Don’t let your tone choose you –says Juliet Russell
Some singers make breathiness a feature of their vocal style e.g. Florence and the Machine at the beginning of Shake It Out and Michael Jackson in Don’t Stop ‘til you Get Enough.
A breathy tone can be tender, emotive and intimate: an effective part of our dynamic range.
However, as a “default setting” it can limit our ability to project, our performance choices and lead to vocal fatigue.
How Breathiness Works
To make sound, breath passes through the vocal cords, which vibrate, opening and closing at an amazingly fast rate.
There is a ripple effect, with normal voice function having a closed phase where the edges of the vocal folds meet entirely momentarily, often hundreds of times per second.
When full cord closure is not achieved the voice can sound breathy.
Here are some of the causes that may be at the source of your breathy tone.
For all but one of these, I suggest changes you can make so that you can be more in the driver’s seat with your tone.
Using Too Much Breath – while breathing and breath support are crucial to singing you only ever need enough air, not too much. Many singers think that inhaling to capacity will help them sing properly, but all too often they are working too hard. If there is too much air, the vocal folds are unable to meet effectively.
Vocal Chink – this is where there is a small chink in the structure of the vocal folds and they cannot completely achieve closure. This can cause a husky voice or breathy tone. This is usually an anatomical feature and something that you need to work with rather than be frustrated or limited by. Positively, it can add character and make a voice distinctive. Adolescence can bring with it a vocal chink – usually this naturally changes as the voice develops.
Ineffective Cord Closure – if you have been using a breathy tone as your default you can develop a more focused tone by exercising in a way that encourages the vocal folds to meet. Useful exercises include using a gentle glottal onset at the beginning of a vowel particularly in the lower register. A hard “G” sound at the start of notes can help achieve a focussed tone.
Vocal Fatigue – sometimes when we have been using our voice a lot the membranes around the vocal folds become inflamed and we lose clarity. Usually the best thing to do is rest. Sometimes it is possible to rebalance the voice through exercise. If you are not sure, use a vocal coach to guide you.
Vocal Problems – sometimes a breathy tone can be a sign that there is something wrong, particularly if your voice usually has clarity and flexibility. Don’t panic, but do get checked out, particularly if you lose your voice for an extended period.
Environmental and Health Factors – e.g. air conditioning, hay fever, acid reflux, smoking, illness etc. can affect our voice. If you notice specific habits or behaviours have an impact on your voice, be proactive and change them. Prevention is always better than cure.
Using a breathy tone can be a valid and useful expressive choice.
Try to ensure that it is a choice and that you are using your voice in the most efficient and effective way that you can.
My Reactions To This Week’s Peer Review Vid
Jon Grande – Love of My Life (cover)
Thanks you for posting this Jon. It’s a good choice of song and one I rarely hear covered. While it’s great to hear you accompany yourself, it would have been nice to hear the vocal a little louder in comparison. Part of the reason the vocal sounds less present than it could is you are using a consistently breathy tone in your lower register. I would like you to work on getting more efficient cord closure throughout your chest voice. Practice long vowel sounds aiming to get the tone as clear and focused as possible (in chest voice you can add a gentle glottal onset without too much breath behind the sound to ensure the cords are meeting). Sometimes when we are playing an instrument and singing this has an impact on our posture. Try to keep the back of your neck long and make sure that you are supporting your breath efficiently.
If you’re signed up to VoiceCouncil’s Peer-Review, you’ll be receiving unique coaching feedback from Juliet for the next 8 weeks. You can sign up now.
Juliet Russell has coached Grammy award winners and X-Factor finalists and is a vocal coach on BBC1’s The Voice. Passionate about developing aspiring artists, she co-founded Sense of Sound She has collaborated with artists and companies including Damon Albarn, Imogen Heap, Paloma Faith, Ringo Starr, BBC, Channel 4, Universal Royal Opera House, Greenpeace and Glastonbury, and has written music for film, television and radio. Juliet holds a Masters degree in Music and is in huge demand as coach, vocal arranger and musical director. Juliet is passionate about developing aspiring artists and supporting individuals and communities to explore their voices and creativity.
Juliet Russell on Twitter
Juliet Russell on Facebook