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How to get a more focused sound from an adolescent choir

I am asking this question for a colleague whose first language is not English, but I am also interested in this answer myself, although my choir is younger.  So the problem she experiences is that she can't get a very focused sound from her choir, consisting of about 2/3 girls and 1/3 boys.  I think we can get the answer about boys changing voices in many of the discussion trails.  But I could not find a lot about adolescent females, except cautions about their changing quality of voice at this age, and not to try to force a clear sound.  But apart from voices changing in quality at this age, what safe techniques do we have an choral conductors to safely get a more focused sound from those who can?  If we can get answers for two groups (very approximately breaks), would very much appreciate your experience, particularly your successes.
1) 8-12 
2) 12 - 16
Thank you so much!
Replies (14): Threaded | Chronological
on November 19, 2013 5:24pm
Connecting to the breath is the way to focus adolescent voices.  Many think it has more to do with placement, and that's where the risk comes in.  It usually doesn't have much to do with placement, however if you want to work on bringing the sound forward naturally a bit, starting vowels with L and NY and working from the EE [i] vowel work.  Connecting to the breath is the main disfunction in young voices, and it's mostly due to the unfimiliarity they're experiencing of using new, foreign parts of their voices.  For some, not all, their general timidness to the world plays a big part.  Getting the body involved kinesthetically is the best way to help young students experience connecting their voice to their breath.  Here are some techniques:
  • Have pairs of students sing while holding each other at the wrists and leaning/pulling back a bit.
  • Have students clasp their own hands like opera singers and try to pull their hands apart while singing.
  • Have students lift up on or push a piano while singing.
  • Have students squeezing a balloon while singing.
  • Stretching a rubber band or a yoga exercise band
There are unlimited ways we can help students experience connecting to their breath.
Also, always relaxed, dropped jaw.
on November 19, 2013 5:26pm
I have found the greatest success by getting students, both male & female, to really drop the jaw. Have students find the top of the jaw bone by tracing the upper curve of the ear until the fingers come to rest where the ear joins the head. Open and close from this joint, not the "puppet style" jaw that most think of.  This virtually eliminates breathiness in the tone.  Have students listen for the new ring and resonance that this creates.
on November 20, 2013 8:30am
I like lip trills for both age groups.  This gets the air flowing.  Sing the passage on lip trills, then immediately again with a single vowel, then again with words.
on November 20, 2013 9:27am
I believe what you are experiencing with the adolescent female voices (breathiness, or "unfocused" tone) is due to the fact that their voices are changing! The breathiness is due to an incomplete closure of the glottis that occurs in the developmental process during puberty.  Although more subtle, girls voices also "change" as their larnyx grows and there has been some excellent research done in the last twenty years.  You can Google up some great information on this but for anyone woking with adolescent females I highly recommend Lynne Gackle's book "Finding Ophelia's Voice".  
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on November 21, 2013 11:57am
Yes, I tried it out - it does work!  Is that because it really creates a lot of space at the back of the mouth?  If you know the reason behind that, please let me know as I'm intersted!
Thanks Mary-Hannah!
on November 21, 2013 11:58am
So this is also about connecting to the breath, right?  Because unless we do that, we can't really start or sustain a trill?  
on November 21, 2013 12:07pm
Thank you Andrew, for these - they do remind me of some exercises I've done myself when I was in choir.  I really like #2 because I don't need any props, and I also have a population of children who are very shy about physical touch so holding each at the wrist probably will be hard for some of them.  #2 doesn't require another person or props so I'm going to try that straight away at this week's rehearsal!  
I just tried out both pushing my palms together and pulling them apart, and I find the energy generated when pulling apart (#2 above) really works well!  
I always like to know the reason though, why it works.  Is it because when we suddenly pull like this, we are generating a pulse of energy that if we vocalizing at the same time, it transfers into the voice?  
on November 21, 2013 12:08pm
I am going on Amazon after this and placing an order for this book to get educated!  Thank you Scott!
on November 22, 2013 7:02am
Yes, absolutely right!  One thing to watch out for: make sure they are breathing correctly when they do this exercise.  Once they figure out that they need breath flow to make their lips buzz, they may try to "cheat" by breathing with their chests instead of with their abdomens.  This will give them a quick burst of air to make their lips go, but it won't be helpful for singing!  So if you see shoulders heaving up and down when they do this exercise, correct them right away!
on November 22, 2013 7:06am
I like this exercise too.  Pay attention to the bottom of your ribcage when you try it, and I think you will feel a gentle expansion. My theory is that it stabilizes the ribcage, thus making abdominal breathing more efficient.
on November 22, 2013 7:16am
I like this one too.  In my opinion, it's really important to know how the body is actually put together, and if you know where the jaw joint is, it can save you from all kinds of bad habits that come from mistaken ideas.  I'm a fan of "Body Mapping," a discipline that's all about things like this, and I think it has many useful applications for singers.  (For more on this you can visit  
One quibble--kids can be great "overdoers," so when I get them to drop their jaws, I use lots of words like "release" and "allow to fall."  I find that if you yank your jaw open with effort, you go right past that nice full sound you want into a sort of extra-dark, fake-opera-singer sound.  
on November 22, 2013 11:47am
Slight diversion here, but regarding lip trills (which I love, too):  What if someone says they simply can't do them?  I have a friend who pretends she's starting a chainsaw, which helps her get the trill going.  Sometimes I use one finger to manually start the trill, or have found that slightly pushing up the corners of the mouth can get the trill started if I'm having trouble.  Any fool-proof methods for those determined to fail?   I happen to have an adult choir, and one woman, who is Korean, says she can't do a trill, nor even roll an r, as for anything sung in Italian.  Maybe there's something prohibitive about her language, but not impossible, is it?  What about those for whom English is their first language?  Is it purely a matter of airflow, or is tension stopping the trill in its tracks?
on November 24, 2013 10:09am
The voice is literally a billows through a soft reed into a resonant space.  The reason kinesthetic resistance exercises work is because they activate our billows.  We avoid words like 'push' and 'squeeze', but the simple fact is, when the breath is linked to the voice properly, our abdominal muscles are creating breath pressure to fuel the voice.  It is the same exertion we feel when we do a bench press or lift a couch (perhaps blowing up a balloon is more appropriate image for singing).  This is the most vital sensation to good singing.  All other concepts; resonance, placement, jaw, diction, style, etc.. take 2nd place to it, and most are largely corrected by it.
Pavarotti believed that 90% of all vocal problems stemmed from incorrect use of the breath in singing.  Another interesting quote of his is, "all muscle activities must be established on a flexible basis.".
on November 25, 2013 9:06am
I discuss the raised soft pallate with my students along with ALL of the other mechanics of singing. I know many don't like to discuss the soft pallate, but at 28 years of age, I had a voice teacher who said "your soft pallate is too low." I had no idea what he was talking or what a soft pallate was. None of my previous voice teachers had ever mentioned it and some of them were highly regarded. From that point forward, I was able to let my soft pallate raise and it completely changed my singing.
Personally, I think we talk too much about the jaw. For me, it's not about the jaw, but about the molars in the back of the mouth. The space has to be in the back of the mouth, so that the vowels can be deep set. The soft pallate raised, the tongue forward, then the loose and dropped jaw. Of course, layering in, proper breathe support with the diagphram, inter costal muscles, and obliques. 
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