Like all of the other vocal attributes discussed in this series, a correct vibrato is a strong indicator of an excellent technique. Despite what some misguided choral directors believe, a small, sparkling vibrato is absolutely inherent in a healthy voice and should not be tampered with! Is everybody listening? Vibrato is natural and desirable in any era of classical music. However, a fast, bleatty vibrato reminiscent of a lamb calling for its mother or a vibrato wide enough to walk through are very unhealthy and are vocal faults that definitely need to be addressed. The ideal vibrato is small, firm, consistent, unobtrusive and iridescent, existing as only one part of the voice and subsumed in the whole, allowing the voice itself to come to the forefront and not the vibrato. The best vibrato is one that you don’t even notice.
There is a range of healthy vibratos. All vibratos do not have to sound exactly alike in every voice or every voice type. Mezzo-sopranos can sometimes have slightly faster vibratos that are merely a characteristic of that voice type. But they should all have the characteristics listed above and enhance the voice versus detracting from it. For those people training their ears to understand and identify these characteristics, listen to the vibrato of a singer at the beginning, middle and end of his/her career for an indication of how healthy and consistent the singer’s technique remained.
The effect of this healthy vibrato on an audience is quite marked. It allows the audience first to relax and then to revel in a sophisticated, polished, lively sound. The voice can be heard for what it is and the music can be heard as the composer would have wished. It is not acceptable for opera companies to continue to hire singers with major vibrato issues, even in specialized repertoire. These issues diminish the quality of the sound so drastically that those without a significant amount of knowledge get a completely false idea of what a truly wonderful classical voice should sound like and it obstructs the beauty of the music, too. I hope this practice ends and singers with healthy techniques and beautiful voices are the ones gracing opera house stages around the world.
Here are some wonderful examples of singers with very healthy, shimmery vibratos:
The great Rosa Ponselle, contemporary of Enrico Caruso, left us many examples of the perfect vibrato. In this rendition of “Casta diva” from Norma, her vibrato is unobtrusive and serves as a wonderful ornament to her fantastic talent.
The exceptional lieder specialist, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, displays a healthy, well-integrated vibrato in this Mahler lied, “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”. Note how consistent and natural-sounding his vibrato is throughout his range.
The brilliant mezzo, Janet Baker, showcases her a wonderful technique and shimmery vibrato in “Che faro senza Eruidice” from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eruidice. Such a lovely vibrato gives a great air of refinement to her sound.
Even in Wagner can and should this small, unobtrusive vibrato exist. The heldentenor, Wolfgang Windgassen, showed us how in this rendition of “In fernem Land” fromLohengrin. His voice sounds free and easily produced with a reliable taut vibrato throughout.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention the dazzling Birgit Nilsson as an example of a wonderful vibrato, as well. Pick any recording throughout her long career and you will hear the ideal vibrato, a great testament to her consistency and technical understanding of her own voice.
Vibrato is a crucial component of the professional classical voice and adds refinement and liveliness to the sound. However, it is the effect of other technical proficiencies and can not be directly developed.
There are several reasons why singers suffer from fast, bleaty vibratos. One is tension at the root of the tongue. A lack of proper coordination can cause tongue tension. The tongue should maintain an “ng” position with the tip at the base of the bottom front teeth. This releases the tongue forward and keeps it from tensing up at its root. However, lower body resistance is needed to provide the requisite energy to keep the tongue from grabbing. Otherwise, if there is no other source of energy, it will continue to grab. Another reason is lack of proper cord closure [see my previous blog on Clarity in the Professional Singing Voice], which can cause the cords to vibrate incorrectly and more quickly than normal. Again, lower body resistance is crucial in keeping the cords more closely together and managing the breath flow.
There are a number of reasons why singers suffer from wide, wobbly vibratos. A major reason is using too much cord mass versus just the thin, top edge of the vocal cords. Interestingly enough, another manifestation of tension at the root of the tongue, that depresses the larynx, is a wide vibrato. And again, improper cord closure combined with an excess of air pressure can cause the same, so lower body resistance is again crucial. A dearth of ring in the voice that an open oro-pharngeal space and correct nasal resonance provide is another reason. The “ng” position of the tongue allows for more resonance space in the back of the mouth and is a prerequisite for ring or the “ng thread” that Kirsten Flagstad spoke of in her singing.
I have heard over the years many singers suffering from either fast or slow vibratos. It is usually quite detrimental to the success of their careers. As shown above, a few basic concepts of a good vocal technique can go a long way to rid singers of these faults. Unfortunately, good habits like correct cord closure, use of the thin edges of the cords, correct nasal resonance, the “ng” tongue position and lower body resistance, including the lower back, solar plexus and also the pectorals, are not understood by a majority of teachers and, as a consequence, not being passed along to the next generations of singers. This is a tragedy. Thankfully, good vocal training using the above concepts can turn around poor habits of a lifetime and allow singers to experience their true voices.
Because of the number of possible causes of vibrato issues, I will refer you to my previous posts in this Professional Singing Voice series. All of the exercises previously discussed address healthy functioning of the voice and will help both fast and slow vibratos. Below I will give several exercises for some new concepts – lower body support and the thin edge function.
Lower back expansion
Most singers are out of touch with their backs, so awareness of movement possibility in that area is the first step.
- Place the backs of your hands on your back a little above your waist. This should be at the bottom of your ribcage.
- While exhaling on a small hiss, ask the muscles under your hands to expand and widen slowly out to the side, not stopping until your breath runs out.
- Keep practicing until you have some control of those back muscles. This type of resistance is what should take place during every sung phrase.
The Rev uses the same expansion of the back muscles, but in a more energetic way. This helps to really understand the dynamism necessary in the lower back during singing.
- Place your hands as above.
- While saying “I” three times with a quick upward and then downward inflection, activate and expand the back muscles under your hands quickly, releasing the expansion as the tone inflects downward. This should sound something akin to the revving of a car.
- This exercise helps singers become aware of the excursion of those back muscles and begin using them as a general rule.
The Appoggio is a concept introduced hundreds of years ago by the first, great Italian pedagogues. It means “lean”, which describes the general activation and use of various muscles and muscle groups in the torso that allow the singer to “lean” into the body, so that the voice float over it, freely supported and unimpeded. It also describes the “lean” of the sternum that activates the pectoral muscles that we will discuss here.
The sternum or breastbone is important in helping anchor the expansion of the back and complete the circle of support, which consists of lower back widening, abdominal wall moving in and up, solar plexus spinning straight out and sternum moving forward. There are two ways to access this sternum/pectoral activation.
- With the onset of the tone, feel that the sternum is moving slightly straight forward in space and continue until the phrase ends
- With the onset of the tone, feel that the sternum is moving slightly back and into the body. Continue until the phrase ends.
Both of these help activate the pectoral muscles. Pay close attention and you might feel your back become more active and start to expand at the same time.
Thin edge exercise
Using the “u” vowel helps encourage thin edge function, so the Cuperto exercise previously given also addresses this. In this new exercise, staccati which are barely sung bring the thin edges together without activating the whole mass of the cords. It is very important to be aware when doing this exercise that the staccati are not sung full voice. The object is simply to bring them together to make a small, super-short, light phonation. Then a five-note scale follows, for which the goal is to begin the first note softly with the thin edges and then crescendo right away into full voice while maintaining the thin edge function. Like all of the other exercises, it require some practice before getting it exactly right, but it is a wonderful tool and helps a wide variety of vocal issues.
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Vibrato is an essential component of the professional classical voice, but only a shimmery, unobtrusive vibrato is pleasant for the audience and indicative of a healthy technique. Even though many teachers don’t directly address the technical reasons behind slow and fast vibratos, learning the correct functioning of the voice rectifies these issues.
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