It is with increasing
frequency that singers from all over the world write me and ask, "What is a
wobble and how can I solve this problem in myself and others?" The question
comes from teachers and singers alike who are concerned about their vocal health.
Before answering this question, I think it is appropriate to establish a clear
definition of a "wobble" and its causes. As a vocal professional, I define a
"vocal wobble" as an "overly wide vibrato" which affects a large variation of
pitch. The oscillation usually is somewhat slower than that of an acceptably
healthy vibrato. Normal vibrato effects much less pitch differentiation. The
tonal quality engages a series of higher overtones that enhance what many call
"ring" in the voice.
Certain cultures have no problem with a "wobble". A perfect example is in
certain Asian pop music where a wide vibrato is not only acceptable but is also
a fashionable and desired vocal characteristic. Most vocal professionals agree
that a vocal "wobble" involves laryngeal muscles that should not be used in
A singer who sings with a "wobble" is using throat muscles that cause vocal
deterioration over a period of time. Contrary to popular belief, a vocal "wobble"
often has little to do with the singer's age. I have had singers in their 20's
suffering from this vocal disorder. It is simply a use of incorrect vocalism
that often comes from a damaging vocal technique. As stated before, some cultures
have little if any problem with this kind of production. I have personally observed
that the "wobble" is often quite accepted in more dramatic German Opera. Often
singer's who study the "hinten und unten" (back and down) technique of vowel
placement without proper lifting of the soft palate suffer from a depressed
larynx. This production a large factor in helping to create the "vocal wobble".
In contrast, it is more rare to find Italian singers who suffer from the "wobble"
because the Italian School prefers a "brighter" vocal sound. Also, the German
language tends to be darker. This is not to say that Italian singers never have
a "wobble" and German singer always do. There are exceptions in every circumstance.
However, it is important to note that there is a definite role that language
plays in creating or discouraging this condition.
It is a well known fact that Maria Callas had a tremendously wide "wobble"
in the top of her voice from dragging the lower register too high. On the other
hand, Celia Bartoli has no sign of this in her singing. In fact, she has a "shimmering"
vibrato with lots of brilliance in the tone. Voice type can play a role in the
tendency of vocal "wobble". Usually it occurs in larger and more dramatic voices.
Basses can especially suffer from this condition because of the "thickness"
of the vocal folds.
In my 25 year history of teaching, the problem of the "vocal wobble" has come
up repeatedly in singers of all ages. In this article, I have chosen to break
down the causes and then get to the solutions. In most cases, there is one missing
link in vocal coordination that creates the root of this particular problem.
Causes: (1) Lack of focus in vocal tone. (2) Singing without proper closure
of the vocal cords. (3) Inconsistent "resistance" in the body to control the
outward flow of air (some call this "support"). (4) Singing with too much "thick
vocal cord mass". (5) Dragging too much "chest voice" or "heavy mechanism" (see
William Vennard's book) too high. (6) A shaking diaphragm.
Let's first address problem #1. "Lack of focus" in
the tone is directly related to a lack of high overtones. One major factor which
can "cut out" these overtones is the tongue position. I heard Lindquest say
repeatedly to use the "ng" position of the tongue as "home base" while pronouncing
words in music. This "ng" position means that the tongue is "arched in the middle"
and the tongue tip is positioned behind the lower teeth and often "down into
the gum line". Most vocal professionals know that the tongue must be free to
move, however the tongue needs the "ng" reference in order to keep the pharynx
(primary resonator) from being "filled up" with the back of the tongue. This
tongue position discourages a "flat depressed" tongue that creates pressure
directly at the vocal folds. A "flat tongue position" is the direct cause of
"depressed larynx production"; an extremely dangerous vocal technique. This
"pressure at the root of the tongue" can be a major cause of a "wobble". "Lack
of focus" can also be connected with an overly-dropped soft palate. Alan Lindquest
used the image of "pronouncing through the cheek bones" rather than directly
out the mouth space. This requires a lifted soft palate in order for the higher
overtones to be felt in the cheek bones.. Flagstad spoke of the "ng" feeling
as the core of her tone that was "like a silver thread". Birgit Nilsson calls
it singing with "shine" in the voice. Whatever it may be called, singing with
proper "ng" resistance helps the tone to become vibrant and beautiful. Solution:
Practicing vocal exercises going from "ng" to a vowel can help a singer tremendously.
I often tell a singer to open the vowel by "lifting the palate away from the
tongue" rather than the tongue "crashing downward" into the back of the throat.
Problem #2: Singing without proper closure of the vocal
cords. Jussi Bjoerling told Lindquest in 1938 that it took him several years
to get his "attack" so that the vocal cords did not "leak too much breath".
This can be a controversial vocal concept. Garcia called this concept the "coup
de glotte", or proper approximation of the vocal folds. Throughout the history
of the teaching of singing, this subject has been called by several names. Lindquest
called it the "gentle closing of the cords". William Vennard called it the "imaginary
H". In the end, it is important that the cords come together after inhalation.
Many singers do NOT do this and the result over time is a "flatting of pitch"
in singing. Another result can be a vocal "wobble". When too much air pressure
comes through the glottis at the attack, the vocal cords are not encouraged
to vibrate quickly, therefore a "slower and wider vibrato" can result. Solution:
The "ng" brings the vocal cords together in the perfect approximation without
too much "squeeze of the cords or too much wild loose air through the cords".
If the cords are trained to come together with a sense of gentle firmness, the
resulting vibrato will tend to be faster and healthier. Lindquest had singers
speak the "eh" vowel with a rather closed mouth position and "feel the cords
come together properly".
Flagstad was trained to "close the cords."
Her "back & down" jaw position helped to assist in healthy
vocal cord approximation.
Problem #3: Inconsistent "body resistance" in singing.
This can also be called "support". (see article on breath and breath management.)
Many singers do not understand that there must be resistance in the body in
order not to "overblow" the vocal cords. Some in the vocal professional world
call this "support". In fact, the intercostals, lower lumbars, and pectorals
are the three primary muscle groups that "hold back breath pressure". The solar
plexus area will also "resist outward" as a flat sheath of muscle, NOT A KNOT.
We sing on "compressed breath"; not loose air. The "feeling" can be compared
to lifting a medium weight object. The correct instinct in the body is to compress
the breath and close the glottis before singing. Again, this must be a gentle
action. Solution: If one takes a breath as though they have forgotten what to
say, the feeling will come into the body. Also lining the body against a wall
and breathing into the lower back will encourage the correct "posture" for the
proper compression to occur. Then the singer needs to experiment with sound
while "pressing the lower back into the wall". The result will be a slight "grunt"
feeling in the body. The operative word here is SLIGHT. Many take one concept
too far and the vocal balance is disturbed, creating even more vocal problems.
Problem #4: Singing with too much "thick mass" of vocal
cord. Alan Lindquest used a very simple exercise in order for me not to use
"too much of the thick edges of the cords". In my opinion, this is one reason
many larger lower-voiced singers suffer from a "wobble". Solution: Staccato
exercises on a closed vowel like "i" or "e" can be most helpful in solving this
problem. Again, the attack must be with the cords gently together on the "thin
edges". When a singer accomplishes this feat, the voice suddenly attains a group
of "higher overtones" which otherwise are missing. Small soft staccato exercises
can be most helpful in accomplishing a healthier vibrato speed.
Problem #5: Dragging too much "chest voice" (heavy
mechanism) too high. I often say to a singer that singing with too much "weight
in the voice" is simply singing a high note with the "thickness of cord mass"
intended for a lower pitch. This puts what my friend Judith Raskin called "drag"
in the voice; too much pulling from the heavy mechanism. Solution: Lindquest
addressed this problem by working the voice from the top down. His favorite
vowel for this was the tiny Italian "u" vowel. This must be accomplished with
an open throat and the feeling of the "ng" in the tone. I was also given exercises
that moved from open vowels in the lower register to a closed vowel like "u"
or "o" in the upper register. This allows for what Lindquest called the "yodel
effect". The singer feels a "flip" allowing a lighter mechanism to take over
for the upper range. I have had many "classical belters" in my teaching career.
Often they have been instructed to keep too much "lower color" as they go up
from the bottom. This creates vocal strain and often results in a "wobble".
I suggest to singers that they use the tiny "u" vowel because it allows the
voice to "lighten without squeezing". It has been my experience that many who
supervise a singer's process do not hear when a tone is "squeezed" into position.
Often this "squeeze" is heard as a type of resonance. True resonance can only
be accomplished with an open primary resonator (pharynx). When a singer can
accomplish "lightening without squeezing" as they go up from the lower range,
the chance of the "vocal wobble" occurring is diminished greatly. The voice
flips into "light mechanism" or "head voice" as the singer goes higher in range.
Addressing Problem #6: The shaking diaphragm: Often
the "shaking diaphragm" is a condition which haunts larger-voiced singers. At
some point in their training, they have misunderstood proper "body resistance".
A "pumping of the diaphragm" is often a desire to enhance vibrato on a tone
that is not free to vibrate on its own. The result is an "imbalance of the healthy
stream of air through the larynx". This "pumping of the diaphragm" creates uneven
spurts of breath pressure through the larynx. At this point other throat muscles
are engaged to help "hold back this breath pressure". The result is a large
"wobble" and vocal fatigue. The less the throat is involved in singing the better
and this type of vocalism engages throat muscles that make for unhealthy and
injurious singing. Solution: Again use the idea of a "constant and even resistance"
in which the body gently "flexes outward" at an even rate. The idea of leaning
the back against the wall is a good one. Also place one hand flatly and directly
below the base of the sternum bone. Have the "solar plexus" area resist as a
"flat sheath of muscle" at the "onset" or "attack". Keep this healthy "resistance"
while singing the entire musical. The resistance should stay constant between
vowel and consonant function. Teach the body to recreate this behavior repeatedly.
This can be compared to a "moaning" or "very slight grunt" sensation in the
body. Make sure that this action is gentle and not abrupt. Loss of correct body
support or what Lindquest called "hook-up" is detrimental to healthy singing.
If this "healthy" resistance can be repeated and made habit, the "shaking diaphragm"
To teachers and singers alike, I wish you the best luck in finding and executing
healthy singing. Please address any questions to firstname.lastname@example.org