Questions regarding vocal vibrato such as “What is vibrato?”, “How to develop vibrato?” or “How to sing with vibrato?” are very common among singers.
This topic may be the second most frequent question, right after questions regarding singing in high registers.
This blog post will give you some basic insights into the topic of vocal vibrato, including answers about how to sing with vibrato and practical suggestions how to develop vibrato in your voice.
What Is Vibrato?
Let’s turn to Wikipedia for the definition of vibrato:
“Vibrato is a musical effect consisting of a regular, pulsating change of pitch. It is used to add expression to vocal and instrumental music. Vibrato is typically characterised in terms of two factors: the amount of pitch variation (“extent of vibrato”) and the speed with which the pitch is varied (“rate of vibrato”).”
If you are still not sure what vibrato is, here is a Youtube video “How to sing with vibrato” with one of my favourite singers/vocal teachers Christopher Jacklin, demonstrating what vibrato is. Listen carefully for the pulsating sound in his voice.
The pitch variations (as explained in the definition) should not go above or below a semitone from the vibrating note.
The oscillations should be centred around the main pitch.
The speed at which the pitch varies is about 6 to 8 cycles per minute.
Also notice the visible movements on Christopher’s neck when he demonstrates the incorrect vibrato (at 2:38).
Vibrato is a matter of a personal preference.
Some singers use it often, others use vibrato only occasionally to enhance parts of songs.
The amount of vibrato will also depends on the music genre (for example classical singers will use it more than singers of other music genres) as well as the particular song you are singing.
Some songs may sound better with vibrato rather than with straight pitches.
But again, it is a singer’s choice.
There is a general misconception that pop music does not use vibrato, which is not true.
There are some famous vibrato singers in the pop world using vibrato to bring in emotions (such as John Legend’s All of Me).
Sometimes “less is more” when it comes to vibrato but I leave this decision to you.
Here is another video. Per Bristow, is demonstrating the fact that vibrato is an artistic choice.
I am not sure where this belief comes from: maybe from vocal teachers who claim that vibrato is a necessary component of one’s vocal performance or from listening to idols who use (or misuse) vibrato in their singing.
Whatever your reason is, if you feel that a voice without a vibrato is not a good voice, I strongly suggest that you re-evaluate your position.
Vocal mastery is about using healthy vocal techniques in a controlled way resulting in vocal flexibility.
If you feel pressured to develop vibrato in your voice to prove your vocal superiority, you are heading the wrong direction.
Such pressure may actually prevent you from reaching your goal.
You may feel compelled to create “the pulse” by imitating the sound in an unhealthy way instead of discovering the vibrato naturally in a healthy way.
If you start adding vibrato to your voice before you are ready, you may end up with a fake vibrato that ads no quality to your vocal performance.
Vibrato can be developed in voices that are free of any tension.
How to Sing with Vibrato?
Let’s look at how a singer can discover vibrato in his or her voice, how to develop it and control it.
Is Vibrato Natural or Learned?
You may be wondering if vibrato is a learned skill.
If you looked for an answer to this question before, you probably came across two types of answers:
Yes and No.
So what is the truth?
- There are two main approaches in vocal pedagogy to developing vibrato.One stream will not teach vibrato directly because it is believed that vibrato will appear in a singer’s voice providing there is a solid foundation in place, such as healthy vocal techniques and tension free sound production.
Classically trained vocal teachers will emphasize the importance of developing healthy vocal techniques that will eventually lead to naturally emerging vibrato.
This approach requires patience and time.
2. However, there are many schools and approaches that will teach vibrato directly using different methods.
There are some singing programs that promise tips and tricks with immediate results.
I do not believe that this is possible and developing vibrato is a skill requiring time and practice.
What is more concerning is that many untrained singers will attempt to develop vibrato too early in their vocal development and may end up with a damaged vocal mechanism.
What if the answer is somewhere in the middle?
Some teachers and vocal coaches will help their students discover vibrato but they will also understand that a voice has to be ready and mature enough to develop vibrato (therefore children and untrained singers usually do not have vibrato in their voices).
A vocal student is not ready until he or she has developed some basic skills, such as good breath support, controlled tone, balanced resonance, good vocal cord closure, vocalizing without tension etc.
Time for more videos about vibrato. This time I chose 3 videos by a New York vocal coach, Justin Stoney. I love his series of video sessions.
Start with his episode 6, in which he demonstrates vibrato at different speeds.
Types of Vibrato
There are basically two types of vibrato: involuntary and controlled (applied) vibrato.
Involuntary vibrato, or otherwise known as natural vibrato, is warm and resonant.
It emerges naturally in a singer’s voice as a result of interactions between breath energy and vocal cord closure.
This vibrato is a response of the vocal cords being stretched when singing.
The singer himself does not need to put effort into singing with vibrato or manipulate the vocal mechanism into producing vibrato.
Classical singers are most likely to have natural vibrato.
Voluntary or applied vibrato is a type of vibrato when a singer is manipulating the actions of his vocal mechanism to produce and control oscillations in his voice.
To see how vibrato can be manipulated, watch the following video.
Franco Tenneli, a vocal coach, demonstrates different types of vibrato as well as vibrato in different musical genres (at 1:09).
At the end of the video, he talks about problems with vibrato and gives some tips on how to fix them (at 8:30).
The video is over 10 minutes long so make sure that you have time to watch it.
But it is all worthwhile. Listen to the subtle differences.
As mentioned before, if a singer is pressured to sing with vibrato, he or she may end up with false vibrato.
Here are some types of vibrato that you do not want to develop:
- Diaphragmatic vibrato is achieved by pushing on one’s upper abdomen quickly and rhythmically while vocalizing a note. The problem with this type of sound production is that it inhibits correct breathing patterns. By pushing on the abdomen, bursts of air are sent to the larynx instead of a steady airflow. Moreover, this method causes pitch problems. This is definitely not a good way to induce vibrato.
- The “jaw vibrato” or “Gospel jaw” is a type of false vibrato achieved by oscillating the jaw, tongue or head. This type of vibrato usually sounds unnatural and exaggerated. This type of vibrato lacks structural support and creates tension in the vocal mechanism.
- Vocal trill vibrato and laryngeal vibrato use visible laryngeal movements to induce vibrato. The larynx should stay relatively stable during vibrato. Some singers use their hand to “shake” their larynx to induce vibrato. Again this is not a good approach.
Once you acquire incorrect vibratos, they may not be easy to fix.
Some vocal coaches suggest that to fix these types of vibratos, a singer needs to re-learn to sing straight pitches and only slowly let vibrato appear in the voice.
Wobble and Tremolo Are Not Vibrato
Two main problems that you can encounter when learning vibrato are so called wobble and tremolo.
Wobble happens when the oscillations are two slow and wide.
Tremolo has oscillations happening at a fast rate with narrow pitch variations.
To hear demonstrations of wobble and tremolo, go back to the last video from Franco Tenelli (tremolo at 8:50 and wobble at 11:22).
It is best to learn by listening.
The cause of wobble and tremolo may be one of the following difficulties but it is usually too much pressure in the vocal mechanism or disconnected vocal cords.
What May Impede Vibrato?
- Poor breath control: too little or too much breath energy as well as inconsistent airflow
- Lack of vocal fold approximation and closure
- Too much pressure at the level of the vocal cords (tension at the laryngeal level)
- Tension in the jaw or tongue
- Imbalanced tone
- Incorrect vocal technique
How to Develop Vibrato?
Finally, we are getting to the main question how to do vibrato singing, or more precisely how to help your vibrato to emerge.
It is possible that you already have vibrato in your voice but you do not recognize it because you compare your voice to the exaggerated examples that you may have heard before.
It is important to know what healthy vibrato is and I hope you know it by now.
(If you jumped to this part of the blog post, please go back, read the descriptions and listen to the examples in videos.)
For starters, it is important to develop healthy vocal techniques thus creating ideal conditions for emerging vibrato.
These techniques will include developing breath control, phonation with connected vocal cords, open throat, singing without any tension and with good resonance.
Don’t be tempted to jump ahead and work on skills that you are not ready for.
This will require some patience.
To read more about healthy breathing techniques for singing, please visit the Breathing for Singing page.
Once you lay all the groundwork, you can give your vibrato a little nudge.
The stress is on “little”: forcing or imitating vibrato will end up in false vibrato or a sound that needs to be fixed.
- Some exercises that may help you discover vibrato in own voice are vocal exercises with sustained notes on a vowel. This type of exercises also helps develop controlled breath support which goes hand in hand with developing vibrato. Sing 5 notes (legato), then hold the last note.
- Another type of exercise is an agility vocal exercise with short patterns leading to a sustained note. The short and fast pattern may encourage oscillating sound that transfers to the long note as well. (Listen to Justin’s video – episode 30 to hear an example.)
Once you have some oscillations in your voice, developing a level of control over them is necessary.
An appropriate and pleasing rate per second is an obvious goal to strive for.
An even rate of vibrato should be also practiced: an even airflow through a well-controlled vocal cord closure will be the key in attaining a healthy vibrato.
Finally,, here is an infographic that summarizes the information above.
It shows the most important concepts about vibrato types and ways to discover, develop and control vibrato.
And that’s a wrap!
Don’t rush into singing with vibrato.
Develop a solid foundation first, on which you can build more advanced skills such as a healthy vibrato.
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