Effect as Cause Again

Once again I have encountered someone teaching effect as cause.

If you observe that a certain successful singer holds out a note in a straight tone and then “puts in” the vibrato at the end (a typical behavior) and you instruct a student singer to copy this behavior because you assume it is (a) a choice and (b) a necessary stylistic gesture, and you also tell the singer that this will get him work, shame on you!

98% of the time when a belter holds out a long loud note the vibrato goes away temporarily due to the enormous breath pressure under the tightly closed folds which prohibits the vibrato from showing up. Think of a very strong wind filling a sail. The sail doesn’t flap, it is stretched tightly. When the wind dies down, the sail ripples in the wind. It undulates. You cannot “vibrate” the sail or make it stop vibrating. The wind does that. If you were to try to make the tightly stretched sail ripple deliberately, you would have a very hard time. There is a difference between “putting vibrato in” and “having it be there automatically” and they are not exchangeable as equals. When the air in the lungs begins to be mostly depleted, the vibrato comes back, near the end of the note, as long as the singer does not stop it from doing so in some unconscious way.

Many singers who are quite skilled eventually develop the ability to control vibrato rate and extent although not everyone can do that. People with a very strong, pronounced vibrato will have a harder time eliminating it entirely. People who tend to sing with a slight vibrato or one that is almost not there, will have a much easier time. In a very skilled, well trained singer, when the vibrato is directly controlled, it is always for artistic expression and only for artistic expression because if is it not, it becomes a manipulation and gets in the way. You can end up sounding like a bad lounge singer from Saturday Night Live.

Very loud singing or very soft singing will interfere with vibrato. When I did the vibrato study in 1999 in Utah and Dr. Ingo Titze stuck electrodes in my vocal folds to pass electricity through them, he was looking to see what made vibrato show up. Since I can sing with it and without it, and since I was willing to have holes pierced in my larynx, he used me as one of the professional controls. The other people in the study were mostly young speech pathology students who did not study singing or sing and consequently, did not have vibrato. Believe me, when the electricity got strong enough and I knew I was singing a straight tone but a vibrato was quite audible anyway, and when the vibrato got faster as the electrical current got stronger, I had no doubt in my mind that the vibrato was an expression of vocal function AT THE LEVEL OF THE LARYNX IN THE VOCAL FOLDS. I could not control it at all, past a certain point. The electricity took over my vocal folds completely.

Yes, vibrato shows up in most singers when the instrument is well balanced and developed but it really is criminal to tell a student to do this as if it were important or a necessary choice. Good singing allows for variation and what comes from the student’s ability to sing well and effectively while serving the needs of the song will always be enough to do whatever style is necessary. If, however, you have very little to say to a student that is truly useful, you will come up with all manner of nonsense to make it look like you know something. You don’t even know that you don’t know. And, after all, you don’t have to learn, because it’s just students anyway, and they can’t tell what’s what!!!!!!!!!!!

If you do not know the difference between cause and effect and you teach one as if it were the other (a very very typical issue with teachers) you will confuse the student and direct his attention away from what it actually happening to peripheral issues. I have never known anyone who got hired to do a show or a gig because he was able to knock out the audition panel with his long straight tone that had a vibrato at the end, but students are told stupid things like that every day. They pay money to be told these things. Sad.

Vibrato issues are real and should be addressed as a part of functional training that configures the instrument as a whole. If the vibrato problems persist, other things are not as they should be. Over the years I have had people with vibratos come to me to get rid of them and people without them come to me to get them. In all cases, I work the entire voice and in good time, the vibrato takes care of itself, and the singer gets what he or she wants without falsely intervening in their own free vocal production.

If you know a singing teacher who falls into this category, please do us all a favor and send the link to this specific blog post and straighten the person out. Please.

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2 thoughts on “Effect as Cause Again”

  1. I can’t tell you how many MT students that come to me about vibrato. I just say to them, “Keep working the entire voice. It will come in time.” And it usually does. Personally, I can’t stand a “forced” vibrato. I’d much rather listen to a natural straight tone. Love to read your blogs!

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