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.
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.
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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