#17 Question and Answer
Thank you, Judy Anderson, for sending me this wonderful four-part question this week!
Q: For as long as I can remember, I’ve preferred listening to voices that didn’t have (or didn’t use) very much vibrato.
1. Do all singing voices tend toward having vibrato naturally or is it a cultivated technique?
2. Is the “wavering” sound of vibrato a product of slightly changing pitch or slightly changing volume or what?
3. I’ve heard that a bit of vibrato in a choral setting is desirable because it can mask slight differences in intonation. Is that true?
4. If it’s natural, does vibrato tend to become more pronounced as we age, or is that my imagination?
A: Personal preference for vibrato (or non-vibrato) is very much like the personal preference for bright versus dark tones.
1. Yes, true vibrato is naturally produced by the enervation of the superior laryngeal nerve to the cricothyroid muscle, and the tensing-relaxing pattern is called a stabilized physiological tremor rate. This is the same phenomenon which occurs when you’ve lifted something heavy and your muscles begin to tremble. This is a normal balancing function between tension and relaxation in the vocal mechanism.
2. As Richard Miller writes in The Structure of Singing “Three parameters are generally determinable in vibrato…fluctuation of pitch, variation of intensity and the number of undulations per second.” World class singers’ voices generate vibratos at approximately 6-6.5 cycles per second.
There are two types of dysfunctional vibratos. One is a faster frequency vibrations in the range of 8-12 cycles per second, identified as a tremolo, jutter or bleat, and the other is the steadily slower, less than 4 cycles per second vibrato, which is identified as an oscillation or wobble.
In techniques where heavy vocal production are required to carry over a large orchestra, such as in Wagner’s operas, the vibrato cycles per second tend towards slower within the healthy range, 5-6 cycles per second. In music where light vocal production is required, such as either a capella or lightly accompanied renaissance music, voices will tend towards faster vibratos within a range of 6-7 cycles per second.
3. Allowing vibrato in the choral setting does have a correcting effect on pitch, provided the singers have a good concept of pitch. One has to be careful how one arranges an ensemble, though, to make sure that extremely different vibrato speeds and voice colors are not placed side by side. A fast vibrato with a bright tone will sound sharp next to a slower vibrato with a darker tone. Ideally, we want to tune our ensembles by arranging similar or complimentary voices together.
4. The natural aging process can disturb the vibrato rate. Singing too heavily can also produce changes in the vibrato rate.
In James McKinney’s Diagnosis and Correction of Vocal Faults he list three types of vibrato faults; the straight tone (no vibrato), the bleat (irregular fast vibrato) and the wobble (slow vibrato).
The straight tone inhibits the physiological tremor rate, and may produce tension and fatigue in the voice.
Try relaxing as you’re singing. Experiment with singing trills to feel the voice shake.
The bleat, tremolo or jutter has two causes; abdominal tension and laryngeal tension at the vocal folds, and will appear as a very rapid vibrato with irregularities in the rate. To correct this requires two changes in production and requires practice and patience. One learns to relax the support mechanism and at the same time phonate smoothly.
The wobble or oscillation is often the result of a few interacting variables; lack of physical exercise/lack of singing exercise/heavy production. Singing more lightly/singing more often/adding something more to your daily fitness routine may help.
Consider your own vibrato rate this week.
Does it seem fast, slow, regular, irregular or absent?
Hum a pitch.
Does it start straight and stay straight?
Does it start straight and vibrate towards the end?
Does it start with vibrato and does the rate change?
Does it start with vibrato and is the rate constant?
Have a very fine week,
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