vocal balance. As stated before, specific vocal exercises
were presented in my training with Lindquest that were designed to inspire
a balanced reflexive physical response in the vocal mechanism. These
exercises expand vocal range, properly close the vocal folds on the thin
edges, balance registration, inspire proper breath management and flexibility
in the voice and establish an acoustical balance of upper and lower overtones.
Along with correct body, facial, and throat posture, this establishes
a foundation from which a singer can achieve balance in his
or her tonal production. Considering the pressures of a professional
career, it is a fact that singers need dependable tools when they are
recovering from illness or feel vocally out of coordination. I once said
to a professional Bass, “Technique is more for the singer than
for the audience.” A singer who is confident and excited when
walking out on stage can then concentrate on interpretation of the role
or aria. The audience automatically benefits from a secure performance.
Alan Lindquest once said to me, “You study technique until it is
reflexive. Then you can forget about it and concentrate on the performance.” Lindquest
sang often under the baton of Leopold Stokowski and he mentioned that
his mental preparation was deeply connected with his healthy vocalization.
He would often use the term ‘joyful surprise breath’ to inspire
a feeling of openness in the throat. The resulting vocal confidence from
vocalizing in balance offered him the emotional security to be comfortable
on stage. His analysis of singing was a sense of “peace and joy” that
reflect the connectedness or centering from the sense of peace with the
uplifted feeling created by the sense of joy. During mental practice,
the vocal folds actually experience adjustments just as in singing audibly.
Lindquest found a way to combine healthy emotional practice with healthy
vocalism, using different emotions to inspire different colors in the
voice, yet vocalizing with consistent sensations. It was keeping these
consistent sensations through the contrasting emotions that kept Lindqest’s
vocal balance in check.
Physical Vocal Changes: Environmental Issues
What does a singer do about physical changes in the voice due to external
elements? Most understand that finding vocal balance daily is the basis
for consistent singing. Obviously as human beings our voices feel slightly
different every day. Excellent vocal technique can offer the career singer
solutions for adjusting to physical changes in the voice. These changes
can be caused by (1) seasonal shifts (sudden temperature changes), (2)
allergic reactions to dust, mold, or certain foods, (3) variation in
humidity level (especially when traveling or exposed to air conditioning),
and (4) vocal changes due to travel fatigue or lack of sleep.
After observing many career singers over a period of 30 years, I have
had the opportunity to witness what each of them must do to adjust to
physical changes in the voice. No matter how severe or minor these changes,
a singer needs one tool that is the most important of all: a set of dependable
vocal exercises that move the voice toward vocal balance. Example: If
the voice feels thick in the morning, what does the singer do? Usually
the most important function to find it the thin edge function of the
vocal folds when the voice feels thick. Small staccato exercises
that invite the thin edge function may serve a singer very well.
If a singer is on a professional path how does he/she decide which exercises
are effective in finding vocal balance? What specific exercises
work most often for most singers? At the end of this article, I will
list a few exercises that help to create vocal security for the performing
Defining Typical Vocal Problems Facing the Career
One of the most important lists that could be made in this article is
that of the typical vocal challenges facing the career singer. Here is
a list that many might find important to know. This list reflects vocal
issues that I have observed over many years of teaching career singers.
Singing with TOO much breath pressure: cause/
singing in many different acoustical environments that create a subconscious
desire to ‘hear’ the voice instead of feel for proper
sensations. This invites the singer to push the voice to try and
achieve a bigger sound. Collapsing of the rib cage or loss of proper
postural alignment can also contribute to this problem.
Registration problems: causes/ too much breath
pressure resulting in the vocal folds employing the thicker mass rather
than the thin edges. This can cause the singer to use too much chest
register too high in the scale. (This problem is often accompanied
by a flat or retracted tongue posture.)
Forcing the jaw forward which creates a gag reflex at the tongue
root: cause/ attempt to hear one’s own sound
(a singer hears more inside when the jaw is forward). This jaw issue
can also result from forcing too much breath pressure in a dry acoustical
environment. A forward jaw position does not allow for a healthy
adduction of the vocal cords.
Shaking diaphragm on high sustained notes: causes:
lack of focus in tone, going for too much inner sound, singing the
upper passaggio too wide open (voce aperto) causing the larynx to rise,
locking of the solar plexus (not allowing for a smooth turning motion
of the solar plexus).
Loss of higher overtones: causes/ pulling down on
the facial posture which lowers the soft palate or results in a flat
or retracted tongue. Low soft palate can also contribute to tuning
problems and loss of upper range.
Low soft palate accompanied by a pushed and harsh sound: cause/
dropped facial posture or too much push of breath pressure.
Thin tonal quality: cause/ singing without enough
focus, forcing the singer to push too much breath pressure or force
the sensation of ring by tightening the root of the tongue.
As one can see from reading the list above, most vocal problems are
interconnected. If the tongue is flat or retracted, then often the soft
palate drops. However, it is critical for any serious singer to observe
that ALL or these vocal problems listed above are directly related to
pushing too much breath pressure through the vocal folds. If a singer
suffers from this tendency, it is important to retrain with a competent
The University Experience: Repertoire vs. Technique
Even though I learned quite a lot of repertoire, it is unfortunate that
my University study was not particularly enlightening technically. This
was due partly to the fact that vocal pedagogy was new and partly because
of intense repertoire preparation for examinations. As in many University
settings, the instruction mainly focused on learning repertoire even
though I did NOT have the technique to sing well. In a perfect situation,
young singers need one hour of repertoire work and one hour of technical
work per week. The inability to offer this kind of instruction is a direct
reflection of a lack of funds at these institutions. I certainly acknowledge
the difficult job of the University, College, or Conservatory teacher.
Facing constant performance and examination deadlines creates a lot of
pressure, especially if the students are suffering from a lack of technical
vocal skill. These teachers often work long hours to offer extra
time to their students, simply to get these repertoire requirements out
of the way. Unfortunately, vocal technique often takes a position as
second on the priority list.
During my University training, my vocal ability became more and more
compromised: a clear indicator that something was out of balance vocally.
As I have said before, I am actually a lyric baritone, but I was trained
as a tenor; a tragic mistake for any singer and a mistake that took many
years to resolve. Considering the consequences, this incorrect understanding
of my vocal fach was largely due to the fact that my teacher was NOT
a diagnostician or vocal technician. He had been a soloist for
Robert Shaw and was still living in the ego of his past career. It was
not until my study with Alan Lindquest that I began to experience real
results from using healthy Old World vocal tools. It would be several
years before I met Dixie Neill in Amsterdam. A knowledgeable technician,
she was responsible for taking me down to the baritone range: my correct
vocal fach. This literally saved my voice from long-term damage. It would
take years for the muscle in my larynx to relax after making this transition.
Performer or Vocal Pedagogue or Both?
Considering Hiring Practices of Educational Institutions:
It is a great opportunity for any institution to hire a person who has
had both a successful performing career and a person with great technical
understanding. Unfortunately, many career singers have learned to sing out
of balance through a distorted view of healthy singing or through
only having half the vocal picture presented to them. As stated before,
many teachers mirror what they themselves learned as students. If the
information they learned is not truly balanced, then the distortion is
taken to another generation of singers.
The truth is that hiring practices of some institutions are questionable.
Many institutions hire only past performers, some whom have suffered
from vocal problems themselves or even lost their voices. After they
are hired, (unless they have gained or studied a technical understanding
of the voice) they go on to teach a new generation of singers to loose
their voices as well. This is NOT to say that a teacher cannot offer
both career experience and excellent technical information. Even though
it is rare, there are wonderful teachers out there who have had wonderful
careers AND offer technical information. Dr. Evelyn Reynolds, with whom
I have studied in New York, is such an individual. This kind of instructor
is a treasure because not only can they instruct technically, but they
also know all the pitfalls of a given role. Shirley Verrett is another
wonderful teacher who has combined technical knowledge and career experience.
These kinds of teachers know all of the pressures, both technical and
emotional, that a professional career can present.
The Ghost Teacher
If a singer has difficulty finding excellent instruction at the University,
College, or Conservatory, the singer’s frustration can lead to
what is often called finding a ghost teacher; a situation where
the student goes to an outside teacher in an attempt to get real vocal
results. Ghost teaching creates a situation of deception. The
ghost teacher is not given full credit for his or her work. On the other
hand, the school faculty teacher is left with the false impression that
his or her instruction is helping the singer move quickly. If one speaks
to most any professional singer, he or she has often sought the help
of a ghost teacher in order to find more technical information.
Caring institutions are now allowing singers to study off campus with
qualified technical teachers of their choice. The perfect study situation
would be to offer students the opportunity to study with both a master
coach (one who has had a professional career) and a master technician
(one who has experienced study with a master teacher/technician and has
possible worked with vocal damage).
The Appropriate Teacher and Balanced Teaching
It can be a challenge to find a teacher who has studied with a direct
connection to Old World training. This is due largely to a generation
gap and the fact that many students historically have wanted to focus
on a performance career rather than on teaching. Vocal Pedagogy
degrees are relatively new to the academic world; a gift which has produced
more enlightened teachers. Because there are few teachers left who are
directly connected to Old World training, there has been a trend
toward using voice science as a teaching tool. I personally remember
becoming very excited when the fiber optic camera came to the forefront
in the early 1980’s. However over time it became obvious that while
voice science is a great diagnostic tool, it has not proven to be an
effective teaching tool to help establish balanced healthy reflexive
singing. Singing while using the scope is very limiting and is too far
removed from healthy vocal sensations. (Lindquest believed that we achieve
healthy singing through sensations more than sound.) Dr. Barbara Mathis
is one of the few who has done intricate research using the fiber optic
camera. Her research has won much acclaim due to her careful study of
the Lindquest Vocalises and the healing effects on damaged voices.
One major factor in helping the singer toward vocal consistency is finding
a talented and creative teacher. These kinds of teachers can be difficult
to locate because they are usually more involved in the process of voice
building than in succeeding in the political arena. An individual who
is inspired by teaching, has had access to Old World vocal concepts,
and usually one who continues to study, will help a singer develop his
or her fullest potential. Creative teaching involves finding a concept
that works for a singer at a specific time or situation (possibly a vocal
change). It requires a diagnostic ear that can hear what is
physically happening in a singer’s vocal production. If you will,
an excellent teacher learns to hear feelings.
Experience, technical knowledge, and determination to find solutions
are all characteristics of excellence in teaching. (See article on “Searching
for a Good Voice Teacher”, also published in Classical Singer Magazine,
April 2002.) Gifted instructors realize that healthy singing is a result
of a coordination of the entire body, often using opposite concepts to
create a balance. Through these kinds of teachers, a career singer can
find exercises that create consistency in vocal production.
Observing Great Singing
A working career singer has a great opportunity to study the best of
his or her colleagues on the operatic and concert stages. Unfortunately,
this is an opportunity that few aspiring students enjoy. Watching a singer
who knows his or her voice thoroughly can be a great learning environment.
Again, it is reflective of the art of apprenticeship.
While teaching at San Francisco Opera, I was able to study the singing
of Olga Borodina in a performance of “Samson and Dalila” from
backstage. I studied her posture, her jaw function, her head and neck
posture, and her facial posture. Ms. Borodina’s jaw wrapped gently
back after every consonant, allowing the larynx to drop for the next
vowel. This explains her tremendous understanding of the physical reflex
that creates pure legato line. (See article on “Singing
Legato Line”) Her singing of one of the arias was from a sitting
position. She was lying on a sofa, yet I was able to see her sternum
engage to begin every phrase, holding back the appropriate amount of
breath pressure. Her mouth shape was never spread and her breath line
never sporadic. One consideration is that even if a professional singer
has this opportunity to observe a great performance, he or she may not
have a mental vocabulary of defining what elements create the physical
balance. I will cover these elements at the end of this article when
I list balanced concepts for healthy singing.
If a singer does not have access to the backstage area or sing in an
opera chorus, then the next best venue is to use video. It is important
for singers to study the craft of a great singer visually. What is the
jaw position? What is the singing posture and how does this effect
the breath management of the singer? Is there a slight bend at the knees
and hip sockets in the posture? Are the singer’s ears directly
over his/her shoulders or is there a slight jutting forward of the head
either when starting a phrase or when singing dramatically? What facial
posture is used as the singer goes into the highest register? Is there
a sense of deep connection to the earth while singing dramatic passages?
Is the singer spreading the mouth posture or is the mouth posture oval?
Are the cheeks under the eyes lifted (which lifts the soft palate) and
the mouth shape oval (releases the larynx) at the same time? Are the
vowels slightly altering in order to keep the throat from closing? All
of these are questions for any professional singer to ask while studying
the performance of a great singing artist.
Emotional Imbalance: Negative Affects on Career
The one element that creates a positive environment in a voice studio
is a teacher who is balanced emotionally. Unfortunately, many individuals
who teach are emotionally out of balance. This imbalance
carries directly into extremes of behavior and therefore extremes in
the teaching approach. This is why it is critical that teachers work
on their emotional life. Extremes in behavior are a direct mirror of
a lack of responsibility in solving one’s own emotional puzzle.
This is an important part of becoming an expert master teacher. (See
article, “Master Teaching: The Lost Art”) A singer should
NEVER have to suffer imbalance of instruction due to the emotional problems
of a teacher. Every teacher needs to work toward emotional balance in
order to achieve balance in teaching. Suggested reading: Nathaniel Brandon’s “Six
Pillars of Self-Esteem.” All of the John Bradshaw books.
Insecurity and the “Black and White” Thinker
Some of the worse instructors are black and white thinkers. Their
common perception is that any circumstance is completely wrong or completely
right. Often these individuals are religious fanatics who need a black
and white solution in order feel secure in any given situation. Such
teachers cannot be flexible enough emotionally to deal with the shades
of gray that make up the vocal or emotional life of a student. True
emotional sensitivity involves many shades of gray and offers
many choices that offer positive evaluation of learning. Black and white
thinkers do not possess the ability to teach in balance because they
live in constant personal conflict. Most of the world does not function
in black and white thinking. Therefore the only alternative
is to live in a constant state of stress or anxiety. These individual
suffer greatly and often project their internal stress and anger onto
I remember Alan Lindquest once said to me, “I teach every voice
slightly differently according to that individual’s needs. That
means I have to put a different detective badge every hour”. This
statement mirrors flexibility, which is the key to balanced teaching.
Rigidity in personality equals rigidity in teaching style. Extreme approaches
create extremes in singing; usually bad singing. A balanced teacher is
creative, compassionate, sensitive, and allows the singer to make mistakes
Extremes in Teaching: Questioning Instruction
As stated before, most singers come to my studios having been taught
in an extreme manner or with a technique that is out of balance. These
extremes are discussed in detail in my article “Damaging Vocal
Techniques” which can be found on this web site. Why do some teachers
teach out of balance? Why do they have difficulty hearing what issues
are causing an imbalance? As I said, there are some schools that encourage
and teach an imbalance in instruction. This can be explained by a cultural
expectation or by the effects of language. Instruction can simply be
a direct mirroring of what an instructor was taught in his or her early
Unfortunately it is rare to find a true diagnostic ear and
most young singing artists or teachers are not allowed the privilege
of experiencing apprenticeship. In
truth, we often learn more from hearing the study of others than in our
own lessons. If the opportunity to audit is not made available, then
the singer (and especially a young developing teacher) is missing a critically
important part of study and development. The fact is that a young teacher
learns the craft of becoming a diagnostician by sitting in a
voice studio and hearing a master teacher instruct for hours
at a time. Any young teacher needs to listen to approximately 300
to 400 hours of excellent teaching in order to develop healthy diagnostic
ears. ‘Hearing feelings’ is the critically important
phrase here. In other words, a teacher must learn to hear what physical
problem exists and know what physical adjustment is necessary to correct
that specific problem. Even if young teachers attend master classes,
these classes are most often extended coaching sessions, not
sessions on vocal technique or voice building.
So the out of balance saga continues to create problems for the young
teacher or singer. The following list represents instructional situations
that are out of balance or incomplete.
Valid Examples of Incomplete or Inappropriate
Teaching only a high palate to the point that that singer is reaching
for every high note, disconnecting from the lower body.
Working with a lowered larynx to the point that it becomes depressed
with the root of the tongue.
Trying for the competitive ‘big sound’ by over-blowing
the cords with too much breath pressure.
Driving the ring into the voice by pinching the throat and tensing
the tongue root.
Taking too much breath under the rib cage making it difficult to
manage the outflow properly.
Supporting the voice using an extreme abdominal function of pushing
out or pulling in OR pulling down on the rib cage which
causes a tremendous amount of pressure on the folds.
Listening to one’s own voice too much, which invites pushing.
Singing with a smile technique which closes the acoustical space
by raising the larynx too high.
Working on overly-relaxing the body to the point that there is no
support of tone, no holding back of breath pressure with the body.
Overly-darkening the vowels with the back of the tongue.
Teaching a flat or retracted tongue posture which puts pressure directly
on the vocal cords. (Some teachers hear this as color.)
Hyperextension of the lower laryngeal muscles in an attempt to gain
a false sense of an open throat. (Interior pharyngeal wall actually
Using a muscular ‘hook’ for the upper male voice. (This
also closes the interior pharyngeal area.)
Balanced Teaching: Making Opposite Concepts Work
This article is designed to bring the attention of the singer or singing
teacher to the concept of balance in singing. Healthy singing is
most often based on opposite concepts working together to create a balance. What
are these opposites? The following list is designed to help the singer
or teacher in their thinking of balanced concepts:
Low breath/Tall spine. (Hip sockets and knees slightly bent.)
High and wide soft palate/Low larynx.
Laryngeal tilt in the middle register/ Lifting of the soft palate.
Open back wall of the pharynx/ Tongue arched and forward (ng position).
Antagonistic pull between upper and lower abdominal muscles/Solar
Plexis gently turns as lower abdominal muscles slightly resist, coming
in only toward the end of the phrase.
Feeling overtones in the head (forehead) and lower body (chest) simultaneously.
Working the ‘ng’ ring/ Acheiving a perfect closure
of the vocal folds while consistently singing with a released larynx.
Vowels altering in the throat but keeping pure vowel sound with the
Pharyngeal vowel forms/ ‘ng’ ring over the vowel forms.
Appogio (leaning of the body)/ opening of the lower back
Sternum resists forward at the onset or attack/ Back muscles expand
slightly down and out to hold back the breath pressure.
Loose jaw/ Engaged soft palate.
Open throat/ Small passaggio or ng ring
Open throat/ Closed cords (on the thin edges).
After studying the great masters such as Garcia and Lamperti, Lindquest
strived to combine opposing concepts to achieve balance in singing. This
was achieved using vocal exercises that help the singer to experience
the reflexive response of singing healthily. In the following list, I
have outlined some exercises that create balance for the singer.
Some of the following exercises represent a brief preview of what is
contained in my instructional double CD, “An Introductory Lesson
with David Jones”, offered on the home page of this site.
Kiu…………… eh……………… x
(The ‘k’ lifts the soft palate. The ‘i’ before
the ‘u’ creates brilliance in the tone. The release of the
jaw after the ‘k’ allows the larynx to drop in a lower position.
Keeping the ‘e’ in the ‘u’ position balances
the open and closed vowel functions. Ending the exercise with the ‘x’ brings
the tongue forward. All of these concepts work together to create the
perfect throat space for singing.) This is an old Garcia exercise.
1… 3… 5… 3… 1
Zao… o… u… o… a
(The ‘z’ closes the cords automatically. Going to the rounder
vowels as you ascend begins the slight tilt of the larynx down
and forward in the upper middle register. The ‘u’ vowel helps
to align a narrow feeling thus establishing the release of the upper
Kaw… Ko……. Kiu…… Ko…… Kaw
(This exercise is designed to balance registration from the lower pitch
to the upper pitch. The vowels are also strengthened reflexively through
the use of the ‘k’. The vowel changes are designed to drop
the weight of the lower voice as the singer ascends. This exercise should
be done with a gentle chew in order for the larynx to release.)
Daw…. Me….Ni…… Po…… Tu……………………..
(While executing this vocalise, the singer should insist that
the tongue pronounce separately from the jaw as in Italian. Beneath these
syllables, the jaw should gently chew as well, releasing the larynx.
The ‘p’ and ‘t’ should not be exploded but almost
imploded so that breath pressure does not over blow the vocal folds.
The descending ‘u’ scale insures that the larynx stays slightly
down while the singer descends.)
While many teachers and singers struggle for balance in singing, it
is critical to address all the issues at hand. There is validity in the
statement “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” In order
for any singer or teacher to achieve their complete potential, they must
learn to exercise the complete voice, not just part of the voice. Congratulations
to those gifted teachers and singers who pursue establishing a complete
knowledge of the voice.
Finally, good luck in your vocal journey. The art of teaching and singing
is a life study. We can balance the concepts consistently if we view
all the possibilities and do not loose sight of the whole picture.
Please direct questions to David L. Jones at email@example.com.
© 2005 by David L. Jones