More breath! More support! If you are a trained singer, you have probably heard these instructions many times throughout your life. Breathing is of course an integral aspect of both speaking and singing (also, you know, living). However, one common misconception about voice training is that breathing exercises alone can fix nearly any vocal issue under the sun. In reality, the breathing mechanism is only one of three ‘parts’ within the overall vocal system:

  1. Power: the breathing mechanism/muscles of inhalation and exhalation
  2. Source: the larynx and vocal folds that vibrate to create pitch
  3. Filter: the vocal tract/throat and mouth above the larynx that filter sound produced by the vocal folds

When we hear a singer with an unintentionally breathy tone, it can be easy to assume more breath pressure and ‘support’ will fix the problem. In some cases, that is true. There are certainly instances when a singer’s inspiratory and expiratory muscles are not behaving as efficiently as they could be. Breathing exercises can often help correct those type of issues and promote overall physical awareness. However, breathing work alone will not always fix an undesirable breathy vocal tone. Here are two case study examples:

  1. Sam is an adult mezzo-belter who almost exclusively sings musical theatre and pop/rock belt songs. They can manageably belt up to a C5. However, when singing in head register, their tone becomes thin, airy, and quiet sounding.
  2. Alex is an adult bass-baritone with several years of vocal training who primarily sings classical repertoire. They can produce a strong, full tone up to an E4 on a good day. However, when singing in falsetto above that, their tone becomes thin, airy, and quiet sounding.

What is happening with these singers? Neither has discernible breath management and control difficulties when singing in their normal registers. So, why do their voices only sound breathy and weak in head register/falsetto? One likely culprit is vocal fold coordination difficulties between registers. It is important to note the vocal folds control airflow. Let me say that again: the vocal folds control airflow. That may sound counterintuitive at first. After all, doesn’t breath pressure make the vocal folds vibrate to create pitch? Yes, in conjunction with the actions of several laryngeal muscles and other factors. However, the vocal folds behave differently when singing in different register configurations:

  1. In ‘chest register’, the vocal folds become thick and short, the full fold length vibrates, and there is a longer closed quotient phase (aka they remain firmly touching for a longer period of time). There is also a higher level of breath pressure below the folds– with less airflow through the folds themselves.
  2. in ‘head register’/falsetto, the vocal folds become thin and stretched, only the upper fold edges vibrate, and there is a shorter closed quotient phase (aka they remain touching for a shorter period of time). There is also a lower to moderate level of breath pressure below the folds– with more airflow through the folds themselves.

See the issue? Singers like Sam and Alex are accustomed to singing with vocal fold behaviors that resemble configuration #1 above (aka thick folds that can withstand a considerable amount of breath pressure). In head register/falsetto, breath pressure and airflow requirements are significantly different than they are for chest register/belt. As such, that high breath pressure Sam and Alex are accustomed to using is likely causing air to rush right through their thin, stretched vocal folds in head register. This can lead to singers feeling fatigued and out of breath very quickly. Picture a river dam breaking after a storm and water flooding out everywhere. That is akin to what is happening here when air streams reach their vocal folds. The folds are literally giving out because A) the pressure is too high and B) the laryngeal muscles controlling the folds have not yet been conditioned enough for this particular vocal behavior.

Coordinating the vocal folds to behave optimally in both chest and head register requires knowledge, patience and effort. In addition to breath pressure and flow changes, the intrinsic laryngeal muscles that drive the folds must be strengthened and conditioned in different ways over time. Often, that cannot be achieved through breathing work alone. It will usually require a combination of power, source and filter adjustments. Depending on the singer, this can take weeks, months, or even years in extreme cases. As always, my advice to students is to find a voice teacher who understands how the voice functions and ask plenty of questions. Here are some basic exercises from me to help strengthen head register/falsetto and remove breathiness from pitches (these should really be done under the supervision of a teacher):

  1. Use vocal sirens to access head register/falsetto pitches more freely. Sirens have been used in voice training for centuries and promote vocal fold closure in head register. You might be surprised how many individuals can imitate a high siren sound even if they struggle to make a similar sound in vocal exercises. While doing sirens, make sure to note mouth shape(s) and breath pressure usage throughout.
  2. Sing short scales, slides and arpeggios in head register using the closed vowels [i] “ee” and [u] “oo”. Make sure the mouth is not too open, breath pressure is moderate, and the tongue is toward the front of the mouth. Try to keep the tone bright and focused (but not pressed), and avoid going too high or low in range. When you or your student are able to sing those vowels freely and clearly, create similar exercises that begin on [i] or [u] then transition to a more difficult open vowel like [a] “ah”. If the open vowel lacks brightness and intensity, try to mimic some of the shape and overall feel of [i] or [u]. Repeat process until all sung head register vowels are bright, focused and clear.
  3. Use semi-occluded vocal tract scales and slides to promote optimal vocal fold closure and breath coordination in head register. Examples include singing through a straw, lip trills, tongue trills, and singing on the voiced consonants ‘mm’, ‘nn’, ‘ng’, ‘vv’, and ‘zz’.
  4. If you are working on head register in the context of a song, speak the text high in your range. Try imitating the high, head-y speaking voices of classic characters like Elmo from Sesame Street, Miss Piggy from The Muppets, or even Mickey Mouse. As with vocal sirens, imitating iconic high voices can sometimes unlock head register in a way that straightforward vocal exercises won’t (at least initially).

P.S. Need help finding musical theatre songs to sing? Check out my professional repertoire guides here.

– Kevin Michael Jones

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