The Vocal "Wobble":  Causes and Solutions

It is with increasing frequency that singers from all over the world write me and ask, "What is a wobble and how can I solve this problem in myself and others?" The question comes from teachers and singers alike who are concerned about their vocal health.

Before answering this question, I think it is appropriate to establish a clear definition of a "wobble" and its causes. As a vocal professional, I define a "vocal wobble" as an "overly wide vibrato" which affects a large variation of pitch. The oscillation usually is somewhat slower than that of an acceptably healthy vibrato. Normal vibrato effects much less pitch differentiation. The tonal quality engages a series of higher overtones that enhance what many call "ring" in the voice.

Certain cultures have no problem with a "wobble". A perfect example is in certain Asian pop music where a wide vibrato is not only acceptable but is also a fashionable and desired vocal characteristic. Most vocal professionals agree that a vocal "wobble" involves laryngeal muscles that should not be used in healthy singing.

A singer who sings with a "wobble" is using throat muscles that cause vocal deterioration over a period of time. Contrary to popular belief, a vocal "wobble" often has little to do with the singer's age. I have had singers in their 20's suffering from this vocal disorder. It is simply a use of incorrect vocalism that often comes from a damaging vocal technique. As stated before, some cultures have little if any problem with this kind of production. I have personally observed that the "wobble" is often quite accepted in more dramatic German Opera. Often singer's who study the "hinten und unten" (back and down) technique of vowel placement without proper lifting of the soft palate suffer from a depressed larynx. This production a large factor in helping to create the "vocal wobble". In contrast, it is more rare to find Italian singers who suffer from the "wobble" because the Italian School prefers a "brighter" vocal sound. Also, the German language tends to be darker. This is not to say that Italian singers never have a "wobble" and German singer always do. There are exceptions in every circumstance. However, it is important to note that there is a definite role that language plays in creating or discouraging this condition.

It is a well known fact that Maria Callas had a tremendously wide "wobble" in the top of her voice from dragging the lower register too high. On the other hand, Celia Bartoli has no sign of this in her singing. In fact, she has a "shimmering" vibrato with lots of brilliance in the tone. Voice type can play a role in the tendency of vocal "wobble". Usually it occurs in larger and more dramatic voices. Basses can especially suffer from this condition because of the "thickness" of the vocal folds.

In my 25 year history of teaching, the problem of the "vocal wobble" has come up repeatedly in singers of all ages. In this article, I have chosen to break down the causes and then get to the solutions. In most cases, there is one missing link in vocal coordination that creates the root of this particular problem.

Causes: (1) Lack of focus in vocal tone. (2) Singing without proper closure of the vocal cords. (3) Inconsistent "resistance" in the body to control the outward flow of air (some call this "support"). (4) Singing with too much "thick vocal cord mass". (5) Dragging too much "chest voice" or "heavy mechanism" (see William Vennard's book) too high. (6) A shaking diaphragm.

Let's first address problem #1. "Lack of focus" in the tone is directly related to a lack of high overtones. One major factor which can "cut out" these overtones is the tongue position. I heard Lindquest say repeatedly to use the "ng" position of the tongue as "home base" while pronouncing words in music. This "ng" position means that the tongue is "arched in the middle" and the tongue tip is positioned behind the lower teeth and often "down into the gum line". Most vocal professionals know that the tongue must be free to move, however the tongue needs the "ng" reference in order to keep the pharynx (primary resonator) from being "filled up" with the back of the tongue. This tongue position discourages a "flat depressed" tongue that creates pressure directly at the vocal folds. A "flat tongue position" is the direct cause of "depressed larynx production"; an extremely dangerous vocal technique. This "pressure at the root of the tongue" can be a major cause of a "wobble". "Lack of focus" can also be connected with an overly-dropped soft palate. Alan Lindquest used the image of "pronouncing through the cheek bones" rather than directly out the mouth space. This requires a lifted soft palate in order for the higher overtones to be felt in the cheek bones.. Flagstad spoke of the "ng" feeling as the core of her tone that was "like a silver thread". Birgit Nilsson calls it singing with "shine" in the voice. Whatever it may be called, singing with proper "ng" resistance helps the tone to become vibrant and beautiful. Solution: Practicing vocal exercises going from "ng" to a vowel can help a singer tremendously. I often tell a singer to open the vowel by "lifting the palate away from the tongue" rather than the tongue "crashing downward" into the back of the throat.

Problem #2: Singing without proper closure of the vocal cords. Jussi Bjoerling told Lindquest in 1938 that it took him several years to get his "attack" so that the vocal cords did not "leak too much breath". This can be a controversial vocal concept. Garcia called this concept the "coup de glotte", or proper approximation of the vocal folds. Throughout the history of the teaching of singing, this subject has been called by several names. Lindquest called it the "gentle closing of the cords". William Vennard called it the "imaginary H". In the end, it is important that the cords come together after inhalation. Many singers do NOT do this and the result over time is a "flatting of pitch" in singing. Another result can be a vocal "wobble". When too much air pressure comes through the glottis at the attack, the vocal cords are not encouraged to vibrate quickly, therefore a "slower and wider vibrato" can result. Solution: The "ng" brings the vocal cords together in the perfect approximation without too much "squeeze of the cords or too much wild loose air through the cords". If the cords are trained to come together with a sense of gentle firmness, the resulting vibrato will tend to be faster and healthier. Lindquest had singers speak the "eh" vowel with a rather closed mouth position and "feel the cords come together properly".

Flagstad was trained to "close the cords." Her "back & down" jaw position helped to assist in healthy vocal cord approximation.

Problem #3: Inconsistent "body resistance" in singing. This can also be called "support". (see article on breath and breath management.) Many singers do not understand that there must be resistance in the body in order not to "overblow" the vocal cords. Some in the vocal professional world call this "support". In fact, the intercostals, lower lumbars, and pectorals are the three primary muscle groups that "hold back breath pressure". The solar plexus area will also "resist outward" as a flat sheath of muscle, NOT A KNOT. We sing on "compressed breath"; not loose air. The "feeling" can be compared to lifting a medium weight object. The correct instinct in the body is to compress the breath and close the glottis before singing. Again, this must be a gentle action. Solution: If one takes a breath as though they have forgotten what to say, the feeling will come into the body. Also lining the body against a wall and breathing into the lower back will encourage the correct "posture" for the proper compression to occur. Then the singer needs to experiment with sound while "pressing the lower back into the wall". The result will be a slight "grunt" feeling in the body. The operative word here is SLIGHT. Many take one concept too far and the vocal balance is disturbed, creating even more vocal problems.

Problem #4: Singing with too much "thick mass" of vocal cord. Alan Lindquest used a very simple exercise in order for me not to use "too much of the thick edges of the cords". In my opinion, this is one reason many larger lower-voiced singers suffer from a "wobble". Solution: Staccato exercises on a closed vowel like "i" or "e" can be most helpful in solving this problem. Again, the attack must be with the cords gently together on the "thin edges". When a singer accomplishes this feat, the voice suddenly attains a group of "higher overtones" which otherwise are missing. Small soft staccato exercises can be most helpful in accomplishing a healthier vibrato speed.

Problem #5: Dragging too much "chest voice" (heavy mechanism) too high. I often say to a singer that singing with too much "weight in the voice" is simply singing a high note with the "thickness of cord mass" intended for a lower pitch. This puts what my friend Judith Raskin called "drag" in the voice; too much pulling from the heavy mechanism. Solution: Lindquest addressed this problem by working the voice from the top down. His favorite vowel for this was the tiny Italian "u" vowel. This must be accomplished with an open throat and the feeling of the "ng" in the tone. I was also given exercises that moved from open vowels in the lower register to a closed vowel like "u" or "o" in the upper register. This allows for what Lindquest called the "yodel effect". The singer feels a "flip" allowing a lighter mechanism to take over for the upper range. I have had many "classical belters" in my teaching career. Often they have been instructed to keep too much "lower color" as they go up from the bottom. This creates vocal strain and often results in a "wobble". I suggest to singers that they use the tiny "u" vowel because it allows the voice to "lighten without squeezing". It has been my experience that many who supervise a singer's process do not hear when a tone is "squeezed" into position. Often this "squeeze" is heard as a type of resonance. True resonance can only be accomplished with an open primary resonator (pharynx). When a singer can accomplish "lightening without squeezing" as they go up from the lower range, the chance of the "vocal wobble" occurring is diminished greatly. The voice flips into "light mechanism" or "head voice" as the singer goes higher in range.

Addressing Problem #6: The shaking diaphragm: Often the "shaking diaphragm" is a condition which haunts larger-voiced singers. At some point in their training, they have misunderstood proper "body resistance". A "pumping of the diaphragm" is often a desire to enhance vibrato on a tone that is not free to vibrate on its own. The result is an "imbalance of the healthy stream of air through the larynx". This "pumping of the diaphragm" creates uneven spurts of breath pressure through the larynx. At this point other throat muscles are engaged to help "hold back this breath pressure". The result is a large "wobble" and vocal fatigue. The less the throat is involved in singing the better and this type of vocalism engages throat muscles that make for unhealthy and injurious singing. Solution: Again use the idea of a "constant and even resistance" in which the body gently "flexes outward" at an even rate. The idea of leaning the back against the wall is a good one. Also place one hand flatly and directly below the base of the sternum bone. Have the "solar plexus" area resist as a "flat sheath of muscle" at the "onset" or "attack". Keep this healthy "resistance" while singing the entire musical. The resistance should stay constant between vowel and consonant function. Teach the body to recreate this behavior repeatedly. This can be compared to a "moaning" or "very slight grunt" sensation in the body. Make sure that this action is gentle and not abrupt. Loss of correct body support or what Lindquest called "hook-up" is detrimental to healthy singing. If this "healthy" resistance can be repeated and made habit, the "shaking diaphragm" will disappear.

To teachers and singers alike, I wish you the best luck in finding and executing healthy singing. Please address any questions to