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Too much air in singers' voices

I started working at a school where the previous teacher was here for 17 years. Maybe because of the schedule changes, or maybe because of "fear of the new", my high school choir now consists of 3 girls. Which is fine, I told them we'd find stuff to sing and it'd almost be private voice lessons. But starting to work on the songs, one of them has a VERY small voice, and the other two have a lot of air in their voices, and they sing like pop singers do. I know with proper vocal technique that "hitting the right note" will get better, but right now I need suggestions of exercises and vocal warm ups that can help the two girls get rid of the air in the voice (not thinking of it as a possibility of nodes), and how I can get more sound of the third girl. Help please? Thank you!!
Also, any suggestions on songs for 2 or 3 female voices? I keep looking online but there are very few options (especially for christian songs - it's a christian school), and the girls are not thaaaat comfortable of singing in 3 voices yet, especially if it's more than thirds or fourths apart. I found 2 songs here that we've been working on, but they're almost done with them...
Replies (14): Threaded | Chronological
on August 21, 2014 4:04pm
Hymns!  In unison, and then experiment with them singing the alto part against you singing the soprano to work on their sight reading and ability to hold their own against another part.  And you can do a search on CPDL (The Choral Public Domain Library: for 2 or 3 part women's and find all that wonderful old choral music from the Renaissance that is now available for free in the public domain.  You can also search for 2 or 3 part mens and move it up an octave.  You can put them to work to rewrite the bass part up the octave and on a treble cleff for practice reading bass cleff as well as treble.  Nothing like writing out a piece of music to give a young student time to really think about the relationship between those different note shapes and the rhythm as sung, and where they fall on the staff and how relative pitch changes.  It's good for them to really SLOOOOOW down and look at notes in detail, instead of just memorizing the tune from listening to you, and pretending to read the notes.  While their at it, you can teach them to recognize major and minor triads, and have them write the names for them in above the music.  They'll be ahead of many adult singers!  (:  
Applauded by an audience of 3
on December 15, 2014 9:55am
And consider using a Shape Note or Sacred Harp hymn from time to time, so they can learn some music history and experience a different style of harmony and singing.  Historically, most of these hymns were written in 3 parts, with the melody in the tenor; the alto was added later.  Also, they are not necessarily sung at the pitches at which they are written, but use a "moveable do," chosen to suit the singers.
on August 21, 2014 4:17pm
And one of the best ways to get a particular sound out of your singers is to demonstrate (exaggerating) what they sound like, and then what you want them to sound like.  We all know what you mean when you say "breathy," but they may not.  Fortunately, humans are all born natural mimics.  So sing them a breathy, wheezy "lahhhhh", and then a nice full "laaaaaa."  Have them imitate you doing both.  Encourage them to ham it up.  Ham it up yourself so they know it's okay.  Sing a rich operatic tone and tell them to put on their imaginary opera singer horns and make fun of you.  To overdo it.  And then, having established what too far in both directions sounds like, help them find a happy medium.  When they get it, tell them so immediately, and then have them repeat it again and again before they have a chance to forget what that felt like internally.  
Applauded by an audience of 5
on August 28, 2014 1:23pm
To help people focus their breath, you could do an exercise on A above middle C. Sing "ha". "ha". "ha". "ha"."ha-a-a-a-a" on sol,sol,sol,sol,sol-fa-mi-re-do.  Put rests between the separate "ha"s. When their pitch is off on the "ha"s, ask them to think the note, start the breath as they think "h", then put the sound into the breath and use a finger to show that. Like hitting the center of a target.
For airy voices, have them put their finger in front of their lips while singing (like they are saying "shhh"). Can they feel their breath? Can they make less breath come out while singing?
Also make sure ears, shoulders and hips are in a line and their breath is from their belly. Shoulders should't be working themselves up and down as they breath. Bellies should go in and out softly. You could have them lie on the floor with knees bent which lines all this up.
hope that helps.
Rachael in TX
on August 29, 2014 2:31pm
Rebeca, I know December's a ways away still, but I have a setting of Rossetti's poem "In the Bleak Midwinter" for unison voices that does not go above D. This piece was written with the small church choir in mind, and might work well for your three voices.  Check it out at:
on August 30, 2014 6:20am
The ee vowel is the easiest one to remove breathy tone. I use it on a pentatonic scale up and down, then modulate chromatically as my third warm up every day, while having the kids spin their hands around each other down low where the breath support will be.  Then I ask them to concentrate on ringing and spinning the tone as they sing.  When there's too much air, the vocal folds are too far apart and need to be brought closer without striking each other.  Sometimes having them show with two fingers the vocal chords at the right spacing as they sing helps their body do it.  I'm also a newish choir director at a small Christian school :).  Fun to find another.  I convinced my school to have choir at zero hour (7:30am) to avoid schedule conflicts and am finally up to 40 students (3rd year.)  It is harder to sing in the morning, but there are so many other benefits to it that it's working out really well.
on August 30, 2014 8:06am
Do you have a halfway decent microphone that you can use to record them? If so find an example of what you want them to sound like (if possible, on repertoire you're doing). Get them to agree that the group they are listening to sounds good. Then, make a recording of them and make them listen to it. Ask them for three things they want to fix about their sound. They will tear themselves apart and be far more viscious about it than you would ever be. They will also be extremely motivated to fix the problems they hear. Record them again. Play it back for them and ask them if they improved on what they wanted to improve upon. 
I do this with my elementary choir. They really can hear what they sound like and they almost always make the suggestions I would make (or have made and they have ignored). The one rule I would throw in is this: make sure when they are providing feedback that they either do not use anyone's name for constructive criticism (ie Jenny was singing flat) or if your group is really close knit and kind to one another that they make sure that their criticism is constructive (ie Jenny sounded like she wasn't singing in tune with the rest of us. Can we go over that part again so she can have another chance?) Model what you want them to say and you'll get great results. 
on August 30, 2014 9:09am
A breathy tone in an adolescent female is not necessarily due to poor vocal production, it may also be (or, is likely to be) a symptom of a developing larynx ("changing voice").  Lynne Gackle's "Finding Ophelia's Voice" (Lorenz) is the first book of it's kind on the changing female voice.  I consider it reqired reading for anyone working with girl's voices from age 8 to 18.  There is also a companion DVD (some clips on You Tube) and this lecture presentation which will aquaint you with her work.  
For resources a great entry point can be found in unison (sacred) works from publisher's such as Chorister's Guild.  Pieces such as "Come, Let Us Sing to the Lord" by Jody Lindh are tuneful, moderately paced (tempo and rhythm keep the voice moving so breath is less of an issue), voiced appropriately, and may have an occassional and optional 2nd part one of the singers could cover.
Also look at the Houston Children Choir series published by Fred Bock (don't be put off by "Children" in the series title) most of the selections are sacred, all are unison or 2 part, and there are recordings to review them immediatley (and to play for your girls to model, if you like).  As an alternative to "pop" Christian you'll find some of the titles (e.g. "Moses", "Esther") are spirituals or new tunes in a light jazz style which may help you capture thier peers and build your numbers (then move on to other traditional styles that will help develop tone production).
Finally, at this stage consider some of the modern worship hymn-like songs such as "How Deep the Father's Love", "In Christ Alone", "Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)", "He's Aways Been Faithful" (Sara Groves and incorporates "Great Is Thy Faithfulness").  Look at the things that people such as Stuart Townend, Kristin and Keith Getty are doing). They are generally voiced too low so look for the highest key versions possible to get the tessitura on the staff, preferably around G (above middle C) and higher.
Wishing you success in binging music and faith to your girls!
Applauded by an audience of 3
on August 31, 2014 5:24am
Rebeca, you're going to do a great job with these girls. I applaud you for your positive attitude! :) Most of us would be posting something like "what do I do with only three voices?" It's so refreshing to see that you've dug right in and are doing a great job for your students. 
on August 31, 2014 10:41am
Whether your singers' small or airy voices are a by-product of their adolescent physiology or their vocal production, I believe you can have help them by encouraging dynamic breath support and a relaxed vocal mechanism. 
  • Help them breathe so that their lower and upper ribs expand outward. Having them place the backs of their fingers on their lower ribs while they inhale will give them a reality check. This sort of breathing will give them more air to work with; it will also encourage more relaxation in the vocal mechanism itself. (See the "Raggedy Ann" exercise on my "Movement & Warm-Ups" page.)
  • Have them move while they warm-up and while they sing their rep. A committed and engaged body usually has a huge (and instant) impact on the singer's sound. (In truth, I've never seen it fail.) That movement can be related to swimming, throwing, juggling, or just about any other physical activity you can think of. (Lots more exercises on the above webpage.) Ironically, a breathy sound is often "cured" by engaging more--and more dynamic--breath!
  • Help them to relax their jaws and tongues; and sing pure vowels. Placing the backs of their fingers on their faces (while they sing) can help them with this relaxation (knuckles on the high cheekbones/fingertips near their jawline). In my experience as a singer and a teacher, the jaw should be comfortably loose and relaxed; it should not be forced to open a certain amount. 
  • For relaxed and efficient pure vowel formation, it's helpful for the tip of the tongue to have a "homebase" against the back of the bottom teeth. A good exercise for this (and relaxed jaw) is "LEH-YAH, HUNG-GAH, LEH-YAH, HUNG-GAH"  (1-3, 3-5, 5-3, 3-1). That exercise should be sung with a still and relaxed jaw, with just the tongue moving back and forth from behind the top teeth (for the L) to its homebase position against the back of the bottom teeth. 
  • Work with them on pure vowels. If their vowels aren't pure, they are dampening their volume and overall vocal production, creating tension as well. 
  • Help them find more space by raising the soft palate. Emulating Miss Piggy, Julia Childs, or even an opera singer(:-) can help them find this position. Raising the eyebrows can also help, especially on high notes. Reminding them with to "make sure you have enough space" can also help. As can the concept of making space for a ping-pong ball in the back of the mouth. Having them feel the beginning of a yawn is another way to go. 
All my best,
PS: Singers also sing more powerfully when they have a specific and compelling reason to sing. For more on that, see the other pages of the website linked above.
on December 15, 2014 10:13am
Thank you Tom, for the reference to your website.  I can see this will be very helpful to those of us who have never had formal vocal or conducting instruction, and I will study it carefully next week when winter break begins.  And thanks to everyone else who posts to these forums!
on September 1, 2014 8:00am
Hi Rebeca --
This is a question of breath management, and the fundamentals are the same for good singing in any style. It is also directly connected to good vocal health, especially important for young singers whose mature voice is still developing. As you indicated, teenagers may try to imitate the vocal mannerisms of pop singers, one of the worst things they can do. The best source of good solid information on breath management (as well as every other aspect of choral singing) I know of is Prescriptions for Choral Excellence by Shirlee Emmons and Constance Chase (Oxford University Press 2006). I highly recommend this book for choral directors at every level.The first chapter, pp. 15-58, is devoted to breath management, especially the importance of the appoggio, the raised sternum and expanded rib cage position that is the key to breath control. 
In my experience, untrainned choral singers' problems often come down to trying to do too much: raising shouldder when inhaling, exaggerated mouth positions and grimacing, etc. Example: "highest" as in hossana in the highest, sung "hiee-yiss." On the 1st syllable the jaw comes up to press the sides of the tongue against the upper teeth. The 2nd syllable is a slight down-and-up snap of the jaw to form the unneeded "Y" consonant. Overall resunt: unlovely sound. Correct method: relaxed dropped jaw, tounge relaxed and lying flat for the first vowel. The transition to the 2nd syllable vowel (eh, not ih) is made by simply raising the backof the tongue halfway. Nothing else changes. Nice sound made with much less effort.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on September 2, 2014 9:45am
I usually address this problem indirectly, using words like "energy," and "focus."  I love a lot of the ideas presented here that focus on making the breathing efficient, reducing counterproductive tensions, and unifying the vowels.  I don't generally use the word "breathy" because the students may become self-conscious about it and start to squeeze the glottal chink closed before it's ready. 
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 12, 2014 5:10pm
A word about the girl who has a small voice. Encourage her to produce more sound, but listen to her tone and notice when it starts to sound a little less pretty.
I was not blessed with a super big voice. Instead, my voice is small and transparent. My pianissimo is almost inaudible and my fortissimo is probably someone else's forte. I have tried every technique and my max volume is my max volume; any louder and my tone suffers. That's just how my voice works. I'm a soprano and I can float notes other sopranos would kill to sing that quietly. 
If the girl with the quiet voice is like me and trying different things doesn't get any more volume out of her, encourage her to focus on resonation and tone instead. Transparent voices are awesome to have and they will blend with pretty much anything.
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