Dr. L. Hugh Cooper’s thoughts on Vibrato

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Home Forums Pedagogy Double Reed Vibrato Dr. L. Hugh Cooper’s thoughts on Vibrato

This topic contains 9 replies, has 5 voices, and was last updated by  Scott Pool 12 years, 7 months ago.

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    1.”In my considered judgement a normal bassoon vibrato should consist primarily of “horizontal” variations in intensity coupled with a secondary “vertical” pitch fluctuation caused by the periodic changes in pressure.
    2. Theoretically, these desired fluctuations can be inserted at any point in the breath support system, by alternately increasing and decreasing the rate of airflow pressure through the appropriate sets of muscles.
    3. Possible musculature that might be involved in this process and the feasibility of their use are:
    a. Abdominal muscles – (external and internal obliques, tranverse and rectus.)
    1. According to Grey’s Anatomy, “forced expiratory actions are performed mainly by the flat muscles of the abdomen assisted by the rectus.” These muscles are largely involuntary in function and generally con-
    sidered by physiologists to be too-massive, difficult to control, and slow to serve as a normal function of a musical vibrato.
    2. The strong abdominal muscles ARE the muscles of expiration and as such used to produce what is incorrectly called “diaphramatic support”. They also can and are used to produce a slow, heavy pulsation, akin to a vibrato, but more analagous to a Baroque ornamentation called “Begung”.
    3. Many teachers use abdominal muscles to introduce vibrato to their students, having them pulsate the breath to a metronomic beat. But, at best, this heavy muscular approach never achieves sufficient speed or delicacy for use as a real vibrato, but only serves as a starting catalyst. I prefer to avoid this artificial transitory approach to teaching vibrato.
    4. Performers who think they are using a diaphragm vibrato are involving other muscles to produce the effect. (A good example is Chris Weait’s brief videoscopic study which clearly pinpoints the actual source of his supposed diaphragm vibrato, as gravitating to his throat area).

    Chest, (rib) muscles – (external and internal) oblique intercostals.
    1. One set of these breathing muscles serves to raise the chest while the other lowers the rib cage.
    2. It would require a rapid alternation between these two sets of rib muscles to produce any semblance of vibrato.
    3. Again, such activity would be physiologically problematic at best, and certainly not feasible within the frequency range of an acceptable vibrato.

    d. Laryngeal Muscles:
    1. These sensitive voluntary muscles control the tension and contour of the vocal folds (cords) and, therefore, determine the size and shape of the glottal opening which lies between the folds.
    2 This valve-like apparatus can be consciously controlled to modulate the flow of air from the lungs (trachea) into the vocal tract. Its function, while playing a wind instrument, really represents a form of vocalizing (albeit silently); however, the vocal folds must be slightly more separated to avoid phonation.
    3. At this narrowest point in the air column a slight change in vocal fold tension causes the glottal aperture to vary in size, thus regulating the flow of air into the oral cavity.
    4. In my opinion the glottal area with its vocal folds represent the most practical, controllable and musically sensitive locus for producing a vibrato.
    5. Except for special effects, the bassoon vibrato should be produced naturally like that of a singer.” I agree with Dr. Cooper’s analysis and have used this strategy in teaching vibrato to many of my students. Sincerely submitted, Gerald Corey


    Scott Pool

    I have read many posts (our deceased old friend, the listserv) on the topic of vibrato, and this seems to be the first to really address the true nature of the topic as has been substantiated through some research I completed in 2004 (Observations of the Larynx During Vibrato Production Among Professional Bassoonists, UMI Press). Though I have not yet been able to write the article for the DR journal (so little time!), my data supports everything stated by Mr. Corey. In a nutshell, let me respond to the previous post by addressing the points it laid out :

    1. “…vibrato should consist primarily of “horizontal” variations in intensity…” – Not only should it, but it does! When I measured vibrato rate, the primary fluctuating factor was the amplitude or intensity; not the frequency, or pitch. Though pitch varies slightly, what we hear in wind instruments is a fluctuation of intensity.

    3.a.2. “The strong abdominal muscles ARE the muscles of expiration…” This statement is sooo true; the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle, so the term “diaphragm vibrato” is false and should be replaced with “abdominal vibrato”.

    3.a.3 “Many teachers use abdominal muscles to introduce vibrato to their students…” While a vibrato can certainly be “manufactured” through this process, it is not ideal, and should not be a focus of vibrato production. Abdominal vibrato was found to be used mostly in the low range of the instrument, when slower pulsations are usually used, but in the mid to upper register, there were hardly any bassoonists in my study who were pulsating in the abdominal area. So then, where were the pulsations coming from?

    3.a.4 “Performers who think they are using a diaphragm vibrato are involving other muscles to produce the effect.” This is absolutely true. In interviewing my subjects, they all told me that although they were taught to use the diaphragm (false), there came a point where vibrato became somewhat involuntary. They believed they were still using the abdominal type of vibrato, but they didn’t consciously pulsate anymore. What actually happened, was that a different vibrato source took over, and the abdominal pulsations actually ceased. Again, then where was vibrato coming from?

    3.d Laryngeal muscles – To sum up each of the points in this area, YES! Briefly, here’s what happens with vocalists:

    When, and only when, the laryngeal muscles and others concerning the vocal apparatus are in a balanced state of singing with relaxed tension, then the vocal folds are allowed to “open and close” the glottis (the opening that leads to the trachea). This opening and closing creates variations in the air pressure or intensity, thus creating pulsations in the sound. Now, since phonation is also involved with singers, there can also be variations in the frequency (pitch) through the tension of the vocal folds. Understand, that although this can be manufactured through a variety of means (read “bad singing” like Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, etc.), the true trained vocalist executes this through a lack of tension. Vocal Vibrato is a bi-product of correct relaxation and balance between the muscles. Lack of vibrato (straight tone) is actually a means of creating tension.

    If Double Reed players think of it in this way, then the “creation” of vibrato is actually quite false. In a recent lecture I listened to on vibrato production, it was suggested that the performer create a vibrato through a variety of means, all of which created some sort of conscious tension in the throat or oral area, including muscles located under the tongue. First of all, creating tension to create vibrato is backwards, and can lead to severe problems down the road from excessive muscle strain.

    Bassoon (and most likely oboe) vibrato should come from the opening and closing of the vocal folds, thus creating amplitude fluctuation. These are involuntary muslces. You simply cannot just make your vocal folds open and close. In order to acheive this effect, one must concentrate on relaxtion of the laryngeal muslces. Keep the air support, but concentrate on where tension lies, and work to alleviate it. I am a believer of not “teaching” vibrato, but instead teaching all of the factors that will contribute to it. If a student is doing everything else correctly (including listening to great examples of vibrato from bassoonists and vocalists), then vibrato will eventually come into the sound as a bi-product of correct tone-production. It should be one of the last areas of attention after spending lots and lots of time building proper tone. Then the issue will never be, “Hey, I need to make some vibrato”, but instead will be “Hey, maybe I should turn the vibrato off (create some tension) in this section.”

    Respectfully submitted,

    Scott Pool


    Terry B. Ewell

    Gerry and Scott, thanks for your initial thoughts on the subject. You beat me to the first posting!

    I would be interested in full references for each post. Where was Hugh Cooper’s statement published and Scott was your work a D.M.A. dissertation or thesis?

    Here is a link to a study that was recently conducted at the University of Tennessee titled, ““Videofluoroscopic and Laryngoscopic Evaluation of the Upper Airway and Larynx of Professional Bassoon Players”:


    I guess you can only see the abstract online now. A few months ago I was able to get the full pdf file for free. It has recently come out in the _Journal of Voice_ 20/2 (2006): 297-307.

    The conclusions from the observations largely support what Gerry and Scott have already written. In the words of the authors of the article they found that “slight vocal fold displacements from subglottal airflow and epiglottic movements from tongue base activity contributed to airway changes during vibrato.” In other words the source of the vibrato was located in the throat area not in the abdominal area.



    Scott Pool

    Here’s the publication information on my DMA dissertation:

    “Observations of the Larynx During Vibrato Production Among Professional Bassoonists as Indicated in Experiments Utilizing Fiberoptic Laryngoscopy”

    Scott Pool
    DMA document, University of Arizona

    UMI Number: 3158141
    Copyright 2004

    And thanks for the article link. I’ll be sure to check it out!




    Wow, guys!! This is an interesting but complicated topic!

    On another subject… Scott, isn’t that the picture I took from you at the conference??



    Scott Pool

    Yep, that’s the picture. I thought it to be the most recent that would be acceptable for the forum. I certainly hope you have not had it copywritten! Maybe I owe you a royalty! =D




    thank you for this enlightening explanation of vibrato. I had been taught that the abdominals were to be used to produce th vibrato,
    but only a little experience with this revealed its impossibility. Muscles too big and too slow, though voluntary.
    It did help me in getting the process going, however, though I do not know why.
    My sensation of vibrato is in the back of the throat, though it could be in the cords. As I have no vibrato when i sing, I have no sensation comparison. Oddly, when I played the flute, vibrato was “automatic” which surprised me. I don’t know where that came from either. But it did not occur with the oboe, possibly because of the greater airway pressures. But I have learned to do it, or not. It most certainly does not come from below the throat.
    I have watched singers with vibrato, and their larynx visibly moves up and down suggesting that not only intrinsic muscles of the larynx but also some of the extrinsic muscles of the larynx are involved.

    Dr. John Vasko


    Terry B. Ewell

    Scott, again thanks for your posts and your research. I look forward to reading what you have written.

    Getting back to your first posting, can you clarify what you mean by vibrato being involuntary?

    You wrote: “Bassoon (and most likely oboe) vibrato should come from the opening and closing of the vocal folds, thus creating amplitude fluctuation. These are involuntary muscles. You simply cannot just make your vocal folds open and close. In order to acheive this effect, one must concentrate on relaxtion of the laryngeal muscles.”

    But there is a voluntary aspect to vibrato, at least for me. I can turn it off and on. I can even vary the number of pulses (up to about 7 a second). How do you reconcile this voluntary control with involuntary muscles?




    well put. Singers can turn vibrato on or off as well. Continental choirs insist on no vibrato.
    I can do it or not; it is voluntary. Perhaps Scott implies that vibrato is involuntary when the laryngeal muscles
    are relaxed, and we can volutarily tighten them to stop the vibrato?????????
    That is not my sensation, however.
    Dr. John Vasko


    Scott Pool

    Terry and John,

    By the time I made it to the last chapter in my study, part of my conclusion was that in the grand scheme of things vibrato was achieved by a variety of means (laryngeal, abdominal and even some jaw). As artists, we tailor our vibrato to fit the musical phrase or emotion, and that usually incorporates a variety of systems working together. Within a three octave scale, the lower tones may be played with an abdominal vibrato and then switch over to laryngeal somewhere around our “c”. Our ears never notice a perceived difference; I believe I used the term “complex Gestalt system” when speaking of overall vibrato production…but I digress.

    To get back to Terry and John’s primary question, when vibrato is turned off (straight-tone singing for vocalists), we are not consciously stopping the chords, but instead we are tensing muscles that lead to the same result. I’ve been doing some informal experiments in the practice room, and I notice that when I deliberately stop the vibrato and play with a straight tone, I feel a slight tension in the throat that is not there when I play freely with vibrato.

    I’d be really interested to get back in and see what was occuring when players were making a concentrated effort to produce certain pulsations per second as Terry mentioned. One of the things I wish we had done was to measure the abdominal wall at the same time to see if there were any sympathetic vibrations. My visual observation was that there were none, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the abdominal vibrato crept in when players were trying to really regulate the vibrato to a certain number of pulses per second.

    My study was observational; I just wanted to see what role the larynx was playing in vibrato production. Though we got a lot of great results, there were many questions for future studies that arose.

    And by the way, thanks for all of your thoughts on this matter. It’s been a nice stimulation to discuss this topic.

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