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Expanding upper range in young female singers?

I work with middle- and high-school singers, and I find it challenging to expand the upper range of my girls.
I do some of the standard exercises--"hoo", sirens, "whimper like a puppy" but I find only limited effectiveness.
So, what's in YOUR bag of tricks?
On a related note, what prompts do you give them in order to sweeten the tone in the upper register and avoid a shrill sound?
Eric S. Betthauser
Replies (14): Threaded | Chronological
on December 21, 2011 7:08am
A tip given me by a beloved children's choir director in Toronto, John Ford, is to tell them to "sing through the hole in the top of their heads". Works like a charm  with children to help open up that part of the range. I've not used it with my older teens. Also, they have to "find the cave", for a relaxed jaw in the upper end. If the vowel (ee or ih) is tight up there, we work it from an oo or ah to find the freedom and then move into the actual vowel. Then there is experiencing the general body energy required to maintain those pitches. 
Hope some of that helps. 
Karen Schuessler
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on December 22, 2011 5:49am
I agree with all the techniques you are working on but I think it is important to remember that not all voices will reach higher notes comfortably and shouldn't be expected to do so.  ( I"m not sure how high you mean when you upper range?).  The best way to avoid the shrill sound is to modify the vowel, depending on the pitch and original vowel.  Look into Shirlee Emmons and Constance Chase's book " Prescriptions for Choral Excellence" for vowel modifications and what pitch they occur on.  Around the female break, the vowel modifications will significantly improve the sound going up from there.  Tell them never to "reach" for high notes but always to think on coming down from above to sing the high note.  I often use the image of a ferris wheel and tell them the high note is around the upper curve of the ferris wheel as it is heading back down.  Or the image of diving off a board into a pool - you bounce up and then arch and curve around to head to the water.  Another technique is to physicalize a note - there is a wonderful book called "A Soprano on her Head" by Eloise Ristad.  I often will have a young singer ( if I think her natural range includes higher notes), do a knee bend as she goes for a high note or "throw a baseball".  Often doing something physical takes one mind off the note and it just sails out.  The physical movement also engages more energy and support behind the note.  It's amazing how it works most of the time.  But always be sure you are not pushing younger voices past their natural range especially at middle and high school age. 
on December 22, 2011 5:58am
Teach them to sing on the breath and connect with their air supply.  So often they are trying to "muscle" out the sound when they get high, and all they do is become tense.  They need to relax the throat, tongue, and all associated "helpers" and let their breathing do the work!  Their technique needs to be in place in the middle of their register in order for them to be able to expand into a higher register comfortably and for it to sound beautiful.  
Good luck!
on December 24, 2011 4:48pm
Some of the reasons kids and adult women have difficulty singing an octave and a half above middle C and above is fourfold: over-opened mouth, blowing too much air at the vocal cords, not engaging the abdominal muscles to move inward towards the spine while singing (or not moving them enough), and lastly failing to have any kind of horizontally expanded rib cage.  The lip trill idea is good, as previously mentioned, as a singer cannot sing a lip trill without the abdominal muscles being completely engaged, hence the exercise is usually successful.  However, with most beginning and young singers, even this technique can be difficult for them above an A or Bb just below high C.  Without going into greater depth about the physical aspects of singing notes above the staff, a simple technique is to ask the singers to hold their arms out (as if they were about to do jumping jacks), level, no bend in the elbow, and with the palms held facing up (similar to how Pavarotti would extend his arms out when accepting applause!).  This position automatically expands the rib cage to a certain degree and makes it easier for young singers to 'reach' the high notes.  Bear in mind, that the vocal cords simply stretch in order to be able to phonate on the 'higher' pitches, there is no actual going up or down.  So the overall objective is to keep the extra air away from the cords so that they are free to vibrate; in fact, in takes very little air to activitate the vocal cords, however for the higher notes to be effective and free of strain, it takes more air 'compression' in the lungs, yet less air flow in order to do this.  A complex technique, yet many of my young students as young as 7 and 8 years old learn how to do this over the course of 6 - 12 months of private voice lessons.  The results are stunning.  I have one girl, age 11, now in her fourth year of vocal training, who is able to easily sing above A above high C, yes that is the one with all of the leger lines.  And the other day, she actually sang C an octave above high C.  Other kids I have been teaching for 6 - 12 months are able to easily, and I emphasize, easily, to expand their range to F and G above high C.  The normal healthy range for an adult soprano is E below middle C to G or A above high C, while the normal healthy range of a child before age 14 or 15, is Bb sometimes A below middle C to again the same high notes.  It is a matter of technique.  The high range can only be accessed when there is no stress, tension or extra air on the vocal cords.  If you have any questions, please contact me at: 860.354.1442 or send me an e-mail at vandermeervoiceandarts(a) with over 20 years of specializing in professional voice training for kids and adults.
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on December 24, 2011 4:55pm
I had sent in a reply, and I would like to add that the girls need to be able to access their head voice in order to sing the high notes.  The head voice and chest voice are not actual voices, but in fact they are layers of tissue in the vocal folds, both vocal folds.  The top layer, called the epithelium layer, corressponds to the head voice, and the lower layers correspond to the chest voice.  Asking girls (as well as boys singing in falcetto) to make a high siren like sound, or 'little girl' sound are some metaphors that can be used to help them remember how to access the head voice.  Because kids are listening predominantly to chest voice singing on all forms of electronic media, I have found that overall their awareness of head voice is limited.  Also, there is often a value judgement placed against the lighter, often breathier (initially without vocal training) head voice sound, and the girls usually want to sound strong, drive the chest voice up to Bb or C above middle C, and then have almost nothing above that.  Driving the chest voice up to that pitch range, and singing in the 'mnode' for even as little as 5 minutes, will typically cause in imbalance in the registration of the vocal mechanism, making it even more difficult for the head voice to have any sound, let alone power.  Further, such singing has been known to cause various forms of vocal trauma.  There is so much to say on this topic and not enough space or time, so if you would like more help and/or information, please contact me directly at, vandermeervoiceandarts(a) or call me at 860.354.1442.  In addition to teaching singing for over 20 years, I sing professionally and direct both adult and childrens' choirs.
on January 5, 2012 7:09am
Mr. Betthauser, this might not be as tough a nut to crack as you might think.  The biggest problem might be social; in this age range, I find that girls want to sound like their peers and not stand out.  Recently, I attended the holiday concert at the school of one of my sixteen-year-old soprano voice students.  She has a solid technique, a lovely timbre, a two-and-a-half octave range, and the ability to sing from pianissimo to a solid forte without a change in timbre.  None of that was evident in the soprano sound of her choir.  When asked afterward, she stated that she didn't want to call attention to herself.  This is not the first student to do such.
I would advise you to have a sectional outside of the regular class time, in which you ask them to imitate the sound made when they try to talk as they yawn. Ask them to count to ten like that, connecting the syllables. Then have them use the same sound and give them a couple of easy scale-wise vocal excercises. Their voices will sound quite different to them.  Because of this, it will seem wrong to them, but you will probably notice an immediate change for the better.  It might be that you will need to spend time doing this individually, then bring them together and ask them all to do it together.  Don't ask them to make a yawning space.  For some reason, it confuses a lot of singers.  They can imitate that talking-while-yawning voice.  That is what they need to sustain in their singing, exaggerating the higher they go.
Remember that the vocal cords vibrate because of the expression of air.  A tight sound indicates that a singer is controlling the air flow, holding air back with the vocal cords. Most of us start out doing this, especially up high, but controlling the vocal cords with the breath makes a beautiful sound and opens the range naturally.  The singer should feel the need to breath athletically, like the air is being pulled out of them.  Discourage the "saving" of breath.  That is not breath control and it encourages tightening of the vocal cords. 
The pharynx is the prime resonating space for the voice.  The yawning voice resonates back there.  The back of the pharynx is a very thin payer of tissue covering the front of the spine. That's back there. When we yawn, the soft palate goes up, the walls of the pharynx flex open and the larynx lowers, spontaneously relaxing the vocal cords.  Don't be afraid of the richness that results. The "forward, in-the-mask" sound tends  to be a tight sound, but is not truly resonant.  The open-pharynx sound is gorgeous.  Every singer that uses it ends up with a resonant voice.  More resonating space (which we can control) means more resonance (overtones) and they get the added benefit of relaxed vocal cords.
Believe me, this works.  My own voice was a small, pretty enough with a limited range until the assimilation of this techique.  Now my range is from low A to high D, flexible pianissimo to fortissimo and I can sustain singing like this for hours.  This is not about me, though, it is about a technique that is scientifically based and does not subscribe to the use of smoke and mirrors.
Step outside the box.  Try it.  If you have questions, I am available.
on January 26, 2013 11:31am
Sometimes teachers can make the student over think what is happening while they sing.  While I was going through voice lessons I had been taught through choir to over control my voice.  I have had to help many of my college peers break through some of the same controlling problems that they have built up.  One thing that works for me is what we call the sumo wrestler pose.  Where you have the student stand in a ballet second position and then bend their knees.  Or have the student act like they are going to lift up the side of the piano while they are singing the note.  This causes them to use more support as well.  This helps them to think lower with the breath and makes them not think so much about what note they are on.  Also, while I was in high school I did not want to be a high soprano because it was not “cool.” My private teacher did not allow me to look at the piano so that I did not know how high I was singing.  Also, she would have me walk around the room swinging my arms so that I was not thinking so much about what note I was on.  It all depends on the student but sometimes I think students can over think what note they are trying to sing so you need to get them to think about other aspects of their singing.
on January 27, 2013 12:41pm
We "shoot freethrows" to help the image "up and over the note." 
on January 27, 2013 1:01pm
A different angle from me: I am very much a technically-oriented teacher, so I tend to stick with process.  I focus on the breathing, the alignment, and the relaxation of muscles that tend to get in the way, and I see where the voice goes when everything is working as it should.  If it goes up, then we go for it, and exercise the top of the voice without pushing into an area where weird compensatory tensions begin to creep in.  On the other hand, if the voice just won't go up, AND I can't find a technical or psychological obstacle, then I leave the issue alone for that week.  
But of course often there will be plenty of obstacles to overcome, including the psychological ones!  Sometimes girls will get nervous about going through their upper break, and will try to prevent that register change that naturally occurs at the top of the staff--they feel so worried about cracking that they just won't allow themselves to sing through that area.  With these folks I'll often just encourage them to keep the air flow the same--don't push extra air through OR back off--and let the voice crack if it wants to.
on January 28, 2013 9:17am
In my work with young voices I think it is very important to remember that the higher you sing the deeper you think.  You MUST keep some
chest sound ( all right, with young voices you must show them what that is ) in the upper register or it thins to a shriek.  At the moment,
I am exploring Franco Terrelli's videos on YouTube.  Interesting, and, I suspect, controversial.  However, he states that with good
Appoggio technique there is no passagio - and demonstrates it, nearly effortlessly.   These videos are for more mature voices but
those come from properly training young voices.   Never force but balance.
on February 2, 2013 4:47pm
I love the ideas given in this thread so far! The ferris wheel is a new one that I'l like to use in my classroom along with my private teaching.

As a tenor, I've never really had much of a problem with singing in the upper range, but getting anyone to use their head voice is always difficult. I remember in a vocal ped class that I took my teacher was very addamant about telling all young females (specifically mezzos and sopranos) that everyone sings high and that everyone can sing high, not just sopranos. She said this because of how many singers get placed as an alto in choir and condemn themselves to the life of low a's.

I spend a bit of time working with seventh grade girls and the biggest thing that I found is that they don't think that it's acceptable to sing in their head voice! This stigma comes from the exposure to musical theatre and pop where the majority of the singing is done in the chest voice. It took me a lot of time to get the girls to understand that it was okay to use their head voice, but as soon as I got there, it was fine.
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on February 3, 2013 9:17am
All of the above are wonderful pieces of advice, and hopefully one or more of them will help your singers.  One more thing I might ask your singers (and you) to remember: when singers are exploring their head register, they often do not like the sound they are hearing in their head as they produce it.  (We who hear them on the "outside" can easily forget this, because we don't hear their "inside" sound.  They will often try to unconsciously cover the sound, or make it breathy, or extend their chest or mid-range sound in order to make it sound better to them.  When I sense the women in my choirs (& men too) having this problem, I will sometimes have them shout their "whee" (the brighter vowel "ee" helps them remove the covering of their sound more quickly), making sure to keep their "throats open" (larynx down) as they do this.  Then I tell them to do the same "shout" on a pitch in their head range.  I then ask them how many of them thought the sound they just made sounded bad.  (Most hands go up.)  I then ask the rest of the choir how many of them thought it sounded bad.  (Usually no hands go up, and occasionally I might get one.)  Then I ask the women themselves how many of them thought the rest of the women sounded good when they "sang" that way."  (Most hands go up.)  This usually gets the message across, and I remind them of that "survey" from time to time when they're tempted to make themselves sound better on the inside.  
This to me is one of the biggest impediments to achieving the right tone, particularly in head voice: singers monitor themselves so that they sound good to themselves constantly.  They also may tend to avoid the register change, because when they hear good singers, they don't notice the register change when they listen from the "outside," not realizing that the register change creates a big difference in sound to the singer him or herself.  Once they give themselves permission to "sound bad" on the inside (they get used to it over time), they're more willing to apply all of the other good advice that has been mentioned above by all of you.
(And by the way, "whistle register" [which usually begins at about B above the treble staff for sopranos] is an even bigger barrier for sopranos.  Even those who get used to their head voice and no longer have a problem with the inside sound will balk at the sound of whistle register [hence the name - it's shrill, like a whistle].  But with re-assurance they can learn to sing in whistle register as well.  Again, a key is to have them continue to keep their larynx low [throat feels open] as they sing.)
Note: in your middle schoolers, particularly those in the process of their "voice change" or having just completed it, don't push these points too much.  And especially don't try to deal with whistle register at that age.  I would save that for your high schoolers, particularaly those in the upper grades.  And to me, the most important thing is that whatever they sing, they sing "freely."  If extending range produces tension, either eliminate the tension or save the range extension until later.  Your ears will be the judge of which path to choose.
I hope this helps.  Good luck.
on February 4, 2013 4:12am
Eric - I realize I am chiming in rather late on this, but I have something for all of us to consider. This doesn't address your question of "how do i...?" but rather, looks at why it's more difficult to get what you seek, tone-wise.
Our most visible cultural icons - meaning pop singers such as Beyonce, do not sing in a traditional woman's range. The SSB at the inauguration (2013) was in Eb major - a full 4th below its usual key for group singing and a fifth lower than it was commonly found in songbooks in the mid-20th ccentruy. The key Beyonce sang it in could have been sung nicely by a flexible baritone or a middling tenor. That is not a judgement, just a statement of fact. Girls do not generally hear women sing in what used to be considered a normal range these days unless their parents are classical music fans.
So - young girls have no "aural" examples in our media to hear and model. You may want to get a nice recording of Schubert songs to play as the kids come into class so that they begin to hear the kind of range you're hoping to have them produce easily.
Further thought - The muscles that help produce the darker, heavier "chest" sound can become over-developed in young singers, particularly if they are not getting private voacl instruction and are largely self-training (by mimicikng the pop singers they hear). When that happens, the other muscles that lengthen the vocal folds in order to sing high lose their ability to work well, making it harder for young girls to get into the upper register and causing that breathy, un-centered tone.
A wise teacher once said that a child who doesn't want to practice their dance steps never saw Swan Lake. The point is, if we want our girls to be able to sing in a traditional range, they first should know what that sounds like when it is done beautifully.
be well,
-Sandra LaBarge-Neumann
on February 4, 2013 7:22am
Sandra:  I agree with everything you say, except for one small thing, your use of the word "traditional."  What you describe is "traditional" only over about the past 2 centuries, a mere eyeblink in the history of music, and largely limited to the current classical and operatic tradition.  The "chest voice" (for want of a better and more accurate term) is just as much part of a woman's vocal range as is the "head voice," and in a great many world cultures--NOT just in Western pop culture!--it is the favored part of a woman's range.
The GOOD children's choir directors will always try to combat the influence of pop culture by teaching the proper use of the head voice, which is a very beautiful sound in both boys' and girls' voices.  (Some, of course, will go for the "Oscar Meyer Weiner" sound, and we can only feel sorry for the damage they are doing to those children's voices.)  But it's a simple fact that outside the classical world no one much cares for what you term the "traditional" soprano voice.  And when women were first admitted to choirs (say the early 19th century), they were admitted as "trebles" in the "tradition" of centuries of choirboys, while the alto parts were still sung by young men.  And of course the 18th century Metastatian opera featured two female sopranos (the prima and seconda donnas) and two male sopranos (the primo and secondo humos). 
I fully agree that the entire vocal range should be opened up, developed, and used, just not by supressing a natural part of that range but by developing ALL parts!
All the best,
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