The Smile and the Vibrato

Carl E. Seashore wrote many things in his life. Some articles perturb certain friends of mine (and rightly so) but regardless, his scientific approach to analyzing vibrato should be considered a cornerstone to any research regarding the mechanics and application of vibrato in the early twentieth century.

But this post isn’t about degrees of pitch alteration in the vibrato of violinists in 1936 or the number of oscillations per second of a singer’s voice while employing vibrato. Instead, it is to shed light onto an interesting metaphor which Dr. Seashore writes when discussing the contentious nature of the employment of vibrato.

Writers throughout history have have often been coy (much like Madame Lisa in the painting) about putting in concrete terms how much vibrato a performer should actually use (wether or not it is possible to do so is a discussion for another time.) Leopold Mozart writes in 1756 that “mother nature should be the instructress thereof.” This idea of the naturalness in the employment of vibrato continues in much of the writings on the subject for the next 150+ years.

Dr. Seashore continues this ambiguity, but in a more interesting manner. The following excerpt comes from his Psychology of the Vibrato in Voice and Instrument Volume 3, published in 1936.

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The Smile and the Vibrato.
We have a good analogy in the smile. The smile is nature’s outlet for good will, the attitude of “I like you,” “I like it,” or “I am well disposed.” Under natural conditions it comes spontaneously and is one of the conspicuous elements in the language of social intercourse, often more incisive than words or gestures. But being recognized as valuable in social intercourse, it is often imitated, and the imitation smile may take the form of the genuine smile, but somehow the social connoisseur is not misled by the professional smile or the smile which comes purely as the result of a cultivated social amenity. Not that a cultivated smile is necessarily undesirable, but few of us are deceived by it. The genuine smile always tells the truth, because it is the organic response which represents well being and a favorable disposition toward a situation, event, or person.
So it is with the vibrato. The pulsating quality is nature’s language which tells the truth. It can be imitated, but the imitation is discernible. We must, however, distinguish between imitating and cultivating the smile. The infant and young child not only smiles but shouts with laughter. Maturation and education tone this down so that the audible laughter becomes controlled and unobtrusive – we say “cultured” – and the rough edges of the smile, the visible laughter, are progressively retouched, or toned down.
The analogy between the smile and the vibrato is fundamental. They are natural expressions of well-being, good will, and genuine feeling. They can be refined through education and social development. However, we ordinarily smile with our face, although psychologically we smile with our whole body, and the dog smiles with his tail. The vibrato is, however, more specialized, and takes the form of exhibiting instability through the pulsating character of the tone.

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This then raises the question, if a vibrato is unnatural, like a forced “fake smile,” could you hear it?

A Challenger Appears…..

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