Few things are as mesmerizing as hearing a beautiful, expressive vibrato. But vibrato as a focus of practice can be tricky and frustrating. I should know, I have worked on it for several decades. When I first learned to vibrate as a kid, all was well for a few months. But then my vibrato turned into a very tense, quivering little stutter. After trying to remediate it, my teacher finally told me to stop vibrating all together and we started from scratch. One day it all came together.
In college, my first teacher - who shall remain nameless - was convinced that arm vibrato was better than wrist vibrato (not true, of course) and asked me to relearn for that reason. I obliged and eventually I did have an arm vibrato, but one that was large enough to drive a truck through. In the words of one coach at summer camp, "Let me just be honest with you: If you vibrate like that, you’ll never get a job." It may seem harsh now, but that's what I needed to hear to get serious about making my vibrato what I wanted it to be. That work continues to the present day, even though it’s less of my focus now.
I love working on vibrato with students and a couple of years ago I recorded all the vibrato elixirs (ahem, I mean exercises) that I could think of. For this three-part video blog, I thought I would separate the exercises into three different categories: Learning, enhancing, and refining. We will go in reverse order and this week, we will start with refining. Refining is for those that have a good working vibrato, but who are looking for some tools to become more versatile. Refining elixirs work on molding the size, speed, and continuous flow of our vibrato.
Changing your default vibrato amplitude can be challenging, but there are tricks that can help. This video explores the relationship between hand frame and vibrato tendencies:
Ideally, we want to vary the type of vibrato with the emotional content of a passage. Learning to match the fingers to each other is a powerful first step in strengthening the mind body connection. That way, we can find the right motion in the moment. This simple exercise also strengthens our position work.
Most of us have a vibrato that might be just perfect for a certain register and passage, but not great in another section of the piece. Learning to adjust intuitively for different registers is what the next video is all about. This video is also meant to be a “three notes, three different vibratos” warmup.
Vibrato is a half conscious, half reflexive motion and controlling the width and speed takes nuanced practice. The next exercise, zingers, is designed to build awareness of our mechanism within one note.
Controlling the on and off switch has always been an issue for me. When I video-record myself, I always find surprises. I tend to over-vibrate certain notes (because they happen to be conveniently long and fall on my favorite fingers), while others are bone dry ( right before a shift for example). There is no rule that says all notes need to be vibrated, but I would like to be the master of my own domain and make conscious decisions. This next video is about addressing any default pattern in our vibrato that may have become a habit.
Working on vibrato, just like everything else, is a lifelong process. I’ve found that as hands age, the feeling in the hands changes, and that gives me yet one more reason to heed my own advice and do some vibrato exercises.
Happy practicing, everyone, and see you next week when we will deal with enhancing the swing of vibrato.
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