Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Finding the Right Voice – Vibrato in the Choral Ensemble, Part 1

Yesterday I wrote about how we hear vibrato in the singing voice. You can read that essay here. Today I’ll share my thoughts about the use — and mis-use — of vibrato in choral singing.

We’re used to hearing vibrato in trained solo singers. Properly produced and appropriately employed, vibrato is useful as one of the many vocal ornaments in the soloist’s repertoire, and its use by the soloist is not at issue here. But does vibrato have a place in choral singing? This question has always been of interest to me, perhaps because I’ve sung so much early music where vibrato is seldom used, and because I’ve sung in choirs where vibrato ist verboten.

And yes, singers are able to sing with or without vibrato, and most singers can control, to some extent, the speed and amplitude of the vibrato oscillation. Whether or not a singer is willing to modify the vibrato, or to sing without vibrato at all, generally has less to do with skill and more to do with ego — whether the singer is willing to leave his or her ego at the door of the rehearsal room. A choral rehearsal is not the time or place to show off your voice. (You can read my essay on this issue here.) True story: One soprano I know, having been asked by the director to sing senza vibrato (that is, without vibrato), replied testily, “I worked years to learn how to sing with vibrato and I’m not going to take it out now!”

There are many factors that the choral singer must consider when choosing whether to add, remove, or modify the vibrato, including harmonic and melodic texture, repertoire, composer’s instructions, and the taste of the choral director.

HARMONIC AND MELODIC TEXTUREPolyphonic music — that is, music with several overlapping or intertwining melodic lines — demands clarity and precision in performance. In choral polyphony, clarity and precision can be attained only if vibrato is kept to a minimum or eliminated altogether. Even in slow-moving passages, vibrato will obscure and muddy the textures and harmonies. Of all the choral repertoire, it is the polyphony of the Medieval and Renaissance periods that is most often sung without vibrato; however, the same principle may be applied to polyphony of any period.

Let’s consider harmonic and melodic dissonances, moments when voice parts clash closely against each other. In tonal music, dissonances often occur in cadential passages or in settings of certain types of texts. In these passages, the composer wants us to hear the teeth-on-edge clang of competing tones and their harmonics (overtones). Every note deserves to be heard! The use of vibrato in these passages obscures the clashing notes and eliminates the overtones which should add “zing” to the clash. The result is blander and less interesting. Much contemporary music is also dissonant by design, and here, too, choral clarity must take precedence over individual tone.

Let’s also consider melismatic passages, where several notes are sung for one syllable of text, such as in this passage from the choral bass part of Bach’s Cantata BWV 11, Ascension Oratorio “Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen” (1735):

Here, the basses must eliminate all vibrato in order to be able to sing this passage quickly and cleanly. Vibrato will slow them down, obscure the already-tricky pitch sequence, and muddy the complex polyphonic texture. Every note of every melisma deserves to be heard! There’s simply no time to add vibrato, yet some singers will try, anyway!

CHORAL COLOR, TIMBRE, AND BLEND — The presence of vibrato affects the color, timbre (the quality of a sound independent of its pitch and volume), and blend for the entire ensemble. If a cool, clear sound is desired, the conductor may ask singers to sing with little or no vibrato. If warmer sound is called for, then the conductor may permit the controlled introduction of moderate vibrato.

And certainly the presence of vibrato confounds and obstructs efforts to match vowels, which is essential to achieving blend, especially in quiet or unison passages. The less vibrato is present, the easier it is to match and blend. And when vibrato is permitted, the director must ensure that the singers are not engaging in a vocal free-for-all in which individual voices may cut through the choral texture and where the presence of a wide variety of vibrato styles creates the sort of “vibrato pit” I described yesterday (read it here). A wide vibrato from even one singer can make it difficult for her or his neighbors to hear and match the correct pitch.

REPERTOIRE – Many singers and directors agree that music of certain periods or styles — for example, sacred motets of the Renaissance composers, or contemporary choral works — should be sung without vibrato. Opinion remains strongly divided on this question, however, and addressing the issue here is not my goal. The point is that a choral singer should be prepared to sing without vibrato when called upon to do so, and should be sensitive to stylistic differences between, say, a motet by Palestrina and the Brahms Requiem.

COMPOSER’S INDICATION – Sometimes a composer will specify that the chorus, in whole or in part, should sing without vibrato (senza vibrato). Of course, this instruction should always be honored. It’s instructive, too, to examine why the composer makes this indication; is it to ensure clarity for complex or dissonant passages, or to create a certain color for a particular text? Try to understand it from the composer's perspective.

CHORAL DIRECTOR’S PREFERENCE – Some choral directors espouse a strict “no vibrato” policy, some despise “straight tone” singing, and others express no preference at all. Singers will naturally gravitate toward choirs which have the sort of sound they prefer; however, every competent chorister must be able to sing with or without vibrato, and must be able to modify the vibrato according to the director’s instruction.

You’ve probably figured out by now that I generally prefer non-vibrato choral singing. Perhaps because my training is in music theory (form, harmony, etc.), I want to be able to hear the music clearly, not the individual voices of the choir. To my ear, unnecessary choral vibrato creates a muddy, unattractive texture. Some listeners will always prefer vibrato, considering a straighter tone unattractive or under-developed. But properly produced, a tone with minimal vibrato (it’s rarely entirely straight) can be full and rich and vibrant.

In my next essay, I’ll share some stories about how vibrato made a real difference in some recent rehearsals and concerts.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:


  1. Hello Sarah,
    I posted on this very subject just last week at:

    One thing I didn't get into there, but that your post brings to mind, is that the spaces we sing in also makes a difference. The choirs of the European cathedral tradition need to sing with a very straight tone because the building is going to add so much bloom to the sound; vibrato as well would make it really messy. Choirs singing in drier acoustics can afford to use vibrato more freely without blurring the effect unduly. And I guess the repertories you discuss, and their traditional approaches to choral tone, also correlate well with these performance spaces.

  2. Hi Liz,

    Thanks for reading and commenting, and for including the link to your very interesting web site. You're right, architectural factors must also be considered, especially in the director's conception and preparation.

    Loved your post today on enharmonic spellings!! Of course they have different meanings, and only on an instrument with equal-temered tuning (such as a piano) do they sound the same pitch. In singing, of course, A-sharp and B-flat will have slightly different pitches, especially in moving passages. This is another issue that many singers do not understand.

    It's very interesting to me that most of people who leave comments on my U.S.-based blog are in the U.K.! I'm very glad to hear from you.



  3. Sarah,

    As a composer, I delighted in reading your comments on the musical value of straight tone singing. Thanks so much for your articulateness on the subject.


    Mike Bell

  4. Mike, thanks for your comment. Can you explain a bit more? From the composer's perspective, why is it important that singers be able to sing senza vibrato? --Sarah


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