What’s the big deal about healthy singing?

. . . I didn’t know what a larynx was, I thought the diaphragm was something you “sing from,” and I could barely access my head voice. I had spent four years pushing my voice to its limits as a high school cheerleader. Then I became a choral conductor . . .

. . . because of my passion for singing, my love of choral music, and for the challenges and rewards that come with working with young people.  While all of those things still apply to my practice, a humbling experience early in my teaching career gave me new direction and a new priority:

to provide adolescent singers with healthy singing techniques, and to make them aware of the consequences of using the voice in harmful ways. As a young teacher, I endured a personal struggle with several of these consequences.  

While voice lessons can offer the opportunity to learn proper technique in a one-on-one setting, most young singers do not have the time for, access to, or interest in private lessons. The task of providing vocal technique was therefore left to my middle and high school choir directors.  I loved my directors; they built my confidence, taught me the fundamentals of music, and nourished a passion for ensemble performance—but our curriculum did not emphasize healthy singing. 

By the time I started college, I had spent my entire singing life trying to belt Broadway tunes and pop songs with the trademark sounds of the famous voices on the radio. I didn’t know what a larynx was, I thought the diaphragm was something you “sing from,” and I could barely access my head voice. I also spent four years pushing my voice to its limits as a cheerleader for my high school.  Needless to say, my college instructor had her work cut out for her!

The music program at Washburn University gave me the opportunity to grow as a singer.  Even as I learned more about vocal technique, healthy singing was still not a cornerstone of my degree program. When I entered the teaching profession after graduation, the consequences of old vocal habits finally came to bear. In my first year teaching Kindergarten-8th grade music, I began to experience vocal fatigue. It was a struggle to make it through every week, and I wondered why I barely had a voice by Friday.  It was frustrating and, frankly, embarrassing.  How could I be a good example if I could not effectively model how I wanted my students to sing?  Only after I began my post graduate studies at University of Kansas, did I learn the true importance of vocal pedagogy. Regular voice lessons with Steve Scott also helped me work my way back to a healthy singing voice. 

The experience was humbling on many levels, but my vocal struggles ignited a new passion for me as a choir teacher: I regularly expose my students to the biomechanics and physiology of the voice so they too can learn about the importance of healthy singing.  They learn about the demands they are making on their bodies and the importance of practicing good technique.  They also learn about the consequences of bad habits—including the ones that gave me so much trouble. I believe this approach has yielded better student engagement and produced young singers who are more cognizant and more confident. In the future, as a new author to Developing Voices,  I’ll detail some effective ways to incorporate healthy singing into the choral curricula.

L – Ms. Berroth leading Choral Training for Summer Singers of Kansas City, an ensemble of the William Baker Choral Foundation.

R – Ms. Berroth and the Leewood Middle School Chorus.



The Breathy Girl’s Changing Voice

Two videos attached for your reading enhancement ~

My favorite part of being a voice teacher is working with “Changing Voice Girls.” An email arrived this morning from Becca (8th grade) who has an audition for a select 9-12 girls touring chorus. She’s been making bi-weekly recordings of her singing for me this season so that I can track her voice change progress. In January I noticed her sound becoming progressively more “breathy” and “gunky” so when I received the following message today, I was not surprised! Here is our exchange:

March 2018

Hi Miss Jamea! 

My voice has just recently started to fade away. I have to work a lot harder than usual to sing even the S1 part of “Let the Sea Make a Noise[1]”. Do you have any tips that might help? Just a couple weeks ago I would have said with confidence I have a good chance of making the top girls’ choir next year, but now my sound doesn’t sound as pure as before.




Hi Becky!

I noticed on your recordings that some changes are a-coming! The most important thing at this time is to keep singing with all the healthy practices that you’ve learned. No pushing or forcing the voice. It’s going to be a bit breathy and gunky for a while. That’s ok! We know that this is normal and that most girls auditioning for the first time to the touring chorus are in this stage.

Adolescent Female Vocal Folds.

Helpful Guidelines:

  • Practice daily. It’s important to stay ‘conditioned.’
  • Drink lots of water & swallow (or spit) the gunky stuff.
  • Avoid coughing or clearing as this is wearing and damaging to the vocal folds. Take care of the voice!

– Your sound will not have the same clarity as last year, but you will still do your ‘set up’ the same as always. We’ll keep watch that you don’t start any unproductive habits like:

  • pulling the lips, arching the tongue, over-blowing the air (this actually makes the breathiness worse)
  • pushing/pressing the sound, or even getting a strange head/body posture started. These things would ultimately undermine the sound.
  • Support the breath just like you have been! Nothing needs to change from what you’ve been up to already. You will feel like you don’t have enough air because you’re leaking[2]! It’s normal!

 You can still get resonance. The more relaxed your teeth/mouth/jaw/pharynx is, the better! When these things are in place, your breath will be more efficient!

Vocal Exercises:

  • Descending glissandos. Start with your lighter head voice production and maintain that sound throughout the exercise.
  • Ascending glissandos throughout the range. You want the voice to sound even from top to bottom. If you feel a ‘yodel’ or ‘break’ in the slide, focus on:

1.) maintaining lighter “production” all the way through the line.

2.) energizing the breath where the break happens. (The tendency is often to back off when there’s a hitch, but you must keep that breath moving!) Note: when I say “light,” I don’t mean wimpy tone: I’m saying not to use a ”muscular” or “heavy” tone.

  • Skip-intervals will add flexibility to your voice. Strive for accuracy and ease. (“Let the Sea Make a Noise” has great melismas that make a perfect exercise!)
  • Sing your own voice! If you start trying to “do” your old sound or a more mature sound, you will likely be going in the wrong direction. Your new “changing” voice is beautiful. Embrace it!


Miss Jamea

 [1] “Let the Sea Make a Noise” by George Frideric Handel, Arr. Jacob Narverud for SSA & Piano. S1 range is E4 – G5, S2 range is D4 – D5, A1 range is A3 – B4. (This is Becky’s required audition piece.)

[2] During female adolescent changing voice, girls’ vocal folds develop a gap (place where the folds don’t fully close). This is an occurrence that is normal and that will eventually pass given good technique and time.

  • Please watch stroboscopy showing small posterior gap or vocal chink in normal teenage girl:

Allegro Choirs of Kansas City perform “Let the Sea Make a Noise”, Georg Frideric HANDEL. Christy Elsner, Director; Jamea Sale, Vocal Coach.


7am Children’s Choir Rehearsal?

Honor Choir coming before school to rehearse? How do you structure the vocal warm up? Is the warm up the same as the afternoon class? Should the warm up at 7am be the same as the vocal warm up at 7pm? This video shows how  to get the brain, body and voice engaged so the early morning rehearsal is the most productive it can be.

In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.

Your Body is Your Instrument.

Keeping in great physical shape is a professional necessity for singers.

Exercise improves singing by increasing your cardiovascular strength and breath stamina. A good sweat stimulates your endorphins and strengthens overall muscle tone.  If you chose the right kind of exercise at the right time of day, you will feel relaxed, clearheaded, and invigorated.

Recommended Exercise for Singers


One of the best exercises for singers is swimming. It conditions your heart and lungs, strengthens your abdominal and rib muscles, and increases your breath capacity.

Martial Arts and Yoga

Both of these can help with stage anxiety. Body alignment, breath control, power confidence and energy will also improve. Yoga can further help with strength, balance, mental clarity, concentration and relaxation. Tai Chi, a fluid Chinese martial art, can teach you to center your energy while building a sense of connection to the breath.

Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) possess greater volume in people who exercise as opposed to people who don’t.

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain . . .

  • Aerobic exercise improves brain function, but also acts as a “first aid kit” on damaged brain cells.
  • Exercising in the morning before going to work not only spikes brain activity and prepares you for mental stresses throughout the day, but also produces increased retention of new information, and better reaction to complex situations.
  • Hitting a wall or mentally exhausted? Try rebooting with a few jumping jacks for your brain improvement exercises.


Active brain cells stimulate a better blood supply so cells get more oxygen and nutrients. With increased connections, cells get more stimulation and generate more activity.

Breathing is a function that is fortunately controlled by our bodies autonomic nervous system. Autonomic control means that our body can effectively regulate respiration without us having to consciously think about every breathe we take. Basically, for the majority of our day our diaphragm and lungs are on cruise control.

Early Morning Sequential Vocal Warm-Up

Structure your vocal warm up to include movement to stimulate circulation, engage the diaphragm, and jump-start the brain with exercises that make the brain think.

  • Body movement to call on the diaphragm to be more efficient – taking it out of cruise control.
  • Establish head voice, mixed voice, chest voice
  • Differentiate resonators from articulators
  • Aural training and intonation

Continue reading 7am Children’s Choir Rehearsal?


Please see two videos attached.

Knowing that language is a true barrier in working with our Chinese choirs, I have been forced to be more concise with my instruction! I hope I make this change permanent. The shortest explanation to our singers can either create more confusion or fall silent on their young minds. Even though I have a translator, I must wait for the translator to deliver the instruction then hope the translation was accurate.

Dr. Daugherty, Ph.D. at the University of Kansas, constantly stressed delivering remarks in seven words or less. This might be a hard fast rule for advanced or professional choirs, but it is certainly an efficient manner in which to manage rehearsals for younger choirs.

For the novice singer to the most mature singer, the use of gestures and modeling has become my modus operandi. At this stage, few of our singers actually need more explanation. They simply need to hear and see how the phrase is sung.

In the two videos attached, the Purcell Choir, 9-11 year olds, is singing Sanctus from Cornell’s Unison Mass. We added a breath mark after the highest note in the last phrase of the piece. The natural response is to clip the note while also accenting it. The only remedy was to demonstrate using the fingers of one hand to gently brush the palm of the other. Viola! The voice automatically matched the kinesthetic gestures used by the hands.

The Byrd Choir, 7-8 year olds, has been using Brahms’ Die Nachtigall to learn many elements of musicianship. It has served us well learning to:

  • count sing “1-2-3” in English
  • sing repeating pitches, rhythms and arpeggios
  • sing staccato
  • sing German text

We used the fingers of one hand to tap lightly the other in order to understand staccato singing and to understand where to put the final consonant. In this case the end of each phrase ended with a crotchet or quarter note. All the other notes in the piece are quavers and semi-quavers.

So much more can be accomplished in less time, when we apply a gesture to better understand the goal of our music making. Articulation and phrasing become instantly clear and without ever giving any verbal instruction. Accept the challenge to see how few words you can use in order to achieve amazing results.

Lynn Swanson, MME