Dormant Technique: Violinists Unleash a Blocked Vibrato

January 24, 2019, 11:55 PM · 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?

vibrato

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.

Coach Yourself

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.

Replies

January 25, 2019 at 04:16 PM · This is one of those cases when one wonders if the solution is a good stiff drink. Obviously not for kids.

When I was a kid I had a violin teacher who had a lot of negatives and limitations as a teacher, but there were also some real positives. One of them was that he taught me "schmalz". He taught with his violin and I listened carefully to his vibrato, his "Heifetz slides" and all of that. He wasn't good at teaching me *how* to do it, but with the close-up demonstration of *what* to do and how it should *sound*, I was able to conduct better experiments on my own to realize the same results. So far so good. But then when I returned to the violin as an adult, my orchestra director (a superb professional violinist) told me that my vibrato was too narrow and I should ask my teacher (his colleague) about it. Which I did. He gave a deep sigh and told me, yes, he knew about that issue, but it's going to be a big project, completely re-learning vibrato all over again. Well, I did that (mostly, anyway), but fortunately in the process I didn't forget how to do schmalz.

I guess what I'm saying is that theorizing all of the motions and "vibrato exercises" and such are all wholesome activities, but you can accomplish a lot by teaching with your violin too.

January 25, 2019 at 05:28 PM · So much emphasis has been put on the vibrato, hand or wrist, technique, rhythm....articles and lessons. I’ve just started my fifth year and am now starting to learn vibrato and I’m scared “stiff”, literally. I cannot relax enough because I’m afraid I can’t fo it. So, I am hoping your exercises will be helpful in learning the vibrato.

January 25, 2019 at 05:52 PM · Another reason not to use vibrato even if you can do it... You think it sounds awful. I play fiddle music of several traditions and baroque music. I use a small amount occasionally as an ornament. Not missing it.

January 25, 2019 at 06:02 PM · This article is particularly helpful for me, as I am the person who thinks a vibrato should "look" a certain way. And I've never been able to make mine look the way I want it to. With the advent of YouTube and the ability to see multiple great violinists perform, I have realized that there are as many "looks" as there are players. It's the sound that's important. Thanks for your piece, which has given me some great exercises, as well as the confidence to move out of dormant-ville.

January 25, 2019 at 07:04 PM · Paul, it sounds like you had a wonderful teacher when you were a kid. It’s interesting that you learned schmalz (I believe you mean sliding) and vibrato from him in an organic way, but when you came to him with a specific problem of your vibrato being narrow, the same teacher changed his approach to become more specific. Wow!

Suzanne, If it makes you feel any better, I’m almost always tense, more or less, when I vibrate. That’s because there are so many things to think about, vibrato or otherwise. My attitude toward tension is to work around it. I think about the path of the arm while I’m vibrating and not shoving my wrist into the violin’s neck. One of my favorite exercises is to vibrate on one note for one second. Knowing you can do that is a confidence builder. Then you add another second.

Paul, I love hearing the violin with no vibrato, but only if the violinist knows what he’s doing with the bow.

January 25, 2019 at 08:41 PM · @Paul Stein, it's my mistake for being insufficiently clear. I have a different teacher now. My childhood teacher, a WWII Navy veteran (Pacific Theater) is long deceased.

@Suzanne, enjoy the journey! You've got this!

January 26, 2019 at 07:29 PM · @paul deck, I’m curious how you relearned your vibrato! I’m wanting more arm in my vibrato but have been playing over 2 decades with my regular vibrato that I’m going to have to re-learn and dont know where to start.

January 27, 2019 at 02:27 AM · To 51, You bring up an interesting can of worms. I think many of us feel vibrato, and other techniques, should look a certain way. Every time I have ever used my eyes to learn from others, I’ve always barked up the wrong tree. My analysis gets diverted by looking because it makes me turn off my ear. Oddly enough, when I listen to my vibrato I’m more pleased than when I think about the way it feels. To get over the negativity of thinking my vibrato doesn’t look good, I try to think what qualities do all the great violinists share, rather than what sets them apart. That’s helps me think about what results I’m looking for. Then I won’t worry about the optics. Form follows function; it works in architecture, why not the violin?

I remember one colleague who has an amazing vibrato but it looks like he’s barely moving anything. I have a feeling he doesn’t care what it looks like.

Dormant-Ville is a nice name. As long as one is stuck there, it might as well have a pleasant ring to it.

January 27, 2019 at 02:33 AM · It sounds so beautiful. How do they do it?

When it comes to teaching vibrato, I think it is a good idea to look at and listen to good violinists. We have today, thanks to modern technology, possibilities to do this like never before. It is important to find good models as they can create in us a sense of beauty. A feeling of "I want to sound like this violinist" is an important step. This is the artistic expression concerning the vibrato.

Still vibrato is also a highly technical matter. As a student I noticed that my vibrato became more focused and fluent after practicing the changes of positions. Particularly the exercises by Dounis, where one is changing positions all the time. Little by little I created my own exercises and I thought that there must be something in common between the vibrato and these changes of positions. My conclusion was that a vibrato could be looked at as an unfulfilled movement of a position change. Later I saw that Yehudi Menuhin also talked about this relationship. So I was encouraged, of course, that I had come to the same conclusion all by myself.

I believe that this relationship between the position change and the vibrato is well considered today, but still I haven't found much written about it. So, I'm curious about your thoughts and experiences, who read this.

One of the reasons, why I strongly believe in this relationship is that Romanis from Hungary and Roumania, for example, don't stay too long in one position. I think that they start rather quickly to play in different positions as they try to beautify the melodies they learn by heart. I believe that pupils can improve a lot by also trying their ways on the violin to a certain extent. Many melodies can be played in different positions after having learned them well; even very high up. Last but not least; the importance of the teacher is crucial so that this teaching will be individually well balanced.

January 27, 2019 at 06:25 AM · Some methods use to say "The Shake" commonly use for trill exercises.

Start with duplex notes..then triplets etc....One finger (any note) 2nd finger. Tune the note...then move a pinch your "RELAXED" wrist to under pitch....back to pitch...up to a slight higher pitch....back to center of pitch.....

This was used as well but with 2nd and 23rd finger....(use a big amount of imagination) this appeared in old methods. Never used it.....my vibrato and bow arm are natural.

January 27, 2019 at 04:59 PM · Ariel, your discovery of shifting’s relationship to vibrato is very helpful. I like to include sliding, or portamanto, as similar techniques to vibrato. I love your observation about the Romanis venturing into other positions early in their development.

You mention that you haven’t seen the idea about vibrato/ shifting written anywhere. I believe there’s only one book/workbook about vibrato. There’s a real lack of literature about it. Fortunately, lots of good ideas come out of v.com

January 27, 2019 at 11:56 PM · Paul, indeed sliding, or portamento, is a similar technique to vibrato.

Fortunately, as you say, lots of good ideas and helpful comments of personal experiences, we can read here thanks to v.com.

Here I would like to tell that I find your essays very inspiring.

You write: "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."

I have no particular comment to your experience as I think you comment it so excellent yourself, but it makes me think of another student, who indeed vibrates, and very well, but, who is not aware of its presence. If you ask this student after having played a phrase: "Did you vibrate or not?" It happens that the answer is "I'm not sure".

From this answer one can conclude a lot that can be helpful for the student's progress. So, when it comes to the vibrato as a way of beautifying our interpretation, it is very important that we all are aware of every single detail in our playing. And this is easier said than done. Therefore it is very helpful to use the modern technology by recording ourselves while working. It is helpful as the recording will tell us where we are. It has been very helpful for me because in this way I've improved my listening to my own playing.

I would like to present a video from youtube with the Borodin Quartet (Rostislav Dubinsky, 1st violin, Yaroslav Alexandrov, 2nd violin, Dmitri Shebalin, viola, and Valentin Berlinsky, cello) playing the Quartet No.2 by Alexander Borodin (video 1973).

Listen to how they use their vibrato. It is so beautiful.

And pay particular attention to their Non-use of vibrato, which create so many colors and mysterious sounds.

https://youtu.be/9YVd5efkUnw

January 28, 2019 at 05:50 PM · Wonderful article and extremely helpful! Thank you! My favorite line: "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." I need to get the negative voice out of my CCC and get a positive voice in there instead.

And to Ariel, thanks for sharing the Borodin Quartet link. Yes, what a perfect example of vibrato... as well as non-vibrato! Simply beautiful! (And, the next time my quartet teases me about my wire music stand from the '70s, I will share this video! If wire stands were good enough for these virtuosi, then ...)

January 28, 2019 at 07:38 PM · @74, essentially my teacher told me to stop doing any vibrato for a few weeks. Then I started afresh with "vibrato exercises" that one might assign to a child. Let's just say my patience was tested, but in the end it paid off. The kinds of exercises I'm talking about have been discussed on this forum before, in a blog post by Laurie there is a video showing Kurt Sassmannshaus describing this method.

The vibrato I learned is a wrist vibrato, so I'm the wrong person to ask about how to get more arm into it. I do use some arm occasionally, and my teacher has never complained, so I guess I must be doing it okay. But I couldn't tell you how.

In the end, vibrato is a curious, dynamic mixture of tension and relaxation. I don't mean "tension" in the usual (negative) way, but if you're going to do vibrato, then you need to have enough firmness in your finger against the string/fingerboard to basically keep it in the same average spot, otherwise your intonation wanders. But you have to have relaxation in the right spots too, so that the driver (wrist or arm) can draw back your finger, extending and flexing at the last knuckle (and elsewhere too but mostly there).

January 29, 2019 at 01:31 AM · Federico, The shake exercise you mention describes what I consider to be the best sequence of where the fingertip is during the vibrato. You said start on the pitch. I have heard unusual theories, one of which is to “accent” the highest part of the pitch. As if vibrato isn’t already difficult, such a complex theory makes it even more difficult. So I like The Shake!

Congratulations on having a natural bow arm and vibrato. I like to think that every one of us has at least one thing about his violin playing that comes naturally.

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