The widest vibrato...

December 28, 2008 at 04:02 AM ·

I've been practising vibrato with...some difficulty over the holidays. My teacher told me that I should be capable of doing a vibrato a semi-tone down from the true note (ie: if I was doing a vibrato on a D, I should be able to go as low as a C# in my vibrato). I find I can only get a bit more than a quarter-tone at best (at an incredibly slow tempo). I've been practising every which way to try to get up to a semi-tone but I just can't no matter what I try. Is a semi-tone really possible? And more generally, how wide a vibrato should one be capable of for performance purposes?


December 28, 2008 at 05:45 AM ·

If you're just learning vibrato, try to be patient. Like everything else on the instrument, your vibrato may take a long time to "mature." That is to say that you may be capable of a vibrato, but it may take quite a while to develop different widths and speeds and to learn how to apply them for the best effect. When I was taught vibrato, I worked it up very slowly with a metronome, exaggerating the width at the slow speeds. When I sped it up to normal, it naturally diminished in amplitude.

It seems that a semitone is about as wide as you need to practice, and the width can be anywhere between that and zero.

December 28, 2008 at 06:11 AM ·

The larger the hall, the wider your vibrato must be to help project your sound. It almost acts like a catapult, especially when you have to compete with other instruments or an orchestra. 

December 28, 2008 at 08:20 PM ·

The "science" of vibrato, as described in The STRAD Magazine a few years ago, is quite intriguing. The sound spectrum of string instruments is very irregular in amplitude. Therefore some fundamental tones "ring" more than others, because their overtones occupy peaks, while others are relatively dull, because their overtones inhabit the valleys. Vibrato tends to even these out by bringing the peak overtones to the duller notes. There may also be a physiological aspect to the expanded tonal pallet - but it all tends to make things seem louder and help the bowed string instrument (especially, high pitched violins) project over much greater sound volume of accompanying instruments - even entire symphony orchestras.

My own experience has been that you don't have to vibrate that widely if you have a fine instrument,* but you may have to if you are playing a really poor one - because your fingers may have to search widely to find any projecting overtones. I once (some 44 years ago) had to play the principal cellist solos in an orchestral performance on a borrowed Kay cello, a notorious laminated (plywood) instrument, (the neck had broken off my own cello) and I had to vibrate so widely (and wildly) to get "my sound" that my hand flew off the neck at one point during the performance. Ever cautious after that!

Failing hearing may also be a cause for the wider (and unpleasant) vibrato that older players sometimes develop. Personally, I think a wide vibrato is uncalled for, but the ability to do it indicates a looseness that helps one have a smooth and controllable vibrato.

* (On the other hand, what a really fine instrument can do with a controlled wide vibrato of the right speed is amazing.)


December 28, 2008 at 05:59 PM ·

Why would you want a vibrato that causes a fluctuation of the sound to one semi-tone? I think vibrato should not cause distortion of the intonation . This is only an opinion , of course..

December 28, 2008 at 06:12 PM ·

First of all, thank-you everyone for your answers! I haven't been playing for long (about a year) and trying to develop my vibrato has, so far, been a somewhat painful process.


To clarify (in case my teacher is reading this), I think my teacher wants me to practice such a wide vibrato so that I have better control over it (as what Andrew suggested).

In an actual performance, how wide of a vibrato do performers normally use? And as a side question, how long does it take one to develop a vibrato good enough to be used in a performance (without it sounding absolutely horrible, that is)? I only ask because I've been working on my vibrato for almost a month and it feels like it's just as bad as on day 1 and I would like to know if that's normal (or if I should just give up now and go back to the clarinet :P)

December 28, 2008 at 07:29 PM ·

 I agree that a poor instrument necessitates a wider vibrato. When I've shopped for instruments, one thing I look for is how the instrument responds. Some instruments are tiring to vibrate, and some need little input.

I think it's incorrect to think about vibrato is as changel of pitch. I believe that vibrato is not actually a change in pitch--it's a change in INTENSITY. If done effectively, it really shouldn't sound like a change of pitch. When I listen to people with a wide vibrato, like Nadjia S.S., I know intellectually that it's wide, but my ear hears a throbbing sound. It's as if the sound drops out instantaneously. The same goes for singers--opera singers have to have a wide change in intensity (or pitch) to sing Wagner above an orchestra, but it's only effective if you don't hear the pitch bend. Why do we bend the pitch as string players? Because there aren't any other effective options for modulating the intensity in that way. A good vibrato, in effect, fools the ear.

December 28, 2008 at 08:11 PM ·

I don't think that comparing the vibrato of vocalists to that of violinists is a very good comparison.

As violinists, we modulate only pitch. Singers modulate both pitch and volume. Also, classical singers often vibrate 'around" the intended pitch. They vibrate both sharp and flat of the pitch, with the pitch in the middle.

December 28, 2008 at 08:17 PM ·

To Jeroen (again),

When I first studied violin vibrato, I was instructed to put  my bow away and concentrate on my left hand. I think I probably worked on that for about a month, before I attempted to use vibrato with my playing - I was about 13 at the time (some 60+ years ago). I was told to start with a wide vibrato (it was an arm vibrato) no faster than I could do it.  I was also told to allow my finger to slide up and down on the string. Over time the width of the vibrato was narrowed and the finger remained in place on the string. The pressure of the finger on the string needs to be light enough that the leading edge of the finger's flesh moves enough to change intonation and give the vibrato effect.

Of course, i did also play during that month of learning, but without vibrato, although i would attempt to see what my vibrato sounded like from time to time. And then one time - I "got it"  and aftger that I stopped practicing the silent vibrato.



December 29, 2008 at 12:43 AM ·


You've missed my point. Actually, violinists SHOULD use the vibrato of vocalists as a model. At least, the vibrato of good vocalists.

Do they modulate volume? Yes. But we can't--which is why we must take care to make our vibrato sound as if we are. I maintain that if the actual pitch bending of vibrato is heard, either for vocalists or string players, it sounds like a wobble.

December 29, 2008 at 04:31 PM ·

I believe that a beautiful violin vibrato is similar in sound to a well produced voice vibrato.  One of the best things a violinist can do for the cultivation of vibrato is to listen to the finest examples.  Listen very closely, to study what is actually going on with pitch and resonance.  A wonderful example is the Heifetz/Munch recording of Prokofiev g minor Concerto - opening of second movement.  If one challenges oneself to use this as a vibrato ear training exercise, one hears (and verifies with repeated listening) that the pitch change is nearly zero, yet there is an intense throb, similar in speed (not very fast) and character to a fine singer's vibrato.  This is caused by the pitches within his vibrato being just the *right* pitches.  They ellicit contrasting resonances which sound similar to a dypthong (slur of two vowels).  In addition to being just the right pitches, the speed pattern has a distinct snap to it - the upward part of the cycle is faster than the rest of the cycle.  That's why a poorly focused vibrato sounds like "ee-ah-ee-ah-ee-ah", while Heifetz's sounds like "ya-ya-ya-ya" ("ya" being the snappy dypthong of "ee-ah").  Starker's point, about narrower pitch excursion exposing the intonation more than wide vibrato, is a key concept.  It is good to practice a group of notes with no vibrato until every note is exactly on the desired pitch.  Ask yourself: "Am I completely satisfied with each pitch when I play with no vibrato?"  Practice the group of notes until you are satisfied.  Then practice the same group with a vibrato that has the tiniest pitch swing possible.  It is very easy to get tricked into using an overly wide vibrato. - The ear hears a note that is out of tune, and a wide vibrato will (in the worst way) "correct" that, by including the desired pitch somewhere within it.  A better thing is to correct the pitch by being able to play in tune without vibrato.  Then the vibrato is used *only* as an enhancement to the tone, not as a pitch correction.  The result is a purity and focus of intonation that we hear so gloriously exemplified in the playing of Kreisler, Heifetz and Milstein.  This purity and laser beam intensity of pitch has much, in my opinion, to do with these artists speaking so directly to our hearts. 

December 30, 2008 at 03:25 PM ·

So Oliver, regarding the speed pattern, are you actually moving your finger more quickly during the upward cycle, or is it just that it sounds that way to the ear?

December 30, 2008 at 07:28 PM ·

The upward swing is actually faster.  The mechanism, called impulse vibrato, involves a tap of the finger, at the right instant, coordinated into the other vibrato mechanics.

January 1, 2009 at 12:34 AM ·

 Jeroen -  As a new student and just beginning to learn vibrato, you teacher is most likely trying to instill the correct movement for vibrato, starting with the widest (and most likely the most relaxed for you at the moment) and eventually bringing it down to a narrow and fast vibrato (which could cause tension in the beginning).  Stick with the widest vibrato you can manage until you get back to lessons after the holidays. 

January 1, 2009 at 08:09 PM ·

To everyone: Thanks so much for your responses! I've been plugging away for the past few days trying to make sure my hand and fingers are relaxed. My (arm) vibrato is...getting there. Bit by bit. I'm glad I asked my questions on this site instead of practising more or less blindly the entire break.

Mendy - Yes, I suspected as much. She had me doing a bunch of vibrato excercises before the holidays...each successive excercise would have been doing the vibrato motion in a narrower and narrower space. I guess I'll have to see what she says when lessons pick up again on Monday.

January 2, 2009 at 12:28 AM ·

Nate -  I was simply saying that there was probably a reason why the teacher wanted such a wide vibrato in it's early stages of being learned.  Having been down that path myself recently, I can understand how certain actions can create tension that is counter-productive to developing a vibrato.. 

Happy New Year!

January 2, 2009 at 12:45 AM ·

Mendy, I certainly see where you're coming from.  Having only barely established my vibrato over this past year, the biggest mistake I made, and remade, was reducing the action to a wobble of the finger, it changed the pitch but not much, and it created tension and effectively eliminated any chance of doing a proper vibrato action.

Every lesson for months was a revisiting of polishing the strings and having a wide range of movement in my hand, down a semitone or more if that was what eventuated.  My focus was to be on the action, not the degree of pitch change.


January 2, 2009 at 02:43 AM ·

Sharelle -  I made the same mistake myself.  The way I've been taugh vibrato was to start with large movements while maintaining a relaxed left hand, and then slowly bringing it down to a narrow vibrato.  This progression from large movements towards smaller movements trains the hand to remain relaxed while training your arm, wrist and fingers into the vibrato movements.

It is much like training for any sport.  You start off slow while keeping a freedom and flexibility in movement.  Over time your muscles and flexibility develop to the point where you can call on your body to do what you want, when you want it, and how you want it to behave.  It doesn't happen overnight, no matter how you want it to.

January 3, 2009 at 01:18 AM ·

I have been making a pretty close study of the Heifetz masterclass videos, especially the part where he and Friedman play the 2nd Mvt of the Bach Concerto for 2 Violins.  Heifetz' vibrato in that duet is noticably better than Friedman's (although i would still take his any day over mine LOL) and is about as great sounding as I have ever heard it.

One thing I notice is that Heifetz does not finger the note with his extreme tip -- he initially makes contact with the meaty part of the last joint and then uses even more meat as the vibrato progresses -- almost like his finger is straightened out.    I tried this and it immediately makes a world of difference in the pleasing quality and also makes the finger joint in question almost automatically loose/relaxed.  I had been using the tippy tip of my finger previously with very little success.

The segment in question is:

I also notice that for the fourth finger vibrato Heifetz has his first finger at attention and is almost driving from that finger.

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