Teaching Singing

Operating an international voice studio offers an instructor a unique overview of typical vocal issues facing singers of all levels. Over time, I have had the opportunity to run an ongoing survey of these issues and determine which ones consistently appear. That coupled with having worked with singers who have experienced career crisis due to technical problems, I decided to write about what creates balance in the art of teaching singing and also about how this balance creates a more complete understanding of the art of singing.


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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 singer.

Defining Typical Vocal Problems Facing the Career Singer

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 teacher.

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 Teaching

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 their students.

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 without judgement. 

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 training.

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:

  • 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 closes.)

  • Using a muscular ‘hook’ for the upper male voice. (This also closes the interior pharyngeal area.)

Balanced Teaching: Making Opposite Concepts Work Together

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 tongue position.

  • 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 passaggio.)


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 info@voiceteacher.com.

© 2005 by David L. Jones