Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: Balancing breath and tone with lip trills

CCM Bannder no datesLips pursedI think it is safe to assume that all voice teachers have encountered lip trills at some point in their career. However, I think it is helpful to examine different takes on common exercises to help mix things up in my teaching. So today, I am going to share a three-step process for using lip trills as described by Mary McDonald Klimek in “Exercises for Voice Therapy” edited by Alison Behrman and John Haskell.

Step One: In this step you will train your student to use just the right amount of breath within a comfortable lung volume range, allowing elastic recoil to take the lead during exhalation rather than contracting the abdominal wall.

  • First, have the student find and experience resting expiratory level (REL). This the place where the body reaches a resting “balance point” at the end of natural exhalation. REL is found by inhaling and letting the breath go in a silent ‘whew!’
  • Next, have the student take an easy breath and exhale to REL, ask her to resist the urge to contract her abdominal wall and to not go beyond REL into the expiratory reserve.
  • Help the student find a comfortable and efficient lip trill. Then have her inhale comfortably and lip trill until she returns to her REL. This is not a contest to see how long she can hold the lip trill. Instead, have her focus on maintaining consistency.
  • When the student is successfully navigating this part of the exercise, ask her to place her hands on the lower part of her ribcage and monitor the movement of her respiratory system. Ask her to consider the amount of effort being used in her mouth and torso, and discuss her observations.

Step Two: In this step, the student will begin to add voicing to the lip trill without exceeding the limits of a comfortable breath.

  • Have the student inhale comfortably and at the height of inhalation, initiate a lip trill.
  • Next, you will ask her to add pitches in the middle of her range. After taking a comfortable inhalation, ask her to perform a descending glide with a lip trill. Instruct her to feel as if her voice originates where the lips are trilling. The goal is to avoid pharyngeal constriction and instead find a relaxed pharynx that allows for free passage of tone from the vocal folds to the lips. After she can successfully glide down, have her glide up. When she can successfully glide up, have her perform sirens. All of these vocalizations should be produced comfortably, avoiding extremes of amplitude, pitch, and inhalation/exhalation.

Step Three: This step helps the student explore her ability to open and close the vocal folds independently of producing a steady stream of air.

  • Have the student produce a voiceless lip trill and then add a comfortable pitch a few seconds into the trill.
  • Now do the opposite: have the student begin with a voiced trill and a few seconds into the trill, stop the pitch while keeping the air flowing.
  • Finally, begin with a voiceless trill and have the student alternate between voiced and unvoiced until she reaches REL.
  • While this exercise is designed for speech therapy, you can begin adding specific pitches at this point to help the student transition towards vocal exercises and repertoire. You can also return to alternating between voiced and unvoiced trills when you reach problem spots in a song that lead the student to lock her breath.

This post is only a brief overview of Klimek’s exercise, to read the full explanation along with tips for exploring the student’s “Inner Rules of Voice Production,” read pages 39-43 in “Exercises for Voice Therapy.” If you find that lip trills make your student’s voice breathier instead of more resonant, read my past post “Take my breath away.”

If you are looking for other ideas for teaching students about airflow when singing, check out my past posts on the blowball game, using a straw and a bottle of water, managing transglottal airflow, using a waist trimmer belt, Thomas Hixon’s respiratory shape exercises, thinking about body type and age, and Gillyanne Kaye’s breath management exercises.

Do you have variations of Klimek’s exercises that you use in your own teaching? Feel free to share your variations in the comment section below. If you are not already following the blog, you can leave your name and email address below to receive a message each time there is a new post. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on social media. As always, thank you for reading and have a wonderful week of teaching!

Happy Holidays,



5 comments on “Mix it up Monday: Balancing breath and tone with lip trills

  1. David Neal
    December 18, 2017

    Matt, Thanks for this post. I learned a wonderful exercise using voiceless to voiced lip trill from Dr. Linda Carroll, voice pathologist and trainer who has done extensive research on the aerodynamics of the vocal tract. It is similar to the “Step Three” exercise in your post, but a bit more extended. After a comfortable inhalation, initiate a voiceless lip trill. Once established, gradually add pitch to the trill. The gradual onset helps avoid locking of the cords and constriction of the pharynx when adding pitch. Continue into a messa di voce, and if possible repeat into a second messa di voce, followed by a quick 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1 scale on the lip trill. If the airflow is steady, and if the pharynx and lips stay relaxed, the singer senses the lower support muscles engage with the onset of the pitch. I’ve found this really useful in finding just the right amount of breath flow.


  2. Yanik Giroux
    December 18, 2017

    Yes! I do lots of that with my students as well. I like alternating voiced/unvoiced and after the lip trills, taking it further into “fff-vvv-fff-vvv”, “th(unvoiced)-th(voiced)-th(unvoiced)-th(voiced)”, “sss-zzz-sss-zzz” and “shhh-jjj-shhh-jjj” (sorry, no IPA keyboard to be more accurate on that last one!). I find it helps my students not only to figure out the breath part, but also to understand the mechanics of breath and their instruments.


  3. Daun L Weiss
    December 24, 2017

    Holly, I think you might enjoy trying this!


    Sent from Daun


  4. Pingback: Mix it up Monday: Richard Miller’s thoughts on addressing a shaky jaw | Matthew Edwards

  5. Pingback: Mix it up Monday: How to allow placement to reveal itself (pt. 2) | Matt Edwards

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This entry was posted on December 18, 2017 by in Breath management, Mix it up Monday.

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