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Anna Heifetz

Comparing Types of Vibrato, Part Three

April 25, 2012 at 1:09 AM

Here is the final installment of "Comparing Types of Vibrato." I admit I haven't practiced much the last few days-- knowing I must now face up to the daunting task of double stop scale exercises. If anyone can explain to me why we must do these things, please let me know. Even a bit of encouragement is helpful.

Here's Part Three, based on a letter from my father-in-law, Michael Heifetz, dated 3/20/12:

A. Vibrato and Tension in your Body

We all know that many instrumental musicians develop serious physical problems caused by repeated and/or prolonged stress/tension in various parts of their bodies. These problems may not manifest or become serious for many years - but they tend to get more troublesome as we age. There is a greater awareness of these problems and their causes now than in previous generations, and more players are looking for ways to minimize the physical stresses associated with playing their instruments.

1. When looking at the muscular tension issue in vibrato, one should first consider a prominent muscular tension issue facing all violinists - pronation of the elbow. Pronation is a problem no matter where you are on the fingerboard, and regardless of whether or not you are using vibrato. It is related to the shape of the violin itself, and the necessity of getting the hand and arm around the lower bout of the instrument. Violinists must pull the elbow inward toward the center of the body in order to establish a good hand position relative to the fingerboard. Playing on the lower strings – especially the G string – often calls for pulling the elbow inward even further. Playing well in the upper positions on the G string requires still more inward movement of the elbow. The muscular tension caused by pronation of the elbow appears to be a major causal factor for many violinists’ neuromuscular problems. The problem is worse for violists who must negotiate their larger instruments. (There are even ergonomically shaped violins and violas designed to minimize this problem. For example, look at David Ravinis’ instruments. They have saved many professional careers.)

2. Given this inherent pronation problem, anything that we do which adds unnecessary tension, probably makes matters worse. On the other hand, using “just enough” muscular tension may help us avoid serious physical problems.

3. Some people point out that there is less tension in the body when using wrist/hand vibrato than arm vibrato. Wrist vibrato is activated in the palm of the hand; there is only a little involvement of other muscles elsewhere in the body. The impulse for the arm vibrato comes from the forearm - and also involves muscles in the upper arm, the chest, and (less prominently) the shoulder. (You can test this idea by simulating an arm vibrato movement without holding the violin. Use your right hand to check for signs of the muscles tensing up.) These muscles are tensed whenever the arm vibrato is activated. Arm vibrato operates more like a “large tension system" than the wrist vibrato.

4. If you think this argument has merit, you may wish to emphasize wrist/hand vibrato to reduce the possibility of tension-related problems in your future. In this case, other types of vibrato can be called upon to supplement the wrist vibrato.

B. A few thoughts on the Thumb
These ideas hold true for arm vibrato, wrist vibrato, or no vibrato.

1. The thumb’s angle on the neck reflects the hand’s orientation. Since we are advocating bending the wrist somewhat back toward the scroll (at least in the lower positions), the thumb would point toward the scroll as well. The thumb’s grip on the violin does not increase. It remains flexible, not tight.

2. The thumb must be able to move freely. The thumb is “alive” and continually shifting it’s position as the hand and arm move around the fingerboard. That is one reason why it is hard to state an ideal angle (or even range of angles) for the thumb relative to the neck of the instrument – the angle changes quite often as you reposition your hand and arm to deal with the technical demands of a piece. Here are just a couple of examples – there are many others:
--Sometimes when shifting from a high position to a low position, the thumb can help by “leading the way”. It can reach down to the lower position just before the rest of the hand moves. It establishes a base in the lower position, and helps “pull down” the rest of the hand to the new position.
--Another example: In order to play certain passages, it may be useful to modify the hand/arm/fingers orientation to the violin. It feels like you are modifying the configuration or shape of your hand to reach the notes effectively. When we do this, the thumb’s position changes as well. Suppose you are playing a passage of 3 and 4 note chords in a Bach unaccompanied sonata. It may be necessary to “grab” all the notes of a chord simultaneously - one grab after another. (This is a technique classical guitars are familiar with.) In order to play the chords in tune, you may have to change the orientation of the hand/arm/fingers to the violin from one chord to the next. As the “configuration” of your hand/arm/fingers changes, so does the thumb’s position relative to the violin, arm, and the rest of the left hand.

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