Breathiness in My Students' Singing - How Can I Fix It?
I read some comments you had made about teaching voice lessons and some of it sounded very similar to my situation -- teaching piano, get asked about voice lessons, finally decide to give it a try. So I am working with three elementary aged girls with basic voice lessons. I found a good book, "Singing Lessons For Little Singers" that I am using as well as videos from Youtube. But there are not a lot of videos for voice for children. In some ways I feel pretty inadequate to teach voice, but I did grow up singing and thought maybe I could help beginners to sing better.
My specific question today is -- do you have a special exercise or instruction for helping children have a clearer, less breathy tone?
Yes, you are right; you CAN help these young kids sing better. You will find it easier as time goes by, and you WILL become more comfortable in this role!
Breathiness is very common. The first thing that must happen is that singers need to HEAR themselves -- you must point out the breathiness and IMITATE THEIR SOUND. Yes, it may sound cruel, and I always say to my students, "Of course I am exaggerating, and you don't really sound awful the way that I do, but this is what you are doing..."
And I make all kinds of silly and even ugly sounds, if that is what is called for. Err on the side of being too nasal in your demonstrations, as long as you point out that it is, of course, too much! And you must say, "Don't worry, I won't make you sing this way in front of anybody!"
The breathiness may occur not just in their songs, but in vocalises. Point out when they say "Ho, ho, ho," instead of "Oh, oh, oh." That's a result of letting too much "h" get into the sound. You know the common practice which you hear in Handel's Messiah -- "FOR un-to us a child is bo-ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho-ho" etc. It really is very hard to avoid the "ho-ho's".
Yes, I use MULTIPLE exercises for breathiness... but the exercises are all based on the same foundational sound, the whimpering or primal sound of the Whimpering Puppy Dog exercise found in the Animal Sounds Warmups page.
The cat, mosquito, and gorilla sounds are also useful. They are each a bit different in the focus of the resonance they call forth:
Animal Sounds Warmups
Essentially, you are trying to get the tone "forward" into the "mask" or facial bones. Don't be afraid of nasality; you may even demonstrate with an over-the-top nasal sound to encourage them to explore that region of their face with sound.
Assure them that you will not make them sing their song this way! But that you want them to EXPLORE. With singers, just getting them to let go of their timidity a bit may take A LONG TIME. A year. Maybe even longer. But it can be done. And imitation of another singer is frequently their fastest route.
Also, lots of "Nee - nee - nee" and "no-no-no" kind of sounds. FOCUS is what they must aim for; that breathiness will not carry their sound without a mic. The focused sound, however, will carry even it is fairly quiet.
Have them hold a flat palm out in front of their face and sing the sound "Hhhhhoooo" or a similar sound onto their hand, with a lot of air; they will quickly exhaust their air. Tell them the air is "splattering", and that what they need is a narrow STREAM of sound that has RESONANCE. An inside-the-head sound, focused on the jawbone, or nose, or back behind the ears.
When they explore and start to make sounds close to what you want, say, "That's it! You're doing it! Now let's see if we can get that sound into your song!"
Frequently, it will be HARD to get the sound into the song, unless you take out the words and plug in "No, no, no, no," etc. in place of the words. Continually coming back to the "n" encourages focus.
Children are good mimics, and when they hear the sound you want, it will be easier for them to copy it!
Sometimes, you just won't have any idea what to do. Don't worry... as long as YOU yourself keep singing, you will continue to discover new truths about the voice. Make yourself go through the warmups also. And keep reading and learning!