The issue of vibrato versus straight tone—whether in singing or playing an instrument—always generates very passionate debates. Be it preferences, historical references, or technique, each side has its arguments.
On the matter of preference, I admit that I am in the straight tone camp. I find straight tone singing to be extremely expressive; lines just flow without the interruption of vibrato. It allows for better blend in ensemble (choir, orchestra, duets, trios, quartets, etc.) and offers the opportunity for fine-tuning. It affords the opportunity to phrase the music in subtle ways. It is also much more apt at producing rich and contrasting dynamics.
Until the twentieth century, continuous vibrato was generally considered poor taste. Herman Klein, wrote in his essay of 1923, entitled, The Bel Canto: ‘In the old Italian school of singing, nothing used to be more admired and cultivated than an absolutely steady tone.’ Judicious use of vibrato as an ornament, particularly on long notes in slow movements, was considered delightful. For those rare occasions, it was important that the speed and execution of the vibrato suit the mood or affect of the music.
Preferences are subjective and some of the old writings include elements of personal views. However the ability to sing without vibrato had to do with the strong vocal technique in use before the advent of Manuel Garcia II and his shortcuts. While there is nothing wrong with a gentle vibrato resulting from a great voice, the type of vibrato we often hear today is more of a wobble and is mostly the result of poor training and technique. Some people also use vibrato to hide bad intonation, but that is a discussion for another time.
I recently read an online post where the author made several claims that are often used by the proponents of the use of constant vibrato:
- One can only sing out, with energy by using vibrato.
- Vibrato produces coloured sound.
- Singing without vibrato produces a thin sound and limits the timbral capacity of the voice.
- Vibrato helps with vocal endurance.
- The vocal mechanism should be relaxed.
- Singing with straight tone is destructive and can lead to nodules and vocal problems.
These statements are problematic—they demonstrate a lack of understanding of the functions of the voice.
One can only sing out, with energy by using vibrato.
Vibrato produces coloured sound.
Singing without vibrato produces a thin sound and limits the timbral capacity of the voice.
Straight tone and thin sound have nothing to do with each other. What truly differentiates energy and colour in singing from a thin and limited voice is proper technique that brings the voice to its full potential. A well trained voice will be energized and coloured with or without vibrato. One can sing with vibrato and have a thin sound. Non vibrato singing does not limit the timbral capacity of the voice. One can sing with straight tone and have full sound and rich quality of voice.
Vibrato helps with vocal endurance.
Vibrato has nothing to do with endurance. Proper training, stretching and strengthening the vocal musculature are the way to endurance as well as volume, range, and projection. A properly trained voice can just as easily sing with or without vibrato at will for extended periods of time.
My students are excellent examples of these issues. They can sing for hours in straight tone without any fatigue. They produce a beautiful, rich, and full sound that fills any space in which they sing. All my pupils comment on how easy it is to sing those high notes and sustain them without fatigue or pain. They are amazed at how well their sound carries, and how rich it is. Those qualities are the result of the strength of their instrument.
The vocal mechanism should be relaxed.
The idea of relaxing the voice is flawed. While the body as a whole should be free of tension in any form of music making, for the voice to work properly, all the muscles associated with the voice (including the vocal folds) must be well and solidly engaged. For good singing, the instrument needs muscular strength. Like the fingers playing the piano, singing requires the engagement of the correct and specific muscles. If the instrument is completely relaxed no sound can be produced. Singing requires a lot of muscle work.
A young mezzo I auditioned commented that to sing straight tone she would have to “control” her voice. Any use of muscles, including vocal muscles, needs to be controlled, otherwise everything shakes and falls apart, and in many cases causes the large and undesirable vibrato of many singers. Engaging muscles does not mean tension, simply the proper control correct use of the needed muscles.
Singing with straight tone is destructive and can lead to nodules and vocal problems.
Singing with straight tone is by no means destructive to the instrument. Singing without vibrato does not cause nodules. Bad technique causes vocal problems. Bad technique causes out of control vibrato. Getting singers to try to sing louder and pushing their sound forward (in the mask, etc.) result in damaged voices. (More on this in a future article.)
People claiming straight tone strains their voices are simply forcing and constricting their instrument instead of opening up for the voice to work efficiently.
Singing with a gentle vibrato or with straight tone are both perfectly acceptable, lovely, and normal when they are the result of proper technique. Unfortunately, the large vibrato many singers use today is an indication of poor training, lack of control, and of a weak instrument, not to mention bad taste.