Tension and Vibrato

So this topic, if I shout too loudly about it I’ll probably make myself a hate figure among singing teachers. Less tension is always better right? Well sort of…

Let me first clarify by saying that tension is the icing on the cake of your vibrato. It is overwhelmingly controlled and determined by the variation in your breath.

But as well as using your breath you can have a huge impact on the speed, tone and depth of your vibrato by applying and releasing tension in your throat.

It stands to reason doesn’t it? Compare the quality of vibrato of an opera singer to your average gravelly rock singer: if you have freedom of movement in your throat you should be able to cruise freely between those approaches and everything in between.

First of all, it’s good to have a concept of what’s actually happening during vibrato. I’ve read plenty of physical explanations which were useful to varying degrees. From the sensastions in my throat I like to think of it as follows: imagine vibrato on a violin. The note itself is produced by the bow moving across the string. That is analogous to you breathing through your vocal cords.

The vibrato on a violin is produced by the player wiggling their finger so the string itself stretches and releases.

Meanwhile in your voice, a variation in the power of your breath moves you larynx and stretches the vocal cords and by their tension they ‘ping back’ to where they were and then to past that point to stretch in the other direction.

Your breath power variation keeps the vibrato going in a similar way to the wiggling finger does on a violin. The difference is that your violin finger uses muscular effort to create each up/down cycle of the vibrato. Wheras in your voice, the breath variation is more like occassionally giving a pendulum a nudge to keep it going at the same amplitude/frequency.

Still with me? 🙂 Hope so…

With less tension your vibrato will sound open and free like an opera singer. I’m a baritone so I sound a whole lot more convincing doing this in a low/medium register.

Now what happens if you apply a bit of a breathy sound to it? Slows down and you have to push your breath more to maintain it right? But it can sound right in the right context. I especially enjoy using my falsetto in this way.

What about a bit of grit? Again, you have to push a bit to maintain the vibrato – or mabe you want to let it die off naturally.

What about switching between one or another approach and restarting the vibrato with the breath?

Now here’s the thing about tension. Your vocal cords are like the feet of a runner. If you don’t run for a few weeks and then go on a half marathon you’ll probably find you get a few blisters. But if you’re running every day you’ll be fine.

Up to a point (and dare I say that point is no-where near as far as your feet can!) your vocal cords can develop toughness to resist a big wide vibrato… or a breathy sound…. or pretty serious gravel.

But just like a runner you have limits as to how much punishment you can sustain in one session. AND you must be singing with a similar level of punishment on a regular basis in order to keep that tone and strength.

The upshot is if you have a very clear tone then you’ll strain yourself by trying to impersonate Terrence Trent D’Arby… And similarly if you try to be an opera singer with a big wide vibrato when you’re used to being Rod Stewart, no matter how delicately and correctly you do it you’ll hurt yourself because you’re stressing your voice in a way you haven’t trained for.

Therefore you need to find a pace and combination of these different vibrato/tension sounds that you can do for a substantial period of time every day. You should get no pain whatsoever from your voice singing for the amount of time that you regularly want to.

Being stuck on one particular technique and hammering it for effect is a good way to end up with your voice in the recovery room. It often makes for a pretty boring sound too.

So feel free to be creative with the amount of tension you use in your voice, both for the interest of the sounds you’ll produce and for the health of your voice!

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