Pant, Wobble and Cry : exercises for singing with vibrato
By Jeremy Fisher
I have had a number of actors arrive in my studio with the question “how can I learn to sing vibrato?” They complain that their singing is straight, and are searching for the warmth and roundness that they hear other singers producing.
Singing with vibrato depends on the repertoire you sing, the emotion you want to portray, and the genre in which you perform. It also depends on personal and societal taste – I am occasionally surprised at the extremes of vibrato that appear in performances of both 19th century Opera and 21st century Musical Theatre. Still, one man’s bleat is another man’s shimmer.
Here are three areas to explore when searching for “your vibrato”.
- Breath fluctuation – think The Bee Gees or Cliff Richard, also singing actors such as Michael Ball. The breath flow, usually fairly constant when holding a note, is altered to produce a fluctuation. This produces an apparent change in pitch at vocal fold level, caused by under-and over-feeding of air to the vocal folds. This is usually done by using either the abdominal muscles or the ribs in tiny “in-and-out” movements. If you like this particular sound, you can access it using an exaggerated panting, and then fine it down. As with all vibrato methods, make sure you can switch this one off at will, otherwise sustained singing might become a problem.
- Good old pitch changing – The actual pitch of the note (the speed at which your vocal folds vibrate) is changed, rapidly and smoothly. One exercise for accessing this is to sing a slow semitone trill (oscillate between two notes a semitone apart) and gently speed up, blurring the two notes together. Whether you trill to the semitone below or the semitone above is a matter of personal taste. Another key to this one is relaxation – hold a pitch and then relax your vocal mechanism and “back off” the sound slightly. As with all vibrato methods, make sure you can switch this one on and off at will, otherwise moving between notes in certain styles might become a problem.
- “Tilting” your larynx – sometimes referred to as “cry” or “whine” position, or “closing the cricothyroid visor”. This is “vibrato from the inside”, if you like, and is usually quite subtle, more of a warming of the sound. The position of the two main cartilages of the larynx change in relation to each other, stretching the vocal folds forward and down slightly and causing them to vibrate is a slightly different way. To access this, use your speaking voice to make a high whining or moaning sound, then bring it down in pitch keeping the feel of the moan or cry. Be sure to use only a small amount of breath (holding the breath back a little seems to help in accessing this vocal set). Gillyanne’s book Singing and the Actor has a good description of this. As with all vibrato methods, make sure you can switch this one off at will, otherwise fast singing (words or notes) might become a problem.
In order to give a rounded picture, I am adding a fourth possibility, although I think it has very specific uses: shaking the instrument itself. This comes in two forms – larynx movement and jaw/tongue shake.Larynx movement is used by some opera and gospel singers, particularly at high volumes. The larynx is allowed to move up and down “freely” on a single note. While there can be a feeling of “letting go” with this style, when taken to extreme it is sometimes difficult to identify which note is being sung as the entire mechanism shudders in the gale.
I witnessed a solo singer in a Las Vegas show who allowed her larynx to fluctuate slowly in a vibrato covering a horrifying major 6th. Jaw/tongue shake uses a similar device – the back of the tongue or the lower jaw (or both) move up and down, causing the sound to oscillate. This particular version can become addictive so make sure you can switch it off. However, jaw shake (and even head shake) is now being used in contemporary commercial singing as a device for adding tiny vibrato-like trills, particularly in R&B. Use it sparingly.
In my experience, most singers use a combination of 2 and 3, or 1, 2 and 3, depending on the music, the emotion and the context, so I encourage you to experiment with all the versions.
We live in a world of comparison, so I often encourage my clients to do it “wrong”. Sometimes you can only discover what you want to do by deliberately not doing it. Experiment with exaggerating each version, then the following fixes for excessive use.
- For excessive breath fluctuation, one of the fixes for this is to practise the sustained hiss, re-educating the muscles of expiration to work smoothly.
- For excessive laryngeal movement, one of the fixes is to use the external anchoring muscles (back of the neck, soft palate), and to reduce the airflow slightly, rebalancing the combination of breath, sound and body.
- For excessive tilting, one of the fixes is to use voiced fricatives (vv, zz, zh) to “unhook” and return to a neutral thyroid position. We also recommend using a “boring” voice, taking out any hint of emotion, to reset the laryngeal position.
And finally, over to Louis Moreau Gottschalk, American pianist-virtuoso, who wrote in 1900: “Tremolo of the voice is the result of either of the three following causes—diseased vocal organs, old age, or defective breathing, and as such has no excuse for its existence.”
You have been warned…
© 2014 Jeremy Fisher for Vocal Process