Some Vibrato Myths

January 17, 2015, 6:39 PM · Greetings,

In pursuit of the Brahms concerto, after hearing Hilary Hahn play it so magnificently on Youtube, I tried a few more. Vadim Repin, one of my favorite players, is out there with a performance which somehow looks like he is trying too hard for my taste.

A little too much effort in pursuit of drama?. Then there is one of my all time favorite players, Zimmerman. Just astonishing demonstration of bow control and musicianship, or should it be the other way round.

I think I would cite this as an example of why 'the best sound is produced by a flat bow hair' is an over simplification. Here Zimmerman`s bow is tilted most of the time but as he applies a lot of weight the hair is squeezed into a triangle I suppose and a great deal is touching the string.

Britain is a country that used ot have wonderful fish and chips, still (as far I know) has good beer and has never been able to provide more than a handful of the rich or lucky with decent instrumental training. Personally, I ran the gamut of crappy to less crappy provincial teachers until I got into Music College where I had some relatively less crappy teachers but still didn't get any information worth much from them about violin playing. It's a situation that has changed over the last ten years, I think. In all that time, I can only recall being given one vibrato lessons (or rather three minutes of a lesson on it) which is why I didn't know doodle squat about vibrato until long after I left and constantly looked for resources to clarify what I was doing and how to teach it.

So, here are the results of all that struggle, in the form of my personal beliefs about vibrato myths. If they offend anyone I am sorry. Opinions are just like belly buttons.....

1) A good technique uses continuous vibrato. Nope. Hilary Hahn uses fairly continuous vibrato and plays beautifully. But there are plenty of others who don`t. White sound is an important part of our expressive arsenal.

2) Vibrato is necessary to correct intonation or indeed, to play in tune. Not so. One can have precise fingertips and react rapidly so that the audience hears good intonation.

3) There is such a term as wrist vibrato. Nope. Modern day pedagogy calls it, quite correctly, hand vibrato.

4) Connected to the above. There is such a thing as independent fingertip, hand and wrist vibrato and we should learn all three as discrete technical devices to exploit artistically. Not so. One cannot vibrate the hand without some slight arm movement and vice versa and a pure finger action is extremely rare. Ida Haendal gets there sometimes... There are vibratos which contain substantially more of one of these movements than the other but this absolute division is not helpful when thinking about vibrato.

5) Arm vibrato is good for concertos while wrist vibrato is less meaty and intense and well suited to chamber music. Nonsense. The sound of vibrato we hear can only be created by the finger tip which which will roll more or less wide and faster or slower in various proportions. How that happens depends on the player and is not unique to either emphasis of hand or arm.

6) Vibrato can be picked up naturally. Many beginners have claimed this but their vibrato remains awful.

7) Vibrato is the sound of a note being flattened in pitch then returning to the note. This is one possible approach but best left for effect. The degree the backward note can be heard depend on whether the rocking is even or in a dotted rhythm. The even rocking is very noticeable and can be extremely annoying. The dotted version less so but still obtrusive if over used. The actual sound of good vibrato is a pinging repetition of the note itself and not much else. Simon Fischer has likened this to the sound of sautille bowing which is a brilliant guide to aim for. It is best to eliminate the lower pitch by releasing the tension of the finger on the string on the roll back.

8) Vibrato is easy to develop and learn how to control with minimal work. For most people this is not true. As Simon Streuff observed in a recent thread, one has to practice as many different exercises as possible and then see what kind of unique vibrato we end up with. It`s a lot of work daily making those pinging noises in a wide variety of rhythms, but if you can't do that, you haven't got a real vibrato. Vibrato is a tool and if you can`t control it you cannot claim to 'have a good , -natural- vibrato.'

Rule Britannia,

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January 19, 2015 at 02:38 PM · Buri, these are the truest words I've ever read regarding vibrato. Bravo!

January 19, 2015 at 02:49 PM · Is it relevant to the discussion to point out that Repin is playing a Guarneri (the1743 Rebner/Bonjour del Gesù) while Zimmermann is a Strad man (the 1711 Lady Inchiquin)? The tonal qualities heard in these two videos conform to the generalizations often made about the two makers. I defer to both of these fine players in artistic matters of sound production -- they both had historically great teachers and soloed with world class orchestras while still in adolescence. For me, Repin can do no wrong, but, doubtless, that's just me . . .

January 19, 2015 at 07:44 PM · Appreciate the vibrato observations!

Reference the tonal qualities topic raised in a comment (a perennially debated topic), given only these two audio samples to choose one of the instruments based only on perceived tone, for my use I would positively select the sound provided in the Zimmerman video, which Mr. Hudson reports to be from a Strad.

In addition to the "operator," room acoustics and the recording apparatus substantially impact resulting recorded and reproduced tone. For example, Bell's Guarneri doesn't sound too bad in this recording:

But then my ears greatly appreciate the Soil Strad too. And the Francesca And Amati Etc, etc, etc...

January 19, 2015 at 08:16 PM · Buri, you jolly well SHOULD be an absolute expert on all the vibrati, seeing that your surname is an anagram of them!

January 19, 2015 at 10:54 PM · I shortened it to buri because I was suffering from (h)ubris.



January 20, 2015 at 04:43 AM · Thanks for debunking the continuous vibrato myth. Vibrato is very individual. I like Mutter's vibrato, there is so much texture. Her "berlin recital" cd is a like a vibrato master class. I mean the debussy and franck sonatas, they knocked my socks off.

My teacher says that when your finger rolls back, there should be a change in timber since you are going from the harder finger tip toward the fleshier pad of the finger. According to him this will create richness an I think that is what I hear in ASM's sound. If that's so then maybe one doesnt need to consciously lighten the touch to diffuse the pitch when you are off center. Or maybe the touch lightens organically because the pressure against the string is not as direct when the finger is not pressing so much downward.

January 24, 2015 at 08:43 AM · Thank you for your very helpful hints about vibrato. I totally agree with everything you say, except for " continuous vibrato being a myth". The history of recording proves, that many earlier players, modeling themselves after Kreisler, vibrated continuously (or at least tried to do so)

Kreisler and Heifetz both also proved that vibrato should not even stop during the moment of shifting. This is an absolute pre -condition for achieving an artistic portamento!

Hilary Hahn is indeed a good model for one of todays players, who still uses a continuous vibrato. To my ears her vibrato shows even some resemblance with Erica Morini's.

The famous players who stopped their vibrato for certain notes, initiating todays fashion were for example Szerying and Varga.

Oistrack and Milstein used it to a lesser extent and in more subtle ways. It seemed to belong to their personal expression and was not so much a mannerism.

By now the "on and off vibrato" has become a fact of life, rather than of vibrato skills.

I personally can't stand notes that stick out of a musical phrase 'like sore thumbs' for no apparent reason! It takes away from the nobility of expression and it makes music sound common. This is my gut reaction, but I can't suppress it.

Primrose (who had been influenced by the greatest players of the past) mentioned, that even in white, non vibrated sounds such as the end of Britten's Lachrymae, there still is a small amount of 'technical vibrato' used.

This may not be heard, but it can be seen and serves to stop the left hand from becoming 'static'. Let's conclude, that the best vibrato is the one, that doesn't distract the listener and supports the interpretation through the bow.

I remember reading many years ago in some old violin tutor, ( I can't remember which one) that 'most dogs make more sense in wiggling their tails, than violinists do wiggling their hands.'

January 24, 2015 at 09:34 AM · Hartmut

As a dog person I love your comment about the tail!!

I do also agree with you about vibrato. It is part of the interpretation and musical line and we are in danger of over analysing it. I have just been listening to Suk playing Brahms sonatas and he has a wonderfully musical

vibrato which appears to my ear to be fairly continuos.

Some people do have natural vibratos that were not taught, whilst some people need help, and some never really succeed in acquiring a good natural vibrato.

January 24, 2015 at 08:27 PM · Perhaps we have an auric trait similar to Persistance of Vision, where in we associate perceived pitch with the highest perceived tone....and thus, Vibrato moyion should generally result in lower pitch than the desired note. Width and speed are certainly a personal affair and determine much of our taste in performance. How vibrato is produced is dependent on the use violin vibrato on a string bass neck would show minimal results. Those of us that also play viola perhaps notice this sublte change more than others. Yet the arm vibrato taught by Francis Tursi back at Eastman, would simply be too wide for most violin performance unless one happened to have miniature hands. Fascinating topic that arouses more questions than answers.

January 25, 2015 at 12:55 AM · That pinging sound is an interesting thing you say.

She does it more clearly than even Elman. Whether or not this is the definition of a high quality vibrato I have to think about but it's very interesting :)

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