Vibrato - should I just forget it?

February 14, 2013 at 03:42 AM · I tried to learn vibrato as a schoolgirl but when my teacher told me I was only moving the skin on my fingertips, I gave up. At the age of 30 I took up folk fiddle, for one year; vibrato wasn't necessary but I wanted to master it for the sake of my confidence & did exercises. Then a new job called & I stopped playing again. Fast forward to last year, aged 60, & I have to be dragged away from practising my violin. But with my history, I'm not sure I'll ever get the hang of vibrato; and since the repertoire I like best - folk, Playford & Baroque - is not 'vibrato-rich' should I just forget it? Or would it do wonders for my

confidence, not to mention my tone? And is it possible that a different type of vibrato - wrist, say, not hand - would be better for me, as my fingers are short? I'd love to hear from more experienced players, especially those who took up the violin, or went back to it, as an adult.

Thank you.

Replies (19)

February 14, 2013 at 04:34 AM · Well, I started as an adult so I will throw in my 20 cents worth. I struggled with it for a long time but it is coming along nicely now. Youtube is your friend here : look at all the different violin instruction videos relating to vibrato. Try all the hints and see what works for you.

I have found the most useful to be the Violinlab series. There is a good 15 minute video on vibrato but do look at the other teachers as well ; what works for one person may not work for another. Set aside ten minutes a day for vibrato practise. Go for the wrist vibrato as it is probably the easiest (but not easy !)and most useful to learn.

Also watch the great violinists on youtube ; get the image of them doing vibrato in your head. Dream about vibrato ! I honestly believe the vibrato is as much psychological as physical in that you have to get that left hand to relax completely. This may involve some subtle changes to the way you hold the violin. Perseverance is the key here, as with all things relating to the violin !

February 14, 2013 at 05:22 AM · I struggled for a long time after a 25 year break from viola to develop a descent vibrato and blogged about it here. In the "Search" box type in "mendys vibrato".

It takes time and an endless amount of patience, but it will come. The real trick is to learn how to relax and be flexible. It is more difficult that it would seem on the surface.

February 14, 2013 at 06:38 PM · In my humble opinion vibrato is over rated. I disagree with those who think "the more the better".

Vibrato got a boost in popularity with string players in the 1920es. There is little historical precedent to know what was used before and in the early development of the violin.

You like folk, Playford & Baroque. I also am an Early Music Enthusiast (music and instruments before 1750). The settings I have for Playford are in 4 part harmony. How can you have good harmony when the pitch on the instruments are not settled in on an accurate fundamental pitch? Compare a vocal operatic quartet with and Barbershop Quartet.

In a seminar at a Celtic Festival the first thing mentioned after we played the first number was: "Don't use vibrato."

I kid string players by saying that vibrato was invented by string players hunting for pitch. I admit it, I sometimes use it for that purpose at the beginning of a note when I am listening for a center of pitch with other instruments.

However, beauty is in the mind of the beholder and styles change. As a solo instrument in certain styles of music vibrato, which is not too wide, sounds good to my ears. But, when harmony is important I prefer little vibrato.

The violin can be used with almost any style of music. Don't miss the beauty different styles.

There is a lot of good musical theory out there that is helpful. But, the bottom line is if it sounds good to you it is good music.

February 14, 2013 at 10:39 PM · My violin teacher used to say "vibrato is just like perfume - when used sparingly it can do wonders, when too much is used, it stinks!"

Unless someone invents time travel, we will never know how much if at all people used vibrato during Baroque era. Most would agree that it was not totally without vibrato, but rather that vibrato was just one of many ornamentations and expressive techniques used from time to time, when appropriate.

One has to remember that violin (string) players have always tried to mimic the human voice and human voice does vibrate at times, intentionally or not.

Not being able to vibrate may be a symptom of a stiff hand, wrist and fingers, even the elbow.

So, keep trying and do not give up on vibrato!

February 14, 2013 at 10:45 PM · I say have fun and don't worry about the vibrato. It certainly doesn't sound like a required thing for what you want to play. I'm 50 and have been struggling with it for maybe two years. I actually don't mind the slow progress (I've been taking lessons for seven years) and I do want to have the ability to play with vibrato, even though I often play fiddle pieces. Only now is it starting to sound nice enough that I'm not embarrassed for myself and my playing. But if I hadn't been invested in wanting it, I would have likely given up on the effort with a "why bother?"

Enjoyment is the key here, in my mind. (My new motto after my 50th birthday.)

Congrats on returning to the instrument - that's a very cool thing!

PS: I do a wrist vibrato, if that matters at all.

February 15, 2013 at 03:12 AM · Hi,

Do you have a teacher? Sometimes it's in the way it's explained. The first three years, I wasn't able to vibrate at all (I have thin and stiff fingers...) Then, I switch schools and had it taught differently. Somehow it clicked one day overnight and I do vibrato ever since. It got better but the base was there since I understood how to do it.. My first vibrato experiences was while playing Chritmas Carols in a youth string group. Christmas Carols were the best to learn the vibrato since it's slow. After, I was able to put vibratos in all my usual classical repertoire.

Good luck! It seems that many people are very desperate about vibrato. Even the best teachers disagree, in books about how it should be. You have to find someone who will explain it in a way that works for you... Best wishes,


February 15, 2013 at 05:53 AM · My teacher has been explaining to me that a proper wrist vibrato actually forces you to relax. You really can't do it when you are stiff, so in teaching yourself vibrato, you are also teaching yourself relaxation, and sort of vice-versa. I didn't realize how stiff I was keeping my wrist until I started trying to learn a completely relaxed vibrato motion. At first, it felt so awkward, I had to let my wrist go completely limp and move it solely with the other hand in order to teach myself how loose it could be.

I'm still working at learning wrist vibrato, but by working at it a little every day, slowly and with relaxation very specifically in mind, it's starting to come along. Then the key is to force yourself to use it in your repertoire and build the fluidity that way.

Then you can decide how to use it. You can develop a vibrato that opens your sound without calling much attention to itself.

February 15, 2013 at 10:52 PM · Thanks, everyone. I'm still torn. I have a marvellous teacher but suggesting exercises isn't really his forte; he likes throwing difficult tunes at me to 'stretch' me & he's also a brilliant player who inspires me to practise. I consider myself extremely fortunate. I think I would like to acquire a vibrato because the sense of failure still bites deep; but I'll be more relaxed about it & just enjoy this wonderful experience that I'm having. All the replies are full of empathy & wisdom; it's very heartening!

February 17, 2013 at 11:10 PM · If a violinist is specializing in Celtic folk, Playford, and Baroque, a high proportion of playing never gets out of the first position. With some players this can have the unintended effect of encouraging a stiffness in the left hand which will kill attempts at vibrato and make rapid finger movement that more difficult.

A relaxed left hand, wrist and arm will enable shifting to be developed quickly, and this level of relaxation will also enable vibrato to be developed - the requirements for good shifting and vibrato are the same in this respect.

A prime cause of left hand stiffness is pressing too hard with the fingers, which brings about an opposing reaction from the thumb, and so we have that undesirable gripping of the neck and a rigid wrist. Aim to use minimum finger pressure; as a rule, if the string contacts the fingerboard you're likely to be using too much pressure. The way to practice this is to so lightly touch the string with the finger as you bow that all you hear is string whistle; then gradually increase the pressure until a clear tone is heard. At this stage the string shouldn't be touching the fingerboard and the thumb should feel more relaxed (try wiggling it around to check this out). When you can do all this reliably in your playing without thinking about it then it is time (and not before) to start developing vibrato under teacher's instruction. You may be surprised at how quickly things start to happen.

When you have developed vibrato the most important thing is to have it under control at all times, so that you can turn it on and off when you want.

Why is vibrato so desirable? One answer is that if done properly it enriches the tone due to the generation of higher frequencies. The explanation is fairly technical, but if you're interested, useful lead-ins for a Google search are "sound frequency modulation" and "side-band frequencies".

One more thing, a relaxed left hand tends to help relaxed bowing, probably for some neurological reason. And probably vice versa.

February 18, 2013 at 07:52 AM · Brilliant, Trevor & Frieda! This sort of practical advice is so valuable. I'm afraid I do press hard & grip - it's in my nature! - but I'd noticed that when my practising sounds not-too-bad, I was applying my fingers more lightly.

Thank you very much.

February 18, 2013 at 11:14 AM · Like!

February 18, 2013 at 03:35 PM · One thing I forgot to mention, important for anyone learning to develop a relaxed left hand and light finger movement, is this fundamental equation:

HA + HT = HW


HA = high string action (height from the fingerboard)

HT = high string tension (most steel cores and some synthetics)

HW = Hard Work

If anyone suspects they have this sort of problem, get it checked out by a luthier first. It's not expensive.

In extreme cases I've seen beginner's violins where the action was so high that the instrument was virtually unplayable, let alone for learning vibrato.

February 18, 2013 at 03:45 PM · This is good to know.

I have 2 violins now and my better model is fine - the other one is a bit 'high action', but I only play it a little every day to keep it in service.

Have been trying all day not to press & grip and already it's starting to sound better.

Thanks again, Trevor - you are such a lot of help, both here and on the Session!

February 19, 2013 at 01:54 PM · hi Mollie, now that you say you have plenty of time to practice I would recommend you do a serious attempt at mastering vibrato. it just takes time. follow the manyfold YouTube videos on how to learn vibrato. follow them. play for hours with a very studied, very slow, vibrato. it will help loosen and activate your muscles. after the necessary hours have been put it it will become more relaxed and eventually you will have a vibrato. in my own experience you can really "force" it just by putting in all those hours. the ultimate goal is to have a relaxed vibrato, but it is impossible to do that right away. you'll have to work on it.

February 19, 2013 at 04:40 PM · Yes, I've got the hang of most things by putting the hours in. This is a good idea. Thanks.

February 19, 2013 at 05:54 PM · See the current thread about Korkowska for what not to do :) ha

February 19, 2013 at 08:32 PM · Thanks ... I think ... !

February 20, 2013 at 12:14 AM · our kind host(ette) posted the following video of monica huggett discussing vibrato. i think her advise to just "move the finger around a bit" is what works best for the music we're interested in:

(sorry - i don't know how to highlight the link so as to access it directly)

February 20, 2013 at 09:11 AM · Thanks, Bill - I just found & watched it. Very funny & helpful, & I loved the sound of her playing. As I'm a novice returner who didn't grow up in a classical music home, I didn't know about her - so thank you for that too!

I think I want to learn vibrato but I am going to postpone it, as Trevor suggests above, until I have a more relaxed left hand & a better bowing technique. I've given up violin twice before, but this time it's for keeps - I love it so!

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