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Held Prisoner by a Breathy Tone?

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.

Breathiness Causes

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.

-Juliet Russell

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.
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  • Robert Lunte

    Good article. I agree that these are all good reasons why vocal cord closure may not be happening. 

    For 9 out of 10 students of singing that are experiencing vocal cord closure issues, it is a matter of not having the strength and coordination in the CT, TA, AES and arytenoids muscles in the larynx. The way you build this muscle strength is working closely with compression vocal modes. The two compression vocal modes are twang vocal mode and quack vocal mode. 

    The the question becomes, how do you train these compression vocal modes? Well, that is where the voice teacher’s individual ability and creative techniques come into play. If you are training your voice and have windy issues, and your teacher is not specifically addressing the problem with what appears to be knowledgable solutions… that could only include, working with twang and quack vocal modes, then you are probably not going to get results very quickly if at all.

    The way you train these vocal modes so you can train the musculature that comes with them is in the onset, or the beginning of your singing. IN my comprehensive vocal training system, “The Four Pillars of Singing 2.0”, there are specifically instructions and videos that offer workouts that teach you how to twang and quack. There are also 6 specialized onsets that are used as “trouble-shooters” to assist students in engaging the proper muscularity and coordination in their onsets, in particular, inside of M2 & M3 (the proper terminology for what used to be referred to as “chest/head voice”).

    There is more to it than this, but try quacking like a duck to at least get familiar with the feeling of vocal fold compression (closure) and the sound it makes. But don’t be fooled by this funny sound, if you quack like a duck, you will sound like a duck. The thing that makes it not sound like a duck when your singing is the context (presumably your not pretending to be a duck, your singing a song with legato, phrasing, lyrics, etc…), and most importantly, the shape of your vocal tract. If you fail to shape your vocal tract properly for singing, all you will ever do is sound like a duck when you engage compression… to turn the ugly duckling of quack, into the beautiful swan of twang, you have to increase the resonant space of your vocal tract with intrinsic anchoring… the activation of a specific set of muscles in your larynx that increase the resonant space of your vocal tract. When you increase the resonant space of any instrument, you get a ‘boomier’ or darker harmonic in the formant… and THAT is how you make compression not sound like a duck… again, intrinsic anchoring is something your teacher should be able to teach you and if you are not learning this, you’ll never get it.

    I hope this help… 

    Robert Lunte