The issue of vibrato - Shirlee Emmons

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The issue of vibrato in a singing tone causes many problems for singers. Although all singers are concerned with their vibratos, choral singing often gives rise to vibrato problems, and many of these problems occur in choral singing. Many choral directors want that elusive thing, “blend,” and worry that, when their singers give them a tone with vibrato, the blend will be ruined. Clearly, they equate vibrato with tremolo or wobble. In so doing, they are blaming the wrong thing. A vibratoless tone resembles a boy soprano’s tone, where absence of vibrato is natural. Singers are confused when someone tells them to take the vibrato “out.” This is because they do not believe that they are “putting” vibrato “in.” It is a natural component of adult singing.

Let us use the choral director’s reasoning and attitudes in order to clarify our own. One wonders whether choral directors have ever noticed that orchestral conductors never ask their instrumentalists to “synchronize their vibratos?” Observing, one can see that the string players are actually moving their hands in various rhythms to achieve their vibratos. The movements are far from uniform among the players, although the resulting tone is in accordance. Nor do orchestral conductors consider whether or not there should be vibrato in their instrumentalists’ tone. It is viewed as a necessary component of a beautiful tone. So should it be with a singing tone.

Many choral directors believe that a soft dynamic level will obliterate the vibrato and deliver “blend.” In this belief they are wrong. Vibrato will still be there in pianissimo, just not as audible. More importantly, expressive possibilities are severely limited when only soft singing is permitted, and vocal fatigue is a sure result. Dale Moore, noted pedagogue, has this to say: “I would rather have a soprano of potentially operatic caliber serving as part of a cheerleading squad than have her singing in a group where the tonal ideal for a soprano is the sound of a tired English choirboy.” Paul Kiesgen, celebrated teacher of voice and vocal pedagogy, echoes Moore: “Loud singing with inadequate vocal technique can be harmful....Poorly produced soft singing, however, can be equally harmful....For most voice students, soft singing is the last skill mastered and one of the most difficult to acquire.”

Note: Soft singing however do take away anxiety from contemporary soloists (not choir), therefore the involvement of soft singing to reduce tension in learning

Often choir directors justify their dislike of vibrato in a tone by citing a belief that singers of early music never used it. Before we accept the premise that singers in Renaissance and other early music styles used no vibrato we must ask several salient questions:

1. Do contemporary writers from these two periods accurately describe in unmistakable terms the sounds they admired and those they disliked? Bear in mind that there are no recordings from which we could draw our own conclusions.

2. Do the writers of the period clearly indicate that there was or was not vibrato in the vocal tone? Or whether some singers used it and others did not? Do they report whether some singers may have used it part of the time for specific music and eschewed it in other music? Are we in fact sure of the meanings of the descriptive words used by period writers on music? Do we now understand what was meant by the terms they used at that time? (Even present-day voice teachers have considerable difficulty agreeing on exactly what constitutes a wobble, or tremolo, or even the desirable degree of vibrato.) Do we really know exactly what Tosi meant by his treatise of 1723, often quoted by both sides of the vibrato argument?

3. What does the music itself really tell us? We know that the use of the voice changed significantly in Rossini’s day after the tenor Dupré demonstrated the possibility of the high C in full voice rather than falsetto. Was there a significant change at some earlier point between the early music we are discussing and that of, say, the Baroque?

4. Does the range used preclude the use of any particular type of tone? How about the tessitura of solo parts and the tessitura of ensemble parts? It is possible that some of the dissonances used must have been sung without vibrato for the sake of clarity and accuracy. Was a distinction made between the tone adopted by soloists and by ensemble singers?

5. Do we have any reliable information on the vocal longevity of singers of that period? Did they go on singing well into their later years as some of our recent and even present singers do? Were there in fact professional singers in the current sense at all?

All of the above questions (extracted from a Statement issued by the American Academy of Teachers of Singing, “Early Music and the Absence of Vibrato”) seem relevant to the subject of singing early music and the possible vocal abuse in relation to singing early music. Choir directors should know that, across the profession, voice teachers are very concerned about the vocal debilitation that occurs in their students who sing nothing but early music in groups that shun vibrato.

Former Indiana University pedagogue and vocal researcher, and a great singer himself, Ralph Appelman, wrote, “Correctly produced, the vibrato is a vocal ornament that is directly related to the sensation of support. It is physiologically controlled by the muscles of respiration and is thereby, basically a respiratory function assisted by coordinated laryngeal controls.”

The assurance with which Appelman makes this statement should not cause us to ignore the complexity of the task facing the singer who is attempting to keep an optimal vibrato rate through the vicissitudes of :

1. Singing in many different musical styles: early music, mainstream, bel canto, jazz, Middle Eastern, etc

2. Changing dynamic levels, crescendos and decrescendos, sustained and non-sustained utterances (trills, staccato, marcato, martellato, etc.

3. Fluctuating vowel and consonant demands of different languages,

4. Activating glottal onsets, stresses, and unvoicings in languages not their own, achieving their musical intentions or those of their conductor,

5. Executing extreme pitches, both high and low.

These are not simplistic tasks and they are not made easier when the singer does them as part of a group in a chorus situation. Each of the tasks listed above influence the rate and extent of the vibrato. Each of the tasks listed above are made easier by the maintenance of the appoggio, which produces vocal stability.