It is with increasing
frequency that singers write me and ask the question, "What is vibrato and how
do I develop it in my voice?" Another question that arises is "Are there certain
singers who just don't have that kind of sound in their vocal production? Can
vibrato be developed?" I will try to address these questions and offer some
thoughtful advice to those who wish to have vibrato defined. I will also give
some concrete ideas on how to vocalize in such a way that vibrato is encouraged
I define vibrato as a "slight variation of pitch resulting from the free
oscillation of the vocal cords". This free oscillation of the vocal cords results
from (1) an open pharynx or what many call the "open throat" along with (2)
healthy "closure of the cords" (see article on vocal cord closure) I consider
that vibrato is a result of these two opposites working together: open throat
and closed cords. (3) Another major factor to be considered in regard to vibrato
is the even sub-glottic breath pressure. This is regulated by the "support system"
which involves the abdominal muscles, lower lumbar/upper gludial muscles, intercostal
muscles and pectoral muscles. (See articles on breath and breath management).
Environmental Factor: As a child, I always had a vibrato. Whether developed
through vocal freedom or imitation I do not know. I had an older sister who
was an excellent soprano and used to sing a lot of opera and operetta in the
home. I found great joy in imitating her vocal sound while I was still a boy
soprano. I could match it quite well and was later asked to join the Texas Boy's
Choir because I had a healthy and even vocal sound. Other cultures encourage
different types of vibrato. For example, in some Asian cultures, a wide and
slow vibrato is very desirable. Many French pop singers use a faster tighter
vibrato. Neither of these examples represent healthy vocalism.
(1) The Vocal Wobble: We often hear singers that have a wide and slow
vibrato (see article on the vocal wobble.) The causes have been described in
the article entitled "The Vocal Wobble". A wide vibrato is usually a lack of
proper "resistance of the breath pressure" or a lack of "focus in the tone".
It can also be a result of a lack of proper adduction of the vocal cords. One
or all of these problems create a sound that our culture defines as "age in
the voice". I have found that singers in their 20's can have a wobble. I have
students in my studio who are in their 70's who have no sign of such a vocal
characteristic. In fact, they have what our culture calls a youthful, and more
importantly, healthy sound. I have found the primary cause of the vocal wobble
to be misuse rather than age. An unhealthy vocal technique used over a short
or long period of time can be the cause such a vocal problem. The solution is
quite simple: vocalize exercises that require body support along with focus.
The "ng" is a healthy sound that can help develop focus in the voice. The sustained
"hiss" can help a singer learn what muscles to use in order to "hold back" the
breath pressure or "support the tone".
(2) The Overly-Fast Vibrato: Some singers have an overly fast vibrato
that can be as disconcerting as the wobble. Neither the wobble nor the fast-vibrato
is the desired vocal sound for healthy singing. A fast-vibrato can be caused
by a number of vocal situations. (1) Pressure at the root of the tongue. This
pressure at the root of the tongue can have its origin at inhalation or at the
attack or onset of sound. (2) Lack of vocal cord approximation: Many singers
who do not quite understand that the vocal cords must close after inhalation.
This lack of proper adduction of the cords can result in a faster vibrato speed.
If the vocal cords do not approximate closely enough, the vibrato can become
faster depending upon the size and shape of the vocal cords themselves. (3)
Lack of support is another cause of this vocal problem. Most of us have heard
singers with definite vibrato problems and we have experienced singers with
healthy vibrato. One key factor in attaining a healthy sound is to be sure that
the vibrato is vibrating at an even rate. An uneven vibrato can be caused by
sudden changes in the sub-glottic breath pressure. This is caused by a lack
of even "body resistance" or support in the body. The vocal cords then begin
to separate and vibrate unhealthily. The result is an uneven vibrato sometimes
accompanied by pitch problems. The fast vibrato is less noticeable if the rate
of vibrato is even rather than sporadic.
(3) The Straight Tone: So often I have singers who come into my studio
with a straight tone (no vibrato). Some of these singers are not aware of vibrato
or how it is developed in the voice. Many come into my studio with the express
desire to develop vibrato in their sound realizing that their voice is lacking
in that particular area. In over 25 years of teaching, I have never had a singer
in my studio that could not develop healthy vibrato.
Some straight tone singers have sung in choirs where the director has demanded
straight tone. This is potentially a damaging circumstance. Straight tone singing
is extremely unhealthy for the voice. Vocal nodules can result from such vocal
production because of too much pressure held at the glottis to prevent vibrato
from occurring in the tone. Choral blend is developed through vowel and acoustical
alignment, not squeezing the voice into straight tone sound. The proper vowel
and acoustical alignment can create a beautiful vocal blend. I experienced this
personally in Berlin when 11 of my singers sang "Let Your Garden Grow" from
Candide as a finale along with a men's choir. The resulting vocal sound of these
11 singers who were trained on the "ng" ring was amazing to say the least. Because
these singers were trained with vowel and resonance alignment, the resulting
sound was one of beautiful blend of tone along with fullness of vocal sound
and blend. Several conductors from German opera houses came to me after the
concert to ask about the training of these singers.
Most straight tone singers cannot use the idea of vocal cord closure during
the first part of their training because "too much pressure" has been held at
the vocal cords for too long a time period. I have found that vibrato comes
into the voice when the singer achieves proper balance in the "support muscles"
and when the singer keeps the feeling of the "u" vowel in the pharynx. The Italian
"u" is a crucial part of a singer's training in order for vibrato to occur.
The "u" vowel allows a healthy adduction of the vocal cords without too much
pressure at the glottis. It is understandable that this vowel is crucial in
the Italian School. I find that the "u" vowel must be produced without the "bunching"
of the back of the tongue and with a "high and wide soft palate" in order to
be efficient acoustically. The result is beauty and resonance simultaneously.
(4) Diaphragmatic Vibrato: A diaphragmatic vibrato is the pulsating
of the diaphragm during a sustained tone to "create" a false vibrato. Music
theatre singers develop this damaging vocal habit in order to have some sort
of vibrato when none is present in the tone. This is a huge mistake. A diaphragmatic
vibrato is difficult to repair because the lower abdominal muscles memorize
the pulsating sensation so deeply. This situation can be repaired with lots
of time and hard work. Solution: Use the idea of the sustained "hiss" and memorize
what the body "feels" during this function. Then sing a tone while keeping the
same "feel" in the body. This will stabilize the shaking diaphragm.
(5) The role of the vocal trill: In some cases, a singer can begin
to awaken the vibrato function by using a trill. A trill is an educated yodel
at the vocal cords that may or may not be easy for a singer to produce. Some
connect with this idea and begin to release the "over-squeezing" of the vocal
cords, therefore allowing for the development of a vibrato.
Healthy vibrato can be achieved in a rather short period of time. Usually
the time factor is dependent upon the singer's mind/body coordination. Some
singers have more of a connection to their body than others. I recently had
a large-voiced baritone who began to develop some vibrato in his sound after
only three lessons. I have had others who have taken much longer because of
singing straight tone for so many years. At any rate, any singer can achieve
a properly regulated and even vibrato with concentration, proper instruction,
and by embracing the process rather than the result. Patience is a most important
aspect while training and balancing vocal production.