The Rocky Road to a Smooth Vibrato

February 15, 2018, 6:10 AM · When I was a young boy I started many techniques, such as vibrato, bow distribution and shifting. It took me too many years to learn them because of one huge and maddening obstacle. I applied various exercises mindlessly and tirelessly, without thinking about what was actually happening with those techniques. I would have preferred more talent and natural ability to get me through those formative years, rather than knocking my head against the wall racking up my “10,000 hours.” I don’t knock hard work, but this idea that anyone can be great at something if they spend the time ignores the fact that practicing mistakes wastes time. My time would have better spent if I had searched for hidden slivers of talent that I didn’t even know existed.

I was clearly in a dead end.

mountain ahead

Even the tiniest of insights would have been appreciated. Great vibrato involves large motions yielding results over a tiny area. Mine was very narrow because my muscles and movements were strained in the wrist area. If I had instinctively known that the pitch is supposed to change, but never sound out of tune, and that the fingertip will move passively as a result of an extremely wide movement of the arm from the elbow, I would have had greater success much sooner.

From a Dead End to a Cul de Sac to a Roundabout

When it dawned on me that my wrist was too tight and my vibrato rhythm was faster than a speeding bullet, I needed more than the usual exercises. My wrist and speed were preventing my arm from swinging at the elbow. This was a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. If an engineer designed a mental image of what happens during vibrato, it would show a pyramid: the swinging arm is as wide as the bottom of the pyramid, while the fingertip covers the tiny area at the top. I embraced this explanation because there is much that we can learn from engineers about the violin. However, I had a violinist’s brain that needed to dig myself out of the rut known as a bad habit, and evolve slowly to a natural and effective vibrato. I had to unkink the hose.

I used a concentration technique know as “free association” to break through the knotty cramping of my vibrato. I spent five to ten minutes at a time letting my mind wander while I randomly picked out notes to vibrate on. I reminded myself that my vibrato, as faulty as it was, had some elements that were redeemable. This thought kept my vibrato from unraveling, and gave even an imperfect vibrato some dignity. It was fortunate that the pitch didn’t waiver and the vibrato was continuous from note to note. I had to remind myself that future results and successes depended on staying confident and being proud of what I had. I was intent on not letting my musical mind unravel either.

I needed some talent and insight to see the big picture of how the vibrato fits in with the left arm. The problem was that my natural ability was not only limited, but hidden from view. I realize now, however, that there was a reservoir of it somewhere inside of me. But as long as it was dormant, it was of very little help. Its presence, however, served to remind me that these seemingly difficult techniques are actually very simple. I remember my inner voice speaking very clearly, simply stating that the solution would present itself. But mysteries don’t reveal themselves at once. Much investigating takes place to shed light, even at the slow rate of one detail at a time.

For instance, it dawned on me that my vibrato was being activated too quickly. Music is all about how parts fit, such as the vibrato being slightly passive when compared to the intensity and dominance of the bow arm. Not only was the shaking too fast, but it also kept starting over and over again when it needed to be coasting.

The three techniques of vibrato, bow distribution and shifting are very complex, especially when the ear isn’t engaged fully and the eye-ear-hand coordination is faulty. I like to imagine that Einstein had great difficulty with the violin. Was there something inherently difficult about music that inspired Einstein to re-examine the universe? What did he mean when he said that learning music, and specifically the violin, helped him create the Theory of Relativity?

I don’t believe he would have said that unless he had struggled with music. If it was hard for him, I don’t think it’s going to be any easier for us. Relativity implies that applications we learned when we were young aren’t as effective as we thought. As an intermediate or advanced student, it would take creative, adult thinking to solve problems. One student who was having great difficulty with the violin told me that he knew what he was supposed to do, which I think made him feel better. Ironically, all the words we have learned to explain what we do cannot take the place of knowing inside how things actually get done.


February 15, 2018 at 11:32 PM · Thank you for another wonderful analysis! I am going to remind myself that my vibrato, as faulty as it is, has some elements that are redeemable.

February 16, 2018 at 06:47 AM · Congratulations for slaying the dragon! (And for making an extremely extensive process readable without writing an entire book on the subject). Those of us who've had poor vibrato technique are many. Those of us who've done the work to correct it, I am guessing, are few.

When I set out to"re-learn" my vibrato I approximated 3 years. It's now been 20 and I'm just now starting to hear with my ears what I've been hearing in my head my entire life. Thank you for this wonderfully insightful post and congratulations again! Your YouTube recordings are fantastic.

February 16, 2018 at 07:17 PM · To #50, I bet many of your vibrato's elements are redeemable. The irony of vibrato is that often it sounds better than it feels. And when something works, and you're not sure why, consider it a sign of talent.

February 16, 2018 at 07:23 PM · Skyko, You sound like a true fan of the violin. And a very patient one. To work on vibrato for 20 years makes one believe that "hope springs eternal". Thanks for listening to my YouTube recordings.

February 16, 2018 at 07:43 PM · The worst mantra that was drilled into me was "continuous vibrato". Rather than understanding vibrato to be an expressive elaboration to control and apply like color, I was habitually applying vibrato ~ like sprinkling salt all over their food before tasting it. I eventually realized that vibrato, like salt, is seasoning, rather spice, used to enhance the music, rather than change its character. Even when i had the mechanics down, it needed to be applied tastefully and with purpose.

February 16, 2018 at 08:41 PM · You are welcome, my friend! Hope, faith, persistence and a good deal of painful sounding wah, wah, wah, wah... ;)

February 16, 2018 at 11:22 PM · One cliche that used to bug me was start the vibrato before the note. That always threw me off.

February 16, 2018 at 11:34 PM · I like the concept of the vibrato coasting instead of starting and stopping. To go from dead stop to a smooth even oscllation introduces a lot of tension for me.

February 17, 2018 at 12:23 AM · I like your emphasis on staying positive. if one is not positive one will give up. Then how will he or she get any better?

February 17, 2018 at 03:38 AM · Does negativity do anything positive for a musician's mind? Why do we still hear stories about mean conductors and teachers? Are there benefits to being subjected to tempers and itrational behaviors? I know there aren't, but history suggests otherwise.

February 19, 2018 at 12:56 AM · So many people struggle to learn it, and then so many who have learned it overuse it to such an extreme that it becomes like white noise in the music. I suppose this began with the 19th century romantic concertos and evolved into the “continuous vibrato”, white noise added to the music out of habit, a foolish consistancy. Every modern violinist must use it continuously. Listen to YouTube recordings of Heifetz or Milstein playing Corelli or another composer of that era. They’ve hijacked the music into romantic syrupiness. I always think Emerson was a genius when he said: “a foolish consistancy is the hobgoblin of small minds”.

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