More on vocal folds, laryngeal tilt, twang and pop singing

I want to thank Jenny for getting me back to posting on my blog. I’ve been so “crazy” busy with teaching and performing…..I forgot how much I love answering your questions.

Jenny was asking for clarification about the thickness of vocal folds in the great pop singers….below is my response.

Hi Jenny

The true definition of “belting” does not include mixing. It is a chest register coordination with thick folds.

The definition of “mixing” is allowing the voice to ascend in pitch through the passaggio (for women around G above middle C). The vocal folds thin out as the voice ascends in pitch. To do this without being breathy, the larynx will tilt as the voice goes higher.

You mention the great pop belters, so I assume you are referring to the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Christina Aguilera. You say it is obvious that they are singing with thick fold. Please note, it may sound like they are always singing with thick folds, but, they are mixing with varying degrees of vocal fold thickness. Their larynx is tilted and their cords have stretched (thinned or stiffened) as they ascend in pitch. (Exception: Christina Aguilera sometimes sings in full chest voice with thick folds, and is able to sing in a beautiful mix as well. She is very aware of what she is doing…it’s a stylistic choice).

The reason these singers sound like they are only singing with thick folds is because they have good vocal cord closure and breath control and support…two EXTREMELY important components to singing in a good mix.

You mention the wide vowel and forward placement. This is absolutely correct and the #1 coordination defining a “pop or rock” sound. The tongue is free in the back of the mouth allowing for “twang” and a speech-level sound. This is why they simply sound like they are talking on pitch…..because they are!

I always remind my students of the illusion of “powerful” singing. If any one of these singers were to sing their #1 hit song in your living room without a microphone, you would say….is that it? Is that all there is? Yes, that’s all it is!

Thank you so much for your question and the opportunity to respond. Good luck! Susie

Kelly Clarkson’s breathing

Dear Ms Bee 
Can you tell me why female singers (like Kelly Clarkson in Mr know It All) gasp out in on mic and have poor breath control/support /management? Are they really out of breath after singing in studio and would it be hard to do same song in concert if done say 5th song in concert? How do they calm breathing down after concert and where can I find information on that subject. I hope you can help.

Hi there and thanks for your question.

There are a few reasons for noisy breathing…I, myself, am a noisy breather, and constantly have to work at minimizing it. I am also what you would call a breathy singer. Many pop/rock/jazz singers are breathy singers. Kelly Clarkson is a breathy singer. This is their trademark sound and possibly why we love their voice.
First, please note, that being a noisy breather does not necessarily mean a singer has poor breath support or management.
You will notice that noisy breathing is almost always only heard with singers performing rock/pop/country….. in other words, a speech-like style. You will not hear noisy breath with classical or musical theater singing. There are reasons for this.
Typically, musical theater and classical singers maintain a mid to low larynx, flat or depressed tongue, and a high soft palate. This allows for a very open throat. They are trained to do this, and this is why they sound the way they do. The sound is resonating in a very open area. There is a lot of space in the back of the throat when they breath in.
However, with pop/rock/country/jazz style, good singers will typically have a mid to high larynx position, a higher tongue, and the soft palate is usually at mid level (speech level). Not near the same space in the back of the throat as noted above. And let’s not forget the uvula hanging down off the soft palate too. This can make for an easy environment of noisy breathing.
High Pitches:  Words sung on high pitches that are above the first passagio and into the second passagio can cause a singer many challenges including tension in the jaw, tongue, throat, and also noisy breathing. Note that maintaining a “speech-like” coordination in this area isn’t considered good technique.  Instead, the sound should be allowed to resonate further back into the soft palate as you sing higher. This, of course, changes the sound of the singer which isn’t necessarily desirable.
Singers who CAN maintain a “speech-like” coordination above the first and second passagio have been known to sell millions of records! Is it wise for them to do this? Is it easy for them to do this without injury? The answer is obviously no….but it can be done safely with attention to much detail. It’s no different than an athlete maintaining top form for his game.
The trick for singers with noisy breathing is to be aware. I try to maintain as high a soft palate as I can when I breath in. I try and find the balanced coordination where I can maintain a less noisy intake of air and still produce the sound I want to put out. This involves engaging my ENTIRE body to find the balance, and a huge part of it is, indeed, breath support.
It is much easier to sing ballads with no breath noise because there is time after each phrase to coordinate and maintain balance. With up-tempo songs, you must breath in quicker, and it is much more challenging especially on high pitches usually found in the chorus.
Remember what I said about a “speech-like” voice in this area? It’s difficult to form words at these pitches and still be able to resonate off the hard palate. If the singer raises the soft palate the sound may resonate further back and possibly stop resonating on the hard palate, and this may not be the sound the singer wants.
Again, the breath noise can easily happen because when the singer quickly breaths in, the conditions are poor. The breath is passing quickly through a narrow passage and hitting the soft palate, uvula, and high tongue.
I hope this makes sense. Thanks again for your question. Susie

Knowing your instrument

We know the voice is a delicate little instrument that can easily be damaged when used incorrectly. Did you know the vocal folds (cords) are composed of three elements: muscle, ligament and an outer fleshy mucous membrane. When used correctly, this little instrument can accomplish amazing feats.

We can’t see the cords while we sing, so it’s important to understand the effort needed elsewhere to ensure the cords are being coordinated correctly for great singing. There are several factors involved: Air flow (which is your breath and involves many other factors to do with your body), position of the larynx, and maximizing your resonance. It is the attention to this balancing act that will allow the cords to stretch out, thin out, stiffen, thicken, lengthen and shorten.  The control at the vocal cord level should be the goal of every great singer.



Are you singing with too much breath?

There is a delicate balancing act happening in your body while you sing. Your breathing pattern is responding to how you just spent your last breath. This happens automatically and we don’t really need to think about it. Or do we?

Speech Level Singing takes the emphasis off of breathing technique, and puts it at the vocal cord  level. The student is encouraged to make “correct” sounds at a volume that is least breathy and most manageable throughout their entire range. I like this approach because singers learn to control the voice throughout both registers at an even volume at the same time. Endurance and strength is built on a foundation of blending and smooth transitioning from the singer’s lowest note to their highest note. This blending (mixing)  is a great technique for all genres of music.

Once a singer is mixing, it’s time to step up the workout and maximize effort and balance thoughout the body. The vocal cords are getting a great workout. Now the body needs to learn how to help the vocal cords control breath pressure. The better breath management a singer has, the more control is achievable by the singer.

There are many “visualizations” and exercises that can help a singer with breath control. One easy visualization is the sensation of picking up a suitcase in each hand. Notice how your abdominal muscles and rib cage engage as you “pretend” to do this. Be sure your neck and throat do not engage as well. This body anchor feeling is a great way to understand and sense how the body can help your breath control. Now, sing any vowel on a comfortable pitch without this body anchor, and then again with this body anchor. Did you notice a difference in your tone? Most likely the tone is less breathy with your body anchor (or at least it should be!)

The back, neck and head can also assist in breath management. This sensation is not tense, but simply anchored. In other words, the body, neck and head are engaged and ready to help the vocal cords do their job (which is closure). Be sure to embrace your entire “self” as you sing. There is no need to force the voice to make sounds that don’t happen easily when you are anchored well.  Instead, repeat, repeat, repeat with different approaches. Try to take in more breath. Try to anchor more. Did it make a difference? Singing well is very physical………….the trick is putting the “physical” in the correct parts of the body!




The benefits of vocal fry when singing

What is vocal fry?

When speaking, vocal fry is simply the vocal cords coming together with very little air passing through, usually at a lower-than-your-normal speech pitch. It sounds like a gritty, broken up, growl….usually at the end of your sentence, and happens frequently in the morning when you first wake up. I hear it frequently, mostly in women. Now that it has made top-headline news recently, I’m sure everyone will start noticing the people around them who speak with some vocal fry.

But now I want to talk about vocal fry from a singing point of view. This is much, much different!

The ability to create vocal fry as you ascend in pitch is one of Brett Mannings’ top three vocal exercises. Why? Because the ability to keep the vocal cords connected with vocal fry as you ascend, is a challenging balance between thinning out the cords and controlling the amount of air passing through. With the correct balance, the cords will touch and vibrate on the edges creating a vocal fry sound. Too much air will either blow the cords apart, or not allow the fry sound to happen. This is the challenge to be able to decrease your air flow just enough to maintain the fry connection in the higher register.

I challenge my students with vocal fry exercises regularly. It really enforces the “less is more” mentality. You should try it. It’s not as easy as you might think. But, let’s be clear we are talking about vocal fry in your “higher” register….not lower.

Please let me know your thoughts!  Check out Brett Manning from Singing Success here