Live from China: Coverage of the Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition
String Instrument Techniques: How to Learn Vibrato
December 17, 2012 at 11:37 PM
Photo by Melissa Weiss
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:
- Find an experienced teacher to be your “vibrato mentor.”
- Relax your hand and arms. Playing with tense muscles will undermine your technique.
- Begin practicing vibrato without the bow, simply moving your wrist (on violin/viola) or rotating your forearm (on cello/bass) in a rocking motion on the string.
- Practice that rocking motion very slowly, even with a metronome, from slower to faster speeds until the motion is comfortable. Listen for the pitch to bend, actually changing in frequency.
- Vibrato is not a “shaking” motion; i.e. don’t shake the life out of your instrument trying to vibrato. The instrument itself shouldn’t move, shake, vibrate, or respond to this movement of your fingers. The instrument will remain still as you rock your fingers on the fingerboard, somewhat like a wheel rolling back and forth on a flat surface.
- Once you feel comfortable with the motion itself, add the bow. Practice first with long tones, drawing the bow from frog to tip and spending time with each finger: first, second, third, and fourth.
- Using vibrato with your left hand while bowing with the right feels something like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Don’t get frustrated as you practice until the motion in your left hand, wrist, and arm is comfortable! Learning vibrato takes patience and time.
- Once you feel confident playing with each of your fingers, try out your vibrato with a slow song with more long tones, like a Largo of some sort.
- Now you’re ready to use your vibrato for phrasing throughout a piece. Try varying the speed of your vibrato or starting with a straight tone and adding vibrato to the note.
- Remember that vibrato isn’t necessary on every note. Use vibrato with discretion.
- Baroque pieces, such as works by J.S. Bach, are typically played with very little or no vibrato at all.
- Romantic pieces, such as works by Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky, are typically played with lots of dramatic, wide vibrato,
Good luck! Remember, patience, patience, patience while you practice, practice, practice. Before you know it, what felt like an awkward, impossible technique will soon become second nature. You can do it!
I'm glad you posted this. I have always struggled with vibrato. My second teacher had me start with some wrist exercises that never went anywhere. I later asked my third teacher (I've had five...) to teach me vibrato and she said she didn't see a need; she thought I was doing fine. I didn't know I was doing anything! I had to try and figure it out by myself. I now have good vibrato with my first and second fingers but come third, it's a struggle and fourth there isn't any. Can you do vibrato with the fourth finger?
Shouldn't be a problem on 3rd and 4th fingers, I have a couple of exercises up on youtube, kirbyfiddler's channel, which some people have found helpful, starting without the violin at all, then very much like what's described above.
Once you've got it I find the tricky part is being able not to use it at the wrong time!
Vibrato exercise 1
Vibrato exercise 2
Vibrato exercise 3
I'm not a professional fiddler, but I have had some success in teaching this.
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