I have a deep respect for flutists because they possess the secret to making a sound that is a complete mystery to the rest of the world. Ask them to explain it and it takes a couple of sentences, the last one invariably being “blow into it like you would to get a whistle out of a pop bottle.” Now here’s where it gets complicated. The generic answer, the one size fits all, is not sufficient. It would take too long to explain what people do to mess it up. And while mere words would be inadequate, they would still be useful.
So go many other techniques in music. The short explanations don’t always work. (On the other side of the coin, in the cases where explanations are superfluous, the more talented the student, the less they need a wordy description. The visual and the aural examples help more. Sometimes the words just get in the way.)
With many students, however, the longer explanation is what the teacher creates to fix the particular problem. In music, the devil is not in the details. That’s where the solutions lie.
Don’t Do a Do-Over
Vibrato is essentially a self-taught maneuver. If your vibrato is full of bumps and robotic gestures, how do you simplify it? How do you replace karate-like jabs with coasting back and forth, gentle and rhythmic?
Vibrato is one of the least understood violin techniques, much like making a sound on a flute. We are drawn to a particular vibrato by virtue of our individual make-up.
When you’re ready to make a change, work with what you have, rather than throw the baby out with the bath water. This has several advantages. It eliminates the possibility of transferring the shaking and bumping from an arm vibrato to a wrist vibrato. It also begins the process in which reflective observation will make the necessary changes. Finally, refining what you have, instead of changing everything, will re-direct energy that is needed to think about the bow arm’s role in vibrato.
Change the Ingredients
I once worked with a student whose vibrato was on the verge of success, but it only had one missing ingredient. Vibrato success depends on just the right recipe, and all it takes is a certain tweak here or there. The problem is knowing where to give a little, and where to take a little. In his case, the student started the vibrato early, with too much intensity. Fortunately, his mind was such that by merely thinking about waiting a moment and being slightly less intense, he made the precise adjustment. Was he lucky? Or did he have the kind of talent that can re-wire the brain on the first try? Almost everyone has the ability to change the brain’s perspective to make it more amenable to music. Sometimes it takes several tries.
What Happens When the Vibrato Shakes the Violin
Baby vibratos tend to have a cataclysmic effect on the violin. It reacts to the vibrato in similar ways as an earthquake, and causes several after-shocks. To fix the unwanted seizures, think about the details of your vibrato. If you’re confused as to whether it is of the arm or a wrist (hand) variety, decide once and for all. It’s the ambiguity which causes the problems of bumps and collisions. All it takes is one motion to make a great vibrato, and a sense of exactly when the motion begins. Don’t give mixed messages to the arm.
Know the exact direction of the vibrato. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s an oblique angle to the violin, not parallel to the fingerboard.
Don’t worry if you’re squeezing the neck to some extent. That’s never stopped a good vibrato, and a little shaking of the violin is totally expected. While relaxation and lack of tension is emphasized by many violin teachers, it’s still completely natural to squeeze the neck somewhat. I imagine rock climbers are taught to relax their ankles and their wrists, but if you’re hanging upside down at Yosemite’s Half Dome, indulge yourself and tense up a little. (Stiffening muscles and clenching are two of the most natural responses to tense situations.) You won’t fall. (Don’t actually try this. As you may have guessed, I’ve never tried it, and it may not work.)
Fear of Wrists
Apparently there is a malady known as carpophobia, which may afflict a fair number of violinists. Sometimes a hard wrist is the likely culprit blamed for a skewed vibrato. If both wrists are hard as a rock, I can imagine a violinist developing an obsession, and fear, of wrists. However, when you look up carpophobia on the Internet, violinists don’t come up. (If you teased your sister that her wrists would fall off if she kept rubber bands on them, you probably created a carpophobic. Look it up on the Internet.) Maybe in the vast literature of musicians’ ailments, someone has mentioned its connection to violinists, in the same chapter as fiddler’s neck.
When I realized that both of my wrists were too tense, I imagined they were light as marshmallows. That helped a great deal. However, since I was dealing with years of playing with hard wrists, nothing can completely eradicate the problem. Nevertheless, some pressure is necessary. It’s part of my make-up, my sound, and my technique. Who knows, some of it is perfectly fine. Accepting your particular way of doing things is essential to freeing up the musical mind.
Freeing Up Vibrato
That being said, apply pressure to the neck judiciously. Let your “holding the violin” technique include a pulling away from the neck to equalize the amount you’re pressing into the neck. The pressure you’ve been applying to the neck for years is primordial and human. It’s not the cause of the violin shaking unevenly.
Imagine water traveling through a straw. The motion of the hand as it moves up and down and around the neck allows the same freedom and flow that water experiences.
Another impediment may be the sudden surge of a beat, or rather, the ictus of the beat. Ictus is the most sudden manifestation of the pulse-the jab or the point of the beat. (Solti wore his ictus like a badge of honor; Boulez hid his.) A good vibrato avoids icti like the plague. The part of the beat that nourishes the vibrato is the pendulum component, the round-like quality that allows pulses to inhabit their full value. If the beat asserts itself too much, and makes the vibrato restart with a visible seizure, its roundness and coasting quality will be sacrificed.
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