Advice for a frustrated singer

Hi everyone. I am hoping that someone can help me. I joined a choir about six weeks ago and I really enjoy it, Problem is that I struggle to hold my notes along with the rest of the choir because I cannot take breaths as deep as I need. Also I find that I start to cough when singing high notes. I spoke to my asthma nurse and she suggested I use my Seretide inhaler a few hours before I go. I tried this but it didn't really help. Any suggestions gratefully received.

Thank you

13 Replies

  • If you are coughing on high notes, you could be trying to use your throat to support your singing. If you think that might be the problem, look for tension in your jaw and throat.

    To relax the jaw and throat, I find it helpful sometimes to imagine my jaw like a dumb cow., just hanging there.

    I also find two warm-up vocalizations helpful:

    a) 1-2-3, 3-4-5, 5-4-3-2-1 first on ""vi"" then on ""vu"" . It causes you to move the vowel back and forth from the front to the back of the mouth and helps losen things u). where 1, 2, etc are the notes of a major scale.

    b) Vocalizing on a triad (1-3-3--5-5-1) to the syllables zee-ya-zee-ya-zee-ay can help relax the jaw. ""ee"" is a closed mouth vowel and ""a"" is an open mouth one so the exercise makes the jaw open and close and helps loosen it up.

    Also make sure you are supporting your singing voice with your abs and not your chest or shoulders.

    Sometimes I find that it helps to use my ventoline (not seretide) inhaler befoer singing. Singing is a form of atheletic activity even if it doesn't seem like it.

  • Wow, thanks Beth. I will try your advice.


  • Hi Kaycee,

    I was going to post a reply about developing your support from breath control but Beth has summed it up brilliantly. Have you sung before? If not, it is quite normal for people to find both of these things tricky to start with because they have not developed proper control of the voice (and asthma does play a part in this). Our conductor always starts the session with breathing exercises for this. When I was studying music at uni, we all thought my flute teacher was crazy when she had us laying on the floor with books on our stomach but she was doing exactly the same thing which is so important in achieving long notes.

    Saying that, there are also times when I have had to accept that I am struggling with my asthma and singing. On these occasions, I often hold the note for as long as possible and then quietly slip out (better than then missing the rest of the piece coughing). High notes are not really a problem for me as I sing even alto even though I am naturally a mezzo soprano (mainly due to a jaw problem but also pnd/inhalers make my voice quite husky).

    I hope you continue to enjoy singing. I love it and my asthma nurse often says that it has helped to strengthen by control (and produce some unusual spiro results too).

  • When I won't for my local choir, I use my salbutamol before I sing. Some simple warm ups and scales might be helpful too. But Beth has given some fab advice :-)

    I am a top soprano and more often than not lead the descant line. I can empathise though because there is no way I can achieve the level of breath control at the min without gasping and caughing halfway through a phrase. Recently I have been going along and just listening to reversals and joining in where possible.

    Asthma is a huge pain with singing, but my cons also thinks that my singing/woodwind background help with breath control, though for my cons/my own reasons this is also proving a bit of a curse. So hopefully in the long run it will help breath control and therefore also somewhat towards asthma

    Are you sure he said to use seretide not salbutamol? I was told (though she I was on it there were a few occasions where I was told to increase) that the max of the laba was 100mcg.

    I am another person who's pitch is also affected by inhalers.

    Laura x

  • Thanks Beth - I'm not the OP but that's useful for me too.

    When I was totally unmedicated (iwth preventers I mean), I found choir really hard - I'd arrive and have to sit down for 10 mins before I could even think about joining in, and I had a persistent cough which must have been very annoying! I also used to worry about concerts, not being able to breathe there etc, or missing rehearsals because I felt rubbish. I even said no to the chance of doing a solo piece in a concert that I really wanted to do, because I couldn't trust that I would be reliably able to sing it and didn't want to have to pull out at the last minute.

    It's better now - though I sing in a church and the incense can be a big problem.

    One thing I do notice is that if I'm having trouble it's really hard to push the notes out. It's not so much control - I've been pleased with the end result though a pro singer with more training probably wouldn't be but then they'd probably have a better sound normally as well. But it's really, really hard work which I guess makes sense given asthma makes it hard to breathe out (had a cons who was convinced it was all my larynx, and I was sceptical precisely because I'd been able to sing and it was fine in the throat area, sounded ok etc, it was just really hard work from the chest), When I told my GP this he told me to stop singing (of course it didn't help I was rushing through the cold air to get there - he also told me to stop doing that.)

  • One thing I do notice is that if I'm having trouble it's really hard to push the notes out

    Me too. Those two exercises are supposed to be really easy exercises - my voice teacher who first taught them to me called them ""chicken soup"". But when my peak flow drops below 90% of personal best, they are very tiring for me, especially if I am very good about making sure I don't cheat by using my throat to help out and all the support is coming from my abs. I find I need to take a break and rest just to get through them.

    I don't think stopping singing is a solution, any more than stopping regular exercise due to asthma is a solution. I think it is better simply to be very gentle and careful, i.e. drink lots of liquids in the hours before singing and while singing if you can; don't push anything : if it hurts or you are getting tired, stop and take a break. And (if OK with doctor) use reliever before or even during - just as one might if one were determined to go out on a run with asthma.

    Being willing to stop and rest is really important - even in choir rehersal. If one is tired and starts using the throat as a secondary air pump, then it creates a lot of stress on the vocal cords and one is at increased risk for vocal nodes.

    Another tip that may (or may not) be helpful: for post nasal drip's impact on the voice my ENT has told me to gargle with salt water every morning.


    Top soprano: oddly, I find my lower range below middle C is the one that goes kaput fastest on a bad breathing day. On a good breathing day, I can get down and dirty with the baritones. On a bad day, I have trouble getting more than vocal fry a couple of notes below middle C. I struggle through the middle register with an annoying wobble, and then when i get an octave or more above middle C (C5 and up), I rise above the clouds and things get easier and more stable. However, even though it is easier than the lower notes, I won't usually vocalize or do repertoire above D6 because when I try it doesn't feel like I have enough breath support to do it safely.

  • Thank you everyone for your replies. I was surprised when the nurse said to use the Seretide. She asked me how many times I use it a day and I told her twice so she said to try a third dose on choir days. This week I had to use my Salbutamol while I was there and at one stage had to leave the room and get some fresh air. I feel better knowing that you have all overcome the problems and still enjoy your singing.

    I am also a top soprano and although this can be a challenge I love it. I find the times I sing Alto a real struggle.


  • On a good breathing day, I can get down and dirty with the baritones.

    I'm sorry, I know it's massively immature of me but that really made me laugh! hehe. I know what you mean though - now I think about it I can go lower when better despite the relative lack of training; it seems easier up high although I am more of a mezzo than a top soprano.

  • This is really interesting to me too, i'm not a 'proper' singer but i do enjoy singing.

    I used to be in a couple of choirs in school and remember one day not warming up and the singing et me off - stupidly my inhaler was in my locker at the other side of the school! Duh!

  • I have just been looking online for suggestions for hitting those really high notes in descants as they are the ones that tend to make me cough most. It often refers to using your head voice but I can't quite understand this. Can my lovely experts shed any light?


  • Hi,

    Basically it is all to do with the different registers of singing and where it feels the sound is resonating when singing (I think that is clear). As you sing a scale, the lower notes should resonate in the chest (chest voice) and then move on to you head voice as you move up. In my children's choir, we are singing quite a high piece and I have had to get them to use their head voice quite a lot to help them get the top notes (and warm it up).

    The way I have done this (as a children's exercise) is to imagine you see someone who you know and you shout across the supermarket ""you who' In a high voice (waving hand actions seem to help this). Then ""it's me"" in a low voice. The first part is using your head voice and the second your chest voice. If you say them one after the other, you are practising moving from one to the other (which I need to do with a primary choir).

    You can also practise with high pitched he he, ha, ha, o o etc. Long sliding wha also works.

    Another thing I was told for primary schools but really works is to use hand actions - stretch on the high notes almost to reach them. Another teacher I know tells children to put their hood up for the high notes (physically doing this).

    I hope this makes sense. I have found it quite difficult to explain in writing but you notice the sensation when you complete exercises. You can then practise using these voices effectively and then move smoothly between them.

  • Kaycee has given a great explanation and some ideas about how to feel what is meant by head and chest voice. Another one I learned was to say ""Julia Child"" (of cook book and TV fame from the 60's and 70's) starting high on ""Jul"" and descending down to ""Child"" on a low pitch.

    ""head voice"" and ""chest voice"" are confusing terms because in reality we have only one set of vocal cords and only one voice. But that voice can have different coloring or timbre depending on where in the body the sound is resonating the most: in the chest cavity, the sinus, the bones in the head, and so on. Sound that resonantes in the head tends to have a lighter, flutier tone. Sound that resonates in the chest tends to have a more mellow sound. So another way of thinking about head and chest voice is the timbre of the voice.

    Although a lot of singing instruction says ""sing in head voice"", Ideally you wouldn't want to only sing in head or only in chest or abruptly switch between the two. First, it wouldn't be all that aesthetic: If you switched abruptly, you would sound like you had two different sounds to your voice. That could be fine if you want to be a one person band, but it isn't so great if you want to create a smooth unified sound for a song that has a large range. Secondly, what makes a voice or any other instrument beautiful and rich sounding are the overtones and harmonics that are generated along with the main pitch frequency.. To get rich overtones, one wants to get some of both the chest and the head resonance involved.

    Thirdly, if you try to bring chest resonance up to high pitches, your voice will break or crack, or you will cough or the sound will simply fail to come out. And if you try to bring the head voice too low, your sound will be thin and won't carry as much as it could.

    That's where ""registration"" comes in. Registration is the art of gradually switching the balance between chest and head resonance so that as one climbs the scale one very gradually uses more and more of the head resonance and less and less of the chest resonance . One does this by through a combination of breath support (not too much and not too little), relaxing the jaw and larynx, and by gaining conscious control over the positioning of the palate and tongue within the mouth and throat.

    In case you are wondering what I mean by the tongue in the throat, consider this. Although the tongue looks like a flat long thing in the mouth, it is really more like a tennis ball with a quarter cut out of the bottom half. The cut out bit is the area under your jaw. The intact part above the cut out quarter is the part in your mouth. The intact part behind the cut out quarter is the part of the tongue in your throat.

    If you take a look at both Kaycee's examples and my ""Julia Child"" example, you will note that all of the high pitches are on ""oo"" type vowels and all of the low pitches are on ""ee"" type vowels. That's because ""oo"" type vowels naturally position the tongue and palate in a way that favors head resonance and ""ee"" type vowels position the tongue and palate in a way that favors chest resonance.

    Of course, one can't always sing only ""oo"" vowels on high notes or ""ee"" vowels on low notes. The purpose of those exercises is to learn the feel of different types of resonance. The next step is to play around and experiment with your voice so that you can gain conscious control over the blend of resonance (head, chest, mixed). This allows you to chose the mix that best suits your voice and the mood of the song you are trying to sing.

    It is also important to play around with different vowels. Some vowels favor chest resonance and some favor head resonance and some are more or less neutral. One has to work at pulling in good head resonance on the more chest centric vowels. One has to work at pulling in some chest resonance on the more head centric vowels.

    For example, singing ""ee"" on a low pitch with a chesty timbre is relatively easy. Singing ""ee"" on a very high pitch without sounding like a squeaky nasal mouse is not so easy. That is because ""ee"" favors low chesty sounds. When the pitch rises, it tends to go to the nose rather than into the sinus cavities in the head. To help people get the ""ee"" vowel out of the nose, singing teachers often tell people to sing through the top of the head. Sometimes metaphors like that help people manipulate their bodies more easily than technical explanations of physiology..

    The more physiological explanation for making a good ""ee"" sound goes like this: the ""ee"" sound is the result of a particular positioning of the mouth, tongue and palate. The mouth is stretched out and thin into a line. The palate is lower than on ""oo"" and the tongue lies flatter in the mouth than ""oo"". To sing ""ee"" on a high note, one has to raise the palate more than one would when saying ""ee"" is ordinary speech and one needs to curve the outer edges of the tongue ever so slightly. However, one has to do this without raising the tongue or changing the straight line position of the lips - it can be done but it takes practice.

    Fighting the natural tendency of a vowel can be challenging. Another strategy for learning registration is experiment with the balance between head and chest resonance by doing scales with a more neutral middle of the mouth vowel like ""ah"". A vowel like ""ah"" lets one focus on the feel of different blends of head and chest resonance as one goes up the scale without the distraction that comes from the natural chest/head tendency of a vowel. The downside of ""ah"" is that to sing an ""ah"" right, the jaw and mouth need to be relaxed.

    But that is also another advantage of ""ah"". ""ah"" makes it easier to see when you have tension that you need to get rid of in the jaw or throat. Tension is the enemy of control: When we're tense it is hard to make fine adjustments.- it would be like trying to do move like a graceful ballerina while fighting against a gale force wind.

  • I started singing lessons 15yrs ago specifically to help my asthma, and it certainly helped increase my lung capacity and max PEF - and I agree with whoever said it affects spiro results!

    One exercise I find helpful both for singing and asthma control is a basic controlled breating one: In 2, 3, 4...hold 2, 3, 4...'huh' 2, 3, 4...out 2, 3, 4 in one breath start to finish, then go to 5, then 6 etc (gradually, over months and years I built up to 16, but currently stuck at about 7 again - boo).

    Try to move the sound from your throat to your tummy for the top notes, also imagine yourself reaching to the bottom of a bag for them not stretching up to a top shelf - sounds strange but a lot of it is about how you think about the sound. My teacher used to play from a different key copy to the one she gave me sometimes as I would freeze if I saw top Bs but could sing them happily if they were Gs on my copy - even when I knew what she was doing. Sort of a vocal placebo.

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