All well-produced human voices have a degree of quaver known as vibrato.  Some are given a wide, cello-like vibrato, others a mere wiggle; but most singers agree that there is a natural vibrato which is sometimes discovered at an early age, occasionally in midlife (like my own), and which increases with age.  Gossipy sopranos might describe the wobble in an aging peer: "she's got a tremolo you could drive a truck through!"

 

Fashions and styles ask for varying degrees of vibrato.  Folk prefers a tight little tremble, suitable for urgency of lyric and clarity of text.  Grand opera, which needs huge, free voices to fill auditoriums, asks for large vibrato, as does the inner-city Gospel choir with Mahalia Jackson its role model.  Big Band era singers started with a straight tone and let it open up into a vibrato, like a Leslie B-3 when you turn the juice on the rotor.  St. Olaf's in Minnesota demands a crystal-clear, vibrato-free sound to emulate the famous boys' choirs of Lutheran history, and let the lines of polyphony be heard distinctly.  Each requires both a certain native vibrato, and/or the willingness of a singer to alter their vibrato, or be forbidden to participate.

 

It seems, in my limited "neck of the woods", that the free vibrato has become anathema to the contemporary music world, somehow having become associated with "old things" and (shudder) "old people."  I am a bit tired of hearing of singers with vibrato being turned out of the worship team or being put on a list of acceptable leaders for Wednesday Night adult Bible Study (you don't want to expose young people to vibrato -- they'll surely leave the church).

 

I'm looking for input from a wider variety of churches than those in my neighborhood.  Do you allow people with vibrato (I mean a good vib w/o wobble, and good pitch) to lead worship or sing on the team?  Have you encountered marginalization on account of vibrato, either presence or lack of?  Or do people just like what they like, and that is all there is to it?

 

Whatcha think?

 

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Where worship depends on fashion and commercial considerations that this sort of thing is not surprising.

However it is also reasonable to expect everyone in a musical context to work together to fit with the general sound that is required. Surely there is a degree of control available to the singer over their vibrato, and they can restrict it somewhat to make it fit better?

For me personally it's not a vocal style I enjoy, but I'd certainly not ask someone to move on from a band unless they insisted they sung that way all the time. It's a bit like a guitarist expecting to sweep-pick for every song because it was their style and what they were good at.
Hi Toni --

I'm speaking of singers who have a pleasant vibrato of the Darlene Zschech/Steve Green species -- nothing overwhelming, but wide enough that if they try to produce straight sound it becomes harsh and cramped. Singers who had led worship for years, and were known for their sensitivity to the Spirit, their compassionate character, and their willingness to blend with other singers. Singers who exercised a degree of control over their vibratos, which they were born with -- not acquired or copied from an opera singer, but born with. Singers who were in demand for ensembles because they helped the others sound good. Singers who just stand up and sing to God, without all the Nashville twirly-twang and fancy slides and runs. Singers who welcomed others into the worship team, regardless of their personal style of singing, but worked hard to achieve a blend of spirit and soul among the members, and achieved this, until a new breed stepped in and told us that they were all wrong; that the "young people" would not respond to them.

Suddenly, having a vibrato disqualifies them. Maybe I've gone a little poetic, maybe a bit rant-y; maybe thirty-five years ago the Nashville singers were marginalized in favor of the Old Swedes who wanted the church to be an opera house, and now they have their revenge, now they are captains of the ship and the ship always moves "forward", whatever that means. But it seems like God's house should be a house of prayer for all people.
Hi Greg: sounds like my first point then.

When you were talking to begin with I was thinking more Kiri Te Kanawa than Darlene Z. TBH I wouldn't normally notice a conventional vibrato like that, and just simply assume that's how the person sang that way naturally (which, as you point out, is the case).

Do you think it's a $ issue?
Yowzerzee!! You just introduced me a KTK -- what a gorgeous voice (I YouTubed her singing "Summertime." Such a voice is not a developed "style". She learned a basic style, a manner of singing, to sing "Summertime" -- certain procedures, certain lifts, certain mannerisms that are Gershwin; but the voice, she just... plain... has it.
My thought on vibrato is that if you have a large, reverberant building (like most church sanctuaries used to be) and a person is singing without a microphone, the change in pitch works kind of like "phasing" does on a contemporary instrument - you are putting slightly different frequencies out there, rapidly changing back an forth between the two, and the reverb time lets them mix together and give a more full sound. Similar to what you'd get with a choir where, if the voices aren't 100% on pitch with each other, it gives a full sound. In the days of the big church or concert hall, vibrato was a way for a single voice to get a full, pleasing sound. You didn't so much hear the vibrato as hear the effects of it.

As with many things, at some point, having a vibrato on your voice became the cool thing to have and everybody went for it. I'm sure there are contemporary examples... autotuning voices started out as a subtle way to address pitch problems, right now it's an audible effect and (hopefully) in a few more years it will go away :-)

For me, vibrato doesn't mix with mic'd and amplified sounds, except maybe as an effect used sparingly by a lead vocalist when they have to hold out a note. Where the individual vibratos in a 50-voice-choir tend to blend together, in a group of three or four backing vocalists, they can be much more audible and clash-y. So, yeah, in that sense, vibrato is an "old thing," in the sense that it's something that works in traditional worship (many voice choir and a reverberant room), but in terms of contemporary worship (small number of singers, and, more and more, rooms treated to cut down on reverberation), it's a technique that just tends to draw attention to itself.

Obviously, your mileage may vary, and until I started writing this I didn't even realize how much I tend to dislike vibrato in contemporary singing voices.

By the way, in reference to the phrase "a good vib w/o wobble and good pitch", according to the source of all wisdom, "Vibrato is a musical effect consisting of a regular pulsating change of pitch." "Tremolo" is the name for a pulsating change in VOLUME, but thanks to Fender calling whammy bars "tremolo bars" back in the fifties, there has been much confusion over the years.
Lots of really good observations, Charles (and the others who have contributed a lot of real knowledge, insight and thoughtfulness to this discussion). Some additional notes on the definition of "Vibrato".

Webster describes the change of pitch in Vibrato as "barely perceptible" (even straight singers have a small measure of vibrato). A Hammond Organ has three vibrati available -- to me, V-1, the gentlest, is most pleasant; but in solo lines a V-2 may be needed to "cut" through the background. V-3 is wide and wild, almost as wild as the Leslie Tremolo effect (produced by a large rotating horn producing a Doppler effect). Many people enjoy the wide tremolo of the Leslie. Most likely, the company chose the term "Tremolo" because of the violent nature of its reiteration of tone (slow Leslie is called "Chorale"). Tremolo is also the standard term for violins rapidly quivering the bow across the string (typically in a multiple of the faster notes of the song), and for the sort of thing a balalaika or a banjo does (perforating a held note by rapidly reiterating the tone).

Tremolo is a special technique sometimes used by vocalists, but is sometimes used as an insult to describe a singer whose vibrato has gone to pot, due probably to failing muscle tone. Another term is "wobble." A person free of wobble still has a "young" voice, no matter what their age. My wife has told me to tell her if I ever hear wobble, because she doesn't want to expose people to that.

The use of "phasing" is as popular today in large music (any situation big enough to require amps or microphones) as it has been for centuries, when some genius tuned a rank of pipes in an organ slightly out-of-tune to produce the "voix celeste" (heavenly voice) or "unda maris" (waves of the sea). A band sounds good marching down the street because it is moving, producing all sorts of lovely dopplers and resultants not only from itself, but from the surrounding buildings.

Thinking of my wife (you may have guessed by the intensity of my opening remarks that some of the victims of vibratophobia may have been dear to me) -- she sounds WAY better with no mic than amplified. When singing at church, we ask the sound man to turn her off, but she holds the mic, because people believe they can hear you if you are holding a microphone. That's not a joke.

Thank you for giving us sound acoustical reasons for the mismatch of a vibratoed voice with electric instruments. Of course, one might ask the question, "why must we play amplified and synthetic instruments with tone qualities that are friendly only to a select set of vocal styles and ways of tone production? Of course, one could then counter with, "just try singing like Israel Houghton, but with Grandma Gustafson playing runs and chunky chords on an upright!" And it would go on and on and on...
Greg,

I hate seeing people turned away either. However, I was thinking I could suggest an alternative reason.

I personally have a theory that the beat alliteration in a lot of modern music doesn't lend it self to opportunities for vibrato and vocal coloring. Most of the song we hear today I've been told are born out of the classic rock/British rock genres. Thank U2, Rolling Stones, Beatles, Oasis, etc. (Bono is definitely using more of his opera voice lately, but the only "rocker" who comes to mind that would employ a vibrato-like technique would may be Steve Tyler of Aerosmith, whose really goods songs were all slower power-ballads.)

With pounding drums and bass guitar, they thump-out beats and words at sometimes an alarming rate. At once point listening to a teen-target multi-day conference (Teens' Conference in Toronto), I thought I was listening to Hyper Metal. Everything was above 100 bpm and some were 120! Only the kids that knew the words by heart could keep up. Imagine a sanctuary of 500 teens jumping up and down in unison..thump, thump, thump

Without some old hymns it seems there lacks a balance between the above and softer, slower ballads and grandiose up and down melodies. There spacing between vocal lines to add in vocal colour. Just look at the songs that songs that Celine Dion chooses to record vs. Chris Tomlin. You can barely get the syllables out.

Chris Tomlin's You & I Were Made To Worship:

You-and-I-were-made-worship, You-and-I-were-called-to-Love... bang, bang, bang.

Celine Dion's Waiting for you:

I'll be (pause) waiting for youuuuuuuuu
Here+in siddde my hearttttttt
I'm the oneee who wants to loveeee youuuu moreeeeeeeeeeeeee (queue Violin Solo)


(Note: Matt Redman's Once Again has the same note like 9 times!)

While it's not exactly rap music, the spacing sometimes just isn't there.

I don't think forcing a song that wasn't meant to be sung in a style doesn't work either. You can adapt a song, but that only goes so far. Squishing a square peg in a round hole can be exhausting.

In truth, I think the only way you'll see a return to that type of "Diva" is educate worship leaders. Get them to

#1 - Pick songs of various styles, beat alliteration and genres

#2 - Empower them to be creative in the composition of the piece, using *all* the tools they have access to (including sings with vibrato abilities.)

Don't know if that makes any sense? I could be out to lunch. It's late here...
The matter of syllables makes a lot of sense. The vibratoed voice is well-suited to floating lyrically, with lots of vowel tone, above a soft background, or proclaiming heroically above a full ensemble. A soprano warbling with a single acoustic guitar and congas can be divine (think Joni Mitchell, a master of pacing of syllables in her songwriting). Quite a few contemporary songs are loaded with theology and descriptive poetry (gone are the days of putting an entire worship song on one screen), and lend themselves to a voice which punches out the words rapidly -- and indeed, the speed of vibrato (which in singers is fairly close to a constant) does not mesh with the tempo of the music. The presence of percussion instruments adds to this, though a male singer with a big vibrato can get away with it (I don't know exactly why, but they just do).

The church we had ministered in was, in worship style, like the Toronto conference you visited, only every service (and not as big a scale). The singers with vibratos found singing alto worked better with the constant presence of high-pitched sounds in the instruments.

I think, Wayne, that your theory holds water. As for education, I am always for individuals learning music outside their own little area, and learning thereby to appreciate other people, not just other music! But each of us has a certain amount we are currently able to put on our own plate, and as a group making one sound together there are styles that simply don't mesh very well, whether played/sung simultaneously or in sequence as units in a "worship set".

I now work in a high school instead of a church -- today we set up a mixer and amp for our chamber choir, which has a glorious all-real, a capella sound. We are plugging in. I hope to, with a fresh start in life, help the kids gain real understanding of the relationship between instruments, voices, electricity, and each other's hearts, so as they mature they will be able to make better decisions on how to bring together the musicians of the church than did my own generation.
Dear Lord

I cannot believe this is a conversation. I didn't realise that vibrato can be met with disapproval in some quarters. Shocking!! In my experience, from a black pentecostal background, NO vibrato means - put quite simply - you are not a good singer!

Every singer or choir worth their salt must have vibrato. That's the 'anointing'

And if you can't rift, which is a function of vibrato, God is not with you. Go and sit down until you learn how to sing. loool

I laugh but actually, the black church rely on vibrato and belting so much as a definition of good singing that what i just said , although tongue in cheek, is probably true.

For instant, have you heard how we change contemporary christian songs written by our white peers?

Matt redman, Tim Hughes, Hillsongs we always pamper their songs up with vibrato. And not just contemporary songs, Oh happy day, Amazing Grace, Abide with me, you name it we will 'wobble' or belt it.

Personally, Vibrato doesn't bother me. Mainly becasue i have always had vibrato from as long as i can remember. It helps bring emotion to a song. BUT, it has to be balanced. Too much vibrato and I switch off.
Hi, SOS!

It's nice to hear a good word about vibrato. Many of our discussion friends have given some very good reasons for difficulties with vibrato, but I still wrestle with the issue of -- what do you do with it when it is outside their culture.

When I was young, I vowed not to describe people by color, but style and culture are so ingrained in this vibrato discussion, I will ask the Lord's forgiveness and say I am "white", and have spent much of my life in "white" churches who have sung and welcomed music with a lot of black roots. I mean, how can you even sing "Oh Happy Day" without that "Ohhhhhhhhh" blossoming into a full rich vibrato?

I grew up immersed in blues, jazz, big band (as well as classical) types of music, and when I began to be a music minister, Gospel, both southern and "urban." Brooklyn Tab is my favorite (though the director is white, she is a master of the style, and of blending cultural elements in music together, or finding arrangers who do that so well). I love to write high-powered urban-Gospel songs for the angels to sing at Christmas, or deep dark blues for a prophecy. None of these make any sense at all without a soloist and choir who can get loose (including the vibrato) and do the accents and chop the endings off and all those wonderful stylistic things that they tried in school to drill out of us.

It was hard getting a standard-issue suburban choir to sing Brooklyn T or Mark Condon, because you need to have a soloist who has the gift of vibrato and is unafraid to spend many hours learning a new style and then it still comes out "sorta whitish" (I have listened with much pain to many young singers trying to do Larnelle Harris, grasping and clawing at those phrase-endings he does so flawlessly). Definitely, both gift and style are interwoven in the question of Vibrato.

The music of Matt Redman, Tim Hughes and Hillsongs has been a staple of the music we chose for our church. That's why it puzzles me that we had been experiencing such difficulty over the quality of my wife's voice. I listen to recordings of her thirty years ago, and her vibrato has not changed much. She had it when she sang her first solo, at six years old. The folks who don't like it call it "operatic." Six-year old girls don't sing opera, except on YouTube. True, she has always had some difficulty doing the light-pop Nashville thing, and tends to sing naturally,straight-out, getting stronger as the anointing comes on, which can blow the earphones off an inexperienced sound man who doesn't realize that not all singers need a microphone. But what is one supposed to do, quit the church and go into opera ministry?

There I go ranting again; but the vibrato thing bugs me. As for me, I had scarcely any vibrato until I went through midlife and something in the emotions and turning to the Lord over the emotions released something, and a pleasant little vibrato came; then I had a vocal operation, and as my voice returned over the last year, an even nicer tone.

For most of my life, this has never been a question. I always thought everyone had their own voice, and if they used it to their best ability for the Lord, it would have its benefit; and I still think that. We're certainly not in His service to gain acceptance of man; and even if our fellow believers don't care for our wiggly voices, we will always use them to His glory.
Hi Greg,

Think of the greatest singer you like and pound to a penny they sing with vibrato.

All the 'best' singers sing with vibrato or at least they're trying their hardest to.

Let me see how about

Elvis
Freddie mercury
Pavarotti
Michael Jackson
Ella
Billie
Etta
Any gospel artist you care to mention
Steve Tyler
Gary Oliver

Really the list is waaaaaaaaaaay too long

I think you're right, when it comes to worship God is the last person worrying about whether you sing with vibrato or not, so I say sing it out loud, sing it out proud loool

Revisiting the archives today. Last post in this thread appears to be from 2010.

"All well produced voices"

Ay, there's the rub. Having sung with the congregation since childhood, and having listened to hundreds and thousands of "well produced voices" and heard time and again how vibrato is a naturally produced phenomenon when singing is done correctly, I am no closer to producing it than I was when I was 8, singing in the junior choir. Perhaps that traumatic experience in the fourth grade being compelled by classroom authority to stand before my peers and inform Aunt Rhody of the untimely end of her favorite old goose had a detrimental effect. Whatever the cause, I can produce a straight tone with about a two octave range, or a straight tone howl above, or a straight tone growl below. This has limited my opportunities to lead, as one might imagine. So unless instrumental leading is offered, I shall be part of the band, playing with my mouth firmly closed, or part of the congregation, belting out hymns and songs in my growly straight voice.

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