Please, Santa, bring me a vibrato for Christmas

December 15, 2011 at 08:38 PM · I'm getting frustrated. I've been taking lessons for two years now (building on a background of guitar and mandolin), and although I'm making steady progress, I still don't have a proper vibrato. My first teacher would tell me not to worry, that it'd just happen but it might take a couple of years. Well, it's been two years now, and the closest I've gotten is a very tense, narrow, and rapid wobbling that just doesn't qualify.

A couple of months ago I changed teachers - not because of the vibrato issue but because I felt I had gone as far as I could with my first teacher. I had built a lot of repertoire, but there was relatively little focus on technique. I had developed some technique along the way, but I was at the point where I could do a mediocre job on a lot of pieces, and I felt I needed a teacher who would focus more on the technical aspects of playing. A trial lesson with a new teacher was promising - she stopped me before I played a single note and made two corrections to my bow hold.

So now I'm concentrating more on technique, working my way through Suzuki book 3 and the Wohlfahrt etudes. But at a recent lesson my

new teacher said, "OK, let's warm up with a G major scale - with vibrato." I replied, "I can't do vibrato." I think she was somewhat taken aback, but she couldn't come up with a definite plan of attack.

It seems as if everyone thinks of vibrato as something that "just happens". But after two years of daily practice, I've arrived at the conclusion that it's _not_ going to just happen. I'm going to have to make it happen (or, to use current jargon, become "proactive").

I've watched many people play, and marveled at the smooth, easy movement their left hands make while playing vibrato. My left hand locks up, and the only sort of movement I can get is like striking a coiled spring. I've watched all sorts of Youtube videos on vibrato but there's something about it that I can't seem to grasp.

The best results I've had so far come from Todd Ehle's videos, where he describes exercises to develop flexibility in the last joint of each finger on the left hand. Translating this to the violin neck, though, gives me trouble: as soon as my thumb touches the neck, my hand locks into one position and my fingertip can't roll on the string.

The other night I came up with a trick that might break me out of this particular rut. I found that I could hold the violin securely enough under my chin that I could stop a string without touching the neck with any part of my left hand except the one fingertip. While doing this I can do a rudimentary arm vibrato and get that last finger joint to flex properly. It's not a permanent solution - I can apply barely enough pressure to make a note at all, and only in first position. (Even when playing normally, my teacher says I need to apply a bit more pressure on the string to get a good tone.) But it's a start - perhaps once I get used to letting that joint flex I'll be able to figure out how to add my thumb without locking up.

Does this sound reasonable? It's the only thing I've found that offers any hope.

Replies (32)

December 15, 2011 at 09:28 PM · First of all, yay for your initiative, passion, and determination.

Others here will have good ideas that will be relevant to vibrato, but I just wanted to say that for the average student, two years is not very long at all. I think it took me about five years to start learning vibrato. (To be fair, I was a kid and sick a lot and ambivalent about the violin and busy with a whackload of other things, but still.) You certainly aren't slow or stupid for not getting it sooner or easier. OK?

Be kinder toward yourself. The language you chose while writing your post ("getting desperate", "frustrated", "only thing that offers any hope") suggests that you're beating yourself up for not getting it before now. You really honestly don't need to do that. You can be just as productive - if not more so - if you don't send those messages to yourself. Playing the violin is hard enough without sending yourself waves of self-loathing. Trust me, I've been down that route, and it came to absolutely nothing. I think it will help you to try to look at this issue more objectively, as if you were a teacher teaching a student. You wouldn't imply a student was slow, would you? So why talk to yourself that way?

So anyway, take a deep breath. You will get it; everyone eventually does. People here will help you. Your teacher will probably help you; just give her some time. Your subconscious is working on the problem as we speak. So be patient.

Hopefully someone else who's more qualified to teach will step in now...

December 15, 2011 at 09:39 PM · I just released a

"not your typical vibrato" video.


Smiles! Diane

December 15, 2011 at 09:53 PM · Just wanted to say 2 things:

I started learning vibrato 3 years into my 'violin journey'!

when if anyone knows ABRSM grade 5 I was preparing for this exam, so I was in between grade 4 and 5, so playing up to 5th position (similar to 'ASTA level 4 to 5).

no offence to anyone but I often do not understand what is the 'rush' (by the way I am not talking to the original starter of this thread just in 'general')...often many want to get going with vibrato too soon.... ok, it's nice, ok you hear it everywhere, but we are here to learn to play hopefully for the rest of our life so surely what is the rush? we'll do it eventually right? intonation and other basis are 'to me anyway' things to get solid first.

(ok maybe I started a 'tad' late? , but wanted to point out many want to start way too early)

2nd thing:

yes, I saw your videos Diane, I liked them, and I think what would be helpful for many is to do the exercises (like the pills bottle shake exercise and sliding your finger on the string exercise) from early on by all means so that their 'muscles' are used/condition to the motion of vibrato, then 'one day' when they are truly ready to do vibrato in their playing they will find it so much easier and smoother to transition into putting this in their 'played notes'

December 15, 2011 at 11:01 PM · "It seems as if everyone thinks of vibrato as something that "just happens.'

Not this teacher. There is a very small percentage of students for whom this will be true. For most, it's not. I wouldn't be surprised if many teachers simply learned it so young that they forgot what they went through to acquire it. Most people need to go through a very deliberate process so that they don't develop bad habits.

I'd agree that 2 years is pretty soon, and that you have bigger fish to fry. I typically don't teach vibrato till the student has become really comfortable with 3rd position, good shifting, and good control of the entire bow and contact point. There's no rush for vibrato.


December 16, 2011 at 02:18 AM · My teacher is satisfied with my hand vibrato, but wants me to also develop arm vibrato, not "instead of" but to help me become a more versatile violinist. And for the same reason, when doing an intensive study of Vivaldi Op 3 No 6, not only to work on the bowing as set out in the Suzuki edition but also the bowing of the original edition, which "looks" easier but in fact has its own interesting interpretative problems.

December 16, 2011 at 02:33 AM · I usually end up teaching vibrato around bk 3, when we are beginning to do serious shifting, when is also about the time I also do a thorough double check of posture, hand positioning, etc. No rush before then; bk 2 tends to focus on a lot of bow work and new finger positioning, although if a student is set up well they should be able to do vibrato exercises at that point. But it sounds to me like you might want a good thorough position check. Usually a tight hand indicates that your posture and violin arm are out of balance-changing that can be a little bit of a process, but will result in immensely more freedom and a much more successful platform for your vibrato.

I agree that it doesn't usually "just happen"; it needs taught. Some of the videos mentioned here and in other vibrato threads may be helpful.

Best to you!

December 16, 2011 at 02:42 AM · I believe what has helped me a lot with acquiring a controlled (note that word!) vibrato was learning to shift easily and fluently up and down the fingerboard without thinking about it. That in fact came before the vibrato, and then the vibrato arrived not long after, introduced itself, and got on with it.

I think what the shifting and vibrato have in common, and this is essential, is that they depend on the absence of stiffness in the left arm, wrist, hand, fingers and thumb. If a finger presses too hard on the string the thumb will react, stiffen and grip the neck (the dreaded "death grip"), which effectively prevents the hand from shifting along the neck. So learn to press the fingers down just sufficiently to get a clear tone, but no further. You can start this learning by touching the string very lightly so that you get just a squeaky harmonic noise and gradually increase the pressure until the tone appears. Any more pressure is unnecessary. The fingers will feel light on the strings and the thumb far more relaxed. You'll find that all the thumb is doing is just supporting the relatively small weight of that end of the violin and not gripping.

Light fingers therefore mean faster fingers, easier shifting, and I'd be surprised if Vibrato didn't soon come knocking at the door and saying "Happy Christmas" (or perhaps "Easter", to be a bit more realistic at this point in time.)

[edit added: this post obviously overlaps a lot with what Katheryn has just posted]

December 16, 2011 at 04:02 AM · Greetings,

as a practicing extremist I am absolutely almost adamnat that vibrato should be taught. There are -very few- vibratos that just happened that don`t have soemthign wrong with them that is often simply impossible to undo.

I disagree with teachers who say it just happens and would also ask those teachers if they actually know how to teach it. If they don`t then I would , in all seriousness, quesiton their actual teaching knowledge. How can one not study in depth such a fundamental aspect of the art of violin playing?

I want to teach Japanese but I won`t teach you the verb system?

I want to elarn to drive but I`m not interested in the brake pedal?

The information you need is all in `Basics` which I suggest you buy for Christmas and work at patiently on your own, fidning out what helps and what doesn`T.

There are excuses for the student.-There are NON for the teahcer.

In space, no-one can hear you vibrate.


December 16, 2011 at 05:30 AM · An additional suggestion -- Gerald Fischbach's Viva Vibrato book and Art of Vibrato video/dvd. It's a straightforward approach to learning hand vibrato.

One note on your frustration: Like most everyone else has been saying, my daughter's teacher taught her hand and arm vibrato, though not at the same time (she didn't use those books, but I've heard good things about them). No mysterious it'll-just-happen stuff -- just daily exercises and time.

December 16, 2011 at 06:35 AM · Do you use a metronome to work on vibrato? Starting a metronome really slowly and doing one "wiggle" per click is a good start. After that you work your way up gradually. This builds control and has gotten many players past the uncomfortable shaky stage.

December 16, 2011 at 06:37 AM · I'm in the midst of tackling vibrato myself and one thing is have to have a relaxed left hand to do it. Pretend your left hand is made of jello.

My teacher has given me several exercises which start very simply and like everything it takes time to develop. Patience and smart, focused practice will get you there.

December 16, 2011 at 12:58 PM · In a previous post on this thread I said "My teacher is satisfied with my hand vibrato". Quite true, but with the unspoken proviso that she is satisfied at this stage of my progress. But I know full well that in a while she will revisit my vibrato and refine a detail or two, something she does with all technique. Like a series of successive approximations.

The point is, I believe, that you can't deluge the pupil with all the details in one go and expect him or her to absorb them without risking confusion along the way.

Meanwhile, there is arm vibrato to learn, as well as alternative bowings (modern and baroque) for a Vivaldi concerto. Busy Christmas ahead.

December 16, 2011 at 01:29 PM · I'm one of those people who "found" a vibrato and has never had instruction on it. I went tos chool one day in 7th grade and said, "Is this it?" A few years later My college prof took a look & listen, and said, "Fine." But because of that, I've taken a lot of time to think about how vibrato works, & to develop an arm-vibrato to go w/my natural wrist one, so I can teach well. The green book in the Essential Elements series has a couple of pages I've found very useful for helping students develop a vibrato.

December 16, 2011 at 04:03 PM · Your detailed descriptions are helpful in communicating your current situation, and your problem is more common than not amongst beginner vibrato students. At just two years into the journey, you are not allowed to feel bad about not getting it down just yet! Keep working on it if that's what you want, though, because good vibrato technique solves a lot of other tension problems in the left hand. Flexible joints are a prerequisite for vibrato, and flexible joints are good for all kinds of things!

"The other night I came up with a trick that might break me out of this particular rut. I found that I could hold the violin securely enough under my chin that I could stop a string without touching the neck with any part of my left hand except the one fingertip."

If you like the feeling of not having to support the violin with the left hand then try this trick: stick a sock over your scroll and place it against a wall, ~ parallel to your nose so that the strings are parallel with the floor. Use the wall not only to hold your violin up while you practice, but to remind you to keep the instrument absolutely still. This should make your hand feel very free.

Before you try that step, spend time away from your instrument practicing the "door-knocking" exercise, which is the motion your hand makes when the knuckles rock back toward the pegs. Make this motion in the air with your thumb lightly touching your second and third finger. Your hand should keep a loose circular shape in the palm. Next, give it some "thinking time." Set your finger lightly on the string and don't move until you are exactly sure in your mind what commands you want to give which muscles. Sometimes, this can take a while. Only move clearly and specifically, and the moment you feel confusion creep in and tension begins to take hold, or the motion becomes flail-y, stop.

You don't have to press down the string entirely during the beginning stages. Your only focus is to keep the finger from rocking off track, pitch-wise.

Begin with your favorite, most comfortable finger (probably the second) and stick with that one until you start getting break-throughs. Then have your favorite finger coach the others by making the motion and then getting a different finger to imitate it until they match.

The first stages of vibrato don't sound much like vibrato at all, and you should not be worried about making it sound that way. It should sound more like gently lapping waves, or like a flag in a light, light breeze. Definitely use a metronome to give it some structure, since your goal is rhythmic evenness. Pick only a speed that you can maintain your looseness and consitency. Take teeny-tiny baby steps as you speed it up, like tightening braces. But don't think of braces while you practice. Think happy thoughts of pudding, plates of spaghetti, or butterflies (as you speed up). Try not to get seasick.

Only after you get the hang of the rocking motion do you begin to try to make it musical. for me, there's a specific switch of gears that happens. I make the motion slowly, and then I imagine what something would sound like if I was singing it. I transfer the wavy motion my vocal chords would make down into my fingers, and they "rev up" into a fluid, focused oscillation. This activity is a lot more right-brained than the previous exercises. And I don't think you're ready to go there just yet, especially the way you describe your "bedspring" issue. That just means you're trying too much too soon.

Be patient. Think more of cultivating daily dedication to the focused meditation and problem solving. Don't give it more than 10 minutes at a time. (Several practice windows in a day are fine, if you're impatient.) Make your mind take advantage of your ten-minute window, and stop the minute you become unfocused or tense. Preferably, stop before you become unfocused or tense.

As far as Santa is concerned. Ask for coal. Light a fire with it.

December 16, 2011 at 04:17 PM · I'm another one for whom it "just happened" which is why I'm so screwed up. It's taking a long time to undo what I did. Please, don't let it just happen, learn it the long, hard way, and give it as much time as it needs to mature.

Everyone is so right about the need to be loose. Tension is an instant vibrato-killer. When starting out with slow practice with a metronome, my tendency was to play the note, then suddenly vibrate down on the beat, then rapidly back up on the next beat, etc. Now, I'm concentrating on getting a smooth, even flow to the movement down & back, like a sine wave. The difference when playing at performance speed is just amazing. Same speed, same amplitude as before, but whereas before it had that springlike nervousness to it, the new sound is so much more graceful and pleasing. Still needs a few more years of work, but at least it's getting there.

It's also interesting to notice where the impulses come from when doing vibrato. I don't have the right training or experience to really describe it in a clear manner, but for me, when doing arm vibrato, the impulse begins in the back, which may sound strange. No tension, just the sense of initiating the motion. It helps to keep my upper & lower arm, wrist, hand, etc loose and it's like they're just coming along for the ride. If I think of it any other way, tension sets in somewhere along the path between back and fingertips, and vibrato is killed. Not sure if that makes any sense, let alone is of any help... :\

December 16, 2011 at 04:56 PM · Charlie, let me tell you how I did it. I did have a vibrato, but it was a self-learned finger vibrato which I didn't like at all. I wanted a wrist vibrato! I started to practice vibrato super super slow. Do that for many many hours (but not in one shot obviously, don't hurt yourself). On all fingers. The fourth will be the most difficult. Keep on practicing for hours and hours. At some point you will be able to do it faster and faster. It will be a very forced vibrato, but then you can start working on making it more relaxed and making it hinge primarily on your last finger knuckle (which is as it should be). After approx two more years you will have developed a vibrato that you like. You just have to put in the many many hours or practice. No, it is NOT something that you can just do! Although my son, who is left-handed by the way, just tried it and had it. Amazing.

December 16, 2011 at 05:25 PM · >How can one not study in depth such a fundamental aspect of the art of violin playing?< Way to make a guy feel real guilty Buri!!

I'm mostly self taught with a mostly self taught vibrato. About 3 months ago I decided I had to haul out the metronome, find some computer vids, and get more serious about this. Speaking of muscles as per David C. I've found that kind of expanding the muscle in my armpit (yikes) and making a very conscious effort to keep the muscles relaxed in the palm of my hand to be helping. I'm still "feeling out" my knuckle, finger, hand, wrist, lower arm, elbow, upper arm, shoulder and back with this. Have I missed anything?

At any rate, I'm determined to get better, and work on other things only if I've given sufficient time and effort to vibrato.

ESPECIALLY after seeing that little dart by Buri! (smiles)

December 16, 2011 at 05:27 PM · Stephen-san,

You only need to know 3 Japanese verbs:

1. neru

2. taberu

3. deru


December 16, 2011 at 07:11 PM · In having the same problems as the OP, I am frustrating myself over what is probably an over-thinking of the logistics of the pre-exercises; i.e., waving to yourself, shaking a Tic-Tac container, etc.

Here's what I don't get: The waving-to-yourself motion is a frontwards-and-backwards motion, right? --towards your body and away from your body. But isn't the vibrato motion a side-to-side motion -- more a left-to-right motion or essentially parallel to your body rather than perpendicular to?

If you used the waving-to-yourself motion on the string, wouldn't you be manipulating the string in the direction toward the next string?

Yeah, I know -- I'm confusing myself....

December 16, 2011 at 07:29 PM · Yes, you are confused, and rightfully so! Let's be clear about one thing. Vibrato dips beneath the pitch and back up to it. The top of the wavy sound is the center of the pitch you desire, because this is what the ear picks up on, and if you go over, it sounds sharp.

The motion is rocking away from the body, toward the pegs, not toward your body. You only come forward to return to the normal position. Make sense? Instead of waving at yourself, picture rapping softly on a door with your knuckles, palm facing you, forearm basically still.

Take a look at your fingertips after playing for a while. If you are using good technique, you will see a diagonal string imprint across the pad. When you use vibrato, the finger stays put on the string and rocks back and forth along this track. The motion lines up with the string, not side to side, like you were thinking. Not up and down, either, but rocking along in the same direction the string runs, with no change in pressure. And the fingertip stays put, to keep track of the pitch.

December 16, 2011 at 07:37 PM · Dear Santa Scott,

`iku` is nice but this is a family show.



December 17, 2011 at 02:15 AM · Thanks, Emile, for your clarification. It helps to clear it up somewhat for me.

But...with the motion as simply (or not so simply!) a rocking toward the pegs and back to the original pitch along the string, why then the practicing of waving to ourselves or shaking the Tic-Tacs back and forth in our hands? It seems like the two motions are entirely different.

Or am I still just not "getting it"? I certainly do understand the acoustical logistics of producing the vibrato; just not the physical preparatory exercises to build up to accomplishing said vibrato.

You know, as a high school student, I had a teacher who was concerned that my vocal vibrato was not "coming in" as soon as she believed it should have been. Now, almost 40 years later (and, of course, with a "normal" vocal vibrato) I sing in two professional choirs in which turning OFF the vibrato is synonymous with continuing to receive a paycheck. We sing with pure, straight tone 99% of the time.

Maybe my fingers are just having a little war with my brain...ha!

December 17, 2011 at 12:32 PM · Shirley you means a vibrator?

December 17, 2011 at 01:44 PM · Vibrato's something that "just happens"? This is news to me! Actually, nothing in my violin career "just happen"ed except my perfect pitch, which is more a curse than a gift...

Vibrato is a TECHNIQUE, and there are about five ways I can think of to do a vibrato.

1. finger

2. wrist

3. arm

4. any of the two

5. 1, 2, 3 combined

Depending on the position of the hand, the tone you want, and the speed, you have to vary them. There are different practice method for any of them. The easiest one is the one where you go semitone up and down as a practice, then speed that up, and 5 is the hardest for me.

Vibrato doesn't "just come". Not properly, anyway. I started as a toddler and I didn't learn it until my 4th year of violin studies, when I was book 4 or 5 of Suzuki. I was sixteen when I finally could do all five. You need very strong fingers to produce a proper vibrato.

Don't go chasing after one technique. Take your time. There is no violinist who "couldn't do a vibrato". It takes patience and loads of practice. The premier one, for this instance, are strong left fingers.

Can you make a sound when you put down the fingers on your left hand? The ring and the pinkie are especially weak in human hand, because we tend to use thumb, forefinger, and middle finger far more than the rest. It should make a sound like you hit the fingerboard and string with a very small hammer.

Igor Oistrakh once said that anyone can play anything with time and practice. I hold this to be true. Just keep at it. If it gets depressing to the point you want to cry, stop the practice, do something else, then come back to it.

December 17, 2011 at 04:41 PM · Go to Todd Ehle's website. There are some good beginning exercises for vibrato among his many, excellent,violin teaching videos.

December 17, 2011 at 05:51 PM · In addition to the excellent advice already given, when you are practicing vibrato, pay careful attention and note any tension. When you start feeling tension STOP, drop your hand, wiggle it around, wave it,then start again. Every time you feel any slightest bit of tension stop.

In the beginning, you may be stopping more than practicing, but in the long run, it is a relaxed hand and fingers you want.

December 17, 2011 at 06:03 PM · I just realized in rereading your question that you have looked at Todd Ehele's videos.

Try this: Prop the violin scroll against a wall (with a bit of cloth protecting it) and do the vibrato motion slowly. This may make it possible to "disconnect" your thumb from your fingers. Start with very little pressure so your finger rubs the string. Add a little pressure so that your finger stays in one place.

December 18, 2011 at 06:37 PM · Thanks, everyone, for all your kind responses. I'm amazed at how many of you came back with supportive messages. It's true that we're our own worst critics, and it's reassuring to have so many people say that there's nothing really wrong with me.

I've learned a lot of other things that require you to closely co-ordinate complex and unfamiliar movements: landing an airplane, juggling three balls, playing guitar and mandolin, and even typing this message rapidly and accurately. But the violin is one of the most challenging things I've ever tried. The other day I commented to a cello-playing friend that I felt as if my brain had been transplanted into a dog's body, and I don't know how to wag my tail. So I'm looking for things to jolt me out of my familiar territory. If someone pulls my tail it'll be a sensation I've never felt before - but perhaps it'll help me figure out how to wag that tail.

Here's another analogy. Years ago I had a car with a manual transmission with the gearshift lever on the steering column. The linkages to the transmission were getting out of alignment, and one morning after backing out of my driveway everything went awry. Part of the transmission shifted into first gear, while another part stayed in reverse, and everything locked up. I was stuck in the middle of the road, unable to move, until I managed to jiggle the linkage enough to get the transmission properly into first gear. That's how my left hand feels, and I haven't yet figured out how to get the linkages right.

I think a lot of the frustration comes because I have advanced musically in so many other ways - I can sight read, play hundreds of tunes from memory, jump into a jam and keep up on guitar, mandolin, voice, and yes, even fiddle. So hitting a wall like this comes as an unpleasant surprise. But I've saved a copy of all your postings, and I'll study them all carefully. Meanwhile, I'll carry on playing what I can with others who enjoy playing with me. At least I'm reassured that I don't have to worry so much. Besides, there's still that pesky 4th finger - now _there's_ something to work on...

December 18, 2011 at 08:57 PM · I know what you mean about the frustration of running into a brick wall after coming by so many other things so naturally. I've actually learned a lot from my students when it comes to persistence. For some, learning a new instrument just doesn't come easy, and with lots of persistence, they move forward in little baby steps. Just because other things are easy for you doesn't mean you can't learn how to tackle a challenge.

December 19, 2011 at 01:23 AM · Good point Emily. I think -everyone- has one weak point at least in any area of cocnern. It is when one confronts and overcomes it that one truly begins ot understand what we are trying to achive. And then of course, we hit the next one...



December 19, 2011 at 06:31 AM · Speaking of overcoming things, another recent blow to my self-esteem came from the realization that at my last couple of lessons my intonation has been terrible. However, I just got back from a party where I ran into one of my violin-playing friends. Before I had a chance to say anything, he commented that my intonation seems to be off while playing from sheet music, while when I play from memory it's perfect. So as soon as I got home, I picked up my violin and tackled my latest assigned Wohlfahrt etudes - except this time, I quickly read one measure, closed my eyes, played it from my short-term memory, then opened my eyes and repeated the process through the entire etude. My intonation suddenly became almost perfect. I realized that I was starting to concentrate so much on reading the music that I was forgetting to listen to my tone. I played some more, working to shift my concentration back inside the instrument where it belongs. It was a wonderful practice session. My friend is getting a BIG thank-you call tomorrow.

December 19, 2011 at 08:17 PM · So much of playing this instrument is mental, and all aspects seem interconnected. Often it seems as though the thing you're concentrating on is the one thing you can't get right. The next day, that one thing is flawless, and something else that was flawless the previous day is out of whack. I'm starting to believe that once everything is so ingrained that it's automatic, only then can we play well consistently. Then, we can start making music! It's an awful lot of work. Difficult, frustrating, joyful, satisfying work. Enjoy the process, you're doing wonderfully and what you're experiencing is completely normal!

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