Episode 62 – Fixing a Breathy Voice

Breathy singing can be a useful vocal color, but it is often overused or not in the singer’s control.

Even worse is when the singer is unable to get out of a chronically breathy condition.

In this episode, John gives some tips and exercises to help overcome an overly-breathy voice.

Episode Transcript (approximate)

Hey, this is John Henny. Welcome back to another episode of The Intelligent Vocalist Podcast. That’s a lot of Ts. That’s tricky to say. I actually had to do my little intro there a few times because my tongue was tripping up on the T’s. So I’ll have to do some exercises. Speaking of exercises, let’s talk about fixing a breathy voice.

This is not always an issue for singers. Some singers are over pressed and squeezy. On the previous episode, episode 61, I talked about being stuck in your throat and really pressing. This is the opposite condition. This is getting really breathy. If you’re dealing with this, one of the first things we want to get out of the way is if the breathiness is chronic and consistent and you really can’t seem to shake it.

As you do vocal exercises, if the cords just aren’t really coming together properly and you always just kind of have this breathy sound and when you sing ma, ma, ma, the cords aren’t really holding, then I recommend you see an ear, nose, and throat doctor. On episode 51, I talk about going to see the ear, nose, and throat doctor. I am getting better at bringing up previous episode numbers to help you find the information as I’m starting to get a lot of these podcasts piled up. 62 is not bad, just keep trucking on.

But you want to just check and see that you’re not dealing with any vocal nodules or those little calluses or polyps, which are like the little fluid filled blisters, that you’re not dealing with reflux that’s going to keep you in chronic inflammation. There’s a number of issues that can cause breathiness. Your vocal chords can get a little bowed so that they don’t come together in a straight line. They bow apart much like bowed legs and the air is going to pass between them because you’re not going to get that tight seal and compression over the air.

You can get different levels of vocal fold paralysis or paresis where they don’t totally come to center or maybe one vocal cord will come to center and the other doesn’t. So there’s a little gap there. Through training, that can be compensated for, but if you’re dealing with a chronic issue, it’s best to understand what is happening by seeking out a professional.

Now, breathiness is a legitimate artistic choice. You will have singers that make a breathy sound really part of their sound. However, breathiness is one of those things that if you incorporate it as part of your style and you use it a lot, you want to be very, very careful. First of all, using breathiness in the studio versus live is completely different. In the studio, you’re singing into very, very expensive condenser microphones that are super sensitive.

So your little breathy textures, everything’s going to get picked up by the microphone and then when it’s being mixed, everything can be balanced and EQ’ed and level set so that the breathiness really has texture and can really be heard. And it can be a very, very nice effect when used properly. Live, a lot of that flies out the window.

First of all, you’re not going to tend to use those expensive condenser mics mainly because they’re too sensitive and you have all the stage noise that’s going on in a live performance. And also, they’re a bit more fragile so you tend to get those tougher mics like the good old SM, the Shure SM58, which you could basically use to hammer nails into a board and then continue singing with it.

And in those situations, your little, subtle, breathy textures are going to be lost. They’re not going to be heard by the audience by the time it mixes, it goes through the less sensitive microphone and then mixes with the instrument and all the ambient noise of a crowd and the sonic imperfections of most places that you will perform. Your breathiness is going to get lost.

And you will notice if you check out live performances of singers that will use a breathy effect in a song, they’re not quite as breathy live. So you do have to learn to control that. So I would be very, very careful about over incorporating breathiness.

Also, sometimes a breathy style from artists, to be honest, I suspect is coming from not so much an artistic choice, but the fact that they are maybe dealing with some vocal problems themselves, maybe some nodules, vocal fatigue, vocal weakness, problems with their technique. They’re not able to sing into certain areas of their voice as strongly as they might like. So they use breathiness as an artistic cover up, if you will.

And I find when working with singers, when I work with really experienced singers who are very good musicians and artists, they have really clever ways of hiding their vocal imperfections. And my job is to root those out and fix all of the little bugs in their voice, but they get very creative at making everything sound like they are doing it on purpose. But when I ask them, are you doing that on purpose, the answer is usually no.

That’s how they’re able to get through that area of the voice. So you want to keep that in mind when you listen to singers use certain things like breathiness, or flipping, or yelling, certain things that aren’t necessarily technically correct. When they use that in their style, sometimes it’s artistic choice, but a lot of times it’s their vocal weaknesses being shown. They’re just very clever and creative with them.

I believe everything, for art’s sake, is permitted and correct. Any sound that you want to make, if that’s what you want to express, you go for it. I just would recommend that those sounds be within your control. The problem with vocal sounds that get really yelly or over breathy is if that’s the only way you can make the sound and you get stuck there, you may have vocal issues down the road.

Now, the yelling is much more problematic than the breathiness, but the breathiness will want to be addressed. And you can irritate the cords a bit by doing lots and lots of breathy singing or talking because excess air is passing over the folds. The vocal folds or cords need to have this nice thin mucus on them. And imagine somebody blowing into your eyeball. It would get very irritating and it would dry out your eye. And this excess air over the vocal folds can be irritating.

And some of us are more sensitive vocally than others. There is a genetic component to the amount of abuse, I’ll say, your voice can withstand. And there is a percentage of the population that can basically beat their cords pretty hard and not experience the swelling that the average population does. And then there’s a percentage of the population where the cords are a little hypersensitive and they will begin to swell before the average person’s cords.

So it’s a good idea to know where you are on the spectrum. Just because your favorite singer can seem to down a few shots of Jack Daniels and then go out there and just scream out a song doesn’t necessarily mean you can do the exact same thing and experience the same result. You may end up with vocal swelling you don’t want. So I encourage you to know your voice well and be careful. Just be in control of the sounds that you make.

Now, if you are dealing with breathiness that you do not want, what I suggest is first starting down in your lower register or what we will call the chest voice, so named because if you put your hand on your chest plate and say, “Uh,” you’ll feel more sympathetic vibrations than you do on the higher notes. It’s just the way that the voice vibrates, the way it couples with the resonating spaces and the sound waves bounce around. We will pick up sympathetic vibrations in the chest, hence it’s called chest voice.

Again, voice teachers will argue about these terms, but it’s pretty popular so I’ll use it. Chest voice or lower register, same thing. Start down in the lower register and what we want to do is we want to work exercises to bring the vocal cords together. If you’re experiencing breathiness, it’s very much like a trumpet player. Rather than having a proper omniture that goes, is letting their lips be a little too relaxed, and you get that breathy sound.

And that’s what we want to eliminate. If you are experiencing breathiness, your cords are not properly able to close over and compress the air that you are sending to them. So the subglottal, now the glottis is the opening in your vocal cords and then below that opening in your lungs, that’s the pressure that we want to build, the subglottal pressure. If the cords don’t close properly, you’re not going to get a nice enough buildup of that subglottal pressure to create a strong enough soundwave and you just end up sounding like this.

The other thing is you will run out of air very, very quickly even though you’re not making that much sound. Sometimes people think that a big loud vocal sound takes lots of air, and quite frankly, to sing a breathy sound takes far more air because a lot of it is not being utilized. It’s being wasted acoustically and the energy of the air is not created. It just passes through the vocal folds without being compressed into a sound wave.

And so we get that breathy sound and you’re going to run out of air. The cords can feel a little dry, they can get a little tired. You’re certainly going to lose some control and also, it can sneak its way into the speaking voice. And a lot of times, singers who have issues with their singing voice will often have issues with their speaking voice.

I recommend that singers not allow themselves to be down and fry all the time or to speak with a breathy voice because it’s just not keeping the cords operating after optimal level of phonation. You really don’t have the luxury of being lazy with your voice as a singer. Your job is to create sounds with those two little pieces of soft tissue, and if you’re good enough and a little bit lucky, lots of people will pay you to hear those two little pieces of soft tissue vibrate. So you want to be very particular and careful with how you use them.

Now, with the speaking voice, I would refer you back to episode 12 of the podcast that goes a ways back, but I go through how to have healthy speaking voice. And some of these exercises will also help with breathiness. Now, in terms of vocal exercises, while I can’t really teach you to sing over a podcast, I can give you a few good exercises to work on excessive breathiness. And this is assuming that there are no medical issues.

If you’ve got nodules on your vocal folds, these exercises can help, but you really do need to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor. So this is my disclaimer going forward, is yeah, you should probably make sure that everything is all clear. Now, what we want to do is we want to encourage those vocal cords to come to center and meet just like the trumpet player’s lips. And a really good way to do that is to make a little noise like a creaky gate swinging open.

And with that little sound, you can do on a scale. I want you to do a, what I call long, short, short, long, short, short. In other words, you’re going to go like this. So that gives you that nice restart on every page. And make sure you’re keeping that little creaky gate sound because you don’t want … You’re right back to the breathiness. So you want that little edgy sound in there.

And just do this where it’s comfortable in your voice. You can also do a little one, two, three, four, five on the major scale. So that’s long, short, long, short, long, short, long, short, long. And then once that’s feeling better, you can do it all connected on that little edge sound. If it gets breathy, go back to the long short so that restart can help you bring those cords back together.

The next step is to take that and just on a little age sound like a nay, make it sound ever so slightly bratty. Nay. And give me nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay. Now, this isn’t a really good singing sound, but what it’s gonna do is it’s going to bring those cords together. Keep focusing on that little edgy sound. Now, sometimes people say, “Make a little crying sound,” and that tends to confuse people. But by crying, it’s almost like the whining like aw, c’mon. That edge on the folds is what you want.

So if thinking like a whiny, almost like a cry kind of sound works or the creaky gate, whatever helps you send those signals from your brain down that really meandering nerve that goes to the larynx and it helps bring the vocal cords together, you got to just really think those thoughts. Find the thoughts that work for you and get that little edge. Nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay, nay. If you gotta restart yourself with the mmm before you do the nay, nay, that’s fine.

From there, you can do little exercises that are a little less exaggerated, so from the bratty nay, nay, nay, maybe we can go to a more spoken, ma, ma, ma. And if you start getting ma, ma, ma, go back to the exaggeration. A lot of times in singing lessons, we have to deal with exaggerated sounds when a finished sound doesn’t work. That’s why when you hear someone do their voice lessons, it sounds like they’re making really silly sounds. But what we’re doing is we’re trying to isolate a function of the voice.

Now, you can never truly isolate any one section of the voice, but you can put a little bit more of a spotlight or a focus on it and those little edgy sounds are going to bring that spotlight and that focus in your nervous system to that coordination. And it shouldn’t take you long working through that coordination to be able to start singing in a less breathy manner. And once you do that, I would go ahead and start increasing the intensity and I would use some emotionally charged words.

One of the ones I like to do is have the student like they’re kinda mad say, “Go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go.” Now watch that you don’t start to go, go, over squeeze. But if you get a little bit of emotion in there, that will tend to make the voice come together. Very few people are breathy when they’re angry or when they’re excited, unless of course, they have something on the folds, like a nodule that’s going to stop them from coming together. But most people when they get kind of a little hyped up, emotionally moving if you will, the vocal folds are going to come together better.

And emotion is part of singing. So don’t be afraid to kind of get yourself a little emotionally hyped up in the practice room when you’re working on your voice and get a little angry. Go, go, go, go, and feel that, those cords coming together. And it shouldn’t take much. Do it in your lower register first. Eventually, you can start to take it into your upper notes, that transition or that mix area up into your upper register or head voice. You can use some extensions of these exercises, but get it working in your chest voice first.

Again, a podcast is not really the place to teach you to sing, but those few little exercises can get you started. And the main thing is just being aware of your breathiness and when you catch yourself singing breathy, just stop. I would not seem breathy for a little while until it’s under your control before you stylistically bring it back in.

Usually when I work a student on a song, the first few times through, I’ll have them really sing the song vanilla in that we just get everything balanced, everything in this nice centered place before they start to get artistic with it and make things breathy, maybe make something a little shouted, put in a flip here, let the voice fall off there, sustain without vibrato, all of the things where we start to play with this idea of perfect vocal technique.

Especially in contemporary music, constant perfect vocal technique is not necessarily what people are going to want to hear. We have to get a little dicey with it and play around with it, but it’s really a good idea to have the technique down first, be able to sing everything spot on and then start to mess with it. So I would hold off on the breathy singing for a little while until it’s really in your control and you can choose to do it. And you should feel your voice start to build up fairly quickly. Again, if you keep having trouble, please see the ear, nose, and throat doctor. Tell them John Henny sent you.

Hey, I want to thank you for listening to today’s episode. If you’re interested in further information from me, go to johnyhenny.com, J-O-H-N-H-E-N-N-Y. And if you want to learn to be a voice teacher or explore that, I have an online training program. Just click the teacher training tab at the top and that will take you to my Contemporary Voice Teacher Academy.

Now, as I record this, it is in the closing weeks of 2018 and I will be closing down my Voice Teacher Academy to new members and not reopening it until later next year. So if it’s something you’re considering, you should jump in there now and check it out or you can wait ’til later next year. Hey, thank you again so much for spending this time with me. And until next time, to better singing. Thank you so much. Bye bye.