Vibrato Vexation, Due to Diminutive Digits

November 23, 2011 at 10:31 PM · All alliteration aside, I'm sure it's possible for those of us with abbreviated appendages to develop a vivacious vibrato, but frankly I'm flummoxed. :)

Admittedly, this may actually have nothing to do with hand size, or finger length, or the price of tea in China, but everything to do with David doing something wrong, and blaming genetics. :p)

Basically, in an attempt to maintain accurate intonation and speed, I have adopted a hand frame that is more parallel to the fingerboard than universally accepted, with knuckles high and distal digits a bit more vertical than usual. Unfortunately this makes the vibrato movement more sideways, instead of just the opening and closing of the finger joints. I find that in order to produce an acceptable vibrato, I must adjust the hand's position, but this seems like wasted energy and not conducive to the smooth flow of music. How to approach the left hand so that it's in the right frame for accurate intonation but able to perform vibrato at any moment?

Replies (17)

November 23, 2011 at 10:39 PM · I appreciate the title of this post!

November 23, 2011 at 11:37 PM · Greetings, develop a vibrato base don the up and down pulsing of the finger tip- IE fingertip vibrato.



November 24, 2011 at 12:58 AM · Don't think hand size matters. It has to do more with how you're doing it. Do you have a teacher?

November 24, 2011 at 01:34 AM · Hmmm...

November 24, 2011 at 02:52 AM · OK Paul, tell us what you're thinking!

To paraphrase Scott, it's not the size, but how you use it... I'll buy that. In all seriousness, that's the gist of my second paragraph above. I've seen violinists do quite well with slightly smaller hands than mine, so I'm sure that's not the real problem. To answer your question, I do have a teacher but due to scheduling conflicts lessons are on hold for a few weeks, so I'm on my own for a while and hope to work through this in the meantime.

I've done OK up to this point, but the repertoire, and my (desired) interpretations, have advanced to the point where my technical shortcomings are becoming an obstacle. I have a vibrato, but it's vanilla; I'm having trouble with smoothness and varying combinations of speed and amplitude. I have the exact sound in my head, the way I want to use vibrato in coloring a phrase, but lack the range of motion and the ability control it consistently. Those with more generous proportions seem to have no problem reaching the notes and getting a full vibrato swing without the need to reposition the hand. For me it seems nearly impossible at times.

Maybe if I just pick up the fiddle and start playing without thinking, everything will fall into place somehow. That's happened before, unfortunately I'm never able to recall exactly what happened to make it work!

November 24, 2011 at 03:31 AM · A video would be worth a thousand words. Unless, of course, the words are wonderfully alliterated, and in that case maybe half as much. Like, 555.

I want to see your hand angle, and I want ot see what motion you are currently trying to employ. That would help. Then I could point and laugh at you. Just kidding.

November 24, 2011 at 04:56 AM · I'd only recommend learning vibrato with a teacher. The reason I say this is that I get many, many students who try to do it on their own and end up with poor habits that are VERY hard to fix. Typical is the "squeeze and shake" technique, and there are others. Some people can get it on their own, but it's quite rare. I take my students through a very deliberate set of vibrato exercises.

November 24, 2011 at 05:50 AM · Hi David, keep in mind that nothing need be fixed in one position or posture when you play. Everything depends on context. Your rotated hand may be appropriate and serve you well on faster passages, or passages with a lot of repeated patterns. But for lyrical stuff simply undo the rotation and focus on balancing your hand on each finger to allow for maximum ROM (if that's what you want for the passage.)

To balance your weaker fingers, try mimicking the motion, shape, angles, posture of your stronger fingers. The limiting factor for ROM in your vibrato will be in your baseknuckles, not the finger itself. If your baseknuckles are rigid, or work against the finger motion, it will be difficult to let the finger curl and extend freely. When your finger is curled your baseknuckle should be extended, straightened. When your finger is extended/flattened, your baseknuckle should be flexed. Another knuckle which helps with vibrato motion is the third joint of your thumb, which is near the wrist. Let it coordinate with the baseknuckles of your fingers by closing when your baseknuckles extend and opening when your baseknuckles flex.

To coordinate these motions practice smooth shifts, starting with an interval of say a 5th (on A-string: B-F# for 1st finger, C-G for 2nd etc.) Make sure you release pressure before you slide so you get a smooth, continuous glide along the surface of the string. As you get accustomed to shifting smoothly you can start to add pressure a little at a time so that your fingers (and thumb) are moved passively by the shifting motion. As you shift up your fingers curl, base knuckles extend, wrist extends, thumb closes; as you shift down your fingers extend, base knuckles flex, wrist flexes, thumb opens. (Of course your wrist is being moved by the motion of the arm which is fine for arm vibrato; later if you want to generate a hand vibrato the wrist would do the opposite of what's above, relative to the hand.) As you get comfortable with this smooth shifting motion decrease the interval, add more and more pressure until you have just enough to keep the finger at a single pitch. If you like you can decrease the interval by semitones and also speed up the vibrato with a rhythmic acceleration.

Once you're able to balance the hand on each finger and have more control over the vibrato motion you can start thinking about how to apply it to a passage. Keep in mind that max. vibrato on every finger is not always appropriate or necessary. To enhance the vibrato of the weaker fingers it often helps to use vibrato sparingly with the stronger fingers.

Hope that helps,


November 24, 2011 at 03:23 PM · I have been told I have an excellent vibrato. I

practice it every day extremely slowly. Nope, even slower than that. I watch the wrist go backwards and down AS WELL AS the finger joints themselves flex back and forward. How much the finger joints flex depends on the kind of vibrato you want.

The fingers can flex a little or a lot or not at all. Working extremely slowly has even given me, finally, a decent fourth finger vibrato.

To help the fingers I lift barbells with just my finger tips and then the whole finger and the palm. That did wonders.

Remember, the vibrato goes up to the note and back, never higher than the note otherwise you're now playing out of tune.

There is also the "pulse" vibrato that the old masters used and is starting to make a comeback. I can't do it. Google it to see what it is.

November 24, 2011 at 04:10 PM · Jeewon wrote: "Another knuckle which helps with vibrato motion is the third joint of your thumb, which is near the wrist. Let it coordinate with the baseknuckles of your fingers by closing when your baseknuckles extend and opening when your baseknuckles flex."

Oddly perhaps, but I've never heard this mentioned before but obviously for there to be flexibility/motion at the finger tip, there must be equal flexibility/motion somewhere between the thumb and the hand.

THe only thing I don't see stressed enough in teh terrific accounts above (which go way beyond my knowledge) is the need for the very soft touch at the finger tip. If there is one thing that made a quantal improvment in my vibrato it was a reduction (here it is again) in grip, particulary permitting the finger tip maximum what I would like to call 'fluidity' - because thats what it feels like to me. Now I have large fingers and fat pads (and no biological excuses :) ) but it must surely be the same for everyone.

November 24, 2011 at 05:12 PM · Hi Elise, I'm not aware of reading about it anywhere either. My old teacher drew the analogy of throwing a dart to help develop finger flexibility for the bow hand. The analogy holds true for motions in the left hand as well (except I suppose we'd be throwing the imaginary dart at our faces:P) I don't need to use the full range of motion for the thumb on the violin, but it certainly does help for wide vibrato on the viola, particulary on the C string; so I imagine it would help those with smaller hands on the violin too. Of course for those who hold the fiddle more securely at the head, the thumb can just slide along the neck as the side of the first finger does, but for those who use more support from the thumb, it becomes more important to pivot the hand on the thumb from below, just as the hand pivots on the fingertip above. Those who like to have the thumb more open in general, more centred in the hand opposite the 2nd finger tend to have a pronounced rotation about the axis of the forearm because they don't pivot at the 3rd joint of the thumb. I think you're absolutely right about gaining a soft touch in the finger tip and I've found that the shifting exercise I describe above helps train that sense quickly. But in addition, simply becoming aware of, and unlocking the thumb unlocks the base knuckle of the vibrating finger and often solves the problem of a rigid finger immediately.

November 24, 2011 at 07:36 PM · Yay, just when my friends at the party thought I was insane, I come here and find people hashing the finer points of finger muscle motion and sharing barbell exercises to improve vibrato. You guys are great; keep it coming!

November 24, 2011 at 08:01 PM · OK Emily.

The Vibrato Diet


frog muscle in aspic (protein and wobble)


Cold, cooked asparagus with olive oil (floppy slippery sticks - very inspiring)

Main course:

Noodles, lots of noodles with pork bellies and pulse (more flop, feed your finger pads and start movin')


Jello and blancmange with whipped cream (and more more oozie wobble...)

and eaten at the Vibrato Grill and Jazz:

November 24, 2011 at 10:34 PM · with large quantities of beer so that it goes down.

And then it comes up again....

November 25, 2011 at 01:29 PM · ...but hopefully without any foam...




November 27, 2011 at 12:01 AM · Elise,

Mmmm, yummy... And with beer as Buri suggested all the tension will be gone. Just as long as there's no gig the next day!

Great suggestions everyone, thank you so much!

November 27, 2011 at 12:26 PM · Hold on David, just one more recipe for good luck. It might surprise you to learn that my teacher actually taught me to play with my hand situated in the same manner that you are describing,together with the thumb largely under the fingerboard, instead of gripping opposite the first finger. Her theory is that it will make it much easier to reach notes higher up the fingerboard more quickly, particularly those on the G and D strings. Left elbow well under. So what this does is it actually changes the position of your whole hand from the norm, so that your palm largely faces most of the fingerboard. Your wrist must still be straight and in line with your arm, however, don't let the heel of your hand come up under the fingerboard, and your thumb must only rest on the pad, between the last joint and the tip. Don't let it move too far back, just near the edge of the neck so it is comfortable. In first position, it will rest with the side of the tip against the scroll, and slightly under the edge. With this change in hand direction, your fingers must move differently during vibrato. They move more from side to side rather than front to back. The process of learning vibrato is different too, as you described. I was taught to move first my fingers only, from side to side (scroll to bridge), then to add a little wrist movement, so both wrist and fingers are moving. The finger movement gives the impulse for the wrist to join in. Then gradually increase the speed while moving the hand /finger in smaller vibrations. This can take several months before becoming a supple fluid movement, but it can only be achieved with a very light grip. I don't have very small hands, but if you feel this grip suits you, then I know a lovely vibrato is possible. Being a little different from the norm makes it hard to get good information, but this is how I've been taught by my patient and careful teacher. Good luck.

Cheers Millie.

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