Good Tone Production for Singing
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A major goal of serious students of voice is to learn how to produce smooth, even, fully resonant, pleasant tone throughout the range.
Ideal tone is a complex product of breath control, vocal fold function, position of the larynx, tongue, nose, and soft palate, as well as use of resonance in the head and throat cavities, (amongst other functions of the vocal apparatus). Beyond these “basics”, there are many other nuances and intricacies of tone, such as colour, quality, registration, etc., that are best developed with some professional, expert guidance. Tone is far too complicated for me to treat in depth in this article, and far too complicated to learn by merely reading suggestions and advice from others on the internet.
I strongly recommend that you find a knowledgeable, experienced voice instructor who will teach you correct singing technique and improve your overall tone. Opt for a technique instructor who will focus a great deal on your tone development over a vocal coach who will likely spend more time on having you sing songs than on fully developing your technical skills. (Read my article Vocal Coaching or Vocal Technique Instruction? to learn more about the difference between these two styles of teaching.) Working with a vocal instructor who is highly knowledgeable about the science of singing will help you to gain a better understanding of how to use your body to produce a desirable, “perfect” tone. Furthermore, with some help, you can become aware of and eliminate tone production errors, and thus improve breath control, stamina, vocal agility, volume, range and vocal health as a result.
The following subsections will address topics ranging from common technical errors that produce poor tone, why they occur and how to correct them to finding ideal vocal resonance to why our voices all sound different to the role of breathing in tone production to register blending to exercises that will help a beginning student learn to feel and hear correct tonal balance in the voice. (Again, I can’t emphasize enough the inherent inadequacy of this article to help a singer create balanced tone. It is merely intended to provide some information to help guide a singer to a better understanding of his or her voice. A singer who is truly serious about achieving a great vocal tone should study vocal technique with a competent, knowledgeable instructor.)
This article is intended to go in tandem with the Singing With An Open Throat: Vocal Tract Shaping article soon to appear on this same site, which will address other aspects of tone creation, such as ideal positions of the tongue, jaw, lips, soft palate, larynx, etc. and the acoustical science of formants, which add warmth and vibrancy to the singing voice.
Common Tone Production Errors
Although there are numerous undesirable colours and “shades” of tone, (such as “pinched”, “sharp-“ or “shrill-sounding”, “flat-sounding”, “shaky”, “thin”, etc.), I tend to divide the most common tone production errors into three general categories: breathy, nasally and throaty. In this article, I have also included a fourth tone production error, pressed phonation, because it is also relatively common amongst untrained or incorrectly trained singers. Each of these errors in sound or tone production is a product of poor singing technique and results in a failure to create optimal resonance, which is an important part of good singing. These faulty tones all tend to hamper loudness ability and limit range, control, stamina and volume. Furthermore, since improper tone production is created through improper use of the vocal apparatus, it can also lead to vocal fatigue, strain or injury.
In some cases these tone production weaknesses may indicate the presence of a medical condition (e.g., vocal fold dysfunction or other glottal incompetence, etc.) that is preventing the vocal apparatus from functioning optimally. It is always in the singer’s best interest to have a doctor examine his or her vocal tract in cases where the singer finds that he or she is unable to make improvements in singing tone after a reasonable length of time working with a qualified vocal instructor, or where persistent pain or discomfort is present during either singing or speech. A correct diagnosis and proper treatment of such medical concerns can save the voice from (further) injury, and save the singer from years of frustration and discouragement when he or she remains unable to produce desirable tone.
It is important to understand that many singers may demonstrate these tone production errors only at certain times, in certain places within their range, on certain vowels or at certain pitches. Also, the voices of some singers may be described in more than one way. For example, some singers are both nasally at points and throaty at other times during a song.
Breathiness is by far the most common tonal weakness that I encounter in my teaching, and most predominantly among my female students of all ages. There are numerous explanations for why breathiness occurs in a singing or speaking voice, and I will explain them in the paragraphs below. Many singers are not aware of the breathiness that is present in their voices, nor of its undesirability and inefficiency, until it is pointed out to them and until they become aware of what good tone and resonance should sound and feel like.
A “breathy” quality or an “airy” tone can be heard as an audible passing or “leaking” of air through the mouth while singing, almost like the faint sound of air leaking out of a tire or balloon. It is often described as an “unfocused sound or tone”, and tends to create a diffuse and wispy sound, or a raspy, scratchy vocal quality (e.g., as in the case of ex-president Bill Clinton’s speaking voice). This mode of phonation, when habitually used, is also termed hypofunctional.
During inhalation, the vocal folds come apart to allow air to enter the lungs. Directly after inhalation and immediately prior to phonation (or singing, for our purposes here), however, the vocal folds need to come together gently and firmly with the aid of the laryngeal muscles. This closure cuts off the escaping air. When the air pressure in the trachea rises as a result of this closure, the folds above it are blown apart, while the vocal processes of the arytenoid cartilages - a pair of small, pyramid-shaped (three-sided) cartilages that form part of the larynx, to which the vocal folds are attached - remain in apposition (side by side). This creates an oval shaped gap between the folds and some air escapes, lowering the pressure inside the trachea. Rhythmic repetition of this movement, a certain number of times a second, creates a pitched note. Ideally, the vocal folds should contact each other completely during each vibration, fully closing the gap between them.
In order to oscillate, or vibrate, the vocal folds need to be brought near enough together - this is known as vocal fold closure or approximation - so that air pressure builds up beneath the larynx . This increased subglottal – the area below the glottis, or larynx - pressure causes the folds to vibrate and make sound. The vibration of the vocal folds modulates (regulates) the flow of air being expelled from the lungs during phonation.
When the vocal folds fail to close completely before singing, however, breathiness results. In other words, a breathy style of singing is achieved by holding the vocal folds apart. In breathy phonation, there is insufficient resistance by the vocal folds to the air that sets them into vibration. As a result, airflow escapes the glottis during the quasi-closed phase, which generates noise and produces a strong fundamental.
Poor approximation (closure) of the vocal folds explains much of the breathiness that I encounter in my teaching, especially in my young female students. Students often need help developing a good onset of sound or attack at the start of a sung phrase.
Many untrained and self-conscious singers produce this tone in order to soften the edges of their voices so that they don’t sound as loud. Oftentimes, new students who have never taken lessons before are extremely nervous when they first meet me – a trained, professional singer - assuming that I will critique them harshly or make fun of them for their less-than-perfect singing voices. They then produce a very quiet, conservative, airy sound while singing in front of me. In some cases, the issue of self-consciousness becomes most pronounced during puberty, a time during which young students must contend with an inconsistency in their changing and maturing voices and must come to accept and embrace a newly emerging adult voice that sounds different than what they have grown accustomed to hearing themselves produce. The voice is a significant part of who we are as individuals, and if we don’t feel as though what we have to share is worthy of being heard by others, we may produce a non-projective, quiet singing or speaking voice. Sometimes improvements happen immediately, once the student becomes more comfortable singing in front of me, but most of the time, it takes some work to help them get past their psychological hang-ups so that we can clean up their tone.
Often there may be certain sections of a singer’s range, or certain notes, that seem to come out particularly breathy or unclear. Sometimes this faulty tone emerges around pivotal registration points or only within certain registers. Most often, breathiness in untrained males occurs in head voice, as these students either are afraid of hurting themselves by singing above speech-inflection range and hold back on breath energy to reduce volume and strain or are simply unaccustomed to hearing themselves sing in higher pitches and substitute a breathy falsetto-type voice for legitimate full voice. In young untrained females, breathiness often emerges in the middle register because they tend to relax their breath support and reduce their breath energy in this range where they are more comfortable singing the notes or because of underdevelopment of this range. In untrained females who have passed puberty, breathiness often occurs in head voice because they fail to make appropriate vowel modifications and then produce a “spread” vowel sound rather than experiencing the necessary “narrowing” of the vowels that would otherwise enable them to maintain a clear, free tone in the upper register. In lighter- or higher-voiced females, I sometimes notice a lack of focus in the tone when they are singing at the bottom of their chest or natural voice ranges. (The bottom extreme of a singer’s range is impaired by breathiness because the marked shortening of the vocal folds tends to set the folds apart and create a bulging mass within the vocal folds.) These women tend to produce a vocal fry-type mode of phonation, which can be damaging to the voice if used excessively. In all of these cases, improvement in vocal technique corrects the problem of breathiness in the voice.
Many singers struggle to maintain clarity in their tone only while singing certain vowels. More closed vowels – ones in which the tongue is positioned close to the roof of the mouth - such as the [e] and [i], tend to give many students problems because, while attempting to add openness to the vowel to prevent it from sounding tight or squeezed, singers often end up spreading the vowel. For others, more open vowels – ones in which the tongue is in a low position - such as [a], seem to invite breathiness. Front or back vowels, as well as vowels that are either rounded or unrounded, may also be more or less problematic for certain singers. Most singers seem to have difficulties with at least one vowel when they first walk into my studio, and the reasons for these problems are often easy to pinpoint but painstaking to correct. In most cases, articulation of vowels and vocal tract shaping are what need to be addressed and corrected, and old habits are often hard to break.
Insufficient breath energy accounts for the rest of the breathiness that I hear in my students’ voices. Often new students assume an overly relaxed posture and fail to use good support of their breath. They need to learn how to manage their airflow by balancing the resistance provided by the expansion of the intercostals muscles and the controlled rise of the diaphragm (see Appoggio in Correct Breathing For Singing). When trying to eliminate a breathy tone, many singers will attempt to force the sound out in order to get more volume, pushing instead of supporting the voice, which only masks the problem and creates tension in the neck and shoulder muscles and an unsteady flow of air. Thinking in terms of “allowing” or “letting” more air out, rather than “pushing” more air out sometimes makes a significant difference both psychologically and physically. The notion of letting more air out often helps a student to relax and control the breathing mechanism better. There is an optimal balance of muscular involvement that needs to be achieved for singing. A singer must remain neither too relaxed, nor too tense. Once support improves, breathiness generally lessens.
Some students produce breathy tones only when descending in pitch. They tend to relax their breath energy because the pitch demands are not as high going downward on a scale. The laryngeal muscles may also become lax.
Some singers find that physical fatigue from inadequate rest makes it impossible for them to find the energy needed to support their voices and coordinate their bodies well enough to produce a clear tone. Better sleeping habits tend to immediately improve this kind of breathy tone production.
Insufficient hydration (dryness) can also temporarily create a breathy tone in a singer’s voice, as the vocal folds do not function optimally when they lack sufficient moisture for lubrication.
Some singers use a breathy tone in an effort to imitate the vocal stylings of their favourite singers. If the students’ vocal role models are singers like Britney Spears and Mariah Carey, who employ breathy, raspy, scratchy sounds for artistic effect, they may, either consciously or unconsciously, adopt the same tonal quality as their own, viewing it as both desirable and marketable. Emulating or learning to sing in the same fashion as their idols encourages the development of poor technique, and is potentially detrimental to the vocal apparatus. It may take months or years to help students understand why this tone is undesirable and to unlearn these bad vocal habits.
Of course, there is a place within contemporary music where breathiness may be acceptable. This effect, when intentionally but sparingly used, can add some thoughtfulness, sweetness, drama, sexiness and intimacy to a song, and can be an intentional effect to increase artistry.
However, many of these famous singers are unable to produce a clean, focused tone due to poor singing technique. They sing each song on their CDs with the same unfocused tone. If this is the only way in which a singer is able to sing, then he or she lacks good technique and should not be considered an ideal vocal model. He or she may make a good living with this style of sound production, but success and popularity are not necessarily synonymous with vocal talent, correctness and healthiness, and students of voice should be cautioned to avoid imitating these tones. Just because a singer may have a pleasing, albeit breathy, tone, does not mean that he or she is singing well or correctly, and it doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t being limited by this tone production choice, if indeed it is a choice. Again, this should not be the only way in which a singer is able to sing.
Prepubescent girls and those who are in their early teens may not be able to fully eliminate breathiness from their voices, as there may be a physiological (medical) explanation for this tone – the mutational chink – that will require maturation to make disappear completely. Although I tread lightly with the voices of younger students, it is possible to safely and gently help to improve the singing tone of these maturing voices, in spite of the mutational chink phenomenon, since some of the breathiness is also attributable to improper singing technique, including inadequate breath support and energy and poor attacks or onsets of sound.
Using gentle glottal onsets, achieved by singing notes in staccato, twang and energized whining (like a baby) in the upper middle and upper range may be effective. Some teachers find that lip and tongue-tip trills help to even out breathy (as well as pressed) phonation. Also, forward consonants, like “b” and “v”, may help to focus resonance or tone during onset/staccato exercises. Eventually, once tone clears up, these consonants can be removed from the exercises. Using front vowels, particularly the [i] and [e] is generally not recommended for young female voices because they force a firmer adduction (closure) of the vocal folds and thus a higher air pressure on the young instrument. However, in order to produce a balanced training of the voice, these vowels, which occur regularly in both speaking and singing, should not be altogether neglected, even by the young singing voice.
I have had success with removing much of the breathiness in the middle registers of some of my young female students by having them make excited statements like “Whoo hoo!” and “Oh no!” in a range of pitches that would fall within their upper middle register. From these exercises, I will often move onto having the young singer say a variety of English words, formed with different vowel sounds, at specific pitches. (They always seem surprised that this “pitched talking” sounds a lot like singing, but doesn’t feel as difficult!) Once these students begin to become aware of the mechanism that maintains clarity of tone during speech at these higher speech-inflection pitches - they can invariably produce a clear “calling” voice, which suggests to me that the problem of breathiness is often more a matter of psychology than biology - they almost immediately find it easier to produce the same clear tone during the extended vowels of singing. Sometimes just seeing how the vowels that they train with during their lessons are applicable to the singing of songs (i.e., with consonants added to create meaningful words) helps them to make the body-mind connection.
Breathy tones in young singers may also be caused in part by their growing bodies. There tends to be a fair bit of inconsistency in their placement – where they focus their tone – because growth, including that of the vocal apparatus, may occur rapidly. One week, placement works, and the following week, it doesn’t. A mere millimetre of growth in the larynx can significantly affect the voice. Often the simplest methods of achieving good tone and placing resonance in the mask or masque (the bony structure of the face), such as humming and the use of more resonant consonants, are the most successful ones with this age group. Once these pre-adolescents are beyond puberty, the problem with inconsistency generally disappears.
Additionally, young singers often lack coordination between their body alignment, the actuator (the lungs and breathing system), the vibrator (the vocal folds) and the resonator (the vocal tract). As they gain better awareness of their postural balance, their breathing becomes more efficient, which in turn helps them to phonate and resonate more efficiently.
Incorrect placement or focus of resonance also contributes to breathiness in students whose voices have already matured. (Some teachers dislike using the term “placement” to describe where and how singers focus the resonance of their voices because it is both subjective and inaccurate in the sense that tone can’t actually be consciously placed. However, I tend to find that it creates positive mental images for most of my students, and helps them to effectively balance their tone with each vowel at each pitch.) Even with a mild sensation of resonance in the resonating cavities of the head and throat, a singer’s tone may still not be clear, balanced or efficient. Making some minor adjustments will enable the singer to notice a decrease in breathiness as well as an increase in resonance, and thus a natural increase in volume, airflow and stamina.
Many students have other vocal habits that create impediments to clear, efficient vocal tone. These practices in singing involve the closing of the throat, instability of the tongue, the lowering of the soft palate, and poor vowel formation (bad articulation that changes the natural timbre. I am currently writing an article dedicated entirely to the concept of the open throat and on the ideal positions and shaping of the vocal tract during singing, which will be posted soon.
Certain medical problems, such as vocal fold dysfunctions, can interfere with vocal fold closure. Polyps, cysts and nodes (nodules) are some of the most common medical hindrances to good, clear tone production.
Breathiness is not considered to be an ideal mode of phonation because it distorts vocal resonance, robbing the voice of its full overtones. The breathy voice generally lacks the beautiful “ring” that is commonly heard in trained voices, and volume is lost because of the imbalanced resonance.
Moreover, because the air escapes rapidly through the gap between the vocal folds, the lungs empty quickly, and the sound is of short duration. In other words, breathy singers tends to have less endurance and are unable to sing long vocal phrases or sustain notes for several measures because they run out of breath too quickly. Because the supply of breath has to be renewed so frequently, the singer’s respiration also tends to be short and unsteady.
Breathiness is not a poor tonal quality merely because certain voice instructors say that it is. It isn’t merely a matter of acoustical preference or personal taste. Science proves that it is also an unhealthy and abusive one. Voice scientist and teacher Dr. Barbara Mathis did research with fiberoptic cameras that revealed that singing with a breathy tone causes the vocal folds to turn more and more red and the vocal lips to swell to almost twice their normal thickness. This extra swelling of the folds can lead to vocal fatigue, inability to get through vocal performances and other injury, such as vocal nodes. (Former president Bill Clinton is a perfect example of someone who has suffered vocal fatigue due to having a breathy tone.) Although it is scientifically proven that breathy singing is damaging to the voice, many ill-informed teachers continue to teach this technique as a way of “lightening the voice”.
Holding the vocal folds apart creates muscle tension in the neck that can severely impair singing. Sometimes an improper head and neck alignment can make singing difficult, resulting in a breathy sound due to compensating muscle involvement. The head and neck must be in alignment and must remain relaxed during singing, regardless of intensity or tessitura.
When singers have been singing a certain way, with a certain tone, all their lives, they become very comfortable with the sound that they produce. It feels natural and sounds familiar. Not one of my students has been aware of the breathiness in his or her voice until it has been pointed out to him or her during early lessons. New or untrained singers don’t know what to listen for, and they have become accustomed to hearing their voices inside their heads sounding a certain way.
It is the conscientious student of voice, however, who learns to listen analytically to the quality of the tone, judges the sensations produced in the body and understands where changes and improvements ought to be made. (Many of my students respond best to a mixture of scientific information and subjective analysis of physiological responses.) Once a singer becomes aware of both the internal sound and the physical sensations of effective resonance, significant progress in the areas of tone production, agility and breath control begins to be made.
As mentioned above, breathiness is characterized by the audible sound of air “leaking” from the lungs. Ideally, the vocal folds will provide the correct amount of resistance so that only the amount of air needed to produce sound at the desired pitch and dynamic level escapes at any given moment.
If you are unable to determine simply by listening to yourself sing whether or not your tone is breathy, there are a couple really simple self-monitoring tricks that you can try. First, sing a single note on the vowel [a], (pronounced “ah”), with your hand placed in front of your mouth and nose, about an inch away. If you feel a lot of breath hitting your palm, then you are likely producing a breathy tone, and using up your air too quickly. (Some air necessarily escapes from your mouth, but it should be minimal.) Try singing all five pure Italian vowels ([e]/“ay” without the “y” at the end, [i]/“eeh”, [a]/”ah”, [o]/”oh”, [u]/”ooh”), as some vowels may present more of a challenge for you to maintain good tone production while singing them.
A centuries old exercise for checking on airflow levels is the breath management candle test. Sing a vowel with a candle flame placed about five inches from the mouth. In breathy singers, the flame will flutter wildly, whereas in singers with more efficient tone (e.g., with good vocal fold closure and breath control), the candle flame will waver very little. Of course, there are inherent weaknesses to this test, as the room in which the candle is burning needs to be free of drafts and movement.
A more effective test for breathy phonation than either the palm-of-the-hand or the candle-flame methods of self-monitoring involves placing a hand mirror close to the mouth while singing. If there is a lot of breath condensation on the mirror, the tone production is breathy. A clean production, free of a high rate of air expulsion, will show reduced condensation. (Avoid the use of non-voiced consonants for this test because they register high levels of airflow.)