If a singer is experiencing breathiness, how can you help? Alexa Terry shares her tips so get ready for hissing, chopping and tongue twisters.
Imagine this: 14-year old Valerie van der Vink arrives at your studio and introduces herself with airy tone. Breathlessly, she performs a rendition of a song by her current favourite artist and you notice audible air leakage, as well as intermittent swallowed sounds symptomatic of tongue tension. When asking for her desired vocal aesthetic, Valerie is adamant: “less breathiness, please!”
“It’s elementary, my dear Watson…”
Cleaning the lens of our metaphorical magnifying glass, we can search for clues to help us devise an optimal plan of action:
- Unintended breathiness
- Age of the singer
- Complaints of breathlessness
- Weak vocal fold adduction during singing and speech
- Audible retracted tongue
Breathiness is a vocal quality that has provided singers like Norah Jones and Billie Eilish with their vocal identity (and juicy bank account, I can imagine). However, breathiness may not be the most healthy default as excess air constantly blowing over the vocal folds can result in dryness when, ideally, we want to keep a well-lubricated and flexible instrument. Therefore, we want to ensure that we have strong medial compression, with the choice to pepper our sound with breathy tone if it’s stylistically appropriate.
So, how might we begin to help Valerie?
Four areas which can contribute to breathiness
1 Stage of development: Just as a male experiences pubescent voice change, so does the female who sees her vocal folds grow by approximately 34% and her larynx slowly lower to an adult position; as a result, breathiness is often present. In her book Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults (one for every voice teacher’s bookshelf) Dr Jenevora Williams says: “Girls also have a greater tendency to have a posterior glottic chink… caused by weaker adductor muscles at the back of the vocal folds and can be reduced or eliminated with technical exercises.”
Explaining to Valerie that a breathy tone is normal at this time may help to settle any frustration that might be provoked by the want to eliminate it.
2 Airflow Management: Efficient vocal fold closure could be hindered if the power source is pumping too much air. When too much air is being sent from the lungs, the vocal folds might: squeeze together excessively to try and hold back the tornado or blow apart from the gust. As well as assessing inhalation approach and working through some breathing-for-singing exercises, tools which can help us here may include:
- Negative Practice: Negative Practice may come in handy to help Valerie understand the sensation of excess air and having too little air, in order for her to find the appropriate balance. For younger singers, I like to describe these as “windy day”, “humid day” and “a gentle spring breeze”.
- The HISS Test: We could ask Valerie to hold a hiss for as long as she can to help us understand how she inhales (high clavicular vs. low abdominal), the action of the exhalation muscles (if the belly is squeezing in thus creating early breathlessness, for example), and how hard and fast the airflow is escaping (is the hiss loud and intense, or quiet and steady?).
- The “Hallelujah Arms” Position: If we identify that the belly is squeezing inwards immediately, we could introduce what expert vocal coach Chris Johnson refers to as “Hallelujah Arms”, which requires the singer to throw their arms up above their head as if they are praising the Lord at a Kanye West church service. This position is very “pro inhalation”, acting as a brake to the exhalation muscles to steady the exiting airstream. Read Chris Johnson’s blog in full here.
- SOVT Rounds: Semi-occluded vocal tract exercises are a great choice for airflow management as they restrict or “partially block” airflow, meaning that breath can be used more economically. We could guide Valerie in singing a repeated travelling scale (like the Long Scale), seeing how many rounds she can get through using an SOVT sound (like a VV, for example). I find that using a visual, (an arm moving from above the head to resting at the side) can give the singer a reference for flow rate.
Then, we could take the same scale pattern and use a VV on the ascent but open out onto a VOO on the descent, ensuring that the air pressure is matched and that there’s no “explosion” when transitioning between the two sounds.
3 Weak vocal fold adduction: The interarytenoid, the oblique arytenoid, the transverse arytenoid, the lateral cricoarytenoid and the thyroarytenoid are all muscles which help to adduct (close) the vocal folds. The tendency to be breathy could mean that these muscles are a bit weak. Sounds which can help us here include:
- The Karate Chop: We can guide Valerie to close her vocal folds with a glottal onset or karate chop “HUH” sound. Once she has made the karate chop sound, Valerie should find that she’s unable to breathe in or out; this is because the glottis will be closed. Valerie could then sing or speak an MM sound (as in “yum, look at that delicious pizza”) with the vocal folds and airflow, hopefully, functioning with improved synergy. If the adductor muscles still need more help, we could introduce a palm press (where the palm of each hand is pressed together in a prayer position at the sternum), for example.
- Vocal Fry or Creak Onset: A sound popular with Britney Spears, the vocal fry can help to engage the adductor muscles of the vocal folds. We could instruct Valerie to sing a sound or phrase with a short vocal fry or creak onset, moving into a clearer tone for the remainder of the lyric.
- Plosive/Hard Consonants: My favourite is the “B” due to the helpful build up of back pressure that it creates. As it’s formed lip to lip (a plosive bilabial consonant if you want to get nerdy about it), it can help the sound find more forward placement, too.
- Primal Sounds: In the BAST webinar ‘Teaching Young Voices’ (available via the BAST membership), Dr Jenevora Williams states that breathiness is rarely present when making noises driven by emotion. Therefore, we can delve into the world of primal sounds and guide Valerie to sing an exercise or song phrase using a whiney, cry quality (as if fed up or annoyed). If Valerie has a sibling, we could include them here, getting her to sing a descending 5-tone scale in chest voice using: “GO AWAY, (INSERT SIBLING NAME HERE)”. I find this always comes with a laugh (and, potentially, some family drama).
4 Tension: It’s like that old saying: “What came first – the chicken or the egg?” Unnecessary tension can often cause breathiness but, at the same time, breathiness could be causing tension because the singer might be anchoring on muscle as a way to navigate a weaker part of the vocal mechanism. Either way, we have identified that Valerie is showing signs of articulator tension with the swallowed sound often likened to that of Kermit the Frog. Therefore, doing some tongue release exercises, like those suggestions below, may help us out:
- Tongue stretches: We can ask Valerie to hold her tongue out of her mouth in a tissue to, gently, stretch it to the left and right.
- Tongue twisters: I like to create tongue twisters which relate to the singer’s interests. For example, if Valerie enjoys ballet, I might get her to use “LOLA’S LOVELY LILAC LEOTARD” to exercise the tongue tip. If she’s a foodie, I might introduce “GRETA’S GHASTLY GORGONZOLA GRATIN” to work the back of the tongue. P.S gorgonzola cheese is the work of the devil!
- Tongue wiggles: A rule I now live by is: “If there’s tension, wiggle it” (if it can be wiggled, that is!) Whilst singing an exercise or song section, we can ask Valerie to hold her tongue out of her mouth and wiggle it, gently, from side to side. This will help to stretch the tongue away from the back of the throat, with the movement of the wiggle giving the muscle another job to focus on and disallowing habitual grip. Consequently, we could discover a reduction in breathiness.
The Wombo Combo
Forget KFC’s 14-piece party bucket, we can create a tastier combo here, tackling multiple areas at once using one combination exercise.
For example, we could take a descending 5-tone repeat scale, starting at around F sharp 4 for Valerie and other females. The first round could be sung on a TH fricative which can help to manage both airflow and get the tongue out from the back of the throat. On the repeat, we could have Valerie open out to an AE sound (as in the word APPLE), as it’s a more chest-voice dominant vowel, whilst wiggling the tongue from side to side to help eliminate articulator tension. Lastly, we can instruct that Valerie finish the phrase with a glottal offset, meaning we’re also working vocal fold adduction. BOOM!
As we know, not all exercises will work for every voice as each singer is individual, so it would be great to hear how you approach working with your “Valerie van der Vinks”.
If you have any questions or comments, or if you would like to share some of your favourite vocal pedagogy literature with us then you can find me and the BAST trainers in the BAST Facebook group. CLICK HERE to join.