When Practice Definitely Does Not Make Perfect: The Art and Science of Vibrato

GUEST BLOGGERColin Reaimage1

Colin studied music at Dartington College of Arts and has taught singing and composition for over 15 years. He has sung around the UK as well as in France and New York (Carnegie Hall). His solo work includes performing alongside Jacqui Dankworth.

He has led choirs for various professional productions including Ellen Kent touring opera and Bill Kenwright’s touring shows including Evita and Joseph.

In 2009 he began his own company, Big Noise Chorus Ltd, running adult community choirs singing secular music. He now has four choirs across Devon involving over 400 singers.

His teaching has taken him to Spain, Egypt and Cyprus, and in 2014 he received a national teaching award.

In the last 5 years he has extended his study of the voice and now regularly meets with medical voice experts to ensure his technical knowledge is up to date with the latest medical findings.

He has recently begun working as a singing technique teacher for Arts Educational Schools in London – one of the country’s leading drama schools supplying performers into the West End.

In January 2015 he will be teaching singing technique to transgender clients in the world’s first study to assess whether singing technique can be proven to aid in the feminisation of the voice.


When Practice Definitely Does Not Make Perfect: The Art and Science of Vibrato

A conversation with Aunty Muriel

More Tea, Aunty?

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Reading Aunty Muriel’s blog post Vibrato is an ORNAMENT! I found  myself spitting in full-blooded agreement with her frustrations over the heavy use of vibrato commonly produced by performers who really should know better. Like Aunty Muriel, I cannot abide performances that include a supplementary game of ‘Name That Pitch’. Heavy vibrato for me is as unskilled and inexperienced as scoring the head of a crotchet to cover both middle C and D at the same time. Such childlike theory practice is drummed out of musicians at Grade 1.

It was a welcome interlude to vent a little bile with my lovely Aunty M as I  fumed in a pleasurable mixture of sympathy and incredulity. But once the venom was spent, four key questions entered my head:

  1. Why do we use vibrato?
  2. How is it produced?
  3. Why on earth is the overuse of vibrato left untouched or unnoticed by so many singing teachers?
  4. Can anything be done to change this?

As a vocalist, I was also interested to hear how vibrato is achieved on a reed instrument, and my hot little hands began beavering away little messages to Aunty Muriel who graciously invited me to appear as a guest writer on her esteemed blog.

So with grateful thanks to dear Aunty M, I will try to straighten out the mysteries of the art and science of vibrato by taking a closer look at exactly what it is and why we use it, with a particular focus on singing. I will then examine a few different ways it can be produced, and explore some of the issues that can cause some performers to get trapped into over-egging the pudding.

One Lump or Twelve?

Employment and appreciation of vibrato can be argued to be subjective to a certain extent. It can add sweetness to the tone, rounding the notes and adding an emotional depth to a phrase that can be incredibly effective and moving. Overdone, it can be like a cup of tea with far too many sugars – unpalatable and sickening. To the inexperienced listener the sweetness of a heavy vibrato can be deceptively inviting, but to the advanced ear, too much can overwhelm the palate and leave the listener feeling like their ears have been syringed using caustic soda.

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There is relatively little agreement between teaching circles about how vibrato is best (i.e. safely, efficiently and effectively) produced. By many it is considered an artistic choice and as such it is often considered personal to the individual. In such cases, teachers often feel afraid (or helpless) to tinker with it.

Although I don’t wish to tamper with personal taste, there is much scientific evidence on the safe production of vibrato for the vocalist, but first let us consider what it is and why we use it.

The Wavering Voice

Definitions of vibrato state that it is achieved through oscillations in pitch and/or pulsations of breath. As a result, the tone produced fluctuates. The rate and pitch can be controlled by the performer in various ways depending on the instrument. But why do we use it at all?

If we assume that the oldest expressive human instrument is the voice, and as a result our appreciation of all melodic music is to some extent interpreted as a form of voice (however loosely), then we can begin to pinpoint the reasons behind the application of vibrato in music.

Vibrato is naturally present in the human voice in certain emotional states – particularly in states of upset and grief (not to be confused with the tremolo effect that can be found in fear or shivering). In these states, there is a very tangible physiological change in the larynx. In the diagram below, notice the thyroid and cricoid cartilages. In particular notice the sagittal section on the right and the positioning of the two cartilages. Here the thyroid cartilage is in a ‘vertical position’. This is the position of a healthy larynx at rest.

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When we are expressing sadness or upset the thyroid cartilage tilts forward, closing the gap between it and the slightly lower cricoid cartilage. This in turn affects the length and body cover of the vocal folds (often referred to as vocal cords). They become longer and thinner. These physiological changes, alter the way that the vocal folds respond to the breath and cause an oscillatory motion as they lap together during phonation. When applied to the speaking voice this quality is commonly heard in the whining voice children (and adults) use when they are upset. In fact whining is a good way to access this ‘thyroid tilt’ before attempting to apply it to singing. Once in a singing context it creates a natural vibrato that is emotive, even and unforced. It is efficient.

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A side view of a vertical thyroid cartilage position versus thyroid tilt

Please note, reference here to ‘thyroid tilt’ is in relation to the thyroid cartilage and not the thyroid gland which is a mass of soft tissue found in front of and below the thyroid cartilage (not shown in this post).

The Social Vocalist

As social animals, we often mirror each other physically and vocally. The sympathetic friend listening to a tale of woe will unconsciously adopt a similar vocal posture to the complainant and echo their tonal qualities. The same effect also occurs in musical production and appreciation. When moved by a singer using thyroid tilt many listeners’ own thyroid cartilage will tilt forward in sympathetic motion as they instinctively recognise and respond to this emotive quality of the voice. The listener has formed a connection with the artist, the music or both.

image6When vibrato is at its most effective it moves us. We respond to the sound as some form of a cry. It should come as no surprise then that thyroid tilt is also  referred to as ‘cry’, or (if combined with a lowering of the larynx as found in classical singing), ‘sob’. Thyroid tilt can be practised and controlled, and then added in varying degrees to a singer’s performance. It gives a rounded edge to (but does not dominate) the tone. It does not put the vocal folds at risk of trauma or fatigue, and is a very useful technique to ‘mark through’ practices or save the voice when already suffering from vocal fatigue or trauma – an incredibly useful tool for any vocalist.

Other Brands Are Available

There are other ways of achieving vibrato, none of which I would recommend for the singer. Whether any of them are considered good practice amongst woodwind or brass players is beyond my current knowledge.

A predominantly abdominal or laryngeal vibrato can be achieved through controlling airflow using either the abdominal wall, the larynx, a combination of both, or some other part of the vocal apparatus (e.g. lips, tongue or jaw) to interrupt the airflow. A steady and even interruption of air flow will create a pulsing tone. However, for a vocalist, this type of vibrato is potentially damaging to the voice. The sub-glottic pressure created through a forced lifting of the diaphragm can result in  a widely pitched vibrato which may leave the listener unsure of exactly which note is being sung. More importantly it can cause constriction within the larynx, resulting in a spiral of building pressure which can cause vocal strain and increase the risk of fatigue and trauma to the vocal folds.

As a flautist,  however, I have used this technique to create a vibrato that is more a pulse in rate rather than an oscillating pitch. In this instance, as the vocal folds are not producing sound, there is less (if any) risk of vocal trauma. Whether or not this would be considered a correct use of vibrato for the instrumentalist, I am unsure.

image7A nervous bleating singing vibrato can sometimes occur as a result of tension at  the root of the tongue mixed with laryngeal constriction, inefficient closure of the vocal folds and/or overuse of breath pressure. This can result in a kind of performer’s ‘bleat’ (presenting as a tremolo) which is uncontrolled and as such has little place in the concert hall as a substitute for vibrato.

Vibrato as a result of shaking (sometimes the head, the jaw or the tongue) is often seen in children who are attempting to emulate their musical idols. They can hear the oscillating sound of vibrato and quite often believe that shaking is a way of producing this effect. It is totally unreliable and unsightly for a singer to perform in this way, and produces unnecessary tension around the vocal apparatus which can impede performance and, again, risks vocal trauma and fatigue.

The final vibrato I would like to have a look at is as a result of a slackening of the muscles around the larynx (often associated with the ageing larynx). This can result in a wide and uncontrolled vibrato which is revered in some cultures as the epitome of vocal beauty. These fluctuations in pitch can become so heavy that exact pitch becomes indeterminate. It is not particularly efficient and is a sign of an untoned voice.

So if vibrato is perfectly possible to explain and teach and there is a healthy way for it to be achieved, why on earth do so many singing teachers leave a heavy vibrato unchallenged? There is a much wider issue here – namely one of a pedagogical nature that can be applied to many issues of learning.

The Temperamental Teacher

To examine this problem, we have to first consider how singing teachers become so in the first place. Most have shown promise from an early age. Whether it be in a school choir, at church or similar. They show an aptitude for and love of singing usually without any pedagogic knowledge. At some point they will have lessons. This is where things can easily get messy.

image8Each singing teacher will usually have had a small number of teachers  themselves, in some cases only one. This is well and good if the tuition seeks to explain the voice from a number of different angles – anatomically, scientifically and artistically. However, the number of singing teachers I have encountered who have no idea what the vocal cords even look like, let alone how the larynx works, is utterly horrifying.

It is perfectly possible for singers to achieve a healthy and effective sound without such knowledge. However, for a singing teacher to willingly remain in the dark over such matters I find utterly inexcusable. Such teachers bluff their way through lessons. They may be excellent singers themselves and so feel justified to teach, but their lack of knowledge particularly shows itself when teaching artistic effects such as vibrato.

These types of teachers usually deal heavily in imagery. This can lead to the student becoming confused and bamboozled by terminology that makes little or no sense and thus, they have very little hope of achieving anything. How many singers have been told to “support the voice”, or “land on the note”, “sing through the forehead” or even “sing from the buttocks”? (Yes, you did read that last one correctly.) How many of these students can honestly say they have fully understood the instructions they were  given? All of these phrases I have heard uttered from the mouths of respectable singing teachers with little or no further explanation. I’ve heard teachers use phrases such as “let the note spin to the ceiling”, again with no further instruction on how to achieve this. It is the pedagogical equivalent of throwing a child into a swimming pool and just saying “swim”.

image9I am not suggesting that imagery has no place in the teacher’s toolkit – it can work incredibly well. But without a solid grounding in tangible theory it can be as useful as the proverbial chocolate teapot, leaving students floundering in a swamp of half-baked, well-meaning but ultimately ineffective instructions that do anything but instruct. How many students have found themselves in this position mid-lesson, with very little idea of how to achieve the desired effect and have resorted to simply attempting to copy the sound their teacher is making to the best of their ability? Even if they do manage to perform the task in hand, it is usually by chance than design, and even then they are left with a befuddled and woolly concept that they cannot quite grasp – or, more importantly, reproduce.

So when a student presents to this kind of teacher a heavy and wide vibrato, it may be the case that they attempt to change it. Instructions like “remove” or “reduce the vibrato” are meaningless to a student who doesn’t know a) how vibrato works or b) how to control thyroid tilt. Such teachers eventually give up if they cannot find a satisfactory method of explaining.

In some cases, vibrato is left alone simply because the teacher realises they have no idea how to work with it and so consciously moves their attention elsewhere. Such teachers often have an awareness of their lack of knowledge but fear the uprooting of their position or ego if the flaws in their knowledge are brought to light. Indeed it is terrifying to continue to be open to learning as a teacher – terrifying, but utterly vital.

These problems are compounded if students of these teachers venture into teaching themselves. Unless they have enough thirst to seek higher quality scientific instruction alongside their artistry, they in turn will spawn a new generation of singers who also don’t quite understand what they are doing. These performers are doomed to repeat cycles of relatively meaningless practice which lead them nowhere. If they, too, turn their hand to teaching, the cycle of ignorance continues. There ought to be a Philip Larkin poem in here somewhere.

Rebuilding Paradise

It is my sneaking suspicion that much of the common use of overblown vibrato is as a direct result of such teaching – a practice that has built itself on image-heavy but knowledge-shallow foundations. Pedagogical towers built on such foundations are structurally unsound and begging to be replaced with solid educational architecture. If we combine Art with Science, it is possible to find an equilibrium between technique and creativity. In order to achieve this we must begin to seek empirical evidence to answer some of our artistic questions. We must be ready to drop any knowledge we have gained so far and relearn thoroughly, even if this means going back to the drawing board.image10


With many grateful thanks to Colin Rea for putting together such a superb and informative post – Aunty Muriel

 

Vibrato is an ORNAMENT!

Vibrato is something that I’ve been known to get tetchy about. Only the other day, I leapt out of my comfy chair to pull the plug on a Radio 3 broadcast of Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), because even though it’s one of my all-time favourites, the (nameless) soprano was warbling so wildly that I was finding it hard to distinguish the individual notes. Of course, this is exactly the sort of piece where the singer can and probably should use lots of vibrato – but, you know, there is a limit. The overdone wibbly-wobbling of this gruesome recording just killed it dead for me. Vibrato is an ornament. Uncontrolled and ill-considered use of vibrato is as crass as squirting tomato ketchup all over your dinner, or peppering your writing with exclamation marks. Less is more.

Now, I mention vibrato because not only does it give me an opportunity for one of my favourite whinges, but in addition to this, I picked up some useful tips at this year’s BIG Double Reed Day, and I thought I’d share. The tips were provided by Deborah Goodyer during a workshop on ‘Improving Sound’: I’ll make this workshop the subject of another post, but for now, the focus is on vibrato.

I’ve already mentioned in another post that the player should try to make sense of the music without vibrato. Vibrato should also be something that you actively practise, odd as that may seem. Deborah Goodyer suggested the following exercise:

  1. Practise long notes without vibrato: play a couple of long notes at mf, one at f, one at p, then cresc. to dim., dim. to cresc., and so on. Basically, vary the dynamics.
  2. Then add some vibrato. Practise vibrato with a metronome, so the pulses come in crotchets, then quavers, then triplets, then semiquavers, and finally in sextuplets (the latter not pictured).

Tonguing exercise screenshot

This is quite tricky: once you get to the semiquavers it becomes increasingly difficult to control, but I think it is something worth working on because you need to be able to master your vibrato, not to have it dictate to you. And you should resist the temptation to use vibrato to cover up various evils such as bad tuning. I freely admit to having done this. I have hit a note and then consciously whacked on a shed-load of vibrato because I knew the note was out of tune and I didn’t know how to correct it. This is very naughty.

There is just one more point to make (for the present, anyway). If you play regularly with an orchestra or wind band or whathaveyou, then you should try to blend in with the other oboists present. This is particularly important if you are playing second oboe: you should aim to match the vibrato of the first player because the idea of playing in an orchestra is that everyone is working together to produce a blended sound. Ideally, the oboes should sound like one player playing two different parts.

I’m going to end with a personal anecdote to support my argument here. I remember once, years and years ago, I was playing in an orchestra with a cor player whose vibrato was so wide that a) it was impossible to match what she was doing, b) it was also impossible to play in tune with her, and c) it sounded horrible. In fact, I think the conductor had to have a kindly word with her in the end. I’ve noticed ever since when players favour a heavy vibrato and I’ve never found it anything other than trying. I always feel like saying ‘Just. Play. The. Note.’ It’s so much better if the player can produce a true, clear note and then embellish with a little bit of vibrato here and there, where it makes musical sense to do so. It may come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, that my favourite kind of singing is that which you hear in early church music – lovely pure notes and no mucking about. Emma Kirkby stuff. The sort of thing that Stile Antico do. I can’t even be bothered with The Sixteen these days, because I think they’ve gone a bit too warbly.

To finish where I started, here’s the peerless Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs on YouTube – and yes, there’s plenty of vibrato here, but it’s a considered use of vibrato and this is much closer to my idea of how the piece should be performed. Much, much better than that monstrosity on Radio 3 the other day.

 

The BIG Double Reed Day 2014: Notes from the Workshops

The BIG Double Reed Day takes place every year in mid-November at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and, as part of the day’s schedule, adult players are invited to participate in workshops. These workshops used to be called masterclasses, but everyone found that term a bit frightening, so ‘workshops’ it is. However, the idea is the same: you go along armed with a piece you have prepared, you play it in front of the group, and then a professional player gives you hints and tips on how to improve your performance and everyone else takes notes. This post, then, is essentially my notes written up. The result is rather bitty, but it does include some useful tips.

Albinoni Oboe Concerto in D minor, 1st movement

  • This movement should be pacey, so be careful not to take it too slowly.
  • Keep the dotted rhythm tight: it mustn’t be tripletty.
  • Pay careful attention to the step dynamics and work it up little by little.

Mozart Oboe Concerto, 2nd movement

  • The articulation must be accurate. Don’t use any hard tonguing – everything should be ‘dah’, not ‘tah’ or ‘kah’.

Krommer Concerto in F 

There are two of these, apparently, but the one in question here is the one with the Rondo 6/8 section.

  • It’s an operatic kind of movement, and when you get to bar 31, imagine that a different character has walked onto the set. This will help you establish a change of tone in your playing.

Bozza Fantaisie Pastorale

Now, this is my latest project. During the workshop, a young woman gave an absolutely stunning performance of this most fantastic piece and I was left writhing with envy. The music can be downloaded here and you can watch a fabulous YouTube performance here:

What strikes me in particular about this YouTube performance is that the oboist gives himself plenty of time to breathe when he needs to – there’s nothing hurried or panicky about the breaths he takes. This brings me to one of the most useful tips I picked up in this year’s workshops:

The manner in which you finish the phrase before you take your breath can determine how long you can take.

In other words, if you’ve gobbled the end of a phrase then you have committed yourself to moving on quickly, whereas if you’ve allowed a phrase to develop and fade as it should, then you’ve probably bought yourself a bit of time for a good out-in breath, rather than a snatched just-topping-up sort of breath.


Okay, so other useful tips picked up during this session were as follows. I’ve written them out in a list now, rather than attaching them to certain pieces because they are standalone points and it makes more sense to do it this way…


Mark up the piano part as well as your own with the places where you need to breathe so that your pianist is aware and can make a little space for you.


Move the oboe up, then down and bounce up to bring other players in. You can practise doing this while playing scales. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is enormously helpful to those with whom you are playing if you can give a clear indication of when you are going to start.


Add the third finger of the right hand when playing G#/Ab to improve the sound. This doesn’t work particularly well on my oboe, but it does make a significant difference on some other models.


The first breath is always important. Try to breathe rhythmically and in preparation for the entry.


Try the following exercise to remind yourself of where pitching should come from: play a note and lower the jaw as much as possible while keeping the pitch of the note stable. Do this until air actually comes out through your mouth, so that you have to work harder and harder to prevent the pitch from dropping.


Playing rhythmically is playing as late as you can, but still playing in time. If you think about this, it makes sense!


Think about how to make sense of the music without vibrato. There’s another whole post about vibrato here.


And that’s it for this year, but I should mention that the professional players who gave this good advice so freely were Rebecca Wood and Daniel Bates. Many grateful thanks to both!