As a classically-trained, professional choral singer, a choral director, AND a voice teacher, I have loooots of thoughts about the V-word in choral singing.
You guessed it - "the V-word" is VIBRATO.
If you're a trained classical singer or even an avocational chorister, chances are the word "vibrato" conjures up a lot of feelings for you. Which makes sense, because it's a controversial subject in the choral world.
Recently, in a Facebook thread about the difficulties of singing modern choral music, a friend shared this article, which, as a soprano who sings a lot of difficult modern music, I thought was spot on. It's worth a read, if the pro choral or new music realms are of interest to you.
What I've been musing on ever since, however, is how vibrato is talked about in avocational/non-pro choral settings - high school, church, community, and even college choirs. The bulk of my private voice students are teens and avocational adults, and many of them have sung in choruses. More than once, they've come to me with questions about something they were told in choir that seemingly contradicts something they learned in lessons with me - usually about moderating their tone in some way so that their sound is less "soloistic." Read: either softer, or with less vibrato.
In my experience, asking a young or amateur singers to eliminate vibrato will ultimately create more problems than it solves - both for the individual, and for ensemble unity. As a musician and pro choral singer myself, I often understand conductors' reasons for asking this; however, as a voice teacher, I believe that it is vocally unreasonable to ask inexperienced singers to do it frequently or for prolonged periods.
I know, *I'm* probably the one who sounds unreasonable. But hear me out, okay? Just as you,
my choral director friend, have been doing your expert thang for years, so have I - as a voice teacher. My opinions are based on my knowledge of vocal function, years of experience working with young and avocational singers, and my own, personal experience as a choral singer.
Why is vibrato such an issue, anyway?
Well, in some cases, it isn't really. Asking for a straight-tone sound from pro choral singers is perfectly acceptable and, in many cases, to be expected. Pro singers have the technique, musicianship, and ensemble skills to sing in this way safely, effectively, and in a way that won't compromise ensemble unity.
Here's the thing about straight-tone singing though: it's really difficult, even for most professional choral singers. Why?
Most choral singers are classically trained, and vibrato is inherent to the classical style. Asking a classically-trained singer to sing without vibrato is kind of like asking someone to execute a fine-motor task with their non-dominant hand. It doesn't feel natural, it won't be coordinated at first, it will probably make your muscles tired, it will take lots of practice to execute the task efficiently, and the whole time you will be thinking "WHY CAN'T I JUST DO THIS THE WAY I KNOW HOW?!"
Most classical choral music sits at a high tessitura and has long phrases. It's one thing to sing without vibrato in a contemporary music style - like jazz or musical theater, for instance, where the pitches are often closer to speech level, fewer notes are sustained, and singers are mic'ed in performance - but completely another to do so in the context of an already-vocally-demanding musical style in which the singer has only his or her internal resonance to rely upon for projection.
And if straight-tone singing is difficult for professional singers, think about how hard it is for young or avocational singers whose levels of technique and vocal awareness are not yet fully developed.
Consider the following:
There could be a number of reasons a singer's vibrato "sticks out" in a choir, but one of the reasons could be because their vibrato is imbalanced due to other technical issues. In most classical singing, vibrato is a by-product of the singer's technique - either good or bad - not a "technique" in and of itself. Instead of eliminating the weird vibrato, it would make more sense to address the technical issues underlying it.
Along those same lines, asking an inexperienced singer to eliminate his or her vibrato will only lead the singer to compensate for this change with another technical fault. Like our bodies, our voices are master compensators, and in the face of difficulty, will often recruit muscles that shouldn't be working. So it's out with the vibrato, in with too much subglottal pressure. Or overly-bright or pressed tone. Or intonation issues. The list could go on. All of these issues can contribute in their own way to ensemble disunity, just as vibrato can. I'm not saying they're *better* problems to have; just different ones. And, no matter the level of the singer, straight-tone singing is generally more demanding on the vocal mechanism and will lead to vocal fatigue more quickly. If you want vocally viable singers in the last half hour of rehearsal, make sure you don't over-rehearse straight-tone passages that sit high, traverse the passaggio, and/or have a piano dynamic level.
What are we after, anyway?
Choral directors, I'm going to say the hard thing here. Unless straight-tone singing is inherent to the rep, simply asking your singers to eliminate their vibrato, without following up with a reason, is unhelpful and unclear.
Why? Because it doesn't actually describe what you, the conductor, want. Okay, so you don't want vibrato. Fair enough. But what ARE you looking for? Why will vibrato detract from your
"Well," you say, "the goal is better blend/balance."
Okay, but? Will asking singers to eliminate their vibrato *really* solve your blend or balance problem? Maybe. But we all know that a singer can sing senza vibrato and still stick out like a sore thumb. The problem might be timbre or dynamics, not vibrato. Is there another way you might achieve your aesthetic goal that would place fewer vocal demands on the singer? Like a change in vowel shape, or more specific dynamics?
Know the demands
As I said before, straight-tone singing is demanding and fatiguing, if done frequently or for prolonged periods. Does this mean you should never ask your volunteer choir to sing in this way? Of course not. The only way singers learn about their instruments is through using them, and allowing young singers to explore this type of singing in small amounts and with music that isn't vocally demanding, is perfectly acceptable. Choral directors just need to exercise plenty of moderation with this request, as well as be aware of the demands, difficulties, and potential consequences of this kind of singing - including the musical circumstances under which it becomes most difficult.
Finding common ground
This goes without saying, but I'mma say it anyway: choral directors, please know that I have the utmost respect for what you do. I've been on your side of the podium before, and I know that your job is challenging. I know you have the best interests of your singers at heart, and you're just trying to help them make as beautiful a sound as they can.
I believe the vocal and choral worlds would be a much better place if voice teachers and choral directors would collaborate more. Rather than viewing the other with suspicion or skepticism, give them the benefit of the doubt. Rather than viewing the two styles as mutually exclusive, seek common ground and common language. We all have our areas of expertise, and can all learn from each other. And this will serve our common ultimate goal, which is helping our students make beautiful music!