Thursday, February 5, 2009

Finding the Right Voice – Vibrato in the Choral Ensemble, Part 2

A few days ago, I wrote about how vibrato sounds in the singing voice. You can read that essay here. The main point: that because many choral singers do not understand the proper production and application of vibrato, they end up singing with poor intonation and muddy tone, which in turn compromise the overall sound of the choral ensemble.

Yesterday, I shared my thoughts about issues which influence the application of vibrato in choral singing. You can read that essay here. The main point of this essay was that good choral singers must be able to sing with and without vibrato, as required by the demands of the music and the choral director.

In this essay, I’ll share some anecdotes about how the presence or absence of vibrato influenced the success of some recent choral rehearsals and concerts. These are all true stories, told from my own admittedly biased perspective.

GOOD! Choral Clarity Yields Shimmering Overtones — In the 180-voice Hartford Chorale, the success of one of the warm-up exercises that Music Director Rick Coffey uses depends entirely on the entire choir’s agreeing to produce a clear, vibrato-free tone. Here’s how it goes: Basses sing a medium-low pitch, tenors and altos double the pitch an octave above, and sopranos sing the same pitch one octave higher; thus, we cover three octaves. We sing one syllable at a time — Nee, Nah, then Naw — starting softly and increasing volume without adding vibrato. If we are singing in tune (both pitch and vowel), and if we do not introduce the pitch variable that we call vibrato, then the overtone at the 12th will spring forth, floating and shimmering above our heads. When we’re really doing it well, the overtone will be so loud and clear that you would swear that there is another alto section floating up near the ceiling. It really is remarkable. Rick also uses this warm-up in the 35-voice the Chancel Choir at South Church (in which I am a section leader), where it is even more successful, perhaps because of the size of the choir (35) and the preponderance of trained singers who can control their voices.

BAD! Excess Vibrato Confounds Learning — Just last night, I was rehearsing with a 24-voice amateur choir. The director was trying to help the women master a passage written with very close harmony, including some tone clusters. About 4 of the 12 women were singing with very prominent vibrato; the presence of these varying frequencies made it almost impossible to hear and tune the tone clusters. If the director had asked us to take out the vibrato, at least for the few minutes that we really needed to hear clearly, we could have mastered it much more quickly, and perhaps would not have needed to work on it separately.

GOOD! Clear Singing is More Powerful and Resonant — When the all-professional choir CONCORA prepared for its December concert (“Christmas in New England”), Artistic Director Richard Coffey had asked the 27 singers to sing without vibrato in certain passages, so that interesting dissonances and moving lines could be projected clearly, and so that we could produce a more resonant sound. During the performance, I stood in the front row of singers, from where I could hear almost every voice behind me. As we sang, there were times when the choir “forgot” to sing without vibrato, and I was really struck by the difference in the resulting sound. With the extra vibrato, I did indeed hear all the individual voices; we were often loud, but the sound was diffuse and was oddly weakened by the dozens of different tones. When we sang senza vibrato, we produced a single clear sound and, of course, we had much better intonation and a stronger, louder overall sound. I loved the moments when we all were able to jettison the extra vibrato and produce a truly ringing sound. What a difference! It may seem counterintuitive, but it's true that when individual choristers sing with some restraint, the choir as a whole will produce a louder, more resonant sound.

BAD! Excess Vibrato Hinders ListeningThe vibrato pit. That’s the image that sprang to mind during a recent rehearsal of a large choral ensemble. I was glad I was sitting in the end seat in my row, so that at least one side of me was a vibrato-free zone. The singer to my left sang with a fast narrow vibrato, just slightly under pitch. The singer immediately behind me sang with a slow, wide vibrato, “hanging” her sound significantly under the pitch (read more here to understand what I mean by that). And behind me, a whole cloud of varying vibrati buzzed and burbled. Together, these voices created a sort of choral chaos which made it hard for me to hear the center of the pitch. I was glad that I was sitting near the piano so that I could hear the correct pitches.

GOOD! Clear Singing Elevates the Music — This week, CONCORA has its last of five rehearsals for its upcoming performance of choral music by Felix Mendelssohn These rehearsals have been a delight, a revelation, a wonder of choral cooperation and mutual enjoyment. Much of the music that Artistic Director Richard Coffey has selected for this program is in eight parts (SSAATTBB), with complex polyphony and rich harmonies, including a wealth of wonderful dissonance. For the most part, and with some reminders from Rick, this ensemble sings nearly the entire program with little or no vibrato, introducing more “color” judiciously for selected passages. The sound is really remarkable; we are achieving stunning pianissimi and amazing fortissimi, and everything in between. Our clear tone helps with text projection, too, ensuring that we can communicate music and text to our audience.

BAD! The Vocal Free-For All — One small ensemble in which I sang for many years presented real challenges for me as a singer. Perhaps because of the strictly amateur nature of the ensemble, there were no standards for vocal production, and issues like vibrato and blend were not addressed. And because the ensemble was so small — just 16 voices — the differences between individual voices were painfully apparent, especially as to vibrato in the soprano section. It was essentially a vocal free-for-all, and no matter how hard I tried, it was pretty much impossible to blend (not that it seemed to matter); I kept my voice toned down for years. During the dress rehearsal for the last concert in which I sang, by chance five of the six sopranos were not present or were not singing due to illness, leaving me as the sole soprano. This was an unanticipated treat: I was finally able to sing out with my own fairly straight voice, without having to worry about clashing with all the vibrati. It was probably the best musical experience I had had in that ensemble for many years. Later, another singer remarked to me that the entire dress rehearsal had gone unexpectedly well; we were able to sing through almost everything without problem. He observed that it was because the other singers could finally hear the soprano line clearly, instead of the usual muddy sound, and that this factor helped all the other singers hear the music and stay together. It was a bittersweet evening.

True Story: One soprano I know, having been asked by a choral director to sing a certain passage senza vibrato, replied, out loud to the director during the rehearsal, “I worked years to learn how to sing with vibrato and I’m not going to take it out now!”


What's your opinion? What's your experience? Leave a comment!

To read all my essays on my experiences as a chorister, including more on technique, click here:

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