Vocal Lessons Article

#37 Take My Breath Away


Riddle me this:When is using more breath detrimental to your vocal health?
Answer: When it isn't.

Every breath you take...

Not surprisingly, there's a lot of hot air floating around the voice teaching community concerning the use of breath during singing. Do you try to flutter the tissue dangling a daunting ten feet away from your mouth while trying to execute your Beyoncé inspired riffs? Or do you try your best to keep your steamy exhale from fogging up the mirror you're holding claustrophobically close to your mouth? Both of these I have been asked to perform in voice lessons, and in both of these I have succeeded in achieving new heights of light headedness.

But seriously which is it? Do I shove all of my breath through my throat throughout the course of every phrase? Do I frugally manage my breath and try to squeak out my song? The idea of breathy singing causes a great divide in the voice education community and I refuse to discuss it on such a public forum except to say that the answer will probably not surprise you: it depends.

Some voice teachers tell you to use gobs and gobs of air, as if it's a vitamin or universal solvent to all your vocal woes; and others will convince you that you're damaging your voice with every over exhalation. The one-track-mind approach with air is as tailor made to your needs as any piece of clothing marked as “one size fits all” (except in the case of scarves). Your technical needs as a singer and your goals should dictate the approach to how you'll need to use breath.

Just breathe...

I recently began working with a musical theater actor who studied as a classical baritone in college. He's a fantastic musician and was groomed to create rich and lovely dark tones. But he was living a lie. He was over compressing his vocal folds to create the dark baritone color he had been praised for in college. The telltale signs were tension in the tongue, jaw, and neck, as well as trouble singing above his E4 without veins popping out of his neck. Breathy to the rescue.

In this specific instance, I used breathy singing to combat the weight of the beefed up baritone sound that's keeping him from singing freely in his higher registers. This student had built his technique on thick, fat vocal folds. For the sake of clarity, let's get slightly technical. The thyroarytenoid muscles, or chest voice muscles, thicken and shorten the vocal folds to resist the air flowing through the larynx in order to phonate. When they completely adduct (come together) and thicken, you get a really beefy, thick chest voice sound. Conversely, the cricoarytenoid muscles, or the head voice muscles, lengthen and thin down the vocal folds, allowing you sing through your higher registers without excessive tension.

These two muscle sets want and have to work together for you to sing your best. The ideal would be a shifting percentage of chest voice to head voice the higher we sing, the coordination commonly referred to as a mixed voice. This student needed his head voice muscles strengthened like crazy for them to take on more of the phonation work load.

A staple of our sessions is the breathy ZZ slide exercise (1 - 5 - 1). It's perfect for thinning over-strengthened vocal folds and letting the head voice muscles join the party. When we buzz on ZZ, it's as if we're asking football players to dance en pointe. We're telling our voice to use just enough compression, loosen the iron grip, and allow more head voice into the sound.

Now don't get discouraged by sounding like a cow giving birth, or a yelping dog, or puberty's latest victim. When the non-baritone and I first started working with breathy exercises, he described the feeling as unpredictable and weak. This is to be expected if you're using new muscles. They start weak and it's terribly important to let them be weak initially. Compensating or pushing in any way is using the same old strong chest voice muscles. Give them a rest already.

Take my breath away...

I have a particular soprano in my studio who was trained in a college musical theater program that exorcised chest voice from all its sopranos. I know, right? Her chest voice teeters between cracking and absent; her head voice is lovely though very airy. Here we have the need to strengthen the chest voice. One of the best exercises for this is GING (rhymes with “sing”). The pattern we use is 1 3 5 5 5 3 1. (Each number represents a GING.) The hard G sound helps the vocal folds fully adduct, engaging more of the chest voice muscles, while the EE sound gives the larynx a slight lift, adding even more compression.

She initially disliked (hated) the GINGs with fiery passion. It had been planted in her head that any sound that didn't flow with ample (too much) breath would result in vocal damage and loss of her high notes. She had taken the idea of singing on the breath to the extreme and had created an imbalance in her voice. No way is imbalance in any form healthy. Also, high notes don't disappear with the use of chest voice. If she were to spend the next week pounding away at her chest voice without ever stretching head voice, then we might have a loss of some of the high notes. But even then, a little head voice love would put them right back in place. Balance in all things, people.

The air that I breathe...

We need air to sing, there's no question. How much breath you use is up to you. Do you want a chestier sound? Try pulling back on the amount of air you use. A headier sound? Add a little breathiness. Better still, try exercising both coordinations. You can't go wrong mastering singing breathy, non-breathy, and everything in between.

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David McCall

David McCall

Director of Vocal Development