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Fine Tuning the Sacred Machine Part 3 - Vibrato

By Mark Lincoln Published on Sep 2nd, 2010
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"I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know” Billy Holiday


As we continue our protracted series of discussions on the various tenets of voice technique, and the importance of developing certain practices so that we may become the most dynamic and superlative vocalists that we can possibly be, it's certainly more than important that we touch upon the topic of vibrato.

Vibrato can be defined as an oscillation, a variation, if you will, of the frequency or pitch of a given tone either sung, strummed, blown, picked or played on a musical instrument. You have likely noticed a tremor of sorts, a deviation or “warbling” in many singer's voices and this is often attributable to the creation of vibrato. Some singers have a very natural gradual type of vibrato which is only audible on some notes especially towards the end of phrases, while others like many opera singers have a tight and seemingly closely controlled vibrato. Some singers, like many folk vocalists use no vibrato at all. Regardless of the application and its frequency in a given performers repertoire, vibrato can be an extremely powerful and important tool in the process of creating a desirable sound.

The practice of creating vibrato can be incorporated into the sound of almost any instrument although the means by which such an effect is achieved varies from instrument to instrument. First and foremost (and obviously most importantly for the topic at hand), singers modulate the amount of air moving through the voice box by contractions in the pelvic and abdominal diaphragms creating deviations in pitch and subsequent vibrato in their voices. We'll talk more about the finer points of creating vibrato in the singing voice and the manner in which it can be created and controlled later in the composition. Players of wind instruments on the other hand incorporate a number of different techniques depending upon the apparatus available to them, although there are some similarities shared with vocalists. Flautists as well as oboists also use the diaphragm to control the amount of air passing through their instruments but also use vocal vibrato, as some singers do as well. Saxophonists use a unique method of moving their jaws up and down in a rhythmic motion. In beginning saxophonists, this often produces one of the most horrifying sounds known to man and is bound to send you running for cover, but eventually over time the seasoned player becomes adept at producing the desired vibrato effect.

The term vibrato is often used synonymously with the word tremolo (inaccurately I might add), though tremolo is more accurately descriptive of changes in volume, or amplitude of the note rather than deviation in the pitch itself. Tremolo is a multivariate technique most commonly associated with the guitar in our modern day, but has been dated back to the 16th century when the technique was commonly associated with bowed, stringed instruments like the cello and the bass violin. It was later applied successfully and with passion to the 88 keys of the Piano by Hungarian pianist virtuoso Franz Liszt.

The term tremolo in today's lingo is most commonly associated with the tremolo arm (aka whammy bar) found on many electric guitars which is used to create variations in pitch, bends and cool sounds in general. It's important to differentiate between the two terms especially in lieu of the common properties shared between the two. Over time the two expressions, vibrato and tremolo, have merged grammatically and have become interchangeable on some level, due in part to the fact that it can be difficult to change pitch without altering volume at least slightly. And truthfully, it can be an interesting and insightful experiment to attempt to change one's volume without altering pitch as well. Consequently, many now view the terms as interchangeable despite the fact that they mean different things when looked at from their origins. For our purposes though and throughout the article, we'll be referring to the practice of vibrato as vibrato and not tremolo, and strictly in reference to the overall improvement of sound and tone in the singing voice.

Exercise 1 : Just for Fun
This is truly a fun and interesting way to test out the notion set forth above. Pick out a note, any note that's comfortable for you to sing. Now try to sing it much louder but without changing your pitch. Can you do it? Most people will alter the pitch at least a little and most will likely have difficulty staying in the same range. Try the experiment again but this time increase your volume gradually. You'll likely find it easier to stay on pitch when you increase your volume slowly and incrementally.

What is Vibrato?
As stated above vibrato is a slight oscillation in tone, usually within a semi-tone of your melody, resulting from air being pushed though the vocal chords. This is perhaps an oversimplification of the actual process involved but for simplicity sake we'll move from the simple explanation to the more complex as we progress. There are three main factors that contribute to “proper” production of vibrato in the human singing voice:
1) Open Pharynx or Throat - This process involves a series of steps whereby the singer raises the soft pallet and lowers the larynx while relaxing the jaws, lips and tongue. This series of events should happen naturally as this is the body's automatic response to inhalation. Some singers have formed improper breathing habits over time and may have the tendency to “squeeze” air through the lungs and into the vocal passageway. Tenseness in the mouth, jaw and in the body in general can be contributors to this problem which is why it's always a good idea to stretch the body, beginning with the legs, before doing vocal warm-ups (see Voice and Performance series for more on warm-ups).

The process of drawing air into the lungs can be visualized by imagining oneself drinking in the air, clearly, smoothly and with as much air as possible relaxing and allowing the air to fill your lungs. Assuming the same facial posturing as a yawn can be helpful as well, as relaxation of the facial muscles can help you to get back to the body's natural posturing. Ultimately, one may need to retrain themselves to do the things that the body would normally do on its own.

2) Closure of the Vocal Cords - This particular facet of vibrato production can be a little confusing so it's best to begin this portion of the discussion with an overview of the relationship between sound and the vocal chords. The word “closure” or “closed” are relative terms here and should be looked at as being at one end of the vocal continuum. In other words, the vocal cords can be wide open at one end of the spectrum, and completely closed at the other, literally to the point of straining. Obviously, straining is a bad thing and always will be detrimental to the overall health of the cords and your singing career as well. So how closed should the cords be before it becomes counterproductive and even obtrusive to the production of vibrato? Here's a good way to understand the relationship between sound and the relative positioning of the cords:
A. Make the sound “ffft,” you should feel the cords come together.

B. Make the sound “fffvvvv,” you should notice that the cords are coming together, but not quite compressing completely.

C. Make a crying sound shaping your mouth in the “ahh” shape, and the “o” shape but make sure to not push/compress. The vocal cords are coming together but are not straining (shouldn't be that is). Pay attention on all of these exercises to how your face/neck/throat/jaw might be tensing up, as these are warning signs that you need to relax and/or stretch and warm up more before you sing.

D. Sing in a breathy tone like a sexy night club lounge singer, the cords are too far apart.
These are four very different states of vocal chord closure ranging from too closed or compressed to ideal closure, to not enough closure. Keep in mind that the word “ideal” is a relative term here and will vary from singer to singer. In terms of vibrato production, the ultimate goal is to find the balance between too much cord closure or choked cords and not enough closure resulting in a breathy tone. Here are three red flags which will tell you if you might be off track of where you need to be:
i) Too breathy/hypo-phonation-not enough closure.

ii) Your vibrato begins to wobble-indicates too much closure.

iii) Choked sound, compression/hyper-phonation, overly fast vibrato, forced-way too much closure.

If you're not sure of where you fall within the continuum of vocal cord closure, it can be helpful to see a vocal coach as well who can help you to accurately and objectively assess any changes you might need to make in order to find a more productive level of cord closure. But if you're unable to do so, here are a couple of measures you can take to get your voice back on track:
For those experiencing hypo-phonation, or not enough vocal cord closure:
Repeat the sounds “ba”, “ga” “ja” “da” in your throat or as if you were grunting. Also try to make the sound nnngggg. Make sure and avoid pushing too hard and over doing it. Remember, your ultimate goal here is to create a balanced effect between the lack of cord closure and too much, choked vocal cords. Theses exercises will help to bring a little more closure to the vocal cords and bring a balanced tone to your voice.
For those experiencing hyper phonation or too much closure:
Repeat the sounds “veee,” “zzzz” and pay attention to how your voice feels as you're doing this. You should experience a loosening of the chords, a more relaxed feel in your throat and jaw.
3) Sub-Glottic Breath Pressure - The third and final piece of the vibrato puzzle is the underlying musculature, abdominal muscles, chest and ribcage etc that come together to support proper breathing (see also parts 1and 2 of this article series for more on breathing technique). When breathing properly from the diaphragm(s), breath is channeled in a controlled fashion up through the vocal chords and out through the larynx. This type of breathing is different in some ways from the manner of breathing during speech in that the abdominal diaphragm stays in the lower position during singing. Consider this:
This is the standard recourse of the body during normal speech.

1. Relatively high sternum = ribcage greatly expanded, diaphragm at its lowest. (this is the posture of inhalation during speech)

2. Fallen sternum = slow collapse of ribcage, diaphragm at highest position. (this is the posture of exhalation during speech)(http://www.shirlee-emmons.com/breath_management.html)
But when maintaining sub-glottic breath pressure, the diaphragm does not ascend as rapidly but rather stays in a lower position, ideally. This important difference allows the singer to sustain cord closure more efficiently while still maintaining a certain degree of breath control, which is necessary and more efficient from a singing perspective. Keep in mind that the manner in which your breath is controlled and guided through the vocal cords will inevitably dictate the quality of your sound and consequently the quality of your vibrato. And how you draw breath will dictate how you release your breath as well. At this point in our discussion, it's important for you to understand a couple of key points:
a. No one in the musical community completely understands how the diaphragm does what it does.

b. The ascent and descent of the diaphragm is not always under the control of the singer.

c. The diaphragm is passive during singing. This last point may be confusing to some but when you understand that proper singing technique and proper breathing technique is fundamentally different from that of everyday speech you will understand more clearly. Many people who wish to improve their singing and add vibrato to their voices need to learn to change their overall manner of breathing while singing and learn to differentiate between the two actions so that when singing, they have an automatic transposition of their manner of drawing breath.
Putting It all Together
It's important for you to recognize what vibrato sounds like coming out of your own voice so that you know when you're achieving what you desire. This is a simple exercise which will help you to emulate the sound of the vibrato voice without actually doing all of the work.
1. Place your hands under your rib cage but above your belly button by a couple of inches.

2. Now sing a note, any note that's comfortable for you. Hold the note while you push your fingers in and out.

3. Keep singing the note and pushing your fingers in and out (gently) of your belly, faster and faster until you're pushing at a rate of about 3-4 times per second. The wavering that you're hearing is very similar, if not identical in some cases to the vibrato sound.
Obviously, you're not going to be able to thrust your fingers into your gut when singing on stage and if you did, you would likely get some rather strange looks from your fans, and rightly so! So how do we put all of the aforementioned ideas into action and actually sing using vibrato? I'll tell you. First of all, remember that vibrato does not come from vibrations in the stomach as we just saw but rather from having an open and relaxed throat, closed (but not compressed) vocal cords and the proper positioning of the underlying organs and musculature. Secondly, don't try to sing vibrato! Vibrato occurs naturally when you're doing all of the little things we've discussed correctly.

One way to conceptualize this process is to think about your singing voice simply as if it were a reflection of your speaking voice. You should be singing with the same manner and ease as if you were talking, only stretched out. When speaking in a natural and comfortable tone, the throat becomes relaxed, the vocal cords are closed but not clenched (for most people) and the underlying system of organs and musculature are relaxed and in the proper form. Yes, your breathing is going to change as will the relative position of your diaphragm when you begin singing, but if you're trying to sound a certain way or growl or sound like someone else, then you are likely off track and will likely not be able to acquire a natural vibrato.

Exercise 2: Sing Like Yourself
Pick a phrase from a song, any song and speak it as if it were in a book or the newspaper. Now sing the same phrase and try to keep the same tone, the same inflection. What did you notice? Did you catch yourself trying to make your voice sound different, or like the person singing the song? Do the exercise again and try to simply sing in the same tone that you were speaking it. Practice this technique over and over until you feel confident that you are singing with the same voice as your speaking voice. Most people's speaking voices are reflections of the natural way that human beings breathe and consequently, the more you adhere to your natural relaxed way of speaking, the more likely that you are already in proper form for singing.

Proximity
Breathing is likely the most important element of introducing vibrato into your singing and the more you become relaxed with the breathing process while singing, the more you will notice vibrato occurring naturally in your voice. I suppose that idea is becoming redundant so let's get more specific shall we? Proximity of breath to a passage refers to the process of breathing right before you sing a given note, or notes or phrase. This is an extremely important element of singing properly and when it's done correctly, it will more than likely help you to realize the potential in your voice that you never thought you had.

The process is simple: right before you begin to sing a line from your favorite song, draw in a breath. And I don't mean 5 or 7 or even 3 seconds before you begin singing but RIGHT before you begin the phrase. You may even notice that you can draw your breath almost simultaneously with the onset of the passage and this will give you the boost of power that you need to begin your phrase with passion but also with calm collected confidence.

Exercise 3: Breathe into Your Singing
Practice the above technique with a number of different lines taken from various parts of any song, simply to get a feel for the technique. You should notice that you're taking a breath right before you start singing and that you are beginning your vocal phrase with more power and punch than usual. Now try again singing multiple lines from that same song, in a row as if you were going to sing the entire song. In fact you can sing the entire song in this fashion and the more you learn to use this technique effectively, the more power and style you'll acquire in your singing voice.

Now, here's the easy part. As you sing each line of your song of choice, simply relax and let your breath pass through the vocal cords. Vibrato usually occurs when the voice is in a state of relaxation which likely explains why most singers tend to experience vibrato towards the end of a phrase when they've let go. You can experiment with this technique on your own by listening to your voice at the end of phrases and pay attention to what you're doing correctly. If you follow all of the above instructions, you should start to hear vibrato in your voice. Remember though, if you're not hearing vibrato right away don't force it! Simply go back to square one and try again.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Vibrato is a stylistic choice that can either be incorporated into one's repertoire of tricks and techniques, or avoided completely. Many folk singers, for example, sing without the use of vibrato and enjoy long and productive singing careers. In fact, many voice teachers avoid teaching vibrato technique to their students based strictly on the fact that so many singers force it or worse, overuse it believing that a voice without vibrato is not a good voice. Inevitably though, vibrato can add beauty and richness to any singer's voice and give the performer another valuable tool in their bag of tricks.