Give Good Vibes: 7 Steps to Singing Vibrato

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Anyone who’s been enveloped in the velvety vocal phrasing of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, the operatic oscillations of “King of the High C’s” Luciano Pavarotti, or the melismatic melodies of Mariah Carey can speak to the power of vibrato singing. If you’re an aspiring singer who wants to learn how to do vibrato like these legends, we’ve got you covered.

What is vibrato?

Vibrato is singing that alternates between two similar pitches, creating a—you guessed it—vibrational sound. It’s a “small variation of pitch occurring spontaneously that results from the free oscillation of the vocal cords,” according to voice teacher and vocal coach Arden Kaywin.

Vibrato adds emotion, intensity, and passion to vocalizations. Learning how to perform it correctly means adding expressiveness and depth to your performances, without damaging your precious instrument.

False vibratos vs. natural vibrato

While several techniques can create a vibrato effect, only the natural vibrato is safe and effective for singers to use long term. 

False vibratos: These artificially produced wobbles, tremolos, and trills can cause injury.

  • Vocal wobble: This is a “slow and wide vibrato…usually caused by a lack of proper resonance of the breath pressure or a lack of focus in the tone,” writes Kaywin.
  • Diaphragmatic: This is a “false vibrato,” writes Kaywin, created when singers purposely moderate airflow through the diaphragm, creating a slower tremolo effect.
  • Larynx: This is an overly fast trill produced by quickly moving the larynx, which puts too much tension on it, Kaywin warns.

Natural vibrato: This is a resonant, full-sounding, warm sound that takes place when a singer is fully supporting their breath.

How to sing vibrato

Lady Gaga, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston

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1. Study the greats. From R&B to opera, pop to rock, and Broadway to soul, these icons have mastered the art of singing with vibrato:

  • Andrea Bocelli
  • Mariah Carey
  • Sam Cooke
  • Celine Dion
  • Elton John
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Lady Gaga
  • Josh Groban
  • Whitney Houston
  • Freddie Mercury
  • Luciano Pavarotti
  • Barbra Streisand
  • Sarah Vaughan
  • Stevie Wonder

Listen to and watch their performances, being sure to assess their technique as well as the emotional impact created by the inclusion of vibrato in their singing. 

2. Develop your foundation. Ensure you have a solid foundation in vocal technique by identifying your voice type and vocal range, practicing vocal exercises like glides and lip trills, and working with a vocal coach to hone your technique.

3. Practice vocal control. Good vocal control is necessary to create true vibrato. Prepare your lips, jaw, and tongue by reciting tongue twisters; find your resonance to create clear sound that doesn’t strain your voice; and hum octaves to set your pitch. 

4. Open the throat and close the cords. “A singer achieves a healthy vibrato by allowing for an open pharynx (open throat) while his/her vocal cords come together seamlessly without unnecessary holding/tension,” Kaywin advises. “It is the result of these opposing factors working together. Put simply: ‘Open throat, closed cords’ results in vibrato.” To open your throat, learn how to engage your diaphragm: Breathe deeply from your chest, stand as straight as possible, and bear down on your pelvic floor.

5. Oscillate it out. Vibrato oscillates slightly above and slightly below a desired pitch. Start by holding a straight note at a comfortable pitch, then slightly oscillate around it. 

6. Experiment. Every voice is unique, so your vibrato will be the one that works with your true sound. Try out different sounds, styles, and pitches, keeping an ear out for the one that feels the “most intuitive to sing,” Kaywin recommends. 

7. Practice makes perfect. Keep working on your vibrato until it feels as natural as your regular singing. It can be helpful to record yourself, then listen to and analyze your performance and note any areas of improvement. You can also try apps such as the Vibrato Singing App, Vocalizer, and Singscope to perfect your ability to play with pitch.