Solutions for Screechy sopranos
Thanks to everyone who replied. Most of you gave some
really good suggestions, and only one was less than
cordial and helpful, but I'm not going to say any more
about that! The overwhelming majority of you suggested
working on vowels, and I will definitely make an
effort to do that. That is something the director is
trying to work with the whole group on. Also, some of
you mentioned things I'm already trying, so it's nice
to know I'm on the right track. Thanks again for your
input. I have gotten some good ideas that I can't wait
to try out!
We all have them from time to time!
Here are my tips:
1. Generally "screech" is a result of insufficient
throat space. Have them sing through the inside mouth
shape of a yawn, or the inside mouth position just
before a sneeze.
2. Encourage relaxation of the mouth and throat:
loosen and drop the jaw ("Could you put two fingers'
space between the upper and lower molars?") relax the
corners of the mouth
3. Absolve your sopranos of diction responsibilty
above E on the top of the staff.
Acoustically, the formants which define the vowels are
no longer perceptible to the ear in that pitch range,
so the trouble and tension of diction in that range
are for naught. Instead, strive for well-produced,
well-supported floaty tones, and let the rest of the
choir provide the diction.
4. NEVER allow the sopranos to sing above "forte" in
the upper register. Like the piccolo in the
orchestra, they will be heard.
First, every human voice is different. You might have
a particular bunch of sopranos who all have that
particular voice quality. If so, forget blend!! It
ain't gonna happen. But you are right to be concerned
with that sound because it could be a symptom of
tension and vocal strain that will harm their voices.
Second, EVEREYTHING in singing comes back to the
fundamentals: deep breathing, controlled breath
support, absolutely relaxed throat, tongue and jaw
muscles, open throat with the soft palate raised in a
yawny feeling. Perhaps the best "vocal" warmups you
could do with them are to make them aware of these
things and help them achieve them. You don't say
where you're located, but if there's a Sweet Adelines
barbershop chorus near you, meet and talk with their
director. This is something that the Sweet Adelines
consider a VERY important part of helping their adult
but often untrained singers improve, and they've got a
very deep bag of tricks.
Third, make VERY sure that they are not pushing too
much chest action up into a range where it doesn't
belong. Instead of doing warmup scales that start low
and go up, start 5-note or 8-note scales on the top
note, making sure that they really start in a nice,
healthy head voice, and encourage them to bring that
head action down and blend it into their lower voice.
Siren calls that flip up into head voice and asking
for a sound "like little girls" can help with this.
There should be a "gear shift" at about the upper E or
F for sopranos into an extended head voice. Most 2nd
sopranos are really 1st sopranos who haven't learned
to make that shift yet! (I had maybe 2 true 2nd
sopranos in 14 years of conducting, lighter than a
mezzo but a little richer than a typical 1st. Like I
voice is different!)
And finally, concentrate on matching vowels and on
using the correct vowels. Talk in terms of a "tall"
sound, keeping the space inside the mouth "big,"
rather than a "narrow" sound. Have them find the
resonant point inside their heads on various vowels
and then play with it, moving it around by an act of
will. What you're doing is having them learn to
manipulate the resonators and resonant cavities, but
don't ever SAY that!!
Build your warm-ups from the lit you are planning on
performing and work to modify vowels. Experiment to
see which vowel works best for the modification. For
a more mellow sound avoid the "e" and even the "ah."
Work more in the "oo" and as the pitch ascends migrat
to an "oh." Bright sopranos are often the result of
poor vowel shape. Rehearse the pieces on a good vowel
that return to the text putting the text through the
It sounds like they are spreading their vowels to me.
They need to learn to modify the vowels. Up high they
should be singing everything through an AH shape and
move their tongues to create the desired vowel sound.
Try warm ups where you begin on AH (5-4-3-2-1 scale)
and then without changing the shape of their mouth
switch to OO, OH and then the true test EE without
smiling. Hopefully some of them will feel and hear
the difference immediately. It should be a hooty
feeling up on those high ones. They can't get enough
space in their mouths.
I'm also a student, but I thought you might benefit
from something that my conductor (who also teaches
choral conducting through the faculty of education at
my university) always tells us when we're not
blending: "If you can hear yourself, you're singing
too loud." It helps us, so you might try it. Simple
thing really. Good luck.
I think one of the best ways to help rid a group of
that "screechy" sound is to work on the getting the
soft palate raised, and keeping the throat relaxed.
Tell the girls to breathe in and feel as though
someone is blowing up a balloon in their throat as
they do so. This helps to lift the palate and to
relax the throat at the same time. If they can also
connect it to their abdominal breathing you have a
I think that a lot of times, screechy happens when
the air gets pushed against the teeth -- i.e. trying
to "force" the sound - that's why relaxing the throat
and opening it and raising the soft palate are so
Another example you might use, is that when the
breath is taken in correctly, and the palate goes up,
it will feel as if a shot of cold air just hit in the
back of the mouth.
Look for a "round" sound, and ensure that the
production of the vowel is forward in motion. Also
check to ensure that the breath is fully engaged and
that the throat is open There are good videos on the
market to help you as well. I'd highly recommend
"vocal Techniques for the Young Singer" with Henry
Leck and the Indianapolis Children's Choir. You can
get it at any choral music store. The ideas presented
are NOT just for childre ... just good, sound vocal
technique. Good luck!
My experience especially with adolescent singers on
high notes is to experiment on different vowels,
rounding out the vowels usually helps blend the sound
and the diction doesn't become incomprensible. For
example, having to sing "ee" on high notes, I often
ask the sopranos to round out the vowel by thinking
"eu" (as in irk). Just a small suggestion.
I would suggest having them vocalize on "ooh" starting
E a tenth above middle C and descending on a 5-4-3-2-1
pattern, each pattern descending by half steps until
you reach the lower notes of their ranges. This has
eliminated the overly bright sound in many of my
1) start 5, 3, 1 or sol, me, do in G major on oo. and
descend. as you go lower, move to oh, ah and ee. this
eliminates chest voice being pulled too high
2) their head, shoulders and neck must be totally free
and relaxed, focus on steady air support, centered low
in the body
3) have them make big circles with their arms as they
sing 1,3,5, 8, 5, 3 , 1 arpeggios. Think thru to the
end, think "the big picture"
4) as they inhale don't let them stop before they
start to sing, this causes tension
5) from the inception of the inhalation thru the
exhalation they should see one large circle. no bumps
or stops, one feeling in and out
6) as they ascend you should have them bend their
You might try doing some sirens from the very high
range on down. This tends to free up the upper range
Another consideration would be to have them sing with
a little "yawn" in their sound. This tends to open
the larynx and give the tone more depth.
I take it you are not a singer. Isn't your
supervising teacher any help with this problem? Have
you had no vocal methods classes? I don't want to
sound critical, but it's a little unusual to turn a
practice teacher loose on a choir without at least
some instruction in vocal production. Do you know
what a "head voice" is, and how to get the girls (and
boys) to find theirs? I am not a good enough writer
to describe the technique, and it's best learned
through demonstration anyway. At the very least,
don't let the girls sing anything above an mp or mf
dynamic level. Vocalize them on a downward 5 note
scale starting on G above middle C on the sound "noo",
sung lightly. Proceed to the next upward tone (G#) and
sing the same scale. Help them with the piano.
Continue that pattern until the girls begin to have
problems producing the higher tones at that light
volume level, probably around D or E. If you can then
demonstrate with your own voice a light, airy, clear,
vibratoless sound, you will go a long way towards
getting them to imitate you, which is a good teaching
technique. NEVER let them sing with a screech or even
sing loudly at all. Keep it soft and blended. Many
times the girls will find that "head voice" on their
own, and will be surprised that they are able to sing
with it. Does not their regular teacher train them to
sing in that voice? Unusual! If you can't find your
own head voice, go find a voice teacher and get some
Hope others are more help in solving your complex, but
very solvable, problem - it's important!
>From my own days in high school, I remember the day
our teach taught us about vowel modification. Most
soprano's in high school don't know that it's okay to
modify the vowel on high notes so we were straining to
get the notes out. The other thing you may want to do
is check with your teacher about turning some of these
"soprano's" into alto's, depending on the placement
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