When I received the evaluation sheet from my final doctoral jury, one comment from a member of the voice faculty (who was not my teacher) truly startled me. He wrote, "I think you're manufacturing your vibrato."
Indeed: I was.
This is pretty humiliating to recall. I had read all those pedagogy books. I had already earned an MM from a prestigious conservatory and was completing a DMus at a prestigious university. But in my six years of grad school, not one teacher or coach had noticed that I was simulating my vibrato by pulsing my abdominal muscles.
I thought I was supposed to do this. Actually, I didn't even realize I was doing anything. I had been a clarinetist for many years before I had taken up singing. I had been simulating vibrato in this way for a long time on my clarinet, and I continued to pulse in the same way as I sang. The simulation must have been pretty convincing, because no one thought to correct me until I was literally on the verge of starting my own teaching career. Luckily, this teacher's comment resonated with me. I had suspected that something in my singing was amiss and that I was working too hard, but I couldn't figure out what was wrong.
A simulated vibrato is obviously much more effortful, complicated, and problematic than the natural, organic vibrato characteristic of free singing. It's like Wonder Bread. Mass-produced sliced white bread was seriously lacking in vitamins and minerals, so the makers of Wonder Bread began enriching theirs in a variety of ways. The result was admittedly a more nutritious slice of bread than what they had been producing. But a great deal of effort goes into bleaching and "refining" the flour (removing most of its nutrients) and then adding foreign nutrients to it.
If a singer has yet to cultivate the vocal freedom, coordination, and overall energy required to elicit vibrato, they may be tempted to superimpose a manufactured vibrancy onto their tone. But in my case, I believe I was actually inhibiting the possibility of natural vibrancy in order to create and control my vibrato as I had become accustomed on the clarinet. It was the vocal technical equivalent of Wonder Bread.
You may well wonder how my voice teachers and coaches could possibly have failed to address this serious flaw in my technique. The explanation is that many voice teachers remain focused on the sound a student produces rather than the activities used to produce the sound. My fake vibrato was very convincing, so no one thought to inspect what was going on with my abdominal muscles.
This is why I'm so passionate about teaching the processes and activities that build well-coordinated instruments and cultivate strong technique rather than chasing after a beautiful sound. I was a good musician and a dedicated student, so if it was possible for me to get through six years of grad school without addressing so fundamental an issue, it's possible for most anyone.
I'm very determined that no singer will ever make it through a single lesson with me with a problem like this undetected, let alone six years. After all, it's possible to simulate a lot more than just vibrato. If you're interested in creating a particular sound, you can manipulate your voice in endless ways to adjust resonance, volume and intonation. But no matter how successful the results, this approach to singing technique will always be massively more effortful and far less beautiful than an approach honoring the way your vocal anatomy is designed to respond to expressive impulses.
I remain extremely grateful to Winston Purdy, the voice teacher who called me out on my manufactured vibrato. Winston also began his musical career as a clarinetist, which perhaps attuned him to the possibility of a singer employing an instrumental vibrato technique.