In Defense of the "Breathy" Teenage Girl
Updated: Jul 31, 2018
"Don't Sue Me" stuff: I am not a healthcare professional. I am a voice teacher who took some vocal ped, read some books, and teaches lots of teens. If something in your voice feels "off," please get to a doc/ENT/laryngologist/singing health specialist/whatever you have access to ASAP.
Ask any group of 10-15 year old girls how they feel about their voices, and you are likely to hear responses like this:
“My low notes are good, but my high voice feels really weak and breathy.” “I know I’m an alto; I can’t sing high.”
“I used to have really pretty high notes, but it’s started feeling different. I think I’m maybe more of a belter now?” “I’m starting to wonder if there’s something wrong with my voice. I don’t have any control above my break.”
“It’s just not very powerful—it always feels breathy.” “I feel like I almost have two different voices, and I don’t know when to use which one. It’s confusing.”
Fortunately, delightfully, wonderfully, I often get to be the bearer of fantastic news that there is probably not a darn thing wrong with them and that their voices will likely clear and strengthen with time. When that happens, the smiles and sighs of relief are innumerable. They are not alone. They are not “broken.” They are developing.
So what is going on in an adolescent female’s voice? Why does it seem to go from being a lovely, light child’s voice to a seeming Jekyll-and-Hyde of power notes vs. breathiness? Since we can’t see what’s happening in the larynx without aid of a laryngoscope, tone production can seem like some sort of bizarre alchemy.
Happily, there are perfectly straightforward reasons for what’s happening in the voice, and it all comes down to that delightful season of life known as adolescence. The voice is not exempt from the rapid growth and maturation that the rest of the body experiences!
Foundational concepts: 1) Sound is produced in the larynx, that little bump you feel at the front of your throat. In the larynx are the vocal folds/cords, which separate when you inhale and vibrate together when you sing or speak. 2) We often think that boys are the only ones who experience a voice change, but girls do too! It’s not typically as pronounced or obvious as boys’, but in both boys and girls, the larynx, vocal folds, and muscles inside the larynx grow. Very rapid growth can leave the voice feeling “off”— unstable or uncoordinated.
Why girls sometimes feel like they have "two voices": 1) One set of muscles controls the “low voice” or “chest voice” sounds. These muscles, the thyroarytenoids, keep the vocal folds short and thick. 2) “High voice” or “head voice” sounds are produced through a different muscle group—the cricothyroids—which cause the folds to stretch and thin.
3) Children are able to carry their "chest voices" up higher than teens and adults. For a young teen, it can feel disconcerting to have to make register shifts where there weren't shifts before or when they can't sing the same notes with the same tone color that they are used to.
3) Navigating the register shift from “chest voice” to “head voice” can feel unstable and vulnerable. (I knew a teacher who used to describe it as “feeling like you’re falling off a log"). Many teens don't want to do it because it feels SCARY!
Young female singers often feel much more confident singing in “chest voice” (thyroarytenoid land!), because those pitches almost always feel stronger, clearer, and louder. Transitioning from “chest voice” to “head voice” requires a stretching and thinning of the vocal folds and the willingness to explore parts of their voice that feel foreign and unfamiliar. When we factor in the emotional vulnerability and insecurity that often accompanies adolescence, it’s easy to understand why young singers might just decide that they “can’t sing high”—especially if they have been praised for their “powerful” lower notes or referred to as “belters.”
To further complicate matters, growing vocal folds sometimes develop a “posterior glottal chink,” meaning that they don’t come together cleanly in the back. (Some folks call this a "mutational chink," which, sadly, does not mean that your larynx is turning into a mutant SuperLarynx. Just a regular grown-up larynx.) The breathy tone we often associate with adolescent females is just that—breath escaping through the vocal folds. This is not typically something to be concerned about; it’s just a byproduct of the rapid growth and change that is happening in the larynx. It is not uncommon to hear teachers or parents criticize a young singer’s “breathiness,” almost as if it is a character flaw. We need to tread lightly here. It often bothers the singer far more than it bothers us, and young singers often feel as if they can’t help it. (And, if the muscles are simply not yet developed, they truly can’t help it!)
So the chief vocal challenges preteen and teen girls experience are, generally speaking, entirely normal. It is normal to feel like your chest voice is crazy strong and like your head voice is tiny and weak. It is normal to feel like your voice is rough, breathy, or inconsistent in some places. Oh, and guess what! Hormonal cycles can also make things feel raspy, weak, and inconsistent. That’s normal too! Yay!
What is not normal: Pain when singing, chronic hoarseness or raspiness, feeling that your voice becomes strained or fatigued quickly, loss of range, or a marked change in voice quality. These are reasons to rest the voice and get to a vocal health professional quickly! Check with your teacher for recommendations!
How teachers and parents can support developing treble voices: 1) Wait to classify. Students (and sometimes parents) want a label—“Am I a soprano? An alto? A belter?” A string of “off” voice days might leave them certain that they are a mezzo for life, when in actuality, they are a developing soprano who just needs time and technique. It does absolutely no harm to leave a young voice unclassified; classifying too early, however, can set a student up for a lifetime of both vocal issues and mental issues regarding their voice.
2) Remind them of the rapid, downright miraculous changes that are happening in their larynx on a daily basis. Encourage them to be patient with themselves and their developing voices, trusting that the strength, clarity, range, and technical skill will come with time.
3) Insist on excellent technique. Regardless of where the voice is, we can equip and empower our students to use healthy, efficient technique that will serve them well while their voices are changing and have them ready to hit the ground running once their “grown up voices” settle.
4) Be patient. With our students. With ourselves. With the process of teaching to sing and learning to sing.
Changing voices take the time they take. The highs and lows (literally!) that accompany them are not reflections of our students’ abilities or of our own teaching abilities. It is a complex biological process that deserves our respect and patience. Good things…and healthy voices…come to those who wait.