Why are choppiness, stridency, and breathiness three common vocal problems?
Three fairly common vocal problems are choppiness, stridency, and breathiness. Each tend to be a result of poor or inconsistent coordination between the vocal folds (vocal cords) and the other muscles controlling the air flow.
Breathiness is the most common problem of the three that you mentioned. Basically there is too much air escaping across the cords, and this makes the sound waves weaker and more disbursed, giving a breathy or fuzzy sound. A clear sound is more efficient because it translates more of the airflow directly into sound waves, and in doing so actually uses far less air to produce a stronger, fuller and more natural sound.
Think of your speech. You have a good balance of airflow to the cords when you speak, which is why you produce a clear, natural sound. If you start to sing in the same range in which you were speaking, but you get a breathy voice or weak voice, it’s NOT because you weren’t thinking about your diaphragm. You weren’t thinking about your diaphragm when you spoke, yet it was a clear sound. So what’s the difference? Well, often when we sing we are trying to control the tone (or unique sound) of our voices. In doing so, we interfere with what should be a very natural air to cord balance.
Certainly nervousness can play a large part in vocal imbalances, which is a topic for a different article, but let’s talk about choppiness. This is also an airflow problem. Instead of thinking about singing across an entire phrase (which could be either a “musical sentence”, or literal lyric sentence), singers will often incorrectly sing into individual notes or words giving a bouncy or choppy effect. Instead, we should sing through and across words and notes, not into them. To use another speech analogy, when you speak a full sentence, you don’t typically bounce along each word, rather you speak one long constant tone that doesn’t stop until the sentence is over. In singing, we want to do the same thing. Start the musical phrase with the idea that you are singing through and across the phrase until you sing out the back-end of the last word. Simply touch the notes and words as you sing through and across the entire phrase.
When speaking about choppiness, it’s also possible you were referring to another issue which is a vocal tremor or shakiness in the voice. Generally this can be caused because of vocal fatigue – sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing. For instance, if you were working out in the gym and you were on your very last rep of your bi-cep curls, your arms might start to tremor a bit because you have pushed the correct muscles to their limit. That is a good thing, unless you try to do three more reps, using bad form to do so. Instead, you should take a break before you continue with another set. As a singer, if you tire the right muscles the correct way, you might start to get that shaky sound. Take a break immediately at that point and give it a minute or two to recover before you continue practicing.
That all being said, it’s been my experience that singers get that vocal tremor thing going because they’ve been driving too hard against the cords, causing fatigue far more quickly than if they’d had a better, more relaxed vocal balance. Take a break an go a little easy into the next exercise, backing off of the pressure and volume if that’s the case. If you still get the same result, don’t keep singing through it! Cool down your voice with some easy, smooth exercises and consider yourself done for the day. When you come back to your singing the next day, again, use less pressure and lower volume levels.
Stridency is an over compression issue, usually accompanied with a high larynx. The tone is “driven” or pressed hard against the cords rather than allowing a more natural flow across the cords. When this driven, “metallic” sound is accompanied with a high larynx, any warmth that would have mitigated the harsh driven sound is gone, leaving an over-bright, thin, harsh and sometime nasaly sound – stridency.
Hope this helps.
Eric Bruner Vocal Studios
[I wrote the article in response to a question from the user LiveLaughLove on YahooAnswers]