The gold standard of a remarkable choral sound is a unified sound. No one would dispute that. However, how to achieve this is not unified among conductors. Often conductors turn to vibrato as the source of their disappointing choral sound and then remove it from every voice singing in the choir. Other conductors realize that vibrato is the cornerstone of healthy, beautiful singing so they can’t ignore it by just asking the singers to get rid of it.  So can vibrato and choral sound thrive together? Are they destined to be friends or foes?

Discussing the challenges of vibrato and achieving unity in a choral sound

Discussing the challenges of vibrato and achieving unity in a choral sound

Vibrato creates challenges in a choir because the resonances that are created are individual to that voice, make tuning difficult and allowing individual voices to “stick out”. Vibrato is the way we recognise opera singers on the radio that are all singing the same repertoire. Vibrato has certain timbre (colour) and characteristics (fast, slow) that make an individual’s voice, well…. individual.

I believe the key to making vibrato and choral sound jive together harmoniously depends on the conductors understanding of the voice. The magic is all about achieving unity in the vowels. The singers don’t have to sound like their neighbour in vocal timbre but everyone needs to create the standard vowels {eh, ee, ah, o, oo, y} with the similar mix of bright and dark colour in the voice. For example, two people can make the {ah} vowel very differently: one super bright and one very dark. By coming to a common ground on neither “too bright or too dark” you get two voices that will be unified, but still individual. Getting the right mix of “bright and dark” is achieved by having more or less head and chest voice mixed together.  It also is essential to voice match in the choir to see who has similar vibrato. This can go a long way to creating unity among individuality.

Some conductors create a unified sound by asking all the singers to sing without any vibrato or "straight". This takes out all the resonance and individual characteristics from the voice. Now the choral singers will all sound similar to each other and it will be easy to make a beautiful, unified sound. However I believe that this does a disservice to the individual singers’ voice. It is not natural to sing without vibrato. For those that have vibrato asking them to sing “straight” means they need to hold, or tense certain muscles which isn’t healthy for the vocal apparatus (which includes vocal folds, muscles and cartilage) and if it a particularly high or long musical phrase this can cause a lot of discomfort and potential vocal damage.

Cantala is choir where the solo singer is encouraged to develop in the context of a choral sound. I encourage the choral singers to sing like a soloist. I believe it creates a free, vibrant sound that is riveting. Yes, it makes for challenges with tuning and unification. But it puts the solo singer first, and my first responsibility is to the vocal health of my singers. You can judge for yourself if you think we are successful.