Singing Lesson: How to Sing Vibrato

Developing Vibrato


Vibrato has been one of the most interesting and difficult subjects of study that I have ever encountered. The reason for this is because it is hard to understand why it actually sounds good and why we are able to do it in the first place. Anyone who can already use vibrato will tell you its something that they are controlling; yet it does it on its own.


It’s also interesting that so many instruments imitate the human voice by using vibrato, including guitar and violin. Vibrato in singers is a very interesting physical phenomenon. It is caused by a quick un-sealing of the vocal folds, which in turn causes a drop in air pressure. This drop in air pressure makes the pitch of the voice drop down slightly. When the vocal chords re-seal, the voice then snaps back up again to the same distance above the note as it just was below it. The distance is around a quarter tone, which in case is half the distance of one note to the very next note on a piano. It is this neurological programming within us to unseal the vocal folds, drop air pressure and re-seal it that causes this wide wave that we know as vibrato. For most of us the vibrato falls within four to seven undulations, or waves, per second and it generally stays at that speed throughout. Any slower and the vibrato becomes another ornament called bobbing. Any faster and it becomes the very unmusical sound called tremolo. 

When to Use Vibrato


Vibrato has several purposes within the act of singing. First of all, it is an excellent way of emphasizing a word within a phrase. For instance, if I’m singing a sentence and there is a word of importance coming up, I may want to add vibrato on that note to make it pop out. What is interesting is that if I make the vibrato happen immediately it makes the word more intense. If I hold the note straight first, then add the vibrato, it has a less intense feel to it. So the amount and timing of vibrato is often used as a means to express different levels of intensity.
Second, vibrato can help us to stay on pitch much easier with it than without because it is waving above and below the actual note that we are singing. So in other words, it covers more ground and therefore, can hide the imperfections of pitch matching when we sing.


And third, vibrato gives us a way to end things. In other words, if I held a note straight for ten seconds and then stopped, you would have no idea when I was going to stop. But if I were to hold it straight and at the very end added vibrato, you would then know that I was about to end. 


So, vibrato can be placed at the end of almost every sentence as well as added on words that you want to emphasize. But, it is the amount of the vibrato that you as an artist can control in order to bring more or less intensity onto a word. Because of this, vibrato is a very expressive ornament and that is the very reason so many singers strive to develop it in their own voices. It’s one of those little extras that truly can make someone sound like a professional singer.

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How to Develop Vibrato


As I mentioned earlier, vibrato seems to be something that we all have programmed into us already, and really it’s just a matter of nurturing the vibrato and helping it to come out. Yes, it is something that we control; yet it does it on its own. The closest analogy that I can think of to explain vibrato is the blinking of our eyes, but even this analogy is not exactly like vibrato. T


There are at least three different types of vibrato that people try and use. But, only one of them is correct. The first type is abdominal vibrato. This fake vibrato is caused by giving short jabs with the stomach muscles. Next is a form of vibrato, which more resembles a trembling in the voice, which is appropriately named, tremolo. Tremelo is caused by flexing certain muscles in the larynx, which make it quiver. Tremolo is a very common attempt at trying to utilize vibrato, but unfortunately, it isvery jagged and uncontrollable. You will know that you are using tremolo by its speed. Tremolo is the same speed as shivering. This is much, much faster and more shallow than regular vibrato which again bounces four to seven undulations per second. 


The ways in which we avoid using abdominal vibrato and tremolo are somewhat related. It has to do with how we start the vibrato. In other words, the way we engage it or turn it on. Vibrato must start with a drop in air pressure. Both tremolo and abdominal vibrato are engaged by flexing. That is what the main difference. You must drop the note first and this will trigger the vibrato to happen. 


When you practice your vibrato there are a couple of things to think about. First, you should over exaggerate the vibrato. You can always pull it back once you have learned how to control it. Next, make sure that you are still pushing through the entire note. Very often, students will try to engage the vibrato by letting go of their strength. This is not the correct approach and will actually cause a tremolo in the voice instead. So, keep your voice pressurized through the entire phrase including the vibrato. Third, please be mindful of your tone. The vibrato exercise has a tendency to make the voice want to go nasal through improper projection. This is extremely common. Please remember to continue aiming the voice onto the back of the hard palate while performing vibrato.


Our next concern is to not disjoin or overly wave the vibrato to the point where we lose the center tone. Remember, although we are waving above and below the actual note we are singing, that note itself is still there. If you are singing the note ‘A’ the ‘A’ is still there. This has everything to do with how the vibrato sounds, as well as its pitch.


Our final concern is that although vibrato is a means to help us stay on pitch, the vibrato center pitch itself can go flat. The vibrato may be swiping passed the note we are singing but the main note itself is off pitch. If it weren’t for the wave covering the flaw it would be more evident. Its like the pitch is on, but not really. This is why it may go unnoticed. This is a very big problem for many singers and is something that you need to be mindful of. You need to always think ‘up’ while performing vibrato. In other words, be cautious that the center pitch may be flat and keep your thinking of the note being up.


I would like to bring up a common question that many people ask me. Why does the jaw of some move up and down whenever they are using vibrato? Examples of this are Steve Perry from Journey and Whitney Houston. The answer is that some singers started developing their vibrato by using the jaw to time the vibrato correctly. I have found that this is actually a helpful tool for some in developing vibrato. It just gives the brain an easy guide to line the vibrato against. But in the end, to use the jaw or not to use it is really up to you, as it doesn’t seem to add to or take away from good vibrato. Some people seem to think it is kind of cool looking. 
Finally, I would like to tell you that if you don’t get the vibrato right away, hang in there because with practice and understanding of how it works you can do it!


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