The Wide vs. Narrow World of Vibrato - Enhancing Both Kinds

August 23, 2020, 6:48 PM · When I hear violinists as different as Tasmin Little and Jay Ungar, I marvel at the various personalities and emotions vibrato affords violinists. Thinking about the effectiveness of both of these artists, I became interested in finding two exercises: one which would shed light on finding a suitable minimum amount of vibrato, and the other that would maximize it for a very romantic sound.

For inspiration, here some relevant examples from Youtube:

First, Jay Ungar: A lovely, momentary vibrato that shadows the haunting tune of Ashokan Farewell satisfies my love of perfect simplicity. The music was written by Ungar in 1982 and is heard throughout Ken Burns' documentary, The Civil War.

There’s also the power vibrato featured in Little’s exotic rendition of Fritz Kreisler’s La Gitana. When she turns on her "romantic," out comes the lush, wide vibrato with timing and dimensions that fit just right. She played it while moving from table to table in a restaurant, a party atmosphere in which only a highly energetic vibrato will do.

Vibrato Phase 2: Know Your Vibrato and Use It

I watch these videos for two reasons, to see what natural musical achievement looks like, and to figure out what I’m missing. In terms of vibrato, I was looking at Phase 2 in its development, in which I observed how my vibrato was behaving in the context of technique and music. I needed to move forward with the vibrato I already had, complete in its perfect imperfection. Starting over was not an option.

Two people, two vibratos, two settings, and two composers: These inspired me, and the next step was to figure out which aspect of my vibrato I would work on next. I saw inconsistencies and lapses, a collapsed finger here, a late vibrato there. The best way to move forward was through the sheer drive of self-knowledge and the elimination of bad habits.

The desire to use vibrato must be so strong that it will spontaneously accompany expressive playing. In my own experience, just being able to do something doesn’t mean I will do it. I needed a system that signaled me to start the vibrato. Having a vibrato, but not using it, was wasting a perfectly good resource.

Minimum Vibrato: Thought Experiment Where Expression Meets Vibrato

Ungar demonstrated the magical moments in Ashokan Farewell when vibrato comes from nowhere and is exactly where it needs to be. To understand that type of responsiveness, I devised exercises that involves thought patterns, to link one's thoughts with one's playing.

  1. Give your vibrato a "green light," a reminder to start, encouragement to last long enough, and the ability to stop in a musical, relaxed way. Sometimes vibrato doesn’t start because there’s not enough energy coming from the bow arm. A little encouragement such as an accent or a crescendo will turn on the vibrato’s green light. Vibrato technique and bow technique go hand-in-hand.
  2. Here's an exercise that gave me the opportunity to start and stop vibrato, freeing my mind from distractions: I made up my own tune and added a tiny impulse of vibrato to correspond with a bow change or dynamic change. I allowed my mind to free-associate so I could better absorb what I was experiencing. Ungar and Ashokan Farewell were in my ear, so it made me appreciate the luster and intimacy of a well-placed vibrato. I let the vibrato stop when the musical moment was done. This exercise strengthened the control I had over vibrato. I could even choose to vibrate all the time if I’d like; it would come in handy in orchestra playing.

Super-Size That: A Generous Vibrato

When it comes to naturally effusive and warm-hearted music making, Tasmin Little is a shining example of how closely violin playing and personality are aligned. Her vibrato in the Kreisler brings it home. It’s full-bodied and demonstrates how wide vibrato can be without losing the center of the pitch. And as far as the musical value is concerned, there’s something about a large, maximum vibrato that expands the boundaries of expressive possibilities.

For this, I devised three exercises to maximize oscillation, while keeping the pitch pure. How I thought and how I played were now intertwined, so the exercise included both processes.

  1. First, find the limits of a wide vibrato. How does pitch remain constant, while the fingertip is vibrating through territory that is clearly not the central pitch? My conclusion: The oscillation can cover the area from the pitch itself to the area just before the next half step is reached. Knowing this allows us to create the widest vibrato, while still keeping its pitch. It’s fascinating to me that the true pitch survives such a journey!
  2. Stable pitch needs a healthy, reliable oscillation. It's important to keep a consistent distance between the pitch and the bottom of the vibrato. The resonance of the pitch depends on an enhanced, evenly spaced, oscillation. An interesting phenomenon is that 99% of the vibrato is below the pitch, yet the pitch doesn’t suffer. For the best result, avoid vibrating above the pitch - although a small part of the oscillation can go slightly above the pitch without affecting it. This process is similar to the hammer on a piano hitting the string. This infusion of extra energy translates into a more lustrous tone. Having a confident bow stroke and a strong rhythmic momentum helps keep the vibrato going.
  3. The exercise starts with a narrow, fast vibrato. Let it last just a moment, then keep up the endurance for two or three seconds. Afterwards try a wider vibrato, using more energy to cause the hand to move farther. Be prepared to move both the downwards and the upwards movement of the vibrato so that they are equidistant. If the note is slightly out-of-tune, re-balance the hand to make the finger focus on the correct pitch.

The repetitiveness and insistent nature of vibrato has a lovely outcome which elicits sheer beauty from the violin. I’m always in awe that this Neanderthal movement manipulates the pitch to create sonorous magic.

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August 24, 2020 at 08:20 PM · 'An interesting phenomenon is that 99% of the vibrato is below the pitch, yet the pitch doesn’t suffer. For the best result, avoid vibrating above the pitch - although a small part of the oscillation can go slightly above the pitch without affecting it.'

I have to disagree here. You need to be careful as it is very misleading to state that 99% of the vibrato is below the pitch. Listen to the following video in 25% speed:

It becomes clear that Zukerman's entrances contain vibrato which sometimes feels like 60% over 40% under. Of course Zukerman might not be to everyone's taste, but the truth is that he is a top violinist, and other top violinists like Heifetz and Gitlis also have at least 2% vibration over the pitch. Even in the example you gave of Tasmin Little, the 2nd note (long C), vibrates well above the note, almost to C#! Since the bottom range of her note was almost a B flat, that would equate to roughly 33% above the note and 67% below the note. Quite a lot more than the 1% you suggested. Honestly though, I don't blame you at all. I was not aware of this phenomenon until I decided to listen to myself in slow motion only just a few years ago. I was shocked to hear that I was going over the pitch, and I though my vibrato was always under the pitch as it should be.

A lot of people love the sound of electric guitar. Apart from the different colors it can produce, as well as it's general tone, what strikes me most is what people refer to as that wailing sound. Of course this is due to the fact that guitarists must vibrate 100% (perhaps it is 95% due to recoil? I'm not sure) above the pitch. Zukerman and Gitlis' vibrato remind me of electric guitar playing, and I'm sure many others enjoy their sound.

Apart from this, a great and informative article!

August 24, 2020 at 09:01 PM · Thank you, James, for sharing a lot of interesting data. I find that when I play I’m reacting to the context of the moment. As I get higher on the scale, my pitch may appear to get sharper when I’m looking at the tuner, but my ear is satisfied. Orchestras start playing sharper, but it’s ok to me because everyone else is matching.

When I say 99% of the vibrato is below the pitch, I’m using artistic license. The numbers of Hertz drop precipitously below any fixed point in the fingerboard. (A-440 drops to G#-415; those numbers astound me in that, with a good vibrato, you’ll still hear the desired pitch even though there’s that much fluctuation) Viva la vibrato!!

August 25, 2020 at 01:10 AM · James, how do you listen to a YouTube video at 25% speed?

August 25, 2020 at 01:40 AM · Whether vibrato goes entirely below the desired pitch has been discussed in numerous threads here on My overall impression of those -- as an amateur -- is that this theory has been roundly discredited. There is a video by Nathan Cole on vibrato where he also champions this theory, but in his summer course, in which I enrolled the past 12 weeks, he admitted that further study of the issue (including listening to many recordings greatly slowed-down), has caused him to change his viewpoint. (He encouraged us to watch the video anyway, because he stood by the other aspects of vibrato that he wanted us to learn therefrom.)

Paul, on YouTube, there are various controls across the bottom of the video window. There is one for closed-captioning ("CC") and right next to it is one that looks like a wheel, and that's for "settings." Click that to open more options. Among the options you will find "playback speed." 0.25 is the slowest speed that you can generally select.

In the old days we would record onto 1/4" tape and then play back at a different speed, but then the pitch changes. But with the YouTube control, the pitch is unchanged.

August 25, 2020 at 03:47 PM · Thank you, Paul.

August 30, 2020 at 06:22 PM · Thank you Paul, and James. Yes, some of the vibrato is on the sharp side, contrary to the accepted opinion of some famous older teachers. Anyone can verify that by watching their vibrato in a mirror.

There are two parts to thinking about the width of the vibrato; the tonal distance and the physical distance. The vibrato in a high position needs to be a lot narrower than the same sounding vibrato in first position. My opinion is that vibrato is Not a crutch to cover poor intonation, but actually improves the perceived intonation. My hypothesis, probably not original, is that because there are three ways to play "perfectly" in tune; chordal, melodic, and equal-tempered, many intervals have short and long versions. Each note on the fingerboard is a cluster of three close spots, high-neutral-low. The difference between the high and low spots is the comma, 25 cents, about 1/4 of a half-step. A vibrato that wide will hit the "perfect" spot at some moment, and the brain of the listener will choose that pitch, will hear what it wants to hear. A vibrato that is too wide +/- 50 cents, encroaches on the next half-step. Some undisciplined singers do that.

Velocity of the vibrato is connected to the width. G-string notes in first position need to have a slow vibrato, high notes on the E-string need a fast vibrato. As a teacher, I have found that telling a student to vibrate slower or faster doesn't work. What can work is to tell them to vibrate farther or tighter, lazy or energetic.

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