December 17, 2012 at 11:37 PM
One of the trickiest, but most essential techniques to learn on a string instrument is the practice of vibrato.
What is Vibrato?
Vibrato is the act of actually altering the pitch of the string by rocking or vibrating your finger the pitch of the note through the physical movement of your fingers.
It’s an artistic effect, an embellishment that adds to the musicality, phrasing, and beauty of notes that might otherwise be played flatly and without character.
Using the Left Hand
Vibrato is as essential to phrasing and musicality as dynamics and articulation with the bow. But unlike the nuances of volume and texture created with the bow in the right hand, vibrato is a unique expression performed with the left hand. For those of us who are right handed, it may seem challenging to train your left hand to do such minute and intricate movements, but with dedicated practice, it will eventually feel so natural you’ll hardly realize you’ve conquered the technique.
The Mechanics of Vibrato
The mechanics of vibrato are slightly different on violins and violas versus cellos and basses because of the angle of the instrument in relation to your body. Cellos and basses are played in an upright position, with the endpins towards the ground and vibrato performed by rocking the forearm and fingers on the strong. Violins and violas are played with the violin perpendicular to the body, in a horizontal position somewhat parallel to the ground with vibrato played with a motion centered in the wrist.
When to Learn Vibrato
Learning vibrato isn’t recommended until you are consistent and confident with your left hand positioning and finger placement first. Ideally, you have learned to play in tune without tapes or guides on your fingerboard. Your muscle memory (in terms of the proper shape of your hand and where your fingers contact the strings) is precise.
Your "Vibrato Mentor"
If you don’t have a private teacher or mentor working with you on your technique, now is the time to “consult” with an experienced player. With these fundamental techniques, like a proper bow hold and vibrato, learning how to do it correctly from the start is so important! Bad habits, especially when it comes to playing a string instrument, are extremely hard to break if initially learned improperly.
Sometimes students learn vibrato and bow holds in school orchestra programs without working one-on-one with a teacher. That one-on-one attention is invaluable with these more difficult and artistic techniques. Be sure to get that individual attention in this learning process.
Tips to Learn Vibrato
Here are a few tips when learning vibrato, whether on the cello or the bass:
Once you've got it I find the tricky part is being able not to use it at the wrong time!
I'm not a professional fiddler, but I have had some success in teaching this.
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Liz Lambson is from Kennedy Violins in Vancouver, Washington. Biography
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