Coming to Terms with the Wobblies

ArtsJournal has a link to a tantalizingly short essay in the Science Times section of The New York Times about vibrato (“Thrills and Trills” by C. Claiborne Ray). According to the article, which is actually based on findings in a 2006 study published in the Journal of Voice, pop singers’ vibrato varies more in amplitude whereas classical singers’ vibrato varies more in pitch and that “the ideal classical pitch component [varies] by no more than a semitone around the main note.” Ray, however, also acknowledged that to “teach singers to achieve a vibrato without exaggerating any component is controversial.”

For many people who grew up with the ubiquitous sounds of pop vocals, the standard vocal technique of classical music sounds artificial and can be extremely off-putting. And yet the vocal production in popular music also has its share of affectation. In fact, my earliest exposures to rock vocals were far more unpalatable to me than my first exposure to opera. And unless the vibrato is really out of control—I’ve heard singers oscillate on intervals as large as minor thirds—I have no problem with the use of vibrato when singing in a foreign language and backed by a large orchestra. But I’ve never been a particular fan of classical vibrato in many other areas of the repertoire. I still remember my negative first encounter with the music of J.S. Bach when I was in eighth grade, hearing and watching a televised performance of the St. Matthew Passion by a large orchestra and chorus using vibrato with abandon. I had yet to have my epiphany with classical music and I found the sound of the music to be overblown and overwrought. I only warmed up to Bach, and in fact subsequently became a lifelong devotee, after hearing period instrument performances with pure tone singing.

But perhaps where vibrato can be the most problematic for me as a listener—and I know I’m treading on hallowed ground here—is in the realms of sung American English and in more complex contemporary music, whatever the language of the text. Vibrato makes it way more difficult to understand English, a language which I’ve heard classical vocal teachers describe as “unmusical” due to its emphasis on consonants over vowels. Yet English inspires a very different type of music and many composers have addressed this issue by creating vocal lines which emphasize the consonants. To sing such lines with heavy vibrato seems counterproductive.

And then there are the strictly musical concerns. For music where pitch specificity is extremely important, e.g. serial music, a variance of a semitone can be extremely disorienting. And in microtonal music, such a variance completely interferes with the perception of the intervals. Many listeners hearing vibrato-laden performances of contemporary works walk away from them making claims that such-and-such composer doesn’t know how to write for the voice. I would counter that perhaps it’s because such-and-such singer’s technique doesn’t effectively serve the music. Everytime I’ve heard such comments made about Babbitt and Carter it made me wish I had a boombox so I could blast Tony Arnold’s remarkably idiomatic performances of their vocal music, performances in which not only every interval, but also every word of the text that was set, is clearly discernable.

All that said, many composers of highly complex vocal lines sung in English are thoroughly satisfied with a performance filled with pitch oscillations. In fact, many claim it makes the music more emotionally engaging which I find utterly baffling. Sometimes it has been extremely difficult for me to get the vocal qualities I want from singers who have performed my own music—which is invariably in English and which derives its form from pitch specificity. When I have worked with singers directly, it has usually turned out fine, especially if I demonstrated the sound I had in mind. But writing “please no vibrato” over a score can be perceived by a stranger as an uninformed affront to serious vocal production, so it’s something that I avoid doing. I also want the singer to feel a sense of ownership of the music, which any kind of overt decree seems to discourage, because it is ultimately when a singer makes the music his or her own, no matter what the technique, that leads to a satisfying emotional engagement.

4 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with the Wobblies

  1. Daniel Wolf

    The presence, speed, depth and width of vibrato is endless stuff for discussion and — as you quite correctly indicate here — very much connected to questions of stylistic propriety. I think, however, that the critical issue for performers of new music, in which stylistic conventions are not yet known, is control over vibrato and sensitivity to its contextual placement. Much vocal and instrumental training (for flutes, saxophones, trumpet and strings in particular) is heavily invested in developing a uniform vibrato style, leading to a lack of flexibility in approaching repertoire in which the composer requires no vibrato at all, an alternative uniform style of vibrato, or the discrete introduction of vibrato as a local feature or ornament. An inflexible training is of no use here.

    It is frequently very difficult for a composer to make demands about vibrato with singers and instrumentalists, particularly when some vibrato is understood by a musician as being essential technique whether — particularly with voices and strings — to blur the intonation or — for the flute especially with its attenuated partial tone — to add timbral depth. Given these pre-sets there is really no alternative to writing a large “NO VIBR.” in a prominent position in scores and parts.

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  2. Trevor

    And in microtonal music, such a variance completely interferes with the perception of the intervals.

    I think my favorite terrible idea ever as a composer was when I tried to write a 13-limit piece for a chamber choir where the singers were expected to be able to control their vibrato from a pure straight-tone to a defined wobble between an 11/8 and a 12/8. Pretty much everyone I showed it to thought I was completely off my gourd—but some day in the future, when we can design robots to sing all prettylike, I think it’ll sound cool.

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  3. mjleach

    Vibrato – not all bad
    You actually can sing with vibrato and people won’t know that you are. Singing without vibrato for extended amounts of time can damage your voice, and you have a limited dynamic range. Many of the Bulgarian women singers, for instance, end up with severe vocal problems. It’s because vibrato has been abused that it has such a bad rep. If you read Vennard’s book on voice, he goes through the various scenarios. Some singers can vary the rate of vibration for added color. And usually 4 vibrations or less a second is considered a wobble. 4-6 normal.

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  4. rskendrick

    I made a classic mistake early on with a choral piece, where I wanted more of a renaissance sound and what I was hearing was Wagner. At the dress rehearsal I casually asked the choir if they sing with more of straight tone – that did not go over well with the sopranos! A few nasty looks on that one (and not surprisingly they were the ones with the widest and heaviest vibratos).

    Ralph Kendrick, Iowa Composers Forum

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