Dealing with problem voices

By John Henny

If you are a regular reader of this column, you will have been given an arsenal of great teaching tools with which to help singers.

However, in your teaching career you will encounter voices that we will politely classify as “difficult.” No matter what you try, these stubborn vocal problems don’t seem to want to budge.

In this article, I’m going to break down some of the most common problem singers, and give you new ways to think about and approach them. Often the tools will remain the same, but we will apply them in slightly different ways in order to break through their vocal trouble spots.

Breathy SIngers

This is actually one of the most common issues you will deal with, especially with younger female singers. There will occasionally be the singer that you can’t seem to get cord closure no matter what you do.

I find success with getting them out of singing and into emotional speech sounds. Have them chastise someone with an “ah-ah-ah” or to angrily tell someone “go.”

Once they are getting the vocal cords together with these sounds, quickly move into a scale. If they lose closure, go back to speech and then back to the scale.

The emotional involvement of speech will often get those stubborn cords to come together.

“Breathy singers is actually one of the most common issues you will deal with”

Major Chest Pullers

This is another common problem but probably the most difficult to break. These singers have locked into their natural, hardwired defense and warning mechanism – shouting.

The other issue is when the muscles of the vocal cords, that give us chest voice, over-flex and overpower the muscles that stretch and thin the vocal cords for higher notes. This singer basically hits a wall in their range.

For these singers it may take an extended period of working unfinished sounds. These sounds remove resonances that otherwise need to be balanced, and also help the cord muscles relax for the higher pitches.

Hooty and nasty sounds are both good choices. Also, don’t worry about the student flipping for a while, this will likely be necessary in the short term.

Pubescent Voices

I’ve had more voice teachers ask me about the changing male voice than any other, as it can be the most confusing and challenging.

Basically the young male singer is moving from having what is essentially a female voice (in terms of registration) to a new and bigger instrument.

What used to be chest voice is now a horrible break, and there’s a lot more chest voice below that.

The chest voice muscles will likely be working too hard, which cuts off the upper ranges, and the young cords are often not stable enough to withstand the greater tensions of pitch for the adult male voice.

I often work these male singers in their upper chest voice. This is the area from Bb3 (just below middle C) to D4 (just above middle C).

This area will now function as a type of bridge from lower to upper chest and will require similar coordination and resonance control as their primary bridge, but it will be much easier for them.

Allow the singer to begin adjusting vowels as they approach this area. This will help set them up for the more difficult task of blending through their main bridge, which starts around Eb4.

I also work them above the break, on falsetto sounds that we slowly add more cord closure to.

The final element in this voice is time. It will simply take a while for the cords to continue to mature and stiffen.

Aging Voices

The stiffening of the vocal folds is what is needed for the young voice, but the continued stiffening over time makes the voice less flexible with age.

The vocal bridges will become a bit more difficult as well.

A key approach to the aging voice is to start vowel modifications and bridging a little earlier. Keeping the voice in a lighter coordination can help overcome the natural tendency of the aging voice to get too heavy.

Aging Voices

You might also start dealing with breathiness, as some of the muscles of singing weaken. Focus on cord closure exercises can also help a great deal.

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John Henny is internationally renowned as a "teacher of teachers". He has trained hundreds of voice teachers through masterclasses and his online Voice Teacher Bootcamps. John has been a featured columnist for Backstage Magazine, publishing more than 40 articles on vocal technique. He has also lectured and taught at USC, The Learning Annex, Mount Saint Mary's, and Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute of the Arts. John's students range from beginners to superstars. He is available at his Music Academy in Glendora CA, and from anywhere via Skype lessons.