boys chorus
Con vibrato ma non troppo: Rethinking Sopranos

Con vibrato ma non troppo: Rethinking Sopranos

boys chorus

“Keep it light.”

“Less wobble.”

“Check your vibrato.”

Choral singers, from adolescents to adults, are familiar with a conductor’s fussing over, specifically, the soprano section’s vocal production. Conductors, many of whom are not trained sopranos, hate to confess that they ask their sopranos to sing senza vibrato. To most, such instruction is anathema.

Even so, there are a variety of ways they tiptoe around asking sopranos for such “pure” tone production. And what is often perceived by their singers is that vibrato is bad, ugly, tasteless, or unnecessary, to the extent that vocal pedal tones and high pianissimi look daunting.

Soprano and composer Victoria Fraser, a friend of mine who makes a living as a choral musician, recently referenced her experience at a summer music festival in Germany. They prepared one movement from a new major work by James MacMillan, commissioned for the following summer, and she said it “killed” the sopranos. To which I responded, “Well, MacMillan is not a soprano.”

I fondly recall singing the popular Scottish composer’s The Gallant Weaver under Simon Carrington as a member of the Texas All-State Choir. It is a sublime example of a work for advanced adult mixed voices requiring vocal flexibility, endurance, and wide ranges. The alto, tenor, and bass parts remain low and the sopranos are high and exposed. In fact, there are three soprano parts, creating a melody that echoes in heterophony with many sustained highs and repeated leaps to A5.

Yes, it makes beautiful music, but it is what I call an “expensive piece.” It is demanding, to say the least. This model for vocal beauty has been popularized, and, much like society’s standards for feminine beauty, it is lofty, grossly impractical, and often, manufactured.

It is a suspicion of mine that this is the case because most of the choral repertory comes from male composers, who have no experience in the role of sopranos who are women.

A Misnomer

It so happens that a significant amount of our choral literature draws from an historical context in which women were not able to participate. The SATB voicing, as we know it today, belonged to all-male choruses, consisting of both pre- and post-pubescent male voices.

Consider the language. Soprano is Latin and ends in “o.” Even in 2016, even when discussing female roles through centuries of opera and the highest voices in our vocal ensembles across the world, women are given the title of “boy.”

Early music is customary in choral markets and programming, from high school on, and we have become more than comfortable with the “o.” And now, we are composing, conducting, and teaching in a way that puts post-pubescent female voices into the role of pre-pubescent males’. That is, we expect our sopranos to sing thin, high, and without vibrato.

Victoria Fraser suggests there has indeed been an early music “revolution,” which is a factor in the increased desire for straight tone singing. She believes that the trend of early music has “bled” into contemporary choral music, and she laments that conductors often opt out of a more energized, colored vocalization from their sopranos.

So, why as professionals do we perpetuate, and why as composers do we imitate, the sound of a soprano section comprised of pre-pubescent boys? Why insist on the misunderstanding that adult female sopranos are able to or should sing strictly senza vibrato in the way children do?

Vocal Health

Too often, conductors forsake healthy vocal production for easy tuning and clarity of tone. Then, we revisit the controversy between the proverbial choral director and their private vocal instructors.
The teacher in me would ask that we compose with the understanding that “straight tone” singing all the time is not only limiting to a soprano’s timbral capacity but also destructive to their instrument. Such strain can lead to vocal nodules and other health-related phonation problems.

Conversely, singing con vibrato is singing out, with energy, and it is conducive to efficient phonation for all voice types, especially on highs and fortes. Vibrato also helps with vocal endurance because it is only possible when the vocal mechanism is in a position to relax and allow for some vibration, which is an indication of steady breath flow.

That is to say, if the first sopranos are singing above the staff senza vibrato for longer than a couple of minutes with infrequent rests, you are going to have an exhausted soprano section for the remainder of your rehearsal or concert.

Composers would do well to prevent such a situation. We may think we can get away with sustained highs and louds senza vibrato because of that seductive playback function on our engraving software. Those sopranos do not have trouble sustaining and tuning when they are represented by a pre-recorded sound. But there are more reliable models.

As another expert in the vocal field, my brother Matthew Valverde, puts it: “Sopranos who can ‘straight tone’ beautifully all day do exist. But if you’re looking for the music to be done well and in diverse communities, it is best to allow women to just sing.”

Composers Are Responsible

One of the mundane but necessary parts of collegiate composition curricula is the study of what is idiomatic to compose for any given instrument. What are the different colors you get as you explore the clarinet’s registers? How difficult will it be to hear a flute at that dynamic level in that tessitura? What triple stops are feasible on the violin? How quickly can the harpist make these pedal changes?

Likewise, it behooves a composer to research the idiom of adult female voices. Unfortunately, recording after recording will suggest that sopranos have supernatural abilities of sustained tone production like sunbeams on a crisp winter morning. Such a sound comes at a cost, and we could stand to reimagine vocal beauty for the sake of the accessibility of our composition with sensitivity to the longevity of our collaborators’ livelihoods.

46 thoughts on “Con vibrato ma non troppo: Rethinking Sopranos

  1. Mark Winges

    Hi Mari:

    Definitely bookmarking your article to pass along when I get questions about writing choral music. Full of great information.

    Some additional thoughts:
    – part of the problem is composer training: look through standard instrumentation / orchestration texts; some of them completely omit a discussion of the voice (either in solo or choral context). Even when the textbook discusses the voice, it would not surprise me to find that those chapters are skipped more often than not.
    – text is less understandable in the high soprano range; I’ve seen scores where the composer seemed to want the text to be clear, but subverted that intention because of the high tessitura of a passage.
    – I appreciated your MacMillan story. Volti had the same problem with Andriessen’s “Flora Tristan”. It was indeed “expensive” for the sopranos. Although in this case, I think the high tessitura (and limited range) for the sopranos sort of fit the texts (plural in this case) and the story. Still. . .
    – “Non vibrato” (in *any* voice part) is certainly legitimate in some cases, but as you point out, it’s not as “natural” for some vocal instruments as others – we all have slight variations in our bodies, and that includes our vocal musculature.
    – full out singing in a choral context, especially from the sopranos, is a passionate and thrilling sound. I’ll second your opinion on that.

    Reply
    1. Mari Valverde

      I would agree that text set above the treble staff is difficult to articulate. At some point, those syllables become “ah.” It’s just nature of acoustics and healthy phonation. And we, as composers, must beware.

      Thank you for your feedback!

      Reply
  2. Daniel Wolf

    For me, the issue of vibrato does not reduce to the binary of vibrato/no vibrato and does not have anything to do with emulation or contrast with boys’ choirs, but it has everything to do with musicality and control. As a composer, there are times when I honestly do want a straight and clear tone with precise intonation in a particular register and I want to ask for it specifically, from singers and instrumentalists (yes, flutists…) The use of vibrato, and its speed and depth is a performance and — potentially — compositional, variable. (See the late and great Andrea von Ramm’s landmark essay, “Singing Early Music”, in Early Music Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 12-15.) Recognizing this and requiring this from oneself or others as a singer, voice teacher, choral director, or composer can, however, go against some strongly ingrained, but typically local and parochial, notions about what good vocal quality is, and can create resistance from strongly ingrained performance practice traditions and habits that refuse to recognize this as both variable and an advantage. Particularly difficult are arguments that one form of production is more or less “natural” than another or produces certain physical or physiological advantages; fortunately, we have too many counter-examples from the world’s varieties of music to let these arguments ride. I would even go so far as to assert that any strong position regarding technique, whether with voices or instruments, vibrato included, is as likely as not to be taken cover for laziness with regard to modifying or acquiring new techniques. And also, a strong and continuous vibrato is, frankly, too frequently used as cover for less accurate intonation in both vocal and instrumental performance.

    Fortunately, I think there is ultimately something moot to arguing this out: there is no standard model for a musician and her or his technique, there are real differences in physiology and musical taste, and this rich variety stands matched to a rich variety of composers, catalogs, and repertoires. No singer or player can nor need fit all repertoire, no piece of music can nor need fit all singers or instrumentalists and there certainly need not be any lack of mutual consent in playing a piece of music. And, as a composer, that’s okay with me, because it makes our musical lives — and perhaps our lives in general — both livelier and more convivial.

    Reply
    1. Keith W.

      I can certainly see your point and at first I wasn’t quite on board as I am one who feels much more at home when I sing with vibrato. To me, when the vibrato is even and not too fast or slow, it feels great and my voice feel we very free. That being said, I have thought for a few years now that the biggest reason straight tone singing is tiring on the voice is because the technique is wrong. Starting with breath and making our way to resonance there should be no difference between the two. When I hear straight tone singing, I often can hear or even see the singers manipulating everything muscularly in the neck and moving the larynx. Sure there’s enough air to make the sound but the voice is not working as it should while singing. Another characteristic of this type of sing which is a result of the technique that goes along with it is that the sound goes back and up into the soft palate. It’s a very inflexible, one dimensional sound and when produced in this manner is certainly only available for a short time in a persons singing career. If the resonance and breath control of the old opera singers were taught to choirs today, I think you could have your cake and eat it too. And what’s more, is you would probably have many more colorful and dynamic choices within that senza vibrato sound.

      Reply
    2. Elle

      The author of the article seems to be asking composers to learn about the voices for whom they write. If what you want for your work is a consistent non-vibrato sound, then you MUST find those singers whose physiology, interest, and study allows them to execute the sounds you want. Yes, they exist. There are many.
      I take issue with your claim that it is “laziness with regard to modifying or acquiring new techniques” that prevents many singers from possessing the above traits (physiology included). For one, not all “sopranos” have translucent, thin vocal folds that allow for pianissimo, senza-vib pitches above the treble staff. Were Christine Goerke asked to sing quiet high notes a lot…maybe she’d be fine (but who would ever think to ask her to do such a thing?!)
      More importantly, most “trained” singers come through programs that are opera-centric (voice majors learn to sing with vibrato, as it is considered in the field of stage singing to be a necessary feature of that “style” of vocalism). Unless they plan early to specialize in early music, there are few teachers in the academy that are equipped to TEACH sustainable non-vib singing. It is a learnable skill – but who is teaching it?
      This is a special problem for singers specializing in contemporary music – we’re asked to perform a huge range of timbres, vibratos, sounds that are not taught. We end up trying things out until they work, or finding one of the few specialist-teachers, researchers, and experimenters to help us on our journey.
      I argue that it is NOT laziness on the part of singers – it is a lack of available instruction.

      Reply
    3. Deborah F.

      You state “Particularly difficult are arguments that one form of production is more or less “natural” than another or produces certain physical or physiological advantages; fortunately, we have too many counter-examples from the world’s varieties of music to let these arguments ride.” and I am wondering what your counter-examples are. It is more natural to have vibrato. You can talk to any accomplished voice teacher in the classical world and they will tell you that singing straight-tone means the singer has tension somewhere in their neck or mouth. Singing with tension is not considered natural, it is considered affected. The reason it becomes hard for sopranos to sustain high notes with straight-tone is because the tension becomes overwhelming and starts to hurt and pull the voice off-pitch. It’s fine if you like straight-tone better or if you just want to use it stylistically in your compositions, but it is not a naturally produced sound in someone who has classical vocal training. Now there are sopranos everywhere who still retain that soft baby sound like they had when they were 12 yrs old and they have grown up singing and retaining that straight-toned sound probably because they’ve never had a real voice lesson, but the author of the article was specifically speaking about classically trained singers singing in choirs.

      Reply
      1. Daniel Wolf

        Deborah,
        there is a fundamental contradiction in your response. If it’s “natural”, then why is it the product of training (and not just training, but training by “accomplished”, “classical” teachers giving “real” voice lessons)? There is an entire world full of varied ways of vocal production in folk, commercial, and cultivated or “classical” traditions, both sacred and secular, and the degree of vibrato — it’s speed, width, and amplitude — is simply not a constant over that whole repertoire and identifying it as natural is both incorrect and asserting the primacy of a particular performance practice and training regime which is local, parochial, and unnecessarily limited to musical potential. Moreover, I do not think you will find singers who have more flexible vibrato identifying themselves with your notion that a lack of vibrato requires more tension (indeed, I think you may find that the singers with more flexible technique are the ones with longer singing lives!) I think vibrato can be a beautiful thing, at the right times in the right repertoire, but a constant and regular, one-size-fits all vibrato can be a very unpleasant thing, indeed. The emphasis in particular training practices on producing a constant vibrato in place of controlled vibrato is, in my opinion, limiting to a singer, but I have no problem with singers who accept those limits and find repertoire which suits that particular practice. At the same time, as indicated above, I have no problem whatsoever that not all music, including my own music, is suitable for all singers (and not just singers — there are teachers of classical flute playing who insist on a fixed and constant vibrato as well) and I’m not interested in entering into a performance relationship in which either party will be fundamentally uncomfortable with the musical (or, as the case may be, unmusical) result. Fortunately, there is no shortage of possible repertoire for singers of whatever technical variety and, best of all. there have been and are teachers able and willing to encourage the acquisition of a more controlled, varied, and flexible technique, see also the article by the Andrea von Ramm noted above.

        Reply
  3. David Castro

    Hi, Mari! Thanks for a very well written article. I can’t comment on the substance of it, being neither a singer nor a composer, but I wanted to let you know that it’s well structured and makes a clear case. Good work!

    Question: what institutions award the title of “boy” to sopranos? I’ve never heard of that.

    Thanks!

    D.

    Reply
    1. Mari Valverde

      Hi David!!!
      “Boy” is built into the word, and language matters. My argument is that the history has led us to today, and we need start teaching and composing music meant for adults for women, not boys.

      Reply
      1. Forrest Pierce

        It’s been my joy to teach a course for the past 10 years called “Scoring for Voice,” an orchestration course specifically for voices in both solo and choral settings. I learn new things from singers and composers every time I teach it, and I still have a lot to learn. I think this essay and subsequent discussion is a beautiful beginning to an increased understanding by composers as to how folks are trained to sing in the Western concert tradition. I’ve come to think of the Western classical voice as a kind of pre-electric amplification device, in which signature resonances were and are developed for the purpose of filling large spaces, often over the din of big ensembles. A singer—particularly in a richer fach—who has trained all her life to have a free, resonant, cutting tone that includes vibrato will find excessive soft, high straight-tone singing to be exhausting. And keeping a Western voice healthy for a full career is difficult.

        If composers take the time to distinguish between the 8 or more different fachs of Western operatic soprano, their tessituras and passaggios, they’ll have a much better idea about what they’re asking the singer to do.

        And I’d like to point out that Western concert music is in the minority when it comes to its consistent use of vibrato. Many other cultures’ classical and folk musics use straight tone, sometimes exclusively. Their singers, trained in that method of production from an early age, don’t risk vocal health, and aren’t imitating boys. They also can’t fill Bayreuth over a wall of Wagner or sing Lakmé’s bell song, but there are trade-offs. A fine Hindustani singer’s intonation is insanely subtle, a Qawwali singer’s ornamentation incredibly florid, just as a heldentenor’s brilliance and stamina are remarkable. Beijing Opera singing is one notable exception.

        It’s common sense, common decency, and good business to write for the singer you are collaborating with, not for some other imagined ideal. It also seems to me that it’s important to recognize that Western vibrato is no more inherently adult or natural than any other means of vocal production, from throat singing to yodeling to high-pressure straight tone belting.

        Reply
      2. Fia Gibbs

        I sing in the Seattle Women’s Chorus. From now on, I’ll say I’m a Second Soprana…..I like it! Great article and the substantive comments are amazing.

        Reply
  4. Lawrence Eckerling

    While what you write is true, there is more to the issue. The fact is that harmony with greater dissonance , or specifically half steps between two voices does not come across cleanly with big vibrato. This is the much bigger issue than trying to “emulate” children’s voices, or earlier styles. The fact is that musical style has always has been growing, expanding, and challenging artists. Not just for the human voice. There were plenty of complaints about soprano writing in Beethoven’s 9th symphony and his Misse Solemnis. Today choruses perform them regularly. It doesn’t make the music less challenging, or less taxing, but it shows that musicians (which include singers) adapt their technique to the music, not the other way around. Yes, straight tone singing is hard on the human voice, particularly in certain registers and on certain vowels. Yes,
    it can be taxing, and tire out your section. So you have to plan with care (both the conductor, AND the singer). But you don’t want to impede the progress of music either. We need to adjust our technique to the music, not the other way around.

    Reply
    1. Mark Nowakowski

      I must agree with Lawrence. As a composer who strives for idiomatic writing, there is no “imitation of boys” or anti-feminist diatribe inherent in my distaste for wide vibrato in choral singing. The fact is, to these ears, a soprano section engaging in strong vibrato (especially in the upper register) sounds (at best) warbling and (at worst, and more commonly so) simply bad. So much so, that there are European choirs I cannot listen to as a result. There is such a thing as “purity of tone,” especially where sacred music is involved, while harmonic clarity is an entirely legitimate concern. That, and sometimes certain things simply sound better. Regarding education, there are indeed many teachers who have performed successfully for years as straight-tone singers: it doesn’t seem to be an automatic sentence to perpetual injury for the vocalists involved. For purely aesthetic reasons, I don’t see straight-tone disappearing any time soon. I think it is pedagogy which must adjust, not the other way around.

      Reply
    2. Jeff Winslow

      Absolutely! The musical and emotional impact of a semitone suspension (or other semitone usage) is severely weakened by a “rich” vibrato. It’s not even necessarily a question of frequency variation in the voice. Mathematically, for small variations, amplitude variation creates the same perception-fogging side tones as frequency variation.

      Sometimes it happens that starting with a straight tone and letting vibrato bloom later solves the problem. But I’ve also run into folks who looked down on that kind of production as being too much like musical theatre.

      Reply
  5. Marvin Keenze

    Thank you for this article. As a singing teacher I am often troubled by the straight tone choral ideal that is so prevalent these days. I find this to be a concern wherever in the world I visit. I recently heard a straight tone Brahms Requiem and the orchestra also was requested to play non-vibrato. That inspired my
    lecture… “The Conductor’s Ear and
    the Choir’s Sound”.

    Reply
    1. Daniel James Shigo

      Many of these problems would be avoided if composers and conductors had a modicum of vocal training, that is, if they could SING. But most do not. Rather, they approach their art in a purely abstract/theoretical manner. Long-gone are the days when Joseph Haydn was the accompanist/student of Nicola Porpora, the greatest voice-teacher of his time who taught what is now referred to as bel canto—beautiful singing.

      Reply
      1. Lawrence Eckerling

        Many conductors DO sing! More important , if you listen to the vibrato of singers through our recorded history , it has evolved /changed over time. Great composers don’t just compose based on the status quo. History is full of musicians declaring certain music impossible, only later to be labeled a masterpiece. Uncomfortable? Sure? But impossible? Not necessarily.

        Reply
        1. Daniel James Shigo

          I have read scholarly articles on recorded sound that do not support the thesis that vibrato has “changed” through recorded history. Rather, it is more accurate to say that the recording process has become more sophisticated especially as women’s voice are concerned—the point being that the early recording process did not record the acoustics of the female voice as well as that of the male which is an octave lower.

          As well, the word “vibrato” itself has changed in meaning with the advent of voice analysis technology. If offer the follow post for those interested.

          http://www.voice-talk.net/2015/02/herman-klein-on-vibrato.html

          Lastly, there are studies which have shown that the normal rate of “vibrato” in the voice is between 6 and 8 beats per second. This is a matter of physiology, not taste, fad or fashion.

          Reply
          1. Lawrence Eckerling

            The oldest recordings do not misrepresent the rate of vibrato, which has changed over time. Nor do they misrepresent the width of the vibrato, (which is ultimately measured in pitch). Older recordings do not have overall sound quality, but pitch and speed are accurate. While the rate of vibrato might be physiological, I think people emulate what they hear. It is why there were faster vibrato 50 years ago, and why in other cultures (non western music) where vibrato is an entirely different sound.

            Reply
            1. Daniel James Shigo

              Fortunately, we have some research on the matter which is informative and is included in a fascinating article by Judith Malfronte that was written in the summer of 2015 and titled “The Vibrato Wars.”

              “In the earliest recordings, from a century ago, vibrato is used sparingly. Baroque violinist Jude Ziliak points out that “the rise of continuous vibrato is linked to the decline of portamento.” His comparison of the first movement of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, in recordings from 1916, 1929, 1932, and 2004 bear out this relationship. Bailey speaks authoritatively about the sound and timbre, as well as musical style, of the earliest recorded singers. He hears a difference between recordings made early in the 20th century and those made in the period between 1910 and 1925, which virtually document the emergence of continuous vibrato. “Nellie Melba [1861–1935], who coached the role of Mimì with Puccini himself, uses less vibrato than singers use for Bach and Handel with period groups today!” Yet, when Bailey shared sound clips with Ian Howell, vocal pedagogy director and head of the Voice and Sound Analysis Laboratory at New England Conservatory of Music, an interesting clash between perception and science resulted. Howell used Overtone Analyzer, a spectrographic software that splits apart the harmonic frequencies and displays the results visually, to compare Melba’s singing to recordings of Mozart’s “Porgi amor” by Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, and Renée Fleming. Adjusting for sound quality, surface hiss, and background noise, Howell compared one-second samples of the same note (D5, on the first syllable of “lascia”), allowing for a direct comparison of rate and extent of vibratos”

              “According to the studies,” Howell said, “we tend to think of an oscillation rate of about 6Hz, or six cycles of vibrato per second, and plus or minus a semi-tone above and below the pitch, called the ‘extent,’ as pleasing. But Enrico Caruso, for example, frequently oscillated faster than 7Hz, Fleming’s extent averages only about a quarter-step, and even Dame Emma Kirkby”—whose singing epitomizes straight tone—“shows frequently regular, if narrow vibrato under electronic analysis.”

              While the listener perceives Melba singing with a nearly straight tone, the spectrogram reveals a regular oscillation of about 6Hz, the modern standard for “pleasing,” and an average extent of a little more than a quarter-step. The interesting question for Howell is: “Why does it not sound ‘modern’?” In fact, in all four soprano examples, the vibratos have a rate of about 6Hz, while only Callas’s vibrato showed a wider extent. Howell is intrigued by this kind of sampling, which suggests that “many of the differences in perceived vibrato relate to the limitations of the recording itself and the timbre of the particular voice, having to do with slightly inconsistent distribution of harmonic energy, rather than the specific rate or extent of the vibrato.” [He is pursuing further research. His preliminary results may be found at vocped.ianhowell.net/melba/ — available to site members only.]Æ

              https://www.earlymusicamerica.org/emag-feature-article/vibrato-wars/

              It seems the clash between perception and reality is still with us.

          2. Patrick Power

            The letters of Mozart reveal that while he hated “bebung”,he expected the voice should naturally “zittern” ,he even gave his ideal rate in a letter to his father as “six beats per second over half a tone”.Yet some “authentic style” conductors will try and do a Mozart Requiem without vibrato. Total nonsense.There is no real musicological evidence that “early” music was sung without vibrato.And now the current trend in musicological circles is away from that idea. Vibrato at the 6 beats per second rate matches the phonological loop rate of the listener’s ear so it is not heard as pitch variation but as warmth,the listener hears the mean pitch. Vibrato is also extremely important as a tuning function.I have sung as a soloist for several famous choirs whose conductors did not want any vibrato.The common feature of them was that if they ever sharpened,they could not get back down into the desired pitch until the end of the number. The high lying soprano lines of Beethoven’s choral works need the relaxation vibrato affords. Nevertheless the best conductors I have sung them with have made the sopranos rest in rehearsal. Beethoven was not the most natural writer for the voice.I was also very interested to hear from a former student who had been soloing for the Thomaskirche choir that they had never tried to use straight tone as a normal practice. The boys are allowed their faster narrower vibrato and the rest of the choir sings with normal vibrato, If you listen to English choirs of the 50’s you will encounter boys sounding like boys,women sounding like women and the men sounding like men.Fast forward to the 90’s and they are all trying to sound like boys.Based on a fad that seems to have sprung from Cambridge.Nothing seriously scholarly about it.

            Reply
  6. John Huxhold

    This is a very interesting and informative discussion. I have been thinking about this issue for some time and now I have even more to contemplate.

    Question: Is some vibrato a natural feature of human singing or is it taught as part of a singers education? Also, if a composer or conductor wants a “whiter” timbre and turning off ones vibrato is damaging to the voice, is it more responsible to “hire” an almost vibrato-free voice like Emma Kirkby rather than ask a Leontine Price to tame hers?

    I remember a comment I heard many years ago from a voice teacher that a wide vibrato was an affectation of the late 19th century. True?

    Reply
    1. Elle

      Hi! Thoughts:
      Depending on the singer, vibrato can be a “natural” feature of the voice. Some children, untaught, sing with vibrato. Some do not. If a “singer’s education” is at a school that produces opera singers, consistent and even vibrato is considered a necessary voice trait – and if not present, is taught. Musical theatre singers learn to use it (and when not to) as part of a different “style”.

      YES OF COURSE it makes better sense to choose the instrument most suited to making the sounds you want. To make an easy comparison: there is a reason both the flute and the piccolo exist. Their ranges overlap – but composers will choose one over the other for timbral reasons. Vocal instruments are incredible for their variety. Also, they’re attached to humans with artistic preferences. . .so there’s that.

      Wide vibrato (of the “wobbly”, wide-pitch-variance, under 4 cycles per second variety) are often indicative of technical issues. They’re often heard in singers who’ve been asked to sing over too large a force of instruments for too long a time (like, a Wagner or Strauss opera orchestra). The instrument that can project over an 80 piece orchestra is less common than one may think. Sustained loud, forceful singing has a habit of damaging voices (with many exceptions, of course). That’s why you hear fewer Wagnerian (Straussian, Turandot-ian) singers. It’s a rarer instrument that can handle such stress – they’re like Olympic powerlifters of the voice community.

      Reply
    2. Scientific Soprano

      To answer your question, from a voice science perspective —
      “Question: Is some vibrato a natural feature of human singing or is it taught as part of a singers education?”
      Vibrato is a natural feature of *adult* human singing, both male and female. It is not taught. Vibrato develops naturally during puberty as a result of hormonal changes to the laryngeal muscles. That is why pre-pubescent boy sopranos naturally have no vibrato, and adult female sopranos (and all adult singers) naturally have vibrato. The amount of vibrato varies somewhat from person to person, but most adults have a vibrato ranging from 4.5-8 cycles per second, and ranging from 40-150 cents in pitch variation (vibrato extent). Singers can choose to restrain their vibratos (to straight-tone), by introducing addition muscle involvement (usually, by depressing the tongue slightly or by tensing the neck muscles). And changing one’s singing technique can have minor impacts on vibrato speed and pitch variation (extent).

      The idea that a wide vibrato is an affectation of the 19th century isn’t quite accurate. In the 19th century, composers started using much larger orchestras with heavier orchestration (think of Wagner and Mahler versus Handel and Mozart…), and singers had to sing louder to be heard. For most singers, singing louder with fuller tone results in a wider vibrato. In addition, during the 19th century, singers with “larger” voices became more popular and successful (due to the larger orchestras). Larger voices usually tend to have slightly wider, slower vibratos. So it wasn’t so much an “affectation” as a change in vocal technique and selection of singers to meet the new demands of large orchestras.

      Reply
      1. Scientific Soprano

        I should clarify a few more things — in adult singers, vibrato is caused predominantly by muscular antagonism between the cricothyroid and thyroarytenoid muscles in the larynx. These muscles develop strength during puberty due to exposure to testosterone (in both men and women), which causes vibrato to emerge in most singers between 11-15 years old.

        There are some other ways to “make” vibrato, such as by pulsating the breath pressure, and some children who have been exposed to a lot of adult singing models may learn to do this through imitation. In the voice pedagogy world, this type of vibrato would be called “non-organic” or “inauthentic” because it does not result from laryngeal muscular antagonism. This is why you occasionally hear pre-pubescent children with “vibrato.”

        There are also lots of ways to restrain vibrato, as described above, by tensing the tongue and/or neck muscles. Some singers in the Western tradition, who are relatively untrained, have always sung with this tension and so don’t realize that they have an underlying vibrato that they are withholding. However, the continuous tension comes at a cost. Similarly, singers in other cultural traditions (including the Western pop tradition) may have learned to consistently restrain their vibratos (without realizing it, perhaps, through imitation) and may have developed very strong neck and tongue muscles. However, these cultural traditions do not usually require adult female singers to sing as high as the Western choral tradition, in head voice, at pianissimo dynamic levels. It is easier and more comfortable to restrain vibrato in more “muscular” singing — chest voice, mf dynamics and above, lower notes. There is also some evidence that it is harder to restrain vibrato with increased calcification of the larynx, which occurs starting in one’s early twenties.

        For myself, as a professional choral singer, I sing with high, sustained, pianissimo straight-tone all the time. It’s something I’ve worked hard to be able to do, not because it’s comfortable, but because I want to get work. But it can be tiring and saps my singing stamina, and it’s hard to maintain through a multi-hour rehearsal. I always look for opportunities to relax my singing muscles throughout a rehearsal, and will “mark” certain sections, etc. for the health and stamina of my voice.

        Reply
  7. Janet Miller

    Very helpful, thank you. To date I’ve found no one to even validate these struggles, never mind assist with working through them – especially the long term impacts you mention. I notice with frustration that all comments here are by men… It’d be nice to hear from other sopranos.

    Reply
  8. Mario Aschauer

    Strictly speaking, the term “soprano” is not Latin but Italian. It has nothing to do with boys, but derives from the Latin “superanus.”Just like many words in the Western world, gender-neutral things (or groups that contain both male and female components) show masculine grammatical forms. Therefore, “soprano” refers to something or someone that goes on top (of everything else). There is really no evidence that even the earliest occurrences of the Italian term in music refer to non-male sopranos or boys in particular. For instance, Luzzaschi’s 1601 “Madrigali […] per cantare, et sonare, a uno, e doi, a tre soprani” was surely not intended for non-female sopranos only, which goes to show yet again that the term was conceived of as gender-neutral. The fact that grammatically the word is masculine has nothing to do with boys either—just like “violino” doesn’t refer to guys who played them or, God forbid, the gender of the violin as being more masculine than, say, the viola.

    The reason why many singers in the “Early Music World”sing with little or no vibrato is because numerous historical pedagogues way into the 19th century list several (!) fundamental means to enrich the vocal sound—not only (if at all) the vibrato. For example, Tosi (and I apologize for the brevity here, this subject could really fill—and indeed has filled—volumes), describes the “messa di voce” as one of the most important qualities in a good singer—an effect that can surely not be descibed as “straight,” although it is performed without vibrato. It is for this reason, by the way, that the opposite of “vibrato” is not “straight tone” (which is polemical at best), but simply “without vibrato.”

    Anyway. It’s okay to prefer a vibrato-savvy soprano sound, just like it’s okay to prefer steak (and there will always be valid arguments in favor and against steak). Likewise, it’s okay to prefer a way of vocal production that employs a broader range of expressive means, not just vibrato, especially in repertoire that was most probably conceived with that ideal in mind. There simply is no such thing as one “right” and “healthy” way of singing. If such a way existed, Luzzaschi’s madrigals and Wagner’s Isolde would have to be sung exactly the same “one” way. So, if you don’t want your pieces to be sung without vibrato, just say so in the score. At any rate, I recommend against playing the “this is impossible/unhealthy to sing” card. Music history has proved that to be wrong too many times …

    Reply
    1. Mari Valverde

      Thank you for the correction! I would still argue, however, that the word was not invented with women in mind. Tenors, overwhelmingly, and basses, almost exclusively, are men, so there really is no need to discuss men. In other words, I am just focused on elevating women’s voices — no pun intended.

      Reply
  9. Harriet M

    Interesting article on a topic very close to my heart! Someone asked for experiences from another soprano, so here’s my personal experience:
    From the age of 16-23ish I could easily produce the ‘boy treble’ white sound which was required by my Cambridge college choir, without any great knowledge of vocal technique.
    When I started singing seriously again 15 years later, I found (surprise surprise!) that my voice simply wouldn’t do this any more. I was exhausted after a half hour of Bach rehearsals.
    So I worked intensively with a talented teacher to find my mature voice. We worked a lot on resonance, laryngeal position, and support. Over a few months, a nice natural vibrato developed. Believe me, I will never sing Wagner. My voice is still more suited to Bach and Mozart. But it now sounds like an adult soprano.
    This of course was a huge problem for the choir I sang with during this time, because the choir master wanted a white sound from the (mostly mature) soprano section, especially for Bach and Handel which make up 75% of the choir’s repertoire. So I had to go back to work with my teacher to find a way to develop a white sound with minimal vibrato that the choir master was happy with. It took a lot of work, mainly to develop extremely strong support. The result was a technique which was flexible between two points: mature soprano with vibrato, and boy treble without vibrato.
    Which do I prefer singing? The sound with vibrato does feel much more comfortable and of course is more expressive. But it’s useful to do both. I don’t know if it would be possible to keep this flexibility as a full time professional soprano – what do others think?

    Reply
    1. Mari Valverde

      Thank you for sharing your story! I think developing the flexibility between singing styles makes you a formidable musician. I think, most singers, especially those who love choral music, would aspire to get to that point. Brava!

      And as many have noted, it is partly the responsibility of the conductor to select music appropriate for their ensemble. But, I wrote this hoping that composers would give a second thought on how sopranos are “supposed” to sound.

      Reply
    2. Eva

      I am also a soprano who sings in choirs. I am an adult and I have had a light vibrato sound ever since my voice matured, I started having singing lessons and the breathiness in my voice disappeared. I can also find it tiring to hold my voice “still” while singing high, but a light legato sound is possible, although not always a very satisfying sing. Unfortunately conductors often want these high notes to be pianissimo as well, and this volume is generally relative to the voices around you. While I am able to do both, I must admit to becoming very selective of the choirs I choose to sing with and the taste of the conductors/choir masters working with those choirs. Now I make sure to audition for choirs with a range of ages and a majority of trained singers. And also a choir master who appreciates the qualities of a mature female voice and who has a genuine understanding and appreciation of the sound they are asking their singers to produce and for how long they are requesting them to produce it. If I don’t enjoy the singing (i.e. I have to feel good about what I do and the sound I am producing), or if I am asked to hold back or change my vocal quality constantly, I seriously question my reasons for being in that choir and the conductors reasons for selecting me to join. As you can imagine, I have now sung with quite a few choirs and I am currently singing in a large organisation associated with a professional orchestra; the sound we produce is fabulous!! What I would love to do is sing with an ensemble of classically trained singers, but not an opera chorus, because the choral works are so beautiful and exiting to sing. Unfortunately there are none to my knowledge. Anyone interested?

      Reply
  10. Chris Hutchings

    Even composers who’ve grown up with the English church choir tradition should have worked with adult female voices at some point in their career. I have noticed this problematic demand for straight tone coming up with several composers from English church backgrounds – but there are a lot of choir composers in the UK who know female voices better. I’ve spent almost my entire life working with adult female sopranos who use vibrato (including singing alongside them as the lone boy soprano in our mixed church choir), and know their voices and ranges pretty well – my music reflects that, and several directors have remarked on how well it lies in the vocal range of each part. (www.hutchingsmusic.co.uk for scores, soundcloud.com/hutchingsmusic for recordings, if anyone’s interested). I’ve also given advice to a lot of young composers who simply aren’t aware of how to write sensitively for voices and keep the sopranos constantly at the top of their range – this is a far more concerning problem!

    Reply
  11. Michael. MacM

    “Straight” tone is generally produced one of two ways. At a softer dynamic, a light vocal production has little vibrato, but it also tends to lack richness and overtones. This can work it a style where there is additional “amplification” – either the microphones of a jazz group or the highly resonant dome of a Renaisssance cathedral. (The female parts in jazz/pop music also tend to lie in a more moderate “speech” range.). Singing higher pitches is a problem for women because of the lower energy (men can accomplish this using falsetto). A strong “straight” tone requires some element of tension to “restrict” the vibrato. The sound can easily become “pressed” and also loses overtones (due to the damping effect of the excess pressure). Barbershop quartets do this sound well. They are also masters of “vowel” tuning. There is also another problem with intonation and straight tone. The pitch often tends to be slightly sharp (due to the pressed phonation) or flat (under energized breath). Listen to a pop song hold a long note. As part of the style, he/she will start with a straight tone and then let the vibrato come in. With a few exceptions, the straight tone is generally not quite in pitch. When the vibrato comes in, the note is more “in tune” – centered on the pitch. Also, all vibrato singing is not the same. Even the most “classical” will vary vibrato (consciously or “un”) for different dynamics or levels of intensity/emotion.
    Now for another issue, what about those tenor parts that called for continuos singing in the uppe mid and passages area. (C to F). Exhausting for the tenors. The first movement of the Stravinksy Symphony of Psalms is virtually nothing but E!

    Reply
  12. Timothy Hamilton

    Great article. I am a singer, composer and choral conductor. I established my own ensemble, Cantoribus, a couple of years ago, comprising solely of operatic voices with choral experience as I was getting fed up of working in ensembles where you are not allowed to sing properly and support the voice. We released an album in 2014 (‘Vision’ on Stone Records) with original material as well as a couple of standard choral pieces. It has had mixed reviews. The purists hate the fact that there is ‘wobble’. Surely, allowing a free and supported sound encourages a more versatile and vivid texture! I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Here’s a link to Cantoribus.http://www.hamiltonmusic.london/#!performing/c22tz
    On here you can hear them singing Stanford’s ‘Beati quorum via’. See what you think.

    Reply
    1. Jeff Winslow

      Honestly, it’s hard to get a sense of any but the simplest harmonies in the Stanford. Since you know the score you may be biased by hearing them in your head. In particular, the passages around 0:44 and the two-minute mark are just gray mush. Interestingly, the one place where the harmony seemed purer, just after 1:30, it seemed the singers used a straighter tone. But again, this is a simple triad, so I’d say it’s the exception that proves the rule. Even the three-part triadic harmony in the women’s voices is unpleasantly diffuse. I am not anti-vibrato by any means, but in this context, it just isn’t working for me.

      Reply
  13. Nathan Tax

    Very interesting article with just as many interesting replies in the posts beneath. Though, I feel one explanatory observation (or hypothesis?) is to be made. (Love to get your opinions!)

    Vibrato nowadays tends more and more often to be unnaturally produced and seperately added as an effect, as it is heard on recordings (as stated in earlier replies). Due to the lack of overtones — firstly in the case of the recording (where many overtones are either cut out, compressed or just impossible to play by the speakers), secondly in the case of the young singer, who imitates what they know from the recording — the voice doesn’t mix well with the other voices in the choir or ensemble. For the highest part, the soprano, almost always this results in a voice standing out from the other singers and creating the illusion of a big(ger) voice.

    Opera houses and choir masters often look for younger singers to attract a wider (younger) audience, at least more so than about 4 or 5 decades ago. So the young singer with the unnatural and unsupported (but evenso pushing) vibrato is pushed onto a big stage and finishes carreer within 5 to 10 years, left with a broken voice and too many years for a proper score on the sexiness-scale.

    The only way to counteract this troublesome development is to have qualified and experienced vocal teachers correct the unnatural vibrato into a natural product of healthy singing — that product being overtones — and at the same time have conductors accept that natural vibrato just the way it is. If (especially!) the other singers in the choir are vocalising in a healthy, full way, the overtones of the soprano’s will be absorbed into theirs, creating a very rich, dense and unified sound. Singing with or without (healthy!) vibrato then becomes irrelevant…

    … at least in live performance situations, where the overtones can mingle and tingle freely. Indeed it does not produce studio-perfect recordings, because a recording would result in cutting off the overtones that are so much needed for the blending of the sound. But what else would you like to offer your cd-adoring fans who are coming to your concerts other than an *extra* dimension (besides richness in overtones, also the pure organic form of non-censurized musicality), in stead stripping it of even another dimension? The CD and LCD-screen have already flattened the musical experience more than enough.

    We shouldn’t let the consequences of the digital age let us question the wisdoms of the true craftsmanship of beautiful singing. It was never designed-in-one-day, but refined-age-after-age to achieve the ultimate eargasm of the well trained human voice.

    Reply
    1. Michael

      I agree with your comments, especially the emphasis on overtones. A straight tone tends to limit the overtones – either through “undersinging” (the folds don’t fully abduct) or “pressed” phonation (the over abduction dampens the overtones). Your comments about what works acoustically versus on a recording is also very true. A couple of years ago, I heard the Concordia college choir on tour. They were wonderful. Despite the “Lutheran choir” tradition (known for more straight tone), their sound was healthy with a easy but natural vibrato. There was none of the “hootiness” of some choirs; the sound was rich with plenty of overtones and “core”. Balance was carefully handled by numbers and by placing the naturally lighter voices on higher (Soprano 1, tenor 1) parts, but the sound was grounded in the fullness of the lower basses and altos. Carefully attention to vowel matching and intonation resulted in a sound full of beauty and overtones. However, when I listen later to the CDs I bought, this beauty of sound could not be replicated. The wonderful aural experience of the sound was lost in the compressed sound of the recording, even though it was the best attempt possible at capturing the live experience .

      Reply
  14. Israel

    The problem with sopranos is that most of them think they’re divas and the way they use their vibrato is unpleasan, loud, and not unison with their mates, making it seem they’re screaming and tasteless. If they could agree in their oscilación of their vibrato we, conductos and composers, would have no problem with their natural singing.

    Reply
    1. Scientific Soprano

      It seems that you really detest sopranos. Perhaps you would be happier not working with voices and individuals whom you despise — perhaps conducting an all-male choir, or writing all-male choral settings. I feel sorry for the sopranos who have to sing with you.

      Reply
  15. Ragnar Bohlin

    This is an interesting topic but, I think this article is misinformed in several ways.
    Let’s start with the notion that singing with vibrato is intrinsically more “natural”. There are many different ways of using the voice artfully around the world, from various types of folk music, to pop/rock/jazz, the Western operatic art song, as well as many styles of choir singing. Some have vibrato, some don’t, some have more, some have less, some have constant, some have occasional vibrato.
    A young person wanting to study classical singing , usually studies operatic singing at a conservatory or a university. It takes years of hard work to master those skills. It is not “natural”, it is an art, a skill that one learns. You can’t take a person from the street and say “just sing!”. Take for example the skill of singing a high note effortlessly, without having the larynx pop up. Anyone who has studied voice knows how hard that is, with around thirty different muscles at play in the vocal apparatus.
    The question is how much of the voice students time that is dedicated to thinking about the quality of vibrato, or to be able to sing straight when called for? That is something that is usually left alone; vibrato happens when you start using your support, pharynx space etc, but also because you want it to happen and let it happen. But for those training to become early music singers, awareness of vibrato is a natural part of the process. This does not mean that a baroque singer is less trained than a romantic style opera singer, or that the baroque singer is doing something “destructive” or “unnatural”. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the prospective opera singer spend a little time to work on these things as well, and figure out how to do it with good technical control? It is not impossible to combine. That would open up a broader market for the singers, as professional choristers, should they not end up singing opera. It is clear that the demand on a professional singer of today is to have vibrato control. It is interesting to note that many good choral singers who have not studied voice, do not develop vibrato. In my opinion the most common pitfall for singers with developed vibrato, when asked to sing straight-tone, is to tense the voice into straightness and to scoot up the larynx. That does neither sound good, nor is it healthy. There is a way of “riding the flow of the air” to arrive at effortless straight-tone with a remained deep and relaxed larynx-position. It requires some mindful practice.
    Singing in general can be difficult and potentially dangerous if you do wrong things. There are many young (and older) opera singers who have ended up with vocal nodules because of tensions, overstraining, forcing the voice etc. It’s hard to sing opera. It can be “destructive” to sing both with and without vibrato, the key is good technique.
    Choral singing is a wonderful art form in itself, and deserves that we as executers develop the best techniques to lift it to its highest level and potential. This includes vibrato control.
    To refer to choral conductors as “fussing” is both derogatory and misinformed. The art of choral singing should not have to adapt to an operatic vocal ideal, unless we are talking about opera choruses. It is analogous to someone training to be a body builder, then finds him/herself in a ballet group. Should the body builder then define how ballet should be danced?
    The trend is very clear that the best choirs today don’t let their singers use a lot of vibrato, especially vibrato with big amplitude which is a good way to destroy the choral sonorities. This has to do with the interlocking of overtones. The same goes for orchestras; good string players, and wind players, vary their vibrato according to what style of music they are playing, where they are in the phrase, and their function in the texture.
    Unless we are talking about really early music I personally don’t prefer complete straight tone, as little as ongoing, mindless vibrato. Vibrato should ideally be related to phrasing. This way of singing is also gaining ground in the opera world. A singer with flexible vibrato is just more interesting.
    Also, I have no understanding for the notion that women “should imitate boys”, or aim for a “thin and high” sound. High larynx is fine and idiomatically correct for much of jazz and pop singing, but not for classical singing.
    The article only mentions sopranos, but all other voice parts can struggle with the same issue if you have studied opera for many years. It is of course generally more potential for harm the higher you sing (tenors and sopranos), but the same goes for those who have not studied opera. High notes require technique.
    Lastly, I agree that it is important for contemporary vocal composers as well as conductors to have a deep knowledge of the voice.

    Reply
    1. Mari Valverde

      Hi Maestro! I seem to have caused some controversy.

      To clarify, in my article, I have discussed neither opera nor early music. The mention of early music and the reference to “boys” has to do with the etymology of soprano. I care only to draw attention to its origin. Performance practice is something very different now. In fact, I chose this topic as it pertains to music that is being composed today. And I invite what I believe is a healthy discussion on what is idiomatic for vocal writing.

      As far as my being misinformed, I have had the honor to sing with fine variety of ensembles under highly respected conductors, yourself included. Additionally, my position in this article was inspired by several (sometimes repetitive) conversations with professionals: singers, teachers, and directors. Inasmuch, I know that I am not the only one who holds this perspective.

      While it was not my intention to burn bridges or polarize the community, I would appreciate that professionals think and openly discuss these questions as it pertains to pedagogy and composition. Thank you for reading and for your sincere regard for new choral music.

      Reply
  16. John

    In my experience, the phrase “senza vibrato, please” often just means “sing with good intonation, good support and as if you’ve actually learned your part well”. It’s become a sort of catch all when the conductor hears something she or he doesn’t like, but is afraid to point out that the singer just doesn’t produce a beautiful sound. Of course there are exceptions where the conductor or the composer actually wants a straight tone, but if you just sing with a voice that would sound good in a Mozart opera, then nobody will care about a little vibrato.

    Reply
  17. Ragnar Bohlin

    Hi again, Mari!

    As you will probably understand from the length of my response, I find this topic very important and worthy of our attention.

    The reason I felt inclined to write a response to your article, was that you took a firm stance against straight tone singing for sopranos. My stance is that the ideal chorister should be able to sing both with and without vibrato. You wrote that straight-tone is “expensive, lofty, grossly impractical, and often manufactured”, and you also stated that it is “destructive” to singer’s instruments. You discredited male composers and conductors by implying they lack understanding of the soprano voice. And you referred to conductors as “fussing” over vocal production, not showing much respect for a category of musicians who work very hard to make a group of individual singers sound good together. Some controversy is perhaps to be expected:)

    I have had private voice instruction on a regular basis from age 16-41, five of those years with famed tenor Nicolai Gedda. After my conductor degree, I took a one-year opera course at Kulturama in Stockholm, and started a humble side career as an oratorio tenor, singing the Evangelist parts of St Matthew Passion, the Christmas Oratorio, the solos in Rossini’s Stabat Mater and Petite Solennelle etc. I have attended a large number of vocal masterclasses, both as a participant and as accompanist. I have also coached numerous singers.

    I say this only to show that I have some idea of how Western classical singing is being taught today.

    When writing that your article was misinformed in stating that straight-tone is unnatural, I was well aware that you are not alone in thinking so. Many classical voice teachers would probably agree with you.

    I would even go so far as to say that in all my years of lessons, coaching, masterclasses etc, I have never heard a voice teacher talk about how to use straight tone, or how to modify your vibrato. Some singers seem to have a natural connection to a varied use of vibrato, but overall vibrato is left to the singer’s instinct and taste. Practically all teaching is geared to singing opera, or Lieder and oratorios.
    In my view, this is the rub. Acknowledging that perhaps 95% of all the voice students will not end up as opera singers, wouldn’t it be fair to give just a little preparation and consideration to other possible carriers as a singer? This is what instrumentalists do when training at Conservatories; they aim for a solo career, but also prepare for a career as an orchestra musician.

    Again, I want to refute the claim that singing straight is unnatural. There are just too many examples of the opposite to disregard the fact that you can sing without vibrato in a healthy way. Again, there are many high level volunteer choirs that sing completely without vibrato. They wouldn’t even know how to sing with vibrato if you asked them. I know this from personal experience. I also know that a trained solo-singer can learn to control vibrato in a healthy way, and it may even make you a more versatile soloist.

    All my experience working with professional choirs, and listening to recordings of the best professional choirs today convinces me that vibrato control is a skill required for the professional chorister. Somehow, these highly trained professionals have maintained a way of controlling their vibrato. When sitting through auditions for professional spots in for example the SF Symphony Chorus, I feel sorry for some very accomplished operatic singers who have no flexibility regarding vibrato. The ones that have that flexibility are the ones desired for professional chorister spots (opera choirs excluded).

    To me the ideal professional chorister should have all of the traits of a soloist; core, stamina, overtone-projection, speedy and clear coloraturas, breath control, good vocal control in the upper range, but with the addition of being able to control vibrato, to have a phrasing related vibrato when called for and to understand when the texture demands more transparent singing.

    Singing as a soloist, the whole idea is that you should stick out, carry over an orchestra in a large hall. Singing in choir on a professional level is in a way even more difficult than being a soloist, because you need all the above technical control AND the ability to blend, to go in and out of core, sing piano in high registers and to control your vibrato. It would be so wonderful if voice teachers would acknowledge the choral art form and at least open up the door to this aspect. It is a bit like taking a minor course in harpsichord playing, although you are training to becoming a pianist. We all understand the need for focus, but it is not impossible to learn more than one thing.

    On the other hand, I think choral directors at Conservatories need to be very careful and respectful of the fact that the voice students are trying to develop solo voices. The voice is a delicate instrument. Just as it can be harmful for the voice teacher to throw Wagner at the young voice student, it can be harmful with straight tone and piano in high registers, if the student is not ready for it. A collaboration with experts in Baroque singing would perhaps be helpful.

    This said, I personally think the pendulum in some cases has swung too far from a choral sound with vibrato to one without. I once heard a Brahms Requiem completely straight-tone, stylistically odd to my ears. This counter-reaction is perhaps part of the problem you are addressing. Another part may be that operatically trained singers, when asked to sing straight-tone, sing too straight because they are unable to find a relaxed and natural way into it.

    Of course composers need to be aware of what is vocally feasible. Handel, Verdi, Puccini and others were all composers that had a great understanding of the capacity of the human voice (although none of them were sopranos). Part of the problems you describe with regards to new music can perhaps be attributed to tessitura. You mention “expensive” writing. Ask any Wagnerian tenor if it is expensive with repeated high A:s, or a Verdi/Puccini tenor with a high C after a long stretch of high tessitura singing. Ask anyone if that can be “destructive to the instrument” and “can lead to vocal nodules and other health-related phonation problems”. It is expensive to sing in a high register for a long time, with or without vibrato. Of course it is easier for the voice that is accustomed to singing with vibrato to do that, but the opposite is also true. Also, it would be a grave mistake to assume that opera choristers will not experience vocal fatigue just because they sing with full vibrato.

    Naturally my stance is that of a choral director, defending my art form as an art in its own right. We should not have to limit choral singing to accommodate to what is natural to another art form. As a choral director I would like to be able to ask for straight tone in Palestrina, mindful vibrato in a lot of Romantic a cappella literature, and full vibrato in opera choruses.

    We should all respect that there are different ways of using the voice. The pop singer coming to a choir would probably struggle most with learning how to find a deeper placement for the larynx, and for the women to find head voice. There is a lot of common ground in different styles of singing, as well as there are differences.

    It would be sad if composers felt that vibrato-controlled, transparent singing was off-limits, and that they therefore refrain from writing subtle harmonies etc.

    Lastly, I urge you to keep writing beautiful, exciting music for the choral instrument! I sincerely believe that the best music is yet to be written.

    Reply
  18. Mari Valverde

    To be fair, I did not suggest in my essay that vibrato was “natural” nor that straight tone was “unnatural.” Quite the contrary. In my experience, vibrato has *had* to be taught for the reasons I broached the article: sustained highs, fortes, and vocal endurance. As you know, I am not a soprano. But, my position and concerns are based on what I have consistently heard from musicians that I respect.

    When discussing differences in genre or style, as you’ve mentioned pop, jazz, etc., I think it’s important to consider the presence of a microphone. The majority of performers outside of “classical” music, use a mic and routinely record in studio. Their acoustics are electronically manipulated.

    On the other hand, choral singers, like opera and Lieder singers, are conditioned to perform in the scenario that they do not wear mics. We have to learn how to project and sustain tone and articulate text in ways that singers that are mic-ed do not. And yes, some choral works are more vocally demanding than others. Composers could stand to know the difference.

    I, by no means, had the intention to discredit you with my firm language. You have more experience than I do, and your résumé precedes you. I looked to you as a mentor in the past. However, I maintain that there is a blatant lack of consultation from (cisgender) female conductors, composers, and educators. Women in most respects, like women’s choirs, are new to the discussion.

    Additionally, I believe, we concur that a professional’s ability to balance and develop flexibility in their vibrato is admirable/preferable. Dissonant harmonies and tertian cadences necessitate good tuning. I understand, but it takes skill to have such flexibility — and that skill is something the majority choral singers have not developed. So, it becomes a question of accessibility of the composition. If I am composing for Cappella SF, for example, there is a greater variety of musical possibilities, when compared to my composing for any given high school choir.

    There are so many choirs out there that aspire to do the popular contemporary choral works, and, I am certain, it can lead to vocal abuse. I work with high schoolers, changing voices, and I have to encourage them to sing with steady breath flow. To let them go on, thinking that they are at fault when they lose their voices after singing a particular composition, would not be fair when, indeed, the music is composed by someone who does not have handle on practical vocal composition.

    Reply
  19. Ragnar Bohlin

    I have to confess I am a little confused. Are you talking about high school voices, or classically trained, adult voices?
    Do your high school singers, with changing voices, already have a vibrato? If so, that is definitely not the case everywhere, and it raises some suspicions. In cultures where choral singing has a high status, that does not seem to happen unless the individual starts with individual coaching, singing solistic repertoire.
    And drawing the gender card seems out of place; I still don’t understand why you are talking only about sopranos. Do you believe that only sopranos develop vibrato when they train their voices classically?

    You asked: “Why insist on the misunderstanding that adult female sopranos are able to or should sing strictly senza vibrato in the way children do?”
    Are you not aware of folk music singers from all over the world, un-miced, singing more or less without vibrato?
    The Bulgarian women’s choir “Le mystere des Voix Bulgares” is an example of a different way of using the voice, mostly non-vibrato. And again, all highly skilled amateur choristers around the world, that have never developed a vibrato, yet are able to sing the most challenging a cappella repertoire. How is that possible? Not to mention all top-level professional chamber choirs around the world, singing with a varied use and control of vibrato, often out of good instincts of what the music calls for.

    Again, I think the closest vocal ideal a professional chorister with a classically trained voice, when aiming to sing with a varied use and control of vibrato, would be the baroque style, including generous pharynx space, soft pallet lift and overtone projection.

    I am definitely not trying to give a free pass for composers to write without knowledge of the voice. There are many ways to write impractically and potentially dangerously for the voice. But to argue that vibrato control is a no-go, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and it would seriously limit the expressive palette of the choral instrument.

    Reply
  20. Gene Carl

    Vibrato should not be forbidden for sopranos. Having written for 5 sopranos in “Iphigenia in Aulis” with an Amsterdam Theater group (Toneelgroep Amsterdam) I found that the normal use of vibrato by the singers who are weel trained was very expressive. Non vibrato, used sparingly, can add a new color to the palet. I’ve noticed that many composers are afraid of the “Romantic” associations with vibrato, but just as string players, singers who use it expressively and correctly, sound brilliant. Luigi Nono’s “Ha vendo, Canciones para Silvia” (1960) for soprano solo and 6 sopranos is a fine example of this within an extreme compositional technique.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.