I used to sing weekly and practice daily in my job. But I resigned and for about 5 years haven’t used my voice much. I’m trying to get it back in shape to sing 2 songs at a friend’s wedding. I’m a soprano and I’m 54 years old. In one of the songs I have to sing below my break, which is at E above middle C. I have a problem I’ve never had before: I have noticed that my voice now quavers (like a “little old lady”) except in the upper range. The quavering starts at about my break and lower. I’m using the vocal exercises my voice teacher used to have me do. The first exercise is: using a very light “whoooo” sound I vocally slide down a fifth. I repeat going down chromatically then do the same going back up. The object is to use proper breath control, keep the roof of the mouth open, cheek bones high, jaw relaxed, etc. The second exercise is like the first only slide down a fifth stopping on the thirds. And there are some more exercises that I do too. Could this quaver be from not using my voice and maybe it is just weak now? I realize it isn’t possible to diagnose perfectly without actually seeing me, but if I keep gently vocalizing the way I was taught, could this quaver possibly be “cured” and my voice sound stronger again?
From what you have told me it seems that your time off has allowed your voice to weaken some. The basic function of the voice is the elastic resistance of the vocal cords against the breath which causes them to vibrate giving the source of the tone. If there is not sufficient resistant strength in the vocal cords they will not be stable which will be noticed both in the body sensations of the singer, as uncertainty and lack of confidence in the voice, and in the tone. The quavering you describe is one of the symptoms of this condition. When this happens it takes more attention to keep the throat open, where if the vocal cords are properly active the larynx stays stable and the throat stays open almost automatically. Unfortunately doing exercises that focus on the breath will not re-strengthen your vocal cord function. You point out that you mainly notice it from your break and lower. This is the part of the range that is more like speaking which does not require much breath and is primarily voice.
An explanation may help. The function of the voice is governed by a balance between the voice (larynx/vocal cord action) and the breath. The better we are able to coordinate these two opposing forces the better the function, resulting in better tone. That is the skill of singing in a nutshell. If we only focus on the breath as we develop and practice we will be neglecting half of the situation. For some this doesn’t pose any obvious problems. But over time they gradually creep in. For others this is why they never really get their voice figured out. It all depends on the normal condition of the larynx. But without exercising the larynx it will gradually weaken and make singing more difficult than when we were young. My guess is your larynx was naturally well-coordinated so you could just “play” it by focusing on your breath. Then when you stopped singing that natural coordination was not being used so it weakened.
My advice would be to practice very simply. You seem to have a good idea of how to set-up things. So once you are ready to start your tone just say it. Don’t deliberately use your breath to get it started. Let it be a reflex to your desire to express/communicate. Remember the saying, “the breath comes because you have something to say”. Lamperti stated it as the voice takes the breath it needs. But if you exhale the body instinctively opens the vocal cords. This obviously weakens the approximation that is necessary for phonation. Then we have to use extra breath to get a clear vibration, which never really happens. This equates to pushing or over-singing. So try to sensitize yourself to not depending on the breath to activate your voice. The body will learn to provide what is necessary. There is more that can be done, but it has to be closely supervised to make sure it is done correctly or it could be harmful.