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Teaching Straight-tone singing


By popular demand, here are the responses on my request for advice about how
to teach an adult choir (including some people with heavy vibrato) to sing
more in straight-tone style. Names not given in respect of the privacy of
the respondents.

Thanks to all for your help! As always, I'm dazzled by your collective

Kathryn Schneider, J.D.
Musical Director, City Bar Chorus
New York City
e-mail: LadyEsq2(a)
Sometimes all the explaining in the world doesn't do the trick.
I have found that having choir members LISTEN to quality straight tone
singing is helpful in acheiving the desired result. Get them hooked on Tallis
Scholars or Anonymous 4, for example. Try to get them to buy the CDs or check
them out of the library, start a lending library yourself, ask the public
radio station to play these groups at a specified time... anything to get
your singers to hear the sound you want to strive for. It would be best for
them to do some focused listening exercises outside of rehearsal time.
Tempt them to do this listening as a relaxation exercise. Nothing is more
relaxing to me than listening to an Anonymous 4 CD while reclining with my
eyes closed....
Finally, invite them to imitate the beautiful, focused, pure sound.
Hope this helps!

One suggestion regarding straight tone: rather than asking them to sing
without vibrato, ask them to do something positive: focus on having them
sing right on the pitch, with as little wavering off the pitch as possible.
Have the group listen carefully and match vowels together on one pitch,
softly. Go quietly up the scale. If they tune a pitch perfectly together,
they can generate an overtone a 12th above (audible in a good
acoustic)--some choir members can hear this. The less vibrato they use,
the more possible to generate this marvellous overtone, which doubles the
volume of the choir without pushing!! Good luck.

This is a compelling topic, and especially important when performing
early music -- although I generally don’t like a lot of choral vibrato
in any period, as it easily obscures good intonation and clean

To begin, there are just a couple points I’d like to suggest: first,
singing lightly and singing with straight-tone aren’t necessarily the
same thing. Straight tone sound can be very full, dramatic, and
powerful, and vibrato can be used very effectively in lyrical singing as
well. The other point is that singing without vibrato is not at all
unnatural, even if it’s something they’re not used to. It’s a perfectly
natural and organic way for the human voice to create sound, and it’s
probably better always to think of it in those terms, so as not suggest
anything to the contrary.

>>Should one ask amateur singers with vibrato to sing without it?

Absolutely. Singing without vibrato is not hard at all, once a singer
gets used to it.

>>If yes, what are the best warmups/mental images/teaching techniques to
achieve this in a group setting?
The most common mistake is to think of the production of straight tone
as somehow singing off the breath or more lightly. Actually, it requires
a stronger, more directed flow of air through the vocal chords. Using
good breathing techniques, it feels a little like gently pushing the air
through the vocal chords to create a pure, unwavering sound, especially
toward the end of an elongated tone, when the breath wants to pulsate to
preserve itself. On the other hand, relaxing the flow of air slightly –
still with good support – facilitates vibrato: the repeated division and
pulsation of air.

When I use vibrato, there’s a more passive presence of air flowing
through my chords (but still supported) – I’m slightly less aware of it;
when using straight tone, I’m very aware of the direction of the breath
guiding the tone. Therefore, vibrato preserves the flow of air. I can
hold a pitch about 30 seconds longer with vibrato start to finish. This
means, logically, that straight tone uses more air, which also means
that the singers – at least at first – may need to tank up a bit more.

Many singers resist straight-tone not only for aesthetic reasons
(although many of us prefer it), but because it makes them work much
harder at intonation (the same is true, by the way, for
instrumentalists). Straight-tone is very honest!

Many women, by the way, resent being asked to sound like boys. So,
perhaps they just need to sound like women not singing with vibrato, if
you know what I mean. It is important to explain that, for many
centuries (and the treatises confirm this), vibrato was not the normal
or standard way of creating tone, but a means of decorating or
ornamenting the tone.

Like most of us who feel the need to perform certain styles with less vibrato
also have singer who have developed substantial vibratos as as result of
private voice studies at the university. To have the most consistent
it has been necsasry for me to discover whether the pitch variation is from
vibrato or tremelo (but this takes more time than this short note).

In many trained singers voices, vibrato is a by-product of a breath support
technique involving the use of the abdominal muscles and the diaphram in
"opposition." (This Italianate technique is outlined in Richard Miller's
on vocal technique.) By asking singers to concentrate on "breath flow" rather

than their traditional support technique I get a substantial reduction in

This will reduce, but not eliminate the apparent vibrato from singers where
"vibrato" is partially a "tremelo" caused by muscular tension in the neck and

jaw (perhaps some of your older singers are affected by this. Older singers
tonicity in muscles and therefore if they have been singing [and controlling
vibrato with elements of neck tension] - there will be a residual amount of
pitch variation when you follow the exercises below.]) Since I primarily
with high school and collegiate voices I do not face this issue very much;
but I
am starting a cooperative scientific study with our gerontology and speech
pathology programs on "Successful Aging of the Voice" and will have something

additional to report in 12-16 months.

Breath Flow and Reduce Neck Tension

1) Do your favorite exercises to reduce neck tension: roll the neck, move
jaw while singing, etc.

2) Establish a sense of "breath flow" rather than oppositional breathing
these exercises (or make up your own):

a) concieve of the stomach as a balloon - fill up with an abdominal breath
then on "f" or "s" or "th" by themselves - flow air by squeezing the abdomen.

b) follow a) with top down sighs on "foo" or "soo" or "thah" - one should
note a
reduction in the apparent vibrato.

c) follow the above by same concept with a sense of "sustained" breath on
tones not "held breath on held notes"

A common problem that some singers will exhibit while trying to learn this is

"collapsing" the abdomen. try the following.

d) it may be useful to assist their sense of abdominal movement by placing
rubber bands around the the fingers and thumb, hold the hand wih the fingers
pointing towards the ceiling and mimic the expansion and contraction of the
abdomen with the fingers with the rubber band proving a sense of resistance.

e) another way to achieve this is to hold a small, squeezable ball (tennis or

raquetball works nicely) and have them mimic their abdominal movements while
squeezing the ball.

f) most effective is to have individuals lean against a surface such as the
of a grand piano top and then breathe in and out. The abdominal expansion
(should) move them away from the piano -- this gets them to identify the
sensation. Others may find this better: place a large ball (basketball or
ball) on the abdomen then lean up against a way or door casing and do the

Try doing some warm-ups that are tongue-twisters and a
piece or two emphasizing enunciation where there is no
time for vibrato.
Listen to a lot of music. Besides chant, and English
choir music show them the difference between
"recitative" and aria where even the opera singers are
able to control vibrato. Also try going from speaking
to singing. Speak all of a phrase then sing it "as

I'm a very linear person, and while I know mental images can be very
helpful, I usually - probably too often - go for the logistics. When a
clinician first suggested that asking people to sing with a breathy tone was
the way to overcome excessive vibrato, I rejected the idea, since I've
always been a go-for-the-resonance guy. But several weeklong workshops with
the VoiceCare Network have helped me to realize that how one thinks of the
use of breath is of extreme importance. They do a good deal of vocalizing
with the tongue out (tip just past the lower lip), starting various vowel
sounds on a descending 5-note scale with an easy "h." For people (like
myself) who tend toward the "pressed-edgy" sound from a somewhat constricted
throat, this technique can provide a very freeing concept of what it means
to allow (not force) breath and sound to fill the empty spaces in the head.
Of course, VoiceCare also puts a heavy emphasis on Alexander Technique,
which aims at keeping the body free and working at maximum efficiency. Like
anything having to do wtih music performance, it's a lot easier to
demonstrate than to talk about! Good luck.

I once had a section leader of mine tell the sopranos to sing with an image
of that sound that is created when you blow across a coke bottle. It must
have generated some energetic breathing and an appropriate tonal model
because I was shocked by their response - I'd never heard their tone change
so dramatically and so beautifully (and this was a very vibratoish choir).

One thing I know for sure - I know that when you just come right out and ask
for a straight tone, the result is generally flat - both musically and

I think continuing to developing the technique of lower support, deeper
breath as well as developing a sense of forward tone (no note is important
to itself and generally has some forward direction toward something else) -
helps. I also like other images - a tone as smooth as silk, as calm as a
peaceful lake - oh yes, including the swan that moves so gracefully on the
lake (but is paddling like hell underneath).

I think choirs members need to be made aware of what blend is all about and
that it is what choral singing is all about.. I have a gentlemen whose
voice sounds damaged, his vibrato is so wide and the tone is so croaky. He
is so intelligent and musical that he has really learned to sing very gently
(I don't think he's in that good of health either - an older gentlemen, to
boot) and has done the best he can to create a decent sound. Very difficult
in a small ensemble! He is very dedicated and has a good ear, so that
helps, too.

Without a doubt you can ask your amateur group to sing without vibrato. I
do it all the time. What I find helpful is to have them process among
themselves the issue of what vibrato really is. Once they get that it's a
essentially just singing in and out of tune for the sake of tone color,
you've got something to work with. Then I have them sing through a simple
chorale - with and without vibrato - to get a feel for what it sounds like
when the chords really have a chance to ring.

In my experience the important thing is that the group understand the
difference between an ensemble singer and a solo singer. The main
responsibility for ensemble singers is for no one individual to be noticed.
I tell them that the "Three Tenors" would make an awful addition to our

I have not had much trouble getting a straight-tone from the group. I only
needed to harp on the issue in the last few months when I had a few new
first sopranos join the group.

Generally speaking, both of your questions can include good use of head
voice in your solutions.

A non-vibrato tone is pretty easy to achieve with head tone. Light slides
down the range, especially for men, not allowing the shift into full voice,
are helpful in allowing them to learn that they can produce head tone
anywhere in their ranges. A chant-like quality sounds best in a head tone,
at least to me, and it tunes and stays straighter, too.

As for imagery, I sat here and hummed a head-tone sustained pitch and
straightened it while trying to notice how I did it. I thought of a laser
point, nailing the exact center of a pitch. Tuning issues often center
around too much vibrato anyway, so a tuning image can help both issues.

As for heavy voices which speak late, exercises on vowel entrances, utilizing
(temporarily) an aspirated sound (h) can help accuracy. Chances are that
they are trying to use too much voice, hence the strongness of which you
speak. Such tone production is not helpful to blend, but then again these
guys are lawyers, right?? Since when do they want to blend?? (Just kidding,
my husband is an attorney!) Anyway, make sure they know how to use head-tone
in all areas of the range. Be sure that they don't glottal the entrances in
the vowel exercises, but put the h before the beat. This will help their
cords to learn to come together gently, after the air has begun to flow.
Gradually reduce the amount of h to a mere "peach fuzz" and you will be
teaching them to phonate with simultaneity: cords coming close together at
exactly the same time the air flows (Berneulli (sp) effect).

So it is a muscular coordination issue, and one which will respond to the
above exercises in time. Let them know that this is "advanced skill stuff"
and being high achievers, they will work to develop the skills necessary to
phonate properly. They love a challenge!

Paul Salamunovich, Los Angeles Master Chorale, instructs that the straight
tone is created by communicating the desire in the conducting style. I was at
a conference where he demonstrated this using Handel's "Thanks Be to Thee"
chorale arrangement. He let the accompaniment set the tempo (it is a steady
3/4 beat) and pulled each phrase out of the choir with his arms and hands -
something akin to pulling taffy, if you can imagine that. It worked and I
have used his technique several times with satisfying result.

Concerning your other concern - wide vibrato creating late entry with the
beat and slowed tempo - I've found some success for such problems by
requesting choral consciousness in attacking the vowel on the beat. This gets
the consonant ahead of the beat and gives a better rhythmic accuracy. Even
wider vibratos or older voices, which seem slow to respond, will have better
rhythmic integrity.

Vibrato is a breath-efficiency technique, which is why professional
opera singers and the like use it. So to sing without vibrato you
must consciously use more air, maybe tell them to just "ride" the
sound on the breath. It won't harm them if you just tell them to sing
without vibrato, but if they don't know how, try experimenting with
breath. (Aged singers sometimes don't have the fine muscle control to
completely eliminate it, but they can still reduce it.)

Boy sopranos, by the way, can sing with vibrato, they're just usually
trained not to.

>2. Physical exercise (for men) to feel lightness: sing in falsetto
>range, feel the lightness there, then apply that lightness to
>non-falsetto range.

I often use this technique (though not for vibrato, just for
lightness in the passaggio). Extension: have them bring down their
falsetto into their normal range (say to D), and then alternate back
and forth between falsetto and full voice on the same note.

I would encourage them to listen to any recordings by the Cambridge Singers
(John Rutter's group).They're adults who sing very cleanly. Also, Voices of
Ascension's CD's of chant are good examples of adults singing in the style
you're after. Softer singing will be good--the less volume and air will
lessen the vibratos. Also, think of synonyms for the straight tone sound
("cold," "stark", "laser pitch", "fundamental tone", "contain the sound,"
"focus the sound", "imagine singing through an inverted megaphone").
If they get bent out of shape, it's because they find it difficult. Muscular
diaphragmatic support is all important. Have them sing, for a bit, seated
with their legs 1)bent at the knees, with their feet off the ground, and/or
2) With their legs out straight in front of them. You also might have a
"chant choir" and the regular group separate (I don't know the piece you're
doing so that may not be possible) . Spread out those with vibrato between
the two choruses so that they're not concentrated in one group.

Since I assume these folks are lawyers, they're smart and will likely try
hard (?) to get what you're after.

I'm not any kind of expert, but I've found that this works for me. For one
thing, I don't try to sing *without* vibrato, but I try to slow it down.
Next, I find that I have more vibrato at the end of a note than at the
beginning or middle. So, I pretend that the note is going to be much
longer, and I'm not at the end yet. It "fools" my voice and I have less
vibrato. Go figure.

Perhaps approach this from a color and style point of view. Mention that
there is a way pop singers handle vibrato differently from Renaissance
singers which is somewhat similar to Jazz singers. All colors and and ALL
sytles are important to learn and to sing.

THEREFORE, do warm ups that can incorporate singing an exercise
1) Like an "opera singer"
2) Now sing it like a Jazz singer/choir tuning a close harmony chord (no
3) Now sing it like a Renaissance singer (no vibrato)
4) Now sing it like the Vienna boys choir
etc. etc.
5) Now sing it like a freshman high school choir

This will alert any and all to the fact that we have different kinds of
singing for different musical eras, different styles and different ages.
All are legit.

In this way, you can approach what you want to hear from a very well-founded
and very already accepted practice, instead of it being something that is
just a personal wish or requirement.

It let's you "off the hook" about nagging for "no vibrato" since it is
"acceptable" as performance practice around the world.!

I sometimes have my choir just learn for fun (and warm ups) a unison tune
that is pop/jazz, folksy, and perhaps art song so they know that this they
cannot sing them alike. Without parts, you can have fun as a warm up using
the songs to instruct them to sing each tune "appropriately" with the
correct vocalism, color, and style. In this way, they will feel like they
are getting info, education, vocal lessons and "expanding their abilities".
You come out a winner, and then you can refer to these warm ups and unison
songs for future use in SATB compositions: "you know that warm up tune "Old
Devil Moon" that we sing like a jazz singer? We need that here. Use that
vocal production for this chant." Etc. etc.