One of the oddest statements some pedagogues say is “it can’t be taught.” I have heard the “it” refer to rhythm, intonation, shifting, phrasing, and most often, to vibrato. Nothing could be further from the truth, but teaching and learning anything is never easy. When it comes to vibrato, there is a phenomenon I see time and again, that a student knows how to vibrate, but doesn’t have the gumption to do it. This falls under the same category as someone not using more bow when he’s fully capable of it. Now how do you teach that?
Lack of gumption is as destructive as surplus gumption. Just to clarify, the great word gumption means “initiative, aggressiveness, resourcefulness”. A little too much or too little of these things can disrupt a chamber music group or orchestra. We walk a tightrope when we play the violin, don’t we? Hats off to those who play both the violin AND golf. They may be gluttons for punishment, but their sense of balance and eye-hand coordination just keeps on developing. You can never have enough of those qualities.
Some of us are born with gumption, and others can develop it just like any other technique. A violinist needs one part of his mind to act as a Central Command Center, one that gives him encouragement to do something that seems impossible. The first time he attempts to vibrate will seem the hardest, but the second time builds on experience and repetition. Limiting the wildness of the vibrato is the ultimate goal. The vibrato’s oscillation, swaying evenly like a pendulum, will improve and the pitch will stay more focused.
The idea of coaching yourself, of hearing your own voice over the mish-mash of musical messages thrown at you, is not an easy one to accept. A student who knows how to vibrate but doesn’t use it simply needs an internal voice to start the process.
There are two reasons why a good vibrato is left unused: Fear of shaking the violin, and the rather difficult skill of starting two things, vibrating and bowing, at exactly the same time.
Direction and Cohesion: Keeping the Vibrato Whole
I’ve used this exercise to help keep my violin from shaking: Vibrate on the first finger in first position using one long down bow; stop the vibrato and prepare for the second finger, observing the change in hand position and the path of the vibrato; now vibrate with the second finger; Repeat with the other fingers, then repeat on different strings and positions. Don’t forget to start the vibrato after counting two beats. A rhythmic impetus keeps it stable and prevents it from unraveling.
Without a crystal clear awareness of when the vibrato starts, the parts that make up the vibrato start peeling away. I don’t like the idea that vibrato is a “whole made up of many parts”. Parts tear apart. If the wrist becomes too wobbly or ventures into unexpected territory, the player should do everything he can to limit the damage. Trim the excess movement of the vibrato and replace it with a firm knowledge of how to start it. How the vibrato starts will tell you how successful it will be.
So when a player who vibrates well but, for some reason, doesn’t vibrate, it may be because she doesn’t know how to start it. Such a person is on the verge of having a great vibrato, and just needs to be guided and encouraged. Easier said than done.
Vibrato and The Big Bang Theory
The older I get, which is happening regularly on a daily basis, vibrato reveals itself more clearly and more elegantly in its simplicity. In my very first encounter with vibrato, my teacher Gertrude Simon had me hold my scroll against the wall to stabilize the violin. That worked! She put her finger along my wrist to keep it from caving. Worked! Move the lower arm in an even rhythm from the elbow like I was shaking dice. I made a mess of it, but it eventually worked. The little things added up to an OK vibrato, but not enough to give me confidence.
Because my vibrato developed piecemeal, characterized by “unsystematic partial measures taken over a period of time” (thank you, Oxford Dictionary), it was lacking the strength and purpose of a focused, energy driven arm. This is the moment when my vibrato needed to grow up. No more half-measures would do, but instead, I needed a strong motion whose single purpose was to change the pitch ever so slightly without ever compromising the dominant pitch.
When I look at vibrato honestly, I find the movement is best built on a sudden burst of energy that produces a tiny fluctuation of pitch. If I had to do it all over again, I would have stayed in my practice room all day until I figured out how to vibrate. It would reveal itself as an explosion of motion, much like the Big Bang. I wouldn’t have been sidetracked by the little exercises that weakened my resolve to just move my arm firmly and resolutely. There’s something Neanderthal about the job that vibrato fulfills. I now realize that I was a little too fussy.
I understand why some people can’t vibrate even though they possess a good one. They’re sweating over too many details, rather than seeing the big picture.Tweet
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