Sarah Chang's vibrato, my vibrato

March 31, 2009 at 04:01 PM ·

One of my friends mentioned to me today that my vibrato is way too intense. Which is funny, because my weak vibrato has always been one of my problems. It's been a few years since I've had an actual teacher, and I'm certain that I've built up some odd habits, but I never thought that my overcompensating for weak vibrato would be one of them.

That reminded me of a Sarah Chang video on YouTube, playing Air on G. I've never really liked this performance; her vibrato seems way too strong.

I can't tell if she's lacking control the way I am or if it's a valid stylistic thing. Either way, it sounds and looks a lot like my vibrato, and I'm not sure I like it, especially for a piece like this. On the first note you can hear her bow bouncing from the violin's shaking.

So that brings me to a few questions... what exactly is good (wrist) vibrato? Is Sarah Chang's vibrato good, bad, or entirely a matter of preference?

My guess is that ginormous vibrato might be good for a performer's career because it seems more virtuosic and powerful and leaves a strong impression, but that musically speaking it's not too good.

Anyone thoughts?


Replies (24)

March 31, 2009 at 04:15 PM ·

I am too young in my violin years to make any constructive critism/comments, but I LOVE this performance, it's one of the first one I googled and fell in love with when I first started the violin.  I also love her vibrato and style.  Sorry I'm no help!

March 31, 2009 at 06:15 PM ·

I was fearing the worst when i went to this link, as sometimes i think Sarah Chang plays too intensely and lacks a soft touch. But this was lovely to watch, although it seemed like a very mainstream piece to a mainstream audience. Surely a more traditional performance of Bach would have had less vibrato, particularly in that era, yes? (I'm guessing here. Her vibrato sounds very polished but contemporary and stylized for her audience.)

Thanks for the link - enjoyed it. As to a more sensitive vibrato - yes, I'd be inclined to think another performer might have a more delicate touch (and probably not be appreciated by a mainstream audience). Would love to see Hilary Hahn playing the same thing and compare the two.

March 31, 2009 at 07:19 PM ·

What might be informative is if any of the critics could post a version of this work that they *do* approve of, where the vibrato is "correct."

March 31, 2009 at 07:50 PM ·

Thanks, the people here are always so helpful!

So clearly there's nothing inherently "wrong" with this kind of vibrato, even for this piece. It's just that I don't like it. That's what I wanted to know most.

Sometimes some things are almost certainly *wrong* and some things are more subjective; I wasn't sure what to think of vibrato style.

Gene -- I'm not experienced or skilled enough to make any judgment on "correct" vibrato even had I thought there was such thing (which I'm now inclined to believe there isn't), but my preference would be for something less convulsive. Maybe just as wide but not as fast.

March 31, 2009 at 10:17 PM ·

Strong, wide vibrato vs narrower ones are really a matter of taste.  I love David Oistrakh, Sarah Chang, Itzhak Perlman, Vadim Repin.  You can guess that I love these wide vibratos but only the wide wrist and finger vibratos because that remain special and sensitive even if wide. We hear these a little less often these day even if there steel is some! (some say the performers today have smaller fingers than before)  I think people have a tendency to shake the thing too much because they have an harder time to do a decent vibrato but this is only a hypothesis and maybe I'm totally wrong here...  Yes Sarah Chang has often an arm vibrato but somehow I love her sound just the same.  She is probably an exception to all the awful violin shakers we hear so often that I hate because they think they produce a wider vibrato by shaking all the thing when they are actually producing a narrow poor vibrato.  But vibrato is really a matter of taste!  It is already good to be able to do it because it's a struggle for many beginners!  It's a very complex task and many pros agree to say that it's never one of these things you can take for granted; it goes away so fast!  

Interesting topic!


March 31, 2009 at 10:40 PM ·

Haven't seen the video, and am in no position to offer technical advice to Ms. Chang.

However, I have never much liked her tone until now.  The volume is there, but no subtle expression that interests me.  Not so long ago, a local radio station was playing one of her "lollipops" discs and it seemed to me like the world's best student recital.  That is, apart from being perfectly in tune and without any hesitation or fear, it wasn't more insightful than what a decent high school violinist would produce.

The BSO had her a couple of years ago reasonably close to an appearance by Pinchas Zukerman.  The differences in sound production were eye=opening,  to say the least.


April 1, 2009 at 03:10 AM ·

I don't think it is just a vibrato issue. 
Sarah Chang is a wonderful violinist with great commend over the instrument.  She plays the way she feels.  Some of us might not share the same musical view ( some of us might envision this piece to sound more spiritual, noble than the way she played it). 

Some might say it is just personal taste: you like apple and I like orange.  But in music, do we always strive to have the best understanding of a composition and produce the perfect interpretation?  Nobody can,  but some might be closer to the truth than others.

April 1, 2009 at 10:28 AM ·

If I may widen the topic a little, I'd like to ask something not directly connected with vibrato. Why is this piece called "Air on the G string"? Sarah Chang plays it on the A string, mostly, and I cannot imagine anyone playing these same notes on the G string to good effect. What am I missing?

There may be several ways to make this Air sing. Here is a version with very little vibrato at all.

April 1, 2009 at 12:56 PM ·

Bart, thanks for the link.  Notice the violinists are not using shoulder rests or chin rests.

April 2, 2009 at 01:37 AM ·

Tess -- Now that you mention it, it doesn't look easy to do vibrato on a baroque violin. That makes me wonder if maybe chin rests were invented for vibrato, among other things.

I wonder if Bach would have approved of intense vibrato if he'd seen it done? Not that abiding by the composer's wishes is the only way to make good music, of course, but it's sort of an interesting mysterty, especially considering Bach tends to sound good on a lot of instruments.

Last year for a project for my electroacoustics class, I wrote a program that took in pressure-sensitive pen input from my TabletPC and simulated the physical motion of a bow moving across a string to produce a sound. Moving the pen left and right on the screen simulated bow motion, up and down adjusted pitch, and pen pressure was analogous to bow pressure.

It sounded awful, but when I made a recording playing Air with really big vibrato, it actually had a really nice ring. But I think that might be only because it sounded utterly dry otherwise.

Bart -- I don't know, it's been bugging me too.

April 2, 2009 at 04:50 PM ·

Bart - There's a version of Air On G String played entirely on G string, not in D major, but in C major. You gotta reach 5th/6th or even 7th up on the G string to play the highest note, though, it's 1 octave lower than the widely known version. I believe this is the original version, as it really plays on just G string.

April 2, 2009 at 06:24 PM ·

Casey, thanks. I've been lazy: look here!

April 2, 2009 at 07:20 PM ·

Any idea of what Sarah Chang's violin is in that video?

April 2, 2009 at 09:49 PM ·

For a completely different type of interpretation and vibrato, check this out (played all on the G string by Kyung Wha Chung).

April 2, 2009 at 08:08 PM ·

May I suggest listening to a few of these artists and their vibrato usage for your study?

Yeheudi Menhuin, Josef Hassid, Jan Kubelik, Toscha Seidl, Michael Rabin, George Enescu, Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, Itzhak Perlman, Kyung-Wha Chung, Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh

Of course there are others, but I thought this was a pretty good sampling.  Maybe you've already done this, but if not, I think you'd learn a great deal.  That's what I do when I need vibrato inspiration!

April 2, 2009 at 11:13 PM ·

I think one also has to bear in mind that one of the functions of vibrato is to project the sound, which is all the more important when playing in a large hall. In this performance, I'm sure the sound you hear at the back of the hall is much different to what we hear, through close microphone.

April 3, 2009 at 06:16 PM ·

Nice thought, Neil.

I didn't mention it before, but I think if you listen to all of these different players you'll notice how unique and individual each vibrato is.  It's amazing to listen to the variation and variety available from one instrument.  Vibrato is such a personal element.  It's a hallmark of style and personality.  Thank goodness there's no "correct" vibrato as Gene points out.  Then we'd all sound like violin robots.

April 4, 2009 at 04:12 PM ·

 The problem with one famous teacher-Delay-teaching a large number of well-known soloists is that vibrato sound in this country has become homogenized. Artistic monopolization by one teacher (of any art) is rarely a good thing.

April 13, 2009 at 06:27 PM ·

I've been thinking some more and I think it has a lot to do with the room's acoustics and the size/type of ensemble you're playing in, if you are. You probably have a lot more freedom when you're playing solo.

As Niel pointed out, strong vibrato's probably a good thing for theatre halls. Up close with a microphone it probably sounds quite different from what you would hear after all the dampening.

My high school band teacher used to encourage us to do good wide vibrato, but then she also told us to cut back on it when we were playing with the choir, because it made it harder for them to find pitches. The orchestra I'm playing in right now is more like an overgrown quartet than an orchestra, so maybe wide vibrato is hard to tune with here too.

Maybe the purpose of vibrato in solos is its expressive quality, and in ensembles, it's for the diffusion. That would seem to make all the advice and opinions I've received agree with each other.

Thanks everyone, there aren't many places on the web where you can have meaningful conversations about these kinds of subtle topics.

April 14, 2009 at 01:02 AM ·


this is a very good discussion from everybody. Personally I think i would try and avoid classifying vibrato according to a strong or weak paradigm.   I think its more useful to talk in terms of width and speed or actually identifying the kind of mechanical production such as hand,  arm ,  combination or whatever.

A few things thta spring to mind.  I completely disagree with the idea that a solist uses arm vibrato because it is more powerful.       Ida Haendal is an example of a player who uses a veyr pure hand vibrato annd she doesn`t have any problems with projection.   Nor do I think it is true that vibrato is the key to projection in @modern@ cocnert halls.   The `loudest` player I ever heard live wa sMilstein.  His playing was loud in the sens that it resonated so beautifully it seemed to fill every corner of the hall in a way that a typical slash and burn player didn`t do.  He used vibrato notably sparingly,  often playing white notes and using mor eopen strings than todays players do as a rule.      

It is sometimesd said that Stern introduced the   notion of continuous vibrato but I think Heifetz went that way first especilly in his later most vibrabnt recordings.    But before taht there was Kreisler who is possibly still the greatest influenc eon the development of vibrato over the 20th century eevn if 99% of todays colge grads have never even heard a recording of hm.  If yuou wnat to see truly great use of vibrato then he is still the man to listen to.    Two of today`s players who can use vibrato with extrordinary skill-  Hilary Hahn and Zimmerman.  Personally i think the latter has a bit of an edge in creativity in this area.

The bottom line for me is the following rule of thumb:   if one`s attention is continually drawn to the vibrato during a performance then there is a problem regardless of good a vibrato it is. The great vibrators somehow managed to integrate the actually sound of everynote and the vibrato in a kind of Vulcan mind meld.   Slappingit on top like gauche paint to simulate intensity is an all too common ear ache.




April 14, 2009 at 09:50 PM ·

I agree with you Buri for the arm vibrato.  We often hear that people make arm vibrato because it can "project more' and be wider.  Although some manage it very well, many other greats like you mentionned Ida Haendel and I think I could add Oistrakh and Perlman (correct me if I'm wrong) succeded in having  really beautiful, coulourful, nice rounded sound and don't use arm vibrato as much as many modern players ( maybe they don't even use it). 

I recently went to a concert with a soloist and he exclusivly used arm vibratos.  He had them really well and played well! I looked at the forarms of the members of the orchestra and many many many of them seemed to be shaking it really much (probably doing too arm vibratos).  The next day, I happened to look to some videos on youtube of my idols (many from the elder generation) and I and even my mom who knows nothing in violin could really see that the motion of their vibrato was completely different.  Starting from the finger/wrist and the forarm hardly mooved.  It was a big contrast with the players we say the night before.  No one is best and I believe it is only a matter of personnal taste but I sometimes wonder if arm vibrato is the big style now and finger/wrist ones a thing of the past.  Can someone have an explanation? Am I completely nuts to think that finger/wrists vibratos users are not that frequent and that the new style is arm vibratos? Why did I didn't have the impression to see many wrist/finger ones amongst an whole orchestra... (I know it's hard to tell just like this but it seemed obvious)  Are wrirst/fingers an old thing and arm a modern one?  Is this only my observation?  It's possible that I'm totally wrong too....  At the end, what counts is the nice sound regardless of the kind of vibratos but did vibratos evolved to a different style though the years? 

Oups, sorry it's maybe off topic since I do not even talk of Sarah Chang...



May 13, 2009 at 01:14 AM ·

Very interesting, Anne-Marie.  I was taught arm vibrato (more of a combination, but definately with forearm movement), but for the life of me, I mainly do wrist vibrato.  I have no idea how to do finger vibrato by the way.  When I look at members of my community orchestra, I say that vast majority of them uses wrist vibrato, maybe 10-15% use arm//wrist vibrato. 

May 13, 2009 at 01:49 AM ·

This is interesting, your orchestra seems to be the contrary from the one I saw where forarms mooved very much.  Perhaps it depens on many things, amateur, professional, schools, teachers etc.  Maybe arm vibratos are more in style in professionals for this "projection" reason that I am curiously not able to hear when players play with one type vs another vibrato type.  Maybe this "projection" story is only audible from very close.  But I am no expert and these are just hypothesis and personal observations.  However anything is nice when it doesn't Kick, sound like a goat, souns stiff and jerky or buzzy (like to narrow and too fast).  This is what my ear loves and I think it is a life search...



May 13, 2009 at 02:53 AM ·

Actually Anne-Marie I believe you are  on the right track. In looking at videos of orchestras before World War II or even not much after you notice much more use of hand vibrato and certainly by the late sixties and beyond arm vibrato seems much more common. This also seems to parallel the increasing prevalence of the Franco-Belgian bow holds (since there are variations) compared with the Russian bow holds. I remember my teacher in Israel explaining that one could do either but that the bow hold necessitated other changes in arm position although the idea of a stable but flexible support through the legs and feet and  using the  back muscles to suppport the movements of the arm, hand and fingers, and the avoidance of vertical pressure to create a tone was common to both  bow holds. It may be the influence of Galamian and Delay in this country that has created greater uniformity in both the use of arm vibrato and the Franco-Belgian bow hold than prior to WWII. We tend to think of the players prior to WWII as having greater variety and nuance and that there is greater uniformity today and it is harder to tell the differences yet many on this website have felt they can distinguish between Perlman, Chang, Zukerman, Hahn, Chung, and a host of others just as easily as they can tell Francescatti apart from Heifetz, Stern, Oistrakh, Milstein, and Menuhin. I believe if one really listens to the total musical expression, the interpretation,  there are so many factors that create the unique individual sound of a player that with all well-trained, capable musicians it  becomes more a question of preference and the sound one is seeking or has been influenced to emulate rather than any one factor such as the bow hold or the vibrato alone. We must also consider the unique voice of the violin and the bow the artist is using as well because that also distinguishes the sound.

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