I learned vibrato the hard way. First, I moved the wrist, while nothing else was allowed to move. Then I pivoted the joint next to the fingertip. In and out the joint would click, and it would make my fingertip flexible. Sort of. I was fortunate to be given a lot of exercises. In case one didn’t work, maybe another would. I “polished” the fingerboard by moving my hand back and forth. This taught me that the lower arm moves from the elbow. I also thought about where such a movement begins.
There’s one thing wrong with this picture. It reminds me of teaching someone how to walk. It’s simply not done. We all walk perfectly because we learn it intuitively, not incrementally. A great part of learning the violin is watching what others do and copying it. Vibrato is the perfect technique for learning the skill of copying others, without getting confused by the details.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” and “ten people looking at the same thing will remember ten different things.” These sayings could have been written by a violin teacher, a conductor, or a lawyer. In the case of vibrato, consider the image of someone shaking dice with their left hand.
I think this a perfect analogy, unless you’re particularly bad at shaking dice. Students should learn the art of imitating the vibrato motion. That cuts out a lot of “baby steps” and teaches the violin in a method that gypsies, or Romas, are more accustomed to.
Simply stated, a large natural motion unleashes lots of small, unconscious motions. Rather than learn how my fingertip joints and wrist move, one exercise at a time, I just observe the chain reaction that is produced by the beautiful and simple movement of shaking dice. The alternative, like teaching someone how to walk, is time wasted. Teaching the student how to observe and copy reaps more natural benefits.
Holding Air, Not Squeezing the Violin
Of course, holding dice and holding a violin are very different things. Vibrato can easily develop a tight wrist and squeeze the neck; shaking dice doesn’t. Yet they’re the same motion! Another aspect that the two things have in common is that dice need space in which to move. If you compress that space, or squeeze the violin neck, there won’t be freedom of movement. The feeling of holding a shape that surrounds air is precisely what happens when we hold the violin with two or three points of contact.
Stimulus - Response
While we want the sound and feel of the vibrato to motivate the arm into shaking, it often happens that the motivation just isn’t there. Shaking dice has one of the simplest cause-and-effect relationships, and in addition, we excel at it at an early age, without even trying. What I like about using theories and analogies to teach vibrato, rather than exercises, is that the explanation serves to simplify the practicing. There will be less squeezing of the neck if you think about shaking dice. As you practice vibrato, accumulate as many reasons to vibrate as you can think of, because the body is actively trying to minimize the amount of vibrato. Here are some of my favorites:
In my early development as a violinist, I kept doing exercises which inadvertently made me polish bad habits. One of the most difficult things I ever did was try to vibrate rhythmically with a metronome. As I tried to combine two very uncomfortable concepts into one exercise, it didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Instead of fighting the awkward obstacles of vibrato and metronomes, I wished I had just transferred something I already knew how to do, like shaking dice, into a more skillful vibrato.
Even the dreaded hard wrist that hinders many a vibrato can be eliminated with a thought experiment. Violinists often bemoan the fact that our left arm is held “upside down.”, and that cellists have it easier because their arm assumes “a more natural position”. Instead of this negative thinking, visualize the hand’s position with a different perspective. Gravity is allowing the wrist to freely dangle below the violin. I like to visualize the wrist as a marshmallow connection that lets the hand evolve into the lower arm. The wrist has only one job to do, to react passively to the arm moving from the elbow. Even if you have a wrist vibrato, the movement happens passively.
I love thought experiments. They put things in perspective.
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