‘Mending Vocal Breaks’ by Judy Rodman

Judy Rodman

© 2010 Judy Rodman  

Pesky, dreaded, dratted vocal breaks are some of the most frustrating problems a singer can have. Some people have more than one! If you’ve got one, you know what it is, but for a detailed explanation, here is the problem as defined by Wikipedia. [private_member]  

“…The frequency of vibration of the vocal folds is determined by their length, tension, and mass. As pitch rises, the vocal folds are lengthened, tension increases, and their thickness decreases. In other words, all three of these factors are in a state of flux in the transition from the lowest to the highest tones. If a singer holds any of these factors constant and interferes with their progressive state of change, his laryngeal function tends to become static and eventually breaks occur, with obvious changes of tone quality. These breaks are often identified as register boundaries or as transition areas between registers. The distinct change or break between registers is called a passaggio or a ponticello.”  

Vocal science aside, however you define vocal registers, boundaries and breaks, the important thing is how to blend your voice to get rid of the cracks. Added bonus… eliminating vocal breaks also adds to the tone quality of the voice throughout the whole range, creates the “mixed or middle voice” which effectively gives you wider range and adds to vocal control. Whew! It’s pretty clear we want this.  

Vocal register breaks are caused and made worse by whatever interferes with allowing changes in length, tension and mass of the vocal cords and with the mechanism that tilts the thyroid cartilage as the singer moves through different pitches. Freeze that tilt and voila… a break will occur, as well as vocal strain.  

The top 5 causes of vocal breaks I see:  

1. Locking the jaw (this also interferes with the lift of the soft palate).  

2. Tightening the base of the tongue (which goes along with locking the jaw)  

3. Freezing the spinal position (which will tighten lots of other things).  

4. Tensing shoulders (which will cause tension to flow to jaw, neck, soft palate).  

5. Numb facial expression or eye movement (which will sabotage lift in soft palate and will tighten nasopharynx).  

6. Choosing to sing or talk too high or too low, (which will cause chronic tension and strain).  

Why do we do these vocally dysfunctional things? Top 4 reasons I see:  

1. To try to keep the voice FROM breaking (unaware that guarding and over-controlling to try and eliminate the problem inadvertently makes it worse)  

2. To try and hit notes that are difficult (again, a bit of a catch-22)  

3. Because of some erroneous vocal training that says to keep the jaw or any of the other body parts I just mentioned perfectly still, (Run, don’t walk, from this kind of teaching)  

4. Bad habits – talking too low (constantly “hitting gravel”), trying to sing in keys that are too high or low for the current capabilities of the voice, not realizing the locking up this is causing.  

5 ways to begin changing dysfunctional vocal habits:  

1. First become aware of what you are actually doing. Watch yourself perform a song in front of a mirror. Do you see any of those actions I just listed?  

2. Record yourself talking. Do you hear tension, monotone, gravel, lack of breath? Try talking with much more animation and “life” and record it again until your body, spine, face, tongue, jaw are loose and flexible.  

3. Do corrective wall and mirror work. In front of a mirror, stand with your back against the wall… back of the head and heel against the wall. Now slowly try to loosen those areas I named on purpose – while you are watching. Notice the effects.  

4. Out of the pressure of public performance, privately practice doing things a different way. At first it may get worse before it gets better – like it would be if we were learning to walk with a different stride. Relax, relax, relax and trust the process.  

5. If you have my vocal training course, just listen over and over to the first two Cd’s to let the insights sink in.  

I’m going to wrap this subject up by letting you in on one of the core secrets of my teaching.  

Before I developed the vocal training concepts of Power, Path and Performance, I had the worst and most un-mendable (or so I thought) vocal break I’ve ever heard in anyone. My brilliant Nashville vocal coach Gerald Arthur helped me get my voice back after it was damaged by an endotracheal tube (I spent some time hooked to a ventilator many years ago). I still had that pesky break, though with Gerald’s help I learned to mask it well and continue on with my vocal career as a session singer, and then a recording artist. Thank you, Gerald!  

Not too long after I began teaching voice I was given a book by a student who asked me to explain it to him. The author was vocal coach Jeffrey Allen of California. In his book Mr. Allen suggested holding a mental picture of a question-mark shaped path that the voice should take. That imagery opened up a whole world for me.  

I began experimenting with what that path meant to me and how I could use it with my students. Long story short… this is what mends vocal breaks every day in my office:  

  • Use your power — your compressed breath power located in your pelvic floor — to lift you into the balcony above and behind you.

Do not lift straight up! You have to lift a little to the back, lengthening and straightening your upper spine flexibly to do so. Do not lift your chin — instead, float it levelly. Correctly applied, this action should cause you to raise your eyebrows, relax your jaw and look like you’re about to say “I don’t THINK so” very sarcastically.  

  • Then… use the word (articulated with meaning) to PULL sound from the balcony to your audience. Do not move your head forward! You don’t pull with your head, your neck or your jaw… just articulate the word and direct it to the listener, and pulling the word out by forming it should open your throat instead of tightening it.

In summary…Your voice should come from the pelvic floor, lift to the balcony above and behind you, then travel to the audience. If you’re used to pushing your voice, you may find this voice path confusing, often frustrating when first trying to learn it, but it works. Other vocal teachers use different imagery to accomplish this… “lift up pull back” (Robert Lunte), and “the inhalation sensation” (Jamie Vendera). If you’ve been pushing your voice through your break, this will feel like learning to walk all over again. But every one of my students will tell you – it’s well worth the effort.  

Why is it worth getting past frustration to mend a vocal break?  

  • It causes gives you access to great breath support and control.
  • It enables vibration from your larynx to resonate in the open spaces of the nose, sinuses, pharynx, mouth, and possibly even trachea -resulting in rich tone colors and expanded range.
  • It causes the vocal cords to freely change length and width, and allows the larynx to tilt freely according to the pitch.
  • It makes your voice feel GREAT! You will have NO vocal strain.
  • And…it erases the break. Every time, in everybody, if done correctly.

To this day, if I don’t pull my voice in this path, I will find myself back with my old break. But I know how to erase the pesky thing! And I can do it any time I want! Yeah!!  

For more information on Power, Path and Performance vocal training, log onto www.judyrodman.com or contact Judy rodmanjudy@comcast.net . [/private_member] 

Power, Path and Performance - For Maximum Voice  

About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.