Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute
Young women often struggle with breathiness in their head voice and it can prove rather frustrating for both teacher and student. I’ve observed a number of masterclasses where the teacher says that the student is not using their breath correctly and proceeds to teach the student to take a larger breath and do a combination of abdominal maneuvers to correct the fault. However, this strategy will often fail to produce the desired results because the issue is not caused by a lack of breath pressure but rather the use of too much pressure when phonating.
During breathy phonation in the head voice, the vocal folds will vibrate along the anterior
portion (front), but will separate in the back. This is called called a mutational chink because it is commonly found in singers whose voices are changing. This condition is caused by a weakness of the interarytenoid muscles, which are responsible for bringing the arytenoid cartilages together and closing that posterior portion of the vocal folds (Vennard, 1967, p. 63). If a weakness exists in these muscles, they are incapable of resisting the air pressure created by the respiratory system during phonation. Therefore the greater the air pressure, the breathier the voice will be. This is why the strategy of using more breath and abdominal contraction often fails.
Instead of using more breath to adduct the vocal folds, try using less. Ask the singer to inhale, then exhale 80% of their air and then sustain a single pitch in their head voice. Try this several times. If the breathiness is reduced or disappears, then you will know you are dealing with a muscular weakness in the adductor muscles. As you begin strengthening the adductors, you will want to sing with as little breath as possible. When the singer can phonate easily and without excess breath, slowly begin to increase the amount of air they are using. Eventually you will return to normal respiratory function, but the excess breathiness will subside.
There are of course other factors to consider when working with a singer who is struggling with breathiness. It is important to remember that young voices take time to develop. Do not rush this process, doing so could lead to excess tension that will be difficult to get rid of as the student ages. Instead, focus on musicianship, acting, and style while you wait for the voice to strengthen.
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