Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Caution: sound "sexy" or "au currant", but you are going to damage your vocal folds

The basis for this posting is a February 3, 2013 series of entries in my "Celtic Music in New England" Facebook group. Direct link.

I wish to thank Jenee Halstead for jogging my memory and inspiring me to transposed it, the best I can, from Facebook to Blogger, and it inspires those going down the "breathy" path to reassess their course, if for nothing else the health of their vocal folds and professional careers.

Jenee wrote on her Facebook page
I am just going to say this and I will probably burn in hell. Ladies: where is the ooomph? Why are so many of you releasing soft production and soft singing albums? Snooooz fest. Where are your ovaries??
Thank you, Jenee. Here are the transcriptions.

Yesterday I, along with about 1100 others, attended Renee Flemming's master class at Sanders Theatre and now comprehend why so many pop/singer-songwriters sound "breathy". It may sound "sexy" or "au currant" but you are going to damage your vocal folds, people. I liken it to smoking unfiltered cigarettes in order to change your voice quality. Wake up breathy singers, take a professional lesson, or do some reading on the topic.

Renée Fleming: Support the song, the breath and each other

February 3rd, 2013 Kristina Latino 
Renee Fleming at Sanders Theatre. 
How do you get Harvard students out of bed early on a Saturday morning? Host a master class with opera star Renée Fleming. The Office for the ArtsLearning From Performers program teamed up with Dunster House Opera and Celebrity Series of Boston to present a master class on Feb. 2 at Sanders Theatre during Fleming’s local visit for her Boston performance at Symphony Hall on Feb. 3. Accompanied by George Fu ’13 on piano and observed by a packed house of students and community members, five students performed arias and recitatives for Fleming who offered praise, tips and encouragement. The theme of the morning was support, both technically and metaphorically, as Fleming encouraged the students to focus on their breathing and help each other improve.
Fleming owns the stage not only with her own powerful voice but with a unique blend of charisma, warmth and humor that only adds to her already dizzying list of accomplishments. Cracking jokes while she gave advice, Fleming put both the performers and audience instantly at ease. Levi Roth ’14, the morning’s first vocalist, sang an aria from Massenet’s Cinderella, the Dunster House Opera production running Feb. 8-16. After he sang, Fleming encouraged Roth to remember the role of acting during performance. Often, she said, vocalists focus so much on singing they forget to bring enthusiastic acting to the performance. Working as a team, the two tweaked his approach to add more presence. Indeed, Fleming made sure to continue working with each student until she saw progress — no matter how small or large.

Fleming’s advice, always presented with warmth and humor, was enhanced by her incredible knowledge of operatic history. She contextualized each performance with history, and also asked performers — Roth, Allison Ray ’14, Liv Redpath ’14, Camille Crossot ’16 and Elizabeth Leimkuhler ’15 — to explain how their songs fit into the operas from which they were excerpted. While emphasizing context, she nudged students to understand their bodies and improve the way their voices

and bodies work together.

In her instruction and in her Q&A session with the audience, Fleming emphasized breath support as “creating a cushion on which the voice can live,” and noted that her neck “feels like it disappears” when she is singing with proper support. When asked about dealing with life tension before singing, she recommended singers stay aware of stress in their lives and try to prevent it from entering their bodies. Of course, vocal support is not the only kind she discussed on this lively Saturday morning. She also stressed supporting your fellow artists in friendship and performance. As for the future? Fleming is excited about the evolution of the genre of opera, both in terms of instrumentation and music influences. Her work with young Harvard artists is a step toward that goal.

Read the original article at

Breath and Support

"...Other singers may sing with a "breathy" or "unfocused" tonal quality..."

(2) Support: when does it come into play and what is its role in vocal sound? While studying with Alan Lindquest, he once said to me that support would insure "closed cords". He was speaking about the "perfect attack" which he learned from Jussi Bjoerling in 1938. This means a perfect approximation of the vocal folds at the exact same time that the body support is engaged. "Body support" is the expansion of the "laugh or grunt muscular reflex" in the lower abdominal and lower back areas. (A singer should never feel a "grunt" feeling in the throat area, only in the lower body area. The throat muscles must always feel soft and supple.) The primary role of support is to achieve enough "breath compression" that a singer can sustain an energized and exciting tone that is off the throat. Lindquest used to say that if a tone is unsupported, the singer has "too much loose air through the larynx". The basis of healthy singing is a tone that is relaxed through supple and flexible support. One very important teaching tool is to have the singer "hiss" in a sustained function. This creates "exact and balanced support" which allows enough resistance in the body with too much "over-tensing" of the body.

A secondary function of support: Another important characteristic of proper support is what many call assisting in the "open throat". As I said before, the larynx cannot "hold back" breath pressure. The mechanism does not have the strength to achieve this function. However, if the lower body is "holding back" the breath pressure, the throat is more able to assume an open position. Singers must realize that it is only the body which "holds back" breath pressure, not the glottis. Holding at the glottis can be very injurious to the throat. Proper support allows for the "holding back" of breath pressure while allowing a perfect "breath stream" through the larynx. This constitutes Lindquest's duality theory: two opposites working together to create a balance. So in supporting a tone correctly, a singer is "holding back" and "letting go" at the same time. This can be taught and felt through the "laugh reflex" which is one of the most useful tools in teaching support safely. I have experienced much success in going from a "laugh function" to a "singing function" immediately so that the singer has no time to "prepare" or "tense" for the singing function.

What is the value of the teaching ear? Mr. Lindquest firmly believed that a singer learned by "feel" and not "sound". Of course, we all must learn to sing in tune, however, it is impossible to hear the true sound of our own voice. This is why the teaching ear is priceless in the process of learning how to sing. Some singers "hold" too tightly at the glottis, creating laryngeal pressure. Other singers may sing with a "breathy" or "unfocused" tonal quality. Because singers come from different vocal histories and different concepts of singing, the teacher's ear is extremely valuable. Every singer has individual and specific needs. This is why talented teachers do not teach every singer the same way. We all need those expert guiding ears to help us "learn through healthy mirroring."

Read full article at

"Pop" breathyness to the extreme.
Lisa Hannigan - Sea Song
Paintings - Andre Kohn

Pop commercial producers and publicists have done market research and found 20-somethings consider this sound to be sexy or sultry. The music director at "Boston's NPR music station" too, apparently, from the intense airplay given to this and other breathy artists.


"Breathyness" is not restricted to women, listen to Putnam Smith as he "sings" "The Birds Would Understand" (better, just focus on April and Mariel, try to tune out the vocals)

Ellis Paul has been singing breathily for years.

Ray LaMontagne - "Empty" (and quite breathy) 

So why do so many contemporary pop singers choose this manner? Look at Mr. LaMontagne's forward neck angle. It ma be choice, to attain that sound, or it may be lack of professional training. Several times Ms. Flemming called out the students to be keep their heads back, "sing to the cheap seats." Breathy singers rely on audio enhancement, their voices would be lost in an unamplified hall.

Back to the ladies, here is Jayme (Jenna Glatt) covering Mini Rippington's "Loving You"

Last and certainly least, a cover of Dylan's song from the soundtrack of "I'm not there", the breathiest song I've ever heard.
Just like a woman - Charlotte Gainsbourg and Calexico

Now go out and take lessons from a professional voice coach, the vocal folds you save may be your own!

Addendum 7/31/13, received from Linda Thompson, who opines "Isn't she Great!"
Aissa Lee sings Dimming of the Day
Uploaded on Oct 18, 2008
AJ sings for Angelica Grim and TJ Doerfel at their wedding on June 6, 2008 in Modesto, CA. The tune was written by Richard Thompson.

Out of the mouths of babes!

....and from the song's creator...

Update 9/24/13

Alison out for Wide Open Bluegrass

 | September 20, 2013 6 Comments
Alison Krauss at Fan Fest 2011 - photo by Mike MulliganAlison Krauss, who was scheduled to perform as part as part of a headlining collaboration show with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Del McCoury, Tony Rice and Mark Schatz on September 27 during the IBMA’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival in Raleigh, has had to pull out owing to an issue with her voice.
The statement from her representative says…
“Alison Krauss was recently diagnosed with a vocal condition called dysphonia. Alison has been advised to have vocal rest, and therefore will not be performing at Wide Open Bluegrass next weekend. We anticipate a smooth, quick recovery given proper treatment and adequate rest.”
We all wish her a speedy recovery, and will miss her in Raleigh next week. No word yet on who may step into these shoes for next Friday’s sold out show.
There are also reports that Tony Rice has been ill this week, so we certainly hope he can recover in time for the big show – and his induction into the Hall of Fame on Thursday!
Dysphonia is the medical term for disorders of the voice: an impairment in the ability to produce voice sounds using the vocal organs(it is distinct from dysarthria which signifies dysfunction in the muscles needed to produce speech). Thus, dysphonia is a phonation disorder. The dysphonic voice can be hoarse or excessively breathy, harsh, or rough, but some kind of phonation is still possible (contrasted with the more severe aphonia where phonation is impossible).
Continued at

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