Sunday, November 14, 2004

Bel Canto Singing for the Developing Soprano


One important characteristic of great Bel Canto singing is a smooth sound. This quality of voice is directly related to the component of vibrato. Many Bel Canto pieces have a sostenuto section followed by section of movement. Vibrato is not only important for agility and movement but also for sustained singing. According to Richard Miller, author of Training Soprano Voices, "No matter how sizable or dramatic a soprano instrument, it needs to flexibly perform rapid movement. If a singer is unable to freely move the voice in swift melismas, there will be a corresponding lack of freedom in slow, sustained passages." A natural, free style of singing almost always results in the production of vibrato.

Vocal vibrato is hard to define, just as many other aspects of the vocal instrument. Bel Canto; Principles and Practices goes so far as to say that vibrato is a mystery, "The physiological and neurological origins of the vocal vibrato are not yet fully understood."
The New Harvard Dictionary of Music defines vibrato as "A slight fluctuation of pitch used by performers to enrich or intensify the sound...Vocal vibrato is more difficult to define [than instrumental.] What is often termed vibrato and widely cultivated is at least as much a fluctuation in intensity as in pitch; some authorities maintain that it is entirely a fluctuation in intensity."
Vibrato is most likely a result of the "larger phenomenon of neuromuscular tremor which affects all the musculatures of the body," according to Bel Canto; Principles and Practices. This is the natural work-rest cycle in which muscles alternately contract and relax as a means of protecting against fatigue."
Therefore, vibrato is a natural phenomenon. This is extremely important for young singers to understand.

Vibrato develops naturally with proper voice training. It is not something to work for, but rather something to expect as a product of working towards other good vocal habits. Cornelius L. Reid says that "vibrato must never be trained or cultivated." Rather a singer should be aware of vibrato and yearn for natural healthy singing.
Although singers will never have full control over their vibrato, eventually they may gain indirect control. This indirect control comes with the ability to regulate intensity or other similar emotional effects.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart offers up his view of vibrato in a letter to his father dated June 12, 1778, "The human voice quivers of itself-but in such a way and to such a degree that it is beautiful-that is the nature of the voice... As soon as you over do it, it is not beautiful anymore-because it is against nature."
Trying to alter the vibrato is against nature and when singers try to regulate their vibrato, wobbles or tremolo is created. These are unpleasant sounds in which the actual pitch is hard to determine.

When comparing a tone that has vibrato with one that doesn't, it is easy to hear the difference between the two. The straight tone sounds cold and rigid, while the tone with vibrato sounds warm and natural.
Vibrato helps to maintain a continuous legato as well as helping to ease singers into the passagio. It gives life, vibrancy, and buoyancy to singing.
Professor of Psychologist, Carl Seashore says "We shall find that musical beauty in the vibrato consists primarily of three elements; enrichment of the tone, flexibility of tone and the expression of tender feeling through instability."
Ultimately vibrato provides regularity, smoothness and ease to singing.


Moens-Haenen, Greta. “Vibrato.” Grove Music Online (Accessed 14 November 2004)

Reed, Cornelius L. Reid. Bel Canto: Principles and Practices. The Joseph Patelson Music House 1950.

Miller, Richard. Training Soprano Voices. Oxford University Press 2000.

Stark, James. Bel Canto; A History of Vocal Pedagogy. University of Toronto Press 1999.

The Harvard Dictionary of Music; Fourth Edition. Ed. Don Michael Randal. “Vibrato.” The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2003. pp. 946-947.