Weekly Teaching Tip – Dec. 1, 2014
by Tricia Grey
Vibrato (definition): A regular, pulsing change in pitch or amplitude
used to add expression to vocal and instrumental music. Amplitude and
pitch are the two variables that result in very different vibrato
sounds. Some singers are drawn to one type of vibrato and some singers
are drawn to the other type.
Teaching vibrato can be tricky. Some students don’t like vibrato when
they hear it; they don’t want to sound too “classical”. However, every
style of singing includes at least some vibrato; the key to singing
authentically in any style is knowing when and how much vibrato is
appropriate for that style.
Vibrato rates vary from style to style and from era to era even within
the same style; for example the standard vibrato rate in opera of 100
years ago (7-8 pulses per second) was much faster than the opera artists
of today generally use (Pavarotti, for example clocked in at 5.5 pulses
per second). A vibrato rate faster than 8 pulses per second is called a
tremolo. A vibrato rate that is slower than 4.5 pulses per second is a
There are three types of vibrato used in contemporary singing; the first
type is an amplitude oscillation vibrato known as pulse vibrato, and the
other two are pitch change vibratos that involve fluctuations either up
or down by an interval of less than a half step..
Pulse Vibrato is made with changes in amplitude; the oscillating effect
is created with changes in volume rather than pitch. This kind of
vibrato is also referred to as â€œdiaphragmatic vibrato. It is used
in musical theatre, R & B, pop, jazz, and rock. It is sometimes
preceded by a straight tone, which blossoms into a vibrato, creating an
exciting sound. Pulse vibrato can be on the slow side, or speed up to
fairly rapid vibrato rates in the range of 5 pulses per second.
Pitch Change vibrato is created by rapidly alternating two pitches of a
half step or less interval. This is a lighter and “throatier” vibrato.
This vibrato is similar to the classical singers trill- it fluctuates
up from the pitch by a quarter to a half step, usually with a smaller
pitch excursion. Pitch change vibrato is made at the laryngeal level
and sometimes the larynx can be seen moving slightly. This is a lighter
and faster kind of vibrato than the pulse vibrato.
Pitch change up vibrato: In jazz and gospel singing, the slower and
wider repeated pitch fluctuations upward are known as a Shake.
Pitch Change Down Vibrato: This vibrato deviates from the pitch
downward by a quarter step or so. Jazz, Gospel, blues and soul singers
often use this type of vibrato.
Delayed Vibrato: In many styles such as R &B, Rock, and Jazz the
vibrato is delayed, occurring after a sustained straight pitch. This
provides an exciting finish to the note and is an interesting way of
using vibrato. Delayed vibrato gives the singer a sense of release
after sustaining a straight tone.
With delayed vibrato the singer sustains a pitch with a straight tone
then allows the release of the vibrato to occur. Remember to delay the
second vowel sound of any dipthong until the last possible second (use
it as an after thought rather than sustaining on the second vowel
The pulse vibrato can be initiated by hissing on the consonant
S:SSS-SSS-SSS-SSS-SSS, followed by a pulse on the consonant M:
The pitch change vibrato can be initiated by starting with a wide
interval of a mi3 and progressively decreasing the interval until you
end up with a trill: MA3, mi3, MA2,mi2, trill.
The exercises below can help create a new neuromuscular response in a
singer and encourage vibrato.
POLICE SIREN: Pretend you are a police car siren, creating pulses with
the voice, on the word woo.
PLAYING BASKETBALL: Pretend you are playing basketball, with both arms
extended in order to bounce two large basketballs on the floor. Or just
hold the arms straight out and bounce them up and down while sustaining
a vowel sound such as EE [i] or OO [u] in the upper register. Try it on
WOH or GO on the lower notes. You can add bending the knees to the arm
action for more encouragement of the pulse.
TUMMY POKE: This requires two people: Have the singer either stand or
lie on the floor and sing a single sustained FEE OR FOO sound while the
helper presses rapidly with the fingers on the area just above the
navel. (This only works if the abdominal muscles are totally relaxed).
Vocalize on various sustained vowel sounds while pulsing the area
rapidly. Then the singer can do the same for himself, using a plastic
water bottle. This works best when you are in a prone position and your
muscles are relaxed. This exercise creates the experience of pitch
variation. Although this is not the same bodily action as a correctly
produced vibrato (the body, particularly the abdominal area, should be
stable and firm when singing, not bouncing or pulsing in and out), the
experience of fluctuation in pitch helps create a new neuromuscular
connection. It’s like tricking or surprising one’s self into
a new experience; after awhile it becomes natural!
Transitioning from Exercises to Natural Vibrato:
Vibrato exercises are meant to encourage a new feeling in your voice- a
new neuromuscular response, experience or coordination that will
ultimately transition to a natural sounding vibrato.
However there is a big difference between exercises that focus on
developing a vibrato and what you should actually do in a song. In the
beginning, vibrato may feel manufactured as you focus on specific
numbers of pulses and create vibrato on every sustained pitch. This is
fine; you are creating a new neuromuscular response that will eventually
turn into a habit.
When you apply vibrato to songs it should be much more subtle,
especially for commercial styles. Each style of music has a different
type of vibrato associated with it. Classical music requires lots of
vibrato on every sustained pitch. Jazz singing often uses a delayed
vibrato, which is a straight tone that moves into a vibrato at the very
end. Golden Era musical theatre singers like John Raitt often used a
lot of vibrato, while more recent styles of musical theater singing in
shows such as Rent are more Rock & Roll in style, with very little
vibrato used. Shows such as The Color Purple require a bluesy/gospel
vocal style and vibrato that works with that style.
You should be able to adapt your vibrato style to any kind of music you
are hired to sing if you plan to be a musical theatre singer or a studio
session singer. You may have to eliminate vibrato entirely, delay the
vibrato until the very end of a sustained phrase, or you may find
yourself singing in a show like Phantom of the Opera that requires a
legit or classical sounding vocal production. BGV (background vocal)
session singers have to blend and may need to sync their vibratos
together or eliminate vibrato entirely. Choral singing often requires
the elimination of vibrato in order to create a choral blend.
Learning to control your vibrato and adapt the style of your vibrato to
the type of music you are singing is an extremely valuable skill and
will make you much more marketable as a singer.Â For that reason, it’s
not necessarily a bad thing if you don’t have a vibrato initially and
have to work hard to develop one. Once you know how to initiate
vibrato, you will be in control of when and where to use it! Singers
with so-called natural vibratos (usually acquired subconsciously by
listening to other singers) are unaware of how they got their vibrato
and cannot eliminate the vibrato when they need to. If you can use
your vibrato with discretion and musical good taste, you will have an
advantage over singers whose vibrato runs constantly.
While stylistic adaptations of vibrato are important to sing
authentically in certain kinds of music, if your goal is to be a solo
recording artist and you are recording your own songs, your unique
vibrato may well be the defining characteristic of your voice. For
example, Freddy Mercury of Queen had a very fast tremolo but he made it
work for his original songs. It was a very iconic and recognizable
sound. Other very successful singers who made imperfect vibratos work
for them are country singer Dolly Parton, Belinda Carlisle of the
Go-Gos, and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, all of whom have very fast
tremolos, and Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers who has a very slow
The good news is that if you have to learn how to initiate vibrato you
are much better equipped to be able to use it at will and when it is
appropriate, rather than being a singer whose ubiquitous vibrato can
become distracting and may not work well with the style of music you
like to sing.
All the best,
Tricia Grey, MM