Ahhh… The legendary break. Getting through it without falling apart has been the holy grail of many singers and teachers alike. Many vocal artists, in their inability to successfully manage their break, make their careers out of stylizing around it.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Singers all over the charts are making the best of their yodel. But that doesn’t mean it’s the foundation of good singing, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve embraced, or even come close to, your vocal and artistic potential. So much talk about it, and so few practical answers. Do you “support it” more? Put your sound “in the mask”? Release bodily tension? Think “purple”? What kind of voice training is actually gonna work?
In case you haven’t heard, the new trend in art is all about freedom of expression – freedom being the word here that counts. Sure, you can yoddle – if you can’t be asked to do anything else – but you might be right in assuming that your audience will eventually get bored, if not annoyed, as will probably you. So if you want to experience vocal freedom, then you’ll need to start with a seamless blending of the voice, and move through your break – without breaking.
The only reason you experience vocal breaks at all, is because the break is a physical manifestation of the imbalance in the voice itself. It is a red flag that gives many subtle aural clues as to the reason for the imbalance, and a good instructor should be able to pick up on those nuances, and guide you out of it. So, if all possible, find a good one and get some input.
photo credit: James Jordan
In order to get rid of the breaks of your voice, you need to establish a balance of registration through the bridges, or transitions, in your voice. Transitions, or bridges, are changes in the feeling of resonance, or perceptible shifts in vocal quality, that occur variously across a singers voice. Breaks are present because a singer unconsciously neglects to fully and evenly allow one of those shifts to occur in the body, leaving a “glitch” in the sound and feel of the voice.
In all cases, it is not recommended that the student attempt to navigate through the break via singing songs; that would be equivalent to a reved up, wire-framed gym newbie trying to lift 500 lbs upon his first visit to the gym… It’s dangerous! Songs present countless, difficult challenges to the voice, and the break is hard enough in the beginning to manage as it is. It is advised that the student learns to manage one sound combination at a time (ie. mum, goo, go, no etc, paying particular attention to maintaining pure, consistent vowel sounds across the whole voice) in an orderly progression including a variety of scales, before attempting songs that spend much time up in the transitional area where the break may occur.
Be warned: this process can often take singers a few weeks, to many months, or some years of training to get right… So don’t get discouraged when you begin your quest for the top of your own vocal mountain. Remember, every singer before you has had some sort of vocal challenge, and the vast majority of us haven’t had it easy either. As Maestro Seth Riggs has said, “if singing were easy, we would all be able to do it well”. This article describes only a very basic overview on how to begin to cope with the break in the voice… Whenever in doubt, it is advised that you find a teacher with a proven track record of balancing the registrations of a variety of singers.
With that said, the break can be caused by one, or a combination of, the following conditions:
1) Lack of stability/insufficient cord closure/excessive airflow:
In this case, it is helpful to the student to “talk” the sound combination he is experimenting with. Using vowels without a consonant is not recommended, and the use of moderate to hard consonants before the vowel is usually most helpful. Also, avoiding the use of narrow vowels, such as ee, or oo, while learning to stay anchored in their speaking voice, is also recommended for singers with little or no chest.
If your like most of us with having had much experience of working with various voice teachers, you have probably heard the term “give it more support”. Beware! What this advice really tends to do, is create more tension in the mechanics of the voice, because we are trying to “support” the intensity of the voice we feel the voice needs. But this is often an oversight.
Sure, having a low breath is essential to good singing. But an overemphasis on breathing for the singer can turn messy. Supported now by many ENT’s, we now know that the body will create just the right amount of support, and air, that it needs, on every pitch so long as you don’t try and assist, or interfere, with that naturally occurring process. As long as you take a low breath before singing, your breathing will develop in conjunction with your ability to adjust your the mechanics with the rest of your voice.
Most usually, “adding support” creates excessive airflow, and therefore muscular tension, that the singer can do without. Remember: the vocal cords are the length of your fingernail, and the power of your abdominal wall against your lungs far outmatches the delicate functionality of your comparably thin vocal folds, particularly as you first learn to sing through the break. Solution? Take it easy, and talk the pitches you are singing; use LESS air as you ascend through the break, not more.
2) Excessive cord closure, or overuse of chest voice:
Most often, this imbalance is caused by involuntarily and usually unknowingly, widening the vowel as you sing through the middle voice (often the widening is imperceptible in real time to the singer; only by listening back to a recording of him/herself can the singer hear the results of their own vowel widening, until over time, their awareness of maintaining a pure vowel can develop). In this case, it is usually advisable to use soft to moderate consonants, and narrower vowels in order to gradually lessen the presence of chest as you ascend through the top of chest and navigate into the middle voice, where the break will most often occur.
Think getting louder as you sing higher is gonna help you reach those pitches? THINK AGAIN! It might get you near the break, but it certainly won’t get you through it, especially comfortably, or consistently. When you sing higher, your vocal cords are thining and lengthening in order to vibrate faster… this means the vocal cords are under more and more degrees of intensity of balance (and change). So although you might feel like you need to DO something to match that intensity, it is imperative that you resist that urge. If you don’t, you will inevitably overdo the virtually imperceptible adjustments that must occur, and either mistakingly increase the pressure of air, or create unnecessary external muscular interference, making it extremely difficult for the vocal folds to function freely through the break. The fix? Try just talking it, instead of shouting it.