How to Add Vibrato to Your Voice

Richard is my long time friend and student. He is probably a couple of decades senior to my age, but his eclectic taste in music has been an inspiration to me. He enjoys campfire songs he used to sing as a child, and he also enjoys artists from Dean Martin to Elton John to Lana Del Rey. His openness and genuine fun-loving spirit always make our vocal lesson lively.

Richard is also filled with questions. One of the great questions he had recently was, “How can I add vibrato to my voice?” He said, “When I sing, I sound so flat, almost child-like. There is no overtone in my voice!" He was working on a song, which had many sustained notes. It would be effective particularly to hold the last word longer AND add beautiful vibrato to express the depth of the emotion.

What is vibrato? According to Webster’s Dictionary, is means “a way of making small, rapid changes in a musical note that you are singing or playing so that it seems to shake slightly.” ??? Small rapid changes? Making a note shake? I suddenly had an image of an AK47 firing rapidly and the person holding it being shaken uncontrollably. No, I MUST find a better definition. After surfing the web, I came upon a website, According to David L. Jones, the owner of the website, vibrato is created by “slight variation of pitch resulting from the free oscillation of the vocal cords.” That is a little bit better. But to make it easier for myself, I decided to put it this way: Vibrato is a pleasant flutter in one’s voice as a result of relaxed throat and solid breath/muscle support.”

Let’s take a good example here. I would like to use “Song For You” written by Leon Russel. My favorite version is a version sung by Donny Hathaway.

I love you in a place 
Where there's no space or time
I love you in my life
You are a friend of mine

And when my life is over

Remember when we were together

We were alone and

I was singing this song for you 

At the end of the song, Mr. Hathaway holds the last word “you” and while holding it, begins to add beautiful vibrato. Sublime is the word for that exquisite note! It brings me to tears every time I listen to the song. Mr. Hathaway must have worked for a long time to achieve his mastery, but anyone can start learning how to sing with vibrato. Here is a fun exercise I made. I will call it “Wa, oh” exercise:

As your mouth prepares for the “Wa” sound, pull in your oblique (stomach) muscles quickly to give your voice a jumpstart. Then, WITHOUT releasing the stomach, sing “oh” part gently. The quicker the stomach pull, the stronger your attack on the first syllable gets. Relax your face, from the forehead to the jaw, while keeping the stomach slightly tucked in. Repeat many times, until you can sustain the last syllable. Over time, you may begin to hear natural vibrato in your voice. It may feel strange and difficult at first, but practice makes perfect, right? I’m sure that’s how Donny Hathaway did it.

A caveat: There is a difference between vibrato and a wobble. A wobble is an effort to mask the lack of breath/muscular support and to cover a flat pitch by straddling widely and slowly between two neighboring notes. People who need to sing loudly tend to do this. (Hence the bad joke about opera singers). Have you ever hiked down a steep trail in a zigzag manner because you were either tired or afraid that you might fall? Wobbling is just like that. All you need is a good pair of trekking shoes (technique) and strong core support (solid breath/muscle support). Then you can go straight down the path without worrying you might wreck your knees or crack your head open.

There is love in Mr. Hathaway’s singing. There is love in Richard’s singing, too. His voice shakes and I see tears in his eyes when he gets deeply moved by the music. No matter what you do to improve your vibrato, please do not separate the technique from your true feeling. If you want to say something, try honestly, then it will come out in your voice. And that is the best way to sing. Let me paraphrase the words of “Song For You.”

I taught you precious secrets

Of the truth of singing withholding nothing
But if my words don't come together 
Listen to the melody
Cause my love is in there hiding

We were alone 
And I’m singing this song 
For you

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