By Camille van Niekerk
Vibrato is the subtle oscillation in pitch that naturally occurs when a singer is relaxed and singing with healthy technique. Although vibrato appears naturally, it is something the singer has to “let” happen.
The alternative to singing with vibrato is called “straight tone”, in which a note is sung with no variation in pitch.
Why does vibrato happen?
It’s actually a protective measure for your voice! It is physically taxing to sing with straight tone all the time. Vibrato is the result of your laryngeal muscles pulsing in response to air pressure beneath your vocal folds and the muscular tension required to sustain a pitch.
How to sing with vibrato
Because vibrato is a natural element of the voice, and not an additional stylistic effect, the way to develop your vibrato is to improve your vocal technique over all. There are no shortcuts! But there are a few components that must be present in your singing; so if you’re lacking in one, then addressing that issue can help your vibrato develop as well.
Elements necessary for healthy vibrato to appear
• Good breath support
• Adequate cord compression (or vocal fold closure)
• Resonant space in the mouth and throat
I’ll also add here: a good aural concept of vibrato is very important! So incorporate listening to (and trying to replicate) the vibrato of great singers: not as a strict template but as a point of reference for your own singing.
How NOT to approach vibrato
You may be tempted to take a shortcut and achieve vibrato by:
• Shaking/quivering your jaw
• Pulsing your abdomen
• Introducing another extraneous movement
The ONLY time this could be justified is if it’s being used to give you an idea of what your vibrato might sound like. But even that’s a stretch! Artificial “vibrato” with the jaw or abdomen will not give you the free, relaxed sound a natural vibrato will. Again, listen to great singers for your vibrato inspiration!
Issues with vibrato
Sometimes, singers have a vibrato that’s overly slow or wide. We call this a vocal wobble. Although there could be several causes, the most common is weak breath support. If you have a wobbling vibrato, spend some extra time with breathing exercises, lip trills, and cord compression warm-ups.
Other times, singers have a vibrato that’s overly fast. We call this a tremolo. Usually the cause is excess tension in the throat or abdomen. If you have a tremolo, make sure that you’re not locking up or squeezing in your belly when you sing, and use vocal exercises that relax the jaw and tongue (yawny sirens, sighing, humming, gliding on a YAH or a hooty HOO).
Vibrato usage in different styles
The amount of vibrato you use, and where you use it, will depend on the style of music you’re singing. See below for a quick reference!
Free/continuous vibrato: Classical arias & art songs, Opera
Liberal vibrato: Musical theater
Frequent vibrato (usually at the ends of phrases): Pop, Rock, Country
Infrequent vibrato: Jazz (depending on the soloist and time period), American Folk
Mostly straight tone: Renaissance & some choral music
If you aren’t currently able to sing with any vibrato, that’s okay! There’s plenty for you to work on with your vocal technique in the meantime. And when your vibrato appears as the result of healthy technique and relaxation, it’ll just be the icing on the cake.