How to sing a trill? It is not just a shake in the voice, a widening of your vibrato! It is actually an oscillation between two notes. Read up on ornamentation and exercises for wind instruments (especially the oboe, which is one of the instruments closest to the human voice in its production).

There are MANY sources for you to learn more about all different types of ornaments. My thought is that trills up to and including Mozart should as a rule begin with the appoggiatura. After that, I think it is up to taste whether it sounds good to you to start it on the note itself or on the appoggiatura. The more you travel into modernity, the more likely it is that the composer imagined the trill starting on the note he wrote…

Baroque trills:

I haven’t seen anyone online describe this, but the technique taught to me by Emmanuelle Haïm, a Baroque scholar and renowned Baroque conductor, was the following:

  • Start the trill on the upper note, a long appoggiatura, but not emphasizing it, and slide smoothly into the trill (if it is a slow trill, of course you go slowly into the trill)
  • at the end of the trill, instead of a turn, you ‘flatten’ out the trill an instant at the end by singing (almost without vibrato) the main note again, to give the listener the main note in his ear again. Voilà

Moreover, I think you should be liberal with your addition of cadential trills – they aren’t optional, they’re expected. There are many Handel arias that have ‘weird sounding’ cadences if you do NOT put in the cadential trill! Put them in as a rule. Here is a transcription of Bach’s ornament table, written for the keyboard instruction of his son. BACH ORNAMENTS and here is a scan of the original document!

Classical trills:

I think most of the time should start on the appoggiatura. Much discussion here about whether you need a ‘little diddle’ at the end of the trill (a turn, etc…) – this will depend on your conductor. Here is a wonderful page about Classical Trills!

Bel canto trills:

starts on the main note, except where approached by upper note, when you can use the appoggiatura according to your taste. Usually takes a mordent at the end.

Romantic to Modern Age Trills:

Check out this lovely site by Flutist Jennifer Cluff. Ornamentation – with a nice audio example of all the different ornaments illustrated in a version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

How to develop a trill

A trill is not just a shake in the voice, and you need to teach your throat how to produce one. First, you must always have a relaxed larynx. It is easier to start to trill in the more ‘head-voice” parts of the voice, as a trill requires more of the light mechanism of the voice to sing. Many times, a trill in the bottom of the voice will require more head resonance to truly be effective. To free up a tight larynx, you can start by oscillating between two notes on big intervals – like a 4th, 5th or even 6th. You do not concentrate on the sound being pretty in this oscillation between large intervals – it IS going to sound like a Tarzan call. You should oscillate between these two notes clearly, going faster and faster until you feel the throat relaxing into it. Then you can start making smaller intervals until you get to a 2nd.. It is important you clearly sing each note in a trill. I know that sounds obvious, but many singers are so used to faking trills that even when they’re trying to learn how to really do it, they go too fast and don’t actually sing the two oscillating notes.

Whether beginning from above or on the note, the technique to learn how to trill is as follows:

Click here to download the exercise in pdf form.

Take a big breath. Sing the two notes as quarter notes back and forth to get the feel of the two notes in your throat. Then take another big breath and sing them as eighth notes, slow enough to make sure you are singing both notes. Then switch into triplets (so the bottom note will come on differing rhythmic stresses), then switch into sixteenths, then to 32nds, then 68ths… and pretty soon, you are trilling. You are teaching your throat to let go and oscillate between the two notes. This is a SLOW process and will not happen overnight. But if you practice your trills for 10 minutes a day this way, on each two notes in your range, pretty soon your body will freely create a trill without so much thought. Be methodic in the beginning, though and go slowly!! Here is an example I made. I have put in accents to make it even harder, so you can concentrate on them and on getting the rhythm right, and as a by-product forget about your throat and just loosen it up until – VOILÀ! – you are singing a trill! Try it on a few different notes in each part of of your voice every day, and pretty soon, you’ll have the whole scale of notes that you can trill away on… The important thing is not the vowel or anything, but loosening up your throat, and oscillating between two distinct notes.
Click on this image to see this trill written out – it will help you concentrate on something while your throat learns to oscillate! :-)
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