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Vibrato in aging singers

Dear Choralist,

Here is the long-overdue compilation of responses to my request for help on
older singers and vibrato. Thanks for your patience and for the kind
assistance offered.

Ben Allaway

X-From: judy(a) (Judy Greenhill)

I've been interested in this topic too, and the only suggestion I've
heard is to work with them on maintaining even breath support on
exhalation. I'll be anxious to see your compilation.


Dear Ben,

I use the same sorts of tricks for us oldsters that I use on my middle
school kiddies, such as forming an "A" with the body, sucking a giant
milkshake through a straw and exhaling in three puffs. Physical
activities such as these are useful for reconnecting the breath.

Would be interested in the results you obtain.

Al Hayes hayesva(a)
Choral director
Graceland Christian Church and
Appling Middle School, Memphis, TN


Most of what I do with older singers is included in Chapter 9, "Older singers:
How to Keep Them Singing Well," in Choir Care: Building Sound Technique,
published by The American Guild of Organists and available from same. The
chapter was first published as an article in The American Organist and you can
probably find it via the AGO website

I use the hum technique to retrain the laryngeal muscles for gentle onset,
which needs to occur for diminishing the wobble which comes from years of
rough onset. Breathing is an issue as well because of the fact that older
muscles need more regular exercise to maintain strength and flexibility. Give
them exercises to do at home. Emphasize head tone, while not as strong as
full voice in the lower registers, nevertheless has a superior tone and
clearer pitch center.

Good luck: these folks love to sing and it is a pleasure to help them do it.

Micki Gonzalez MickiMG(a)
Central Presbyterian Church
Atlanta, GA


I would love to hear what you find out, I myself have a number of older
ladies in my church choir. They were at one time very accomplished
singers, and are still great musicians. I have a problem getting them
to match vibrato with the other sections (they are sopranos).

I have had some good results when I use a more lateral conducting
motion. I sometimes try to conduct very laterally with my left hand
directly toward their section, which many times produces less vibrato.
Obviously I can't do this ALL the time, so any teaching techniques you
find out please pass on.



X-From: wag(a)U.Arizona.EDU (Wayne A Glass)
To: benlmnop(a)

No doubt you've either already received this response or already are
familiar with this work, but Lloyd Pfautsch's book Choral Therapy
(Abingdon Press) deals briefly, but helpfully, with the issue of "wobble
trouble" in older singers. Personally, I've found in my 18 years as a
staff singer in churches, and as a choral artist with many ensembles, that
if a conductor focuses on the issue of energizing the breath, the width of
wobbles diminishes and a better blend and intonation is achieved. Of
course, I've sung under many conductors who simply insist on straight
tone, but that alone with an older, largely untrained singer isn't
successful. Best of luck!!!

Wayne 'Sandy' Glass
M.M. Candidate, Choral Conducting
University of Arizona

From: jentwisl(a)

My $.02:

When Jack Nicklaus begins/began each season of preparation he returned to
his original teacher who would begin, for the umpteenth time, with his

Fredericka von Stade points out in Masters Classes that it is the older
singer (and she means over 40!) who must actually do everything right --
the younger singer can get away with misalignment, for example.

I always emphasize how much more our brains know than our bodies. And
that EVERY year our bodies are changing. So we must re-assess the proper
body and head positions. That I am repeating what everyone knows in
their brains but that all of our bodies need re-teaching.

I do not feel so very strongly that age is to be feared in the voice. It
is nice to have voices of all ages -- it gives such a wonderful color to
a choir. And yes, that means that there is some "wobble" -- well, God
made us this way. And God didn't command us to stop singing in church
or community choirs the moment we could hear the effects of age in our

And, yes, I am a singer, not an organist/conductor. And I will soon (and
maybe do already) sou nd very much like the older women and men that so
many are so quick to condemn. And I intend to continue singing!!!

BTW did you happen to see a PBS specail called "Hands to Work, Hearts to
God" about the Shakers? In it two of the remaining Shakers -- not so
very young!!-- sing some songs that they remember and love. What sweet,
and quite "young", voices they had! I have also experienceD monastic
singing with older women andwith men, which is really quite "young" in
sound. Perhaps our rather chaotice and complex lives "age" our voices a
bit. Well, so be it!

June Miller

X-From: lscmp(a) (Lee S. Spear)

Hi Ben-

The best gimmick I know, outside of a private/personal trainer-coach, is
the marvelous "Guideposts to Singing" cassette tape by Roland Wyatt.
Using the members of the Manhattan Transfer as his guinea pig singers,
Roland prepared four warmup tapes of "corrective vocalization" -- one
for S, for A, for T, for B.

His method is simple, using speech and very easy singing exercises, yet
it is systematic and it restores the voice to a more-or-less optimal
character. It is used widely in voice studios and in speech
rehabilitation facilities. I have made it available to chorus members,
and they rave about how it gets their "old voice" back.

Each tape is about 20 minutes of vocalization. Though the four tapes use
the same method, they are actually very different from each other. I
personally use the alto tape (although I am a bass), because I use it as
a warmup for lecturing, and the alto tape suits that purpose best of the
four. The others are more specifically directed at singing in the
particular range.

The tape is available in a handful of places at the list price of $19.95
(Primarily A Cappella carries it, for example). I thought it was
valuable enough that I had Music-Works order it in quantity, so we could
sell it at a 25% discount. We have priced it at $16.05 (which is $15
plus $1.05 for shipping or NYS tax, whichever applies). [Note: For a
complete set of 4 tapes, we could manage a deeper discount = $50 plus
actual shipping costs.]

Lee S. Spear
333 Crossman St
Jamestown NY 14701

Thank you to all who responded to my request for suggestions that might help
aging sopranos. The compilation, ranging from detailed studio techniques to
"make them altos," follows my signature.

R. Paul Drummond
Director of Choral Activities
Professor of Music
Central Methodist College
Fayette, MO 65248

> Any suggestions about how to help aging sopranos sing with less vibrato and
> blend better within a section?

I ask people to match their vibratos to the people around them. I have upon
occasion, asked sopranos with vibrato problems to switch to alto. This
year, a strong alto in my church choir knew she could no longer control her
vibrato, so she retired. The "matching vibrato technique" (courtesy of
Margaret Hillis) works in most cases.
Frances Slade
I have this exact problem with a soprano in my church choir. I've found the
following to be helpful. First, as simple as it sounds, she has to be aware
of the problem. This simple fact has helped enormously. then, I work with
the sopranos as a section, with the emphasis on blending, and I have
everyone make sure that they can hear the other voices in the section, and
if they can't, I tell them that they are singing too loudly. This also
helps enormously. If you have an even number of voices, have them pair off
in twos, face each other, and sing AT each other. During this exercise,
they must try to focus on their partner's voice, not their own. Also it
helps (as thankfully in my case) if you have a soprano who trusts you, knows
what she must do, and doesn't take any of this personally, and that these
suggestions are for the good of the ensemble. Hope this helps.

Oh yeah, one more thing: sometimes I just have to say, "Carol, you have to
reel it in some!"
Chris Page
I just gave a voice lesson to someone like this today. All good singing
begins with steady support. I would say most people have no idea how to
support in a low manner and truly relax the vocal mechanism. Low inhalation
and steady exhalation are essential.

Second is the necessity to have a "core" to the sound. As voices age the
core can need refining. One achieves a sense of placement or core to the
sound by doing lip trills or using nasal French vowels. Forward placement
and sensing a center to the sound will help keep it on track and focused.

These two elements usually fix vocal problems in all ages, but particularly
in older singers. Also, do not overlook the element of oversinging. Many
older singers have spent years oversinging. They need to relearn their
technique or learn a technique for the first time.
Christopher Titko
Make them altos.
You can find previous responses to queries on "aging" sopranos, sometimes
more graciously referred to as "mature sopranos", on the ChoralNet Web site
in the resources section.™03.004
Monica j. hubbard

Monica, I tried this link and got a "parsing error." What keywords did you
use in your search?
This is an interesting subject for me. I direct a town and gown chorus
that has several aging sopranos (and altos, and tenors, and basses). I
find that the worst effect the vibrato has on the blend in any section is
that it seems to lower the pitch well below the desired pitch center.

I haven't tried to address the vibrato issue directly, since it's often
something the singer has a different awareness of than the hearer. I
generally ask the section to "sing higher" and to concentrate the sound in
the front of their mouths, rather than the middle or back. I find that
the combination of thinking pitches higher and imagining the sound in the
front of the mouth shrinks that vibrato right down. It's all a mental
game, of course, but since I'm also a voice teacher I'm into that kind of
thing anyway.
Amy Yamasaki
As you know, at KU we sing with a clean, little-vibratoed sound (is that a
word). I've found myself more and more happy with that kind of approach -
simply because an out of control vibrato clouds the harmony more often than
not. That, combined with the fact that when a voice is noticeably rising
and lowering in pitch (sometimes a step or more), the phrase by definition
is not being moved forward as effectively. BTW - I have two degrees in
voice, and feel I am just now (in my 40's) really learning how to control
my voice. I am living proof that vibrato can get out of hand, and be (with
great persistence) reigned back in!

I've been relatively successful with those in my community chorus. We are
often complimented on sounding younger than we are (meaning lack of
wobble). My 30 voice chorus has 18-75 year olds in it.

I very rarely if ever use the word vibrato, or minimize vibrato, or phrases
like that in rehearsal. Often included in my language are where to place
the sound, keeping the lower abdomen actively involved (ie always moving
either in or out, with the appropriate support muscles -intercostal, etc -
engaged), and most of all to think of a phrase going on 3 or 4 notes past
the one on the page - to keep air motion on the final note (often a large
offender). In fact, talking about air flow figures prominently in my
rehearsal language.

Basically, I've been much more happy with the results from realizing that
vibrato is a symptom and not the problem. Once the singers realize that it
is possible (playing good role models for them consistently on recordings),
and that physically they can readjust their singing mechanism with some
guidance, they are usually converts. By taking a quartet of the singers
with the most control of their voices, and asking them to heavily vibrato a
chord, then do it completely straight (as if that's possbile), and finally
with a free, supported sound - the choir can easily see the lack of blend,
tuning, and balance that occurs with a lot of vibrato.

Therefore, I try very diligently to get more of an instrumental approach to
my rehearsals only in the sense of separating the voice from the person, so
I can talk to them about what's coming out of their mouth without offending
them. That and bushels of consistency of approach and patience go a long
way - and also tend to drive out those who refuse to believe they can or
should adjust their voices.
Gary Weidenaar
Generally, since vibrato is a breath-control technique, using more
breath will help minimize it. However, loss of fine motor control is
an inevitable consequence of aging, so there may not be much you can
Allen H Simon
There is a book entitled "Sing On!" I can't put my hands on it at the
minute, but it deals with the process of aging and the voice. Any other
info from colleges would be very beneficial.
Charles W. Zwicki
put them on alto.
Use a lot of exercises employing staccato. This will help to "firm up"
those wide vibratos.
Susan Nace
Unfortunately I don't think there's much to be done. Renata Tebaldi is in
the same condition and it's here to stay. The vocal chords stretch out with
time and lose elasticity, the capacity to keep them pulled tightly and thus
control the vibrato lessens with age, especially with people who have been
singing with vibrato their whole life. Perhaps breathing exercizes will
help a little, but I doubt it. Maybe singing softly or changing parts will
help you obtain something more pleasing to you.
Joan Yakkey
The quickest thing to say is to get a copy of my book "Choir Care: Building
Sound Technique" published by the American Guild of Organists. There is a
chapter in there all about this subject.

I will try to summarize it quickly. Some types of undesirable vibrato can
occur at any adult age. The rapid "machine gun" type is a result of too
much pressure on the folds and not enough energy in the breath support
mechanism, and can even be found in the late teens. The "wobble," usually
associated with aging singers, I have heard in singers as young as 35. It,
too, is a product of too much pressure on the folds. When you find it in an
older singer, it is harder to work with because what has possibly happened
is that the folds have actually bowed. In other words, in order for the
singer to achieve complete adduction any more s/he has to really push the
cords together. This causes the entire mechanism to move more than it
should, which causes an acoustical reaction we hear as a wide and prominent
"wobble." But never mind. What you need to know is how to lessen it, or at
least accomodate it.

Have the singer do some yawn/sighs on [a]. If it still wobbles, ask her to
make the tone a little breathy. If it still wobbles, ask her to do it on a
whisper tone. When you get to the point where she can make the sigh without
much vibrato, have her practice that, adding a touch more of tone each day
as long as the vibrato doesn't return in the tone. This will help some.
Also, light head tone, rapid moving vocalises can help her achieve a
different tonal concept which is not as heavy, therefore lessening the
effect of the vibrato.

As for accomodation, have her sit out on very transparent phrases (like the
opening one of the Victoria "O magnum mysterium" for example!) and join in
when the range and texture allow for her sound to blend into the ensemble.
Making adjustments to her score will keep communication clear about when she
should and should not be singing.
marilyn gonzalez
Our choral director will ask that section (with the aging voice) to going
over their part - saying "and this time, try singing this with a straight
tone" - and oddly enough when this older person tries to sing with a
straight tone - he can.
Linda Larson
Good breath support cures a myriad of ills, including wobbly and wide
vibrato, but it takes a tremendous amount of time and work to develop it and
the singers have to really want to make the effort. I have a Wagnerian
voice myself, and it extremely difficult for me to "float like a butterfly"
in the upper realms - I'm more like a B-52 and that's just all there is to
it. It's just very tough to get big voices (and the older ones) to blend
well up high. The solution I use most often, for myself when I sing in an
ensemble and for others, is to ask the bigger voices (and older ones, as
well as the ones who don't have nice high notes) to sing in a lower range.
That's right - second soprano, alto, or even tenor. The average choir
singer can use their abdominal pressure to control their vibrato or their
pitch, but the more they have to use it for pitch control, the less there is
available for vibrato control. The less high you have to sing, the more you
can use the pressure to control vibrato. ALSO, it is much easier to "bury"
a less than optimum voice in one of the middle parts, like alto or tenor,
than in one of the outer parts, just because of the way sounds are
perceived. Sometimes the singers view it as a "demotion" to be asked to
sing a lower part and have their noses out of joint for a while, until I
explain to them how vital the harmony is how much their strength is really
needed on that part instead. To all the singers, I emphasize that the
objectives of sing-along singing and choir singing are different. In sing
along singing, the object is to have fun, and it doesn't matter what voice
sticks out; and that in a choir, the idea is to sound like one voice in many
bodies and be a living symbol of unity in diversity. We work a LOT on blend
and balance, and i shift singers around a lot to get the best blend. Maybe
some of this will work for your bunch as well. Good luck!
Kathy Tahiri, M.M.
I've been thinking about this issue for years and I've urged ACDA to do some
sessions on this topic at divisional or national conventions but no one
seems to know too much about the subject. What has worked for me more than
anything else is to have those people not sing as loud as they usually do.
I think vibrato and volume are directly linked. (think about opera stars and
the amount of volume and vibrato they produce) It also helps to talk about
it. I do an exercise where we take our hands and shake them while singing a
long tone and make lots of vibrato and then flatten the hands out like you
are smoothing out something and the tone usually looses a lot of vibrato. I
then point out the type of tone we are after. Some armature singers don't
understand unless you demonstrate. Many older singers sing forte all the
time and if you can just lessen that dynamic on degree you have a chance of
reducing the vibrato. I hope you get some help on this issue because I am
really interested in it, too.
John Drotleff
As a choral director and vocal teacher for the past 30 or so years, I seem
to have picked up a (very) little. Part of the little I have picked up can
be demonstrated easily, by you in your own time.

Vibrato control is practiced most often by young singers. They experiment
and learn ways to control the speed and width of the vibrato by imitating
well known singers. Then they forgot they ever did it.

By the time a singer reaches fifty or so, the poor singing habits they
learned after giving up those voice lessons have to be corrected by the
choral director. Unfortunately, many choral directors never noticed what
makes the vibrato faster and more narrow in range: good placement, that is,
placing the voice well forward, ALMOST nasal and NOT pushing. (The easy way
to see it is to sing a nasal tone, but not loud: voila! a fast vibrato with
nice width, then lower the back of the tongue JUST until the nasal quality
is bearable.) Try it yourself. (Not while people are watching....) It is
much easier to sing a pleasant vibrato with forward placement ("IN THE MASK!
IN THE MASK!") and not pushing. Singers last longer that way too....
Duane Toole
The sopranos in my choir are all 48+ in years. I have continually encouraged
strong abdominal "thinking" in the way they use the breath. I tell them to
"pull" the breath as they sing (as if they were strecthing a piece of taffy
with their abdomen) this corrects the problem quite effectively since all
extreme vibrato is caused from lack of good solid lower body support.
Nancy Fontana

Thanks again to all who had insights and suggestions.

on October 7, 2008 10:00pm
I have a number of private voice students who are categorically "senior citizens". In dealing with older sopranos, it's been my experience that "the dreaded wobble" appears because the singers in question have lost the physical/muscular strength to control an ample, full-blown tone. In addition to asking these ladies to do specific physical exercises (to strenthen abdominal and back muscles, I urge them to re-define their individual concept(s) of the sound of their own voice(s), so that they become comfortable producing lighter and ALWAYS brighter (in the masque) sounds.
To a significant degree, accepting the fact that by the time a soprano is approaching age 70, her voice becomes less flexible and her vibrato, less controllable, due to atrophy of the muscles which control breath pressure(support). Convincing these women to do what they can to maintain (not re-gain) whatever physical strength they have and to adjust their own aesthetic to appreciate a smaller, brighter and breath-infused tone can work wonders. I've taken this approach with several sopranos who sing in a local church choir, and the director has repeatedly thanked me for "saving his choir".