What You Should Know About Vibrato According to a Vocal Instructor

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Vibrato can be one of the great mysteries of singing. We all recognize the beauty and energy it brings to the voice, but many singers struggle with how to create, control, or, when stylistically appropriate, even it. Nashville-based voice coach Brett Manning is one of the most recognized names in vocal instruction. He is the author of the "Singing Success" home study program, and his client list includes Keith Urban and Taylor Swift. Manning has also created the only CD instruction course dealing solely with vibrato.

Defining Vibrato

One of the first steps in unlocking the mystery of vibrato is defining it. Manning sees the science of vibrato in everyday occurrences, such as a flag blowing in the wind. "Atmospheric pressure is 14.6 pounds per square inch, so if you blow across a surface, like a flag, it's going to suck that thing upwards," he says. "When I blow across my vocal cords, there should be this puff of wind that is created by natural oscillation."

Manning further defines vibrato as changes in pitch and compression, although not necessarily limited to one or the other. "You can have a combination of both, or less or more of the other," he says. Manning believes it's important to keep the balance between them finely tuned. "If I have a vibrato that is just compression, I may be panting to get a vibrato but staying on the same pitch," he says. "If I have a vibrato that is just an oscillation in pitch, I may tend to wobble."

Why It's Important

Manning believes there are three major benefits to having a well-developed vibrato. "It beautifies tone, it frees up muscular tension, and it soothes the ear," he says. This last point is an important one for the listener. "The oscillation in sound creates an oscillation in vibration against the cilia, the hairlike particles that measure sound in our ear," he explains. Manning says the changing of pitch creates relaxation for the listener, whereas straight tones can create tension in the ear: "If one plays a straight tone on the violin, after a while the ears go crazy; they beg to hear the vibrato. It's because the ears can only take one solid pitch for so long."

Developing It

Helping a singer develop a natural vibrato is something Manning specializes in. He has created a whole series of exercises, available on CD and in his private sessions, that lead a singer step by step to this balance. These exercises include moving back and forth quickly on different intervals, all the way up to an octave, in order to increase the agility of the voice and get the vibrato started. Eventually, Manning says, the vibrato will occur naturally: "I do believe vibrato is allowed more than it is made, but initially it's made so that later on it's allowed."

Manning also uses vocal licks and trills to help speed up a vibrato. "If your vibrato is slow, then your licks will be slow," he says. "If it's fast, your licks will be fast. Doing a fast trill will help your vibrato speed up, and doing fast vibrato will help your trills speed up."

Decreasing It

Sometimes a singer will have too much vibrato—a vibrato that's slow and with too great a change in pitch. This is often referred to as a "wobble." Manning is able to help this condition by connecting the coordination of natural speech to singing. "I had a woman in her 60s with a terrible wobble," he says. "She told me, 'I can't help it. Every time I sing this happens.' I told her, 'Yes, you can help it. You've been singing the whole time you've been talking to me.' "

Manning used the lack of wobble in her speaking voice to establish a new balance in her singing: "I had her say 'Wow' and then to start holding out the word longer and longer." He then took her through different pitches and scales on this spoken word, slowly allowing the vibrato to return. "Soon she was able to sing with a wonderful vibrato," he says. This all springs from Manning's fundamental idea of the voice: "Whenever we make tone, we are singing."

Removing It

There are times when a singer will want to have no vibrato, as this can be very effective in certain styles of music. "One of the beauties of vibrato is when you don't use it," Manning says. However, this can be as difficult for some singers as finding vibrato is for others. Manning again uses the natural speaking voice to help guide the singer. "You give consent every time you use vibrato," he says. "When people say, 'I always have vibrato,' I say, 'No way. Not unless you have it in your speaking voice and you have a medical condition.' "

It becomes a very simple application for Manning. "Everybody's already singing without vibrato when they talk," he says. "I just have them hold a pitch and not think singing."

Can Everyone Get It?

Now matter how difficult vibrato may be initially for the singer, Manning has never had an instance when a singer failed to develop it. "Not everyone got a great vibrato," he says, "but everyone got enough where it defined them. Vibrato does help define your sound."

Brett Manning and his vibrato course can be found at www.singingsuccess.com.

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