Vibrating With Zero Tension in the Wrist and Elbow

December 7, 2020, 12:18 AM · A few weeks ago, a tiny thought came up while I was vibrating with the fourth finger. It was simply that, rather than be focused on the finger itself, all I needed to do was shake any part of my arm or hand, which would in turn shake my fourth finger. I re-routed my thinking away from the weakest link and started with a stronger, more reliable, and more sensible part of the arm.


As long as all the parts of the arm were connected, I could shake my middle knuckle, for instance, and the energy would transfer to my pinkie, all the way to the fingertip. The alternative, in which the mechanism of the fourth finger acts on its own, is more likely to cause tension.

This made me think about the best way to instill that in a young player. A natural movement such as this, that is based on principles of unity and simplicity, can rarely be reduced to a brief teaching moment. Some students with a natural ability to both hear and see a technique can pick up the true essence of vibrato after a few exercises, while others may need more time.

Reminders of Vibrato’s Flowing Character

To deal with tension in the wrist and elbow, and to nurture a freely moving arm, minimize the impact felt on those joints.

  1. Gently redirect all of the arm’s movements away from the wrist and elbow. To do that, imagine the arm without them. Re-invent the moving parts and consider them part of a solid, strong, and well-balanced vibrato machine. The wrist and elbow would be mere hinges, oscillating as a result of the arm in motion.
  2. You may not have been able to choose how you learned vibrato, but you can control how you develop it. Most introductions to vibrato include starting it from the wrist and/or elbow. The problem which some students encounter is that the two joints soon get clogged and tense as a result of uneven balance and uncertain paths.

    Re-configure your perception of the left arm. If attention is taken away from the wrist and the elbow, they will move on their own with little prompting from you. They are designed to passively react to the movement of the arm, not vice-versa. Leading from the joints themselves is contrary to their nature. With such a large and strong structure as the arm available to initiate the movement, the wrist and elbow need only to respond in a relaxed manner. They oscillate back and forth and embody a pendulum, motions which are easier to imitate visually than to describe in words.

  3. Changing vibrato speeds and widths can be accomplished by primarily concentrating on the arm, then reminding the hand to gently cover more or less width and/or speed. When you keep the wrist and elbow free of tension, or “filled with air”, they won’t pass on their weight and stress to the hand and fingertips. The hand can be imagined heavier or lighter, thus allowing it to travel slightly different distances. The space on the fingerboard that vibrato covers is small enough that a tiny difference is all it takes to make a change in the sound. Without the tension and baggage that the wrist and elbow transmits to the hand, the fingertip is free to cover the distance of the vibrato.

Images That Convey Vibrato’s Movable Parts

The most magical thing about vibrato, other than the beauty and depth that it adds to the violin’s sound, is the fail-safe aspect of it. By making one pendulum-like motion with the most solid part of the arm, the elbow and the wrist will naturally swing back and forth. They work naturally in all other parts of our daily activities, but somehow their basic, swing-like motion is harder to come by while vibrating.

It can be accomplished by using your visual and observational skills, copying what you see. Unfortunately, there may be side effects that have accumulated during the process of practicing the vibrato. So, if tension, friction, and other complications are affecting the joints, you can use imagery to envision what the final result should feel like. The three analogies to vibrato that I’ve come to rely on are rather odd and humorous, but nonetheless effective.

  1. Bobble-Head – A perfect oscillation on top of a body, supported by freely moving springs. Nothing to get clogged up. When applying this concept to vibrato, make sure that the hand always returns to an upright position. This will ensure that the movement is equidistant from front to back. A common error is when the hand stays either in the forward or backward position.
  2. Inflatable Dancing Tube Man – You may not know his name, but you may have fallen in love with him the first time you saw him waving at you in front of Midas Mufflers. What he has in common with vibrato is twofold:
    • The key to a successful vibrato is a lack of tension in the wrist and elbow. Tube Man exemplifies this by not having a wrist or elbow at all. There can’t be tension when they don’t exist. It benefits the violinist if his vibrato uses them merely as hinges, reacting to a movement of the arm that doesn’t start from those two points. They’ll move as a reaction to a stronger, more reliable movement.
    • The constant operation of the fan keeps Tube Man moving. This simply serves as a reminder to keep the vibrato going. In our post-Classical world, in which the vibrato was one of the great inventions, string players, for all intents and purposes, vibrate most of the time, especially when the conductor’s watching.

    (Since a gadget is worth a thousand words, this video shows Tube Man in a size that anyone can own and put on his desk.)

  3. If you don’t mind the metal and mesh that make up the fly swatter, it’s a good image for picturing vibrato. The one movement of its handle creates a perfect pendulum. And it’s fast and even, as well as a simple concept. You can observe as well the exponential increase in speed caused by the natural oscillation of the mesh. Take away the friction, and all you’re left with is a freely moving hinge.

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December 8, 2020 at 08:32 AM · Great article and very true. 4th finger vibrato is something I am myself fascinated by, perhaps obsessed. it is different from the other fingers in that...there is no next finger! so you are "at the end" so to speak. hence the vibrato mechanism changes to more a "cello-like" mechanism, what Paul calls "moving something else than the finger itself". the thumb remains the pivot. of course such a cello vibrato must be modified to keep a correct violin hand frame.. something Simon Fischer points attention to is tension in the base of the first finger. release that base of the first finger, which typically provides groundedness for your hand frame. but when playing a long note or vibrating 4th finger, you loosen that base temporarily so that the flexibility in your 4th finger tip (very important!!) can be leveraged maximally.

December 8, 2020 at 03:11 PM · Thank you, Jean, for the helpful cello analogy. The 4th finger carries an extra burden in that it usually touches below the fingertip, rather than on the fingertip like the other fingers. Violinist need to still apply enough attention to that difference to make sure that the energy gets to that special area. The engineering is different, so it’s easy to overlook.

December 12, 2020 at 03:18 PM · You write "I re-routed my thinking away from the weakest link and started with a stronger, more reliable, and more sensible part of the arm." Such a simple change, but one that had never occurred to me before. My pinkie and I both thank you!

December 12, 2020 at 06:27 PM · Diana, please tell your pinkie “you’re welcome”. My relationship with my pinkie is undergoing much needed repair. I may even give it another name, because pinkie doesn’t inspire a lot of respect. What about “the other index finger”?

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