Straight Tone Versus Vibrato  in Singing Early Music

Straight Tone Versus Vibrato in Singing Early Music

“vibrate (v.) from Latin vibratus, past participle of vibrare. Set in tremulous motion, move quickly to and fro, quiver, tremble, shake.”

Last fall I auditioned for a small choral ensemble that was performing a large Bach motet program. They needed an alto ringer—and although I am a soprano, this was an exciting opportunity to work on very difficult virtuoso ensemble repertoire. I wanted the challenge and the experience. I auditioned with the beginning of Cantata No. 51, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen,” one of Bach’s soprano showpieces, and the alto aria “Erbarme dich” from the St. Matthew Passion, since I was auditioning to sing alto.

I knew the director preferred the English church sound of the Choir of King’s College or the Monteverdi Choir and that he was a particular fan of early music singers such as Emma Kirkby. Even still, when he asked me to “sing it again, without vibrato,” I was taken aback. This director’s whole outlook about the voice in respect to Bach and early music is the standard boy choir soprano sound, which to him means absolutely no vibrato. I resigned myself to this particular aesthetic for the duration of the rehearsal and the ultimate performance.

Throughout various ages of church history, women were generally forbidden to sing in church choirs—and even to this day, many Anglican church choirs have maintained the use of boy sopranos, even for solos. But what if a group of male and female adults wishes to sing this repertoire? What about early opera—for which much of the material was written not for female solo voices but for the high-voiced, large-lunged, powerful and yet virtuosic abilities of the castrati? What about natural male voices that have developed the use of their head voice as countertenors and, thus, have natural vibrato?

In the choral setting, many soprano sections are expected to sound like a boy’s section—and therein is the problem. The issue particularly for adult female sopranos is that their natural voices are not those of undeveloped boys. No pretense should be made to emulate it. A woman should sound like a glorious woman, not a pubescent boy—even when singing a Dufay mass or Bach chorale cantata. The pressed (or “repressed”) sound in the presentation of early music, especially among sopranos, occurs when the larynx position is too high and the vowels sometimes too spread. The resulting sound is strident and not beautiful. If a choir director really wants a boy sound, then use boys—but allow women to sing this music and sound like the women that they are.

I like straight-tone singing when it is used as part of musical expression, not as the goal of musical expression. Straight tone in its worst presentation can be stifling, make the voice flat, and turn the tone strident and rigid. I hear almost a shrill quality with extremely high harmonics and often a widespread embouchure. I often hear a pressed sound—a result of resistance at the glottis to the natural vibration of the vocal folds.

There is an increase of breath pressure which holds hands with a tightening of the folds—they vibrate, but not fully. I hear expression that just begins to reach beauty and then pulls away. Often I can hear choir singers taking pains to straighten their sound to the point of a “my tone’s straighter than yours” contest.

Especially among sopranos, there is a resistance to the natural urge or artistic sense to let the voice blossom into vibrato—no matter how the music may yearn for another hue, shade, or color from the palate of expression. When the music yearns for fullness, for intensity, what do we get? Loud, straight, sometimes strident, sometimes incomplete tone—an attenuated sound. Tone for tone’s sake. Is this type of tone a goal or a means? What I hear is an intellect or a prejudice which guides the singing—“No, I just can’t do that!”—even if the heart, mind, and instinct say to vibrate.

Both vibrato and straight tone can heighten emotion and drama in the music. I hear straight tone used in ways that can be piercing and poignant and provide relief. Vibrato adds drama at the high of a cadenza or the final note of an aria. It gives shape to a melodic line and provides a vehicle for emotional tension and release. At a dissonance resolution, it can be painfully beautiful. During florid passages, it would be difficult and heavy handed to attempt vibrato through runs and melismatic passages. In quiet moments, it can be exciting and draw the listener in. In the beginning and end of a messa di voce, it can provide finesse to artistic expression. Enough vibrato gives a shimmer to the sound.

Of course, abuses of vibrato exists as well, and nobody wants to hear them. No one likes a wobble or wide vocal fold oscillation. No one likes a vibrato that is too slow. While some people might enjoy a light voice with a crisp and fast vibrato, in its excess it can become a flutter or a bleat. Too loud a tone can also produce a vibrato that may be too intense for the musical context.

Vibrato in the voice is an aspect of vulnerability—it can fluctuate and increase or decrease with the openness of the soul—in a way expressing the palpitations of the heart, the excitement of anticipation, or the moans and cries of agony. Surely this over-rigidity and denial of vibration stifles what the soul needs to express truth, pain, and beauty.

With the use of every tool in the singer’s palate of expression, artistry is a matter of degree. German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sang with a good deal of straight tone, in his Lieder singing particularly, but it was judiciously and musically employed and it made the moments of vibrato that much more beautiful by comparison. Cutting off or inhibiting one of the most expressive elements of singing is to devolve to inexpressive singing.

Within ensemble singing, I understand the aesthetic of “blend” and wanting to sound like “one voice”—and at times this approach is very beautiful, when all voices are in sync. But I have noticed even in the best ensemble groups, such as the Monteverdi Choir, the men’s voices are allowed more vibrato than the female sopranos, whose voices at points seem attenuated. I have noticed the vibrato ban eases up when the ensemblists sing in duo, trio, or quartet.

Pedagogue David Jones laments the state of much Baroque singing. He agrees that “no one really knows how Baroque singers produced their actual sound” and that much bad singing in Baroque choirs involves “the choke-hold of the Baroque style trap: a false sense of authenticity that can also be a way of justifying bad singing.”
Jones compares two choral groups he heard, both singing similar Baroque repertoire, one where the “overphrasing” made him “seasick.” But worse was the high-larynx, spread embouchure and “squeezing the throat tighter to make a straight tone.” He then compares this to a group where there was not “squeezing at the glottis to get a straight tone” but that had “blended ringing and warm tone.”1

Jones laments the high-larynxed singing taught as authentic Baroque style. He himself sings Baroque music with “a healthy, shimmering vibrato.” He further explains that if teachers “are teaching a young, large-voiced singer, and the singer is not allowed to use the fullness of the instrument, then the result is usually a squeezed throat, which can be damaging. The singer is trying desperately to ‘lighten up the voice.’ This needs to be taught with a deep body connection. The only way a large-voiced singer can lighten up his/her tonal quality is to connect deeper to the body.”2

I would have had a better experience in my recent small ensemble if I weren’t constantly worried about letting a little vibrato happen. I felt that many of the singers around me had stifled voices, high larynxes, and a squeezed, throaty sound—all in an effort to produce “straight tone.” I am not sure that any voice is ever meant to be that restricted in terms of expression or function.

In listening to over 80 years’ worth of recordings of early music singing, I never hear a period when vibrato was completely avoided by any solo singer—even boy sopranos. It is more of a question of intensity, musical period, degree, duration, style, and taste. It is also a question of the straight-to-vibrato ratio between various singers and the aesthetic of the conductor.

Some conductors and singers have been exponents of historical performance. They have used authentic instruments and sought voices that they felt better suited this aesthetic—usually smaller voices that worked well with the pared-down orchestral elements. But I have never heard a soloist use no vibrato at all. It is a matter of degree. One solo singer’s vibrato use in one musical decade might be “slight” but it is never completely absent.

Even in recordings of actual nuns in real monasteries singing Gregorian chant, you can hear a gentle vibration at the resting notes of a phrase. The one place where virtually complete absence of vibrato is heard is in certain choral ensembles—although, if you listen carefully, you can hear some vibrancy and ring from the finer groups, even in a mainly straight-toned context.

The best kind of Baroque singing uses a straight-tone approach on dissonances, leanings, and messa di voce, and vibrato used judiciously at the end of a phrase or a held note. In general the large and wide vibrato approach of a Wagnerian would not be as beautiful to this style of music.

The music should truly and ultimately be the guide to interpretation. How does it feel? Are you holding back expressiveness for the sake of an aesthetic ideal? Do you feel you are clamping down on your voice? Are you feeling a high larynx or a tightness of the extrinsic muscles? Do you feel unsatisfied?

Experiment with options and listen to singers. See if what you are doing can be better interpreted, go deeper, mean more, and get to the heat more. Otherwise, it is just singing from the head and not the heart as well!

1. Jones, David. “Issues Concerning the Baroque Singer.”, 2003, accessed 2/27/15.
2. Jones, David. “Damaging Vocal Techniques.”, 2001, accessed 2/27/15.

Theresa Rodriguez

Theresa Rodriguez received her master of music with distinction in voice pedagogy and performance from Westminster Choir College at Rider University in Princeton, NJ. She is currently a member of the voice faculty at the Community School of Music and the Arts at the Goggleworks in Reading, PA. She recently published a book of poetry entitled “Jesus and Eros: Sonnets, Poems and Songs,” which is available on Amazon.