You’ll never meet a serious choral singer who strives for a breathy sound. And there’s not a choir director on earth who will ever stop during rehearsal to say, “It’s too clear and resonant, guys! I want to hear more air escaping all around your tone!”
But I’ve found that in rehearsal warmups and personal practice, being breathy in very small amounts can be helpful.
We all know we can’t make a sound without using air. We also know that if we try to push the air as we sing, we might generate more volume but we’ll produce an undesirable breathiness—and wear out the voice. Of course, if you tell a choir member “Don’t push the sound,” they may consciously hold back their airstream, resulting in late entrances and timid singing.
Vocal pedagogues have written volumes about the muscular coordination required to sing “on the breath.” I’ll probably explore this topic in future articles. For now, let’s just say our challenge is to let the airstream feel free without actually pushing air through the sound. It all starts with developing a healthy attack, or onset, for our sound.
There’s a simple exercise that can help. It appears in different forms in various vocal technique manuals. I first learned of it in The Diagnosis & Correction of Vocal Faults by James C. McKinney—a book I highly recommend. It goes roughly like this:
Drop the jaw, take a deep breath, and let it out with an audible “HHHHH.” You should feel a totally free release of air on the “HHHHH.”
Choose a comfortable note in the middle of your range.
Take another deep breath, let it out on “HHHHH” again, but after a few seconds, switch to singing “ah” on the note you chose.
Repeat step 3 several times, but use less H each time. You’ll start to develop a sense of exactly when the vocal chords engage and how little air pressure it takes to get them to work. Remember this sensation.
Now, start the note again. Simply think the “HHHHH” but don’t make it audible. You’ll end up with an “ah” that has a clear starting point and carries a healthy, balanced sound. Sing several notes this way. Go up and down the scale. Try it at different dynamics and on all the vowels.
This is how a good onset should feel. Of course, things get in the way—things like performance anxiety, limited attention spans, and of course, those pesky consonants with which most words begin. But this should be our baseline for starting a note.
I’ve tried this exercise with my choir to great profit. Not only did it help our singers find a healthier onset, but it also prompted one very astute choir member to speculate that this could be the reason our choir often comes in a bit late after my downbeats. Perhaps some singers are starting the tone with a split second of extra breath, and if they can learn to deliver pure tone at the instant my hands complete their drop, we’ll be more together! It was an astounding insight and one that will guide our exploration in future rehearsals. It’s scary to come in right on time, but good choral singing is all about overcoming our fears.
Singers who are (rightly) conditioned to avoid breathiness may recoil from doing this exercise because it seems like practicing a bad habit. But I’ve found that doing a bit of “HHHHH” every now and then can help us recalibrate our sense of how little pressure it really takes to engage the voice.