Vibrato and finger pressure on strings. How much?

September 2, 2005 at 09:41 AM · I've been taking lessons for about 5 months now and I'm trying to get a vibrato going. I know the principle but the left arm/right arm coordination needs improvement.. My question is.. are you supposed to keep full downward pressure with left finger on the string when doing vibrato or should you ease up slightly when doing it?

The experts make it look so easy!

Replies (22)

September 2, 2005 at 08:55 PM · The pressure is less when moving back towards the scroll and more when rolling forward towards the bridge. It always needs to be just enough to keep the tone clear. Have your teacher, or a skillful friend, vibrate on your forearm so that you can feel the amount of pressure they use and how it varies. Nicolas Kendall showed me that last year and it immediately improved my sound. I had been trying to use too little pressure in order to stay relaxed. I think the important thing to remember is the cycle of pressing and relaxing even when maintaining a moderate amount of finger weight.

The usual final advice: check Fischer's Basics and Practice.

September 3, 2005 at 04:56 PM · Hi Scott,

The answer is neither. The string should be brought down by the natural weight of your finger. It is finger weight that matters, not pressure. If you are finding that you are pressing a lot with the left hand you may want to ease up. A possible source of the problem could be your thumb which might be too much under the fingerboard instead of higher and next to the first finger. This position usually relaxes the left hand (if your hand is of normal proportions) and can be very helpful with issues of left hand finger and vibrato.

Cheers!

September 4, 2005 at 12:25 AM · Yes, the left hand should be really relaxed. Pressing is bad. No matter how intense the music gets or how much your moving the bow or feeling whatever you should never press.

September 4, 2005 at 12:35 AM · I'll just say if you cut one of your fingers off and lay it on the string, its weight won't make the string go down. I dare you to prove me wrong.

September 4, 2005 at 01:23 AM · Hopefully it won't come to that....

September 4, 2005 at 01:45 AM · what if the strings are loose? then they'll go down for sure~

no, but by 'weight,' i think they meant the weight of the arm- and the fingers are where the weight comes in contact with the string- does that make sense? try opening up your hand a bit (so that only the thumb and tip of the finger(s) are touching the instrument) and feeling the weight of your arm hang off the violin. it's really quite heavy- i get my students to hold their scrolls against a wall for support and practice 'hanging vibrato.' it works for a good many of them..

September 4, 2005 at 04:55 AM · You know, I was just getting ready to advocate this concept, and then I realised that my left arm doesn't hang at all when I play. It's a support for the violin's neck. Then again, I'm rest-less. Rest people, do you really hang? If so, does that increase the pressure on the jaw?

There is a slight muscular contraction that holds the tip of the finger in place. You use the minimum amount of pressure to keep it from sliding on the string. All the joints in the finger have to be freed up to do the rocking, and this is why people say not to squeeze or think about pressing.

September 4, 2005 at 05:16 AM · If it was me and I was serious, I'd collect up all my questions like this, locate the world's foremost living authority, fly to New York, and pay for one lesson, where I'd ask all those things. Cancel the check and then mail him another one so you don't have to pay for a whole month.

September 4, 2005 at 06:42 AM · Hi,

Jim - point taken. Perhaps, undue pressure would have been a better choice of words. Perhaps you are right too, in that I am ill-qualified to answer this question (since I am not a leading world authority by any means).

If you want a good description of this, then look into Basics by Simon Fischer - the whole concept is explained quite well there.

Emily, I use a rest, but still hold the violin a lot with the hand, so I do not hang (though I know that concept and was taught to do it). Actually, for me, the violin is balanced with the hand. I think that the hanging concept is more one of relaxed weight (free of as much tension as possible).

Cheers!

September 4, 2005 at 06:57 AM · Christian, I would never imply you aren't the worlds leading authority. It's just that I never feel comfortable unless I'm spending lots of money.

September 4, 2005 at 12:19 PM · Jim,

Forget about it... But think about this. The institution where I teach is tuition free. People don't spend money. Hmmm... HAHAHA! I guess there is something it's true to: you get what you pay for!

Cheers!

September 4, 2005 at 05:11 PM · A word of caution. I, also, had been trying not to "press" and so as a result had not been adequately stopping the string!

I think we get hung up on the words "pressure" and "weight" without understanding what we are really trying to say.

You simply can NOT hang something (ie, apply its weight) on a violin without somehow supporting the violin. You can't hang the entire weight of your left arm on the violin and support that weight by the leverage of your jaw and your shoulder.

I'm sorry, but we really do press our fingers into the strings..and we really do press with our right first finger on the bow. Everyone knows this but no one will say it because "pressure" is bad and "weight" is good.

I think what is important is to play with the most relaxation possible. Sometimes we do "press" but we need to alternate pressure with relaxation.

We shouldn't squeeze to apply pressure when weight will work.

The bottom line is that the words can be very confusing and misleading. We need to use a variety of words in context to describe what we are trying to do. We need, as teachers, to try to get the student to experience proper technique with all sorts of methods, both verbal and non-verbal.

What about these definitions ?:

Pressure:

The application of continuous FORCE by one body on another that it is touching; compression.

Abbr. P Physics. FORCE applied uniformly over a surface, measured as force per unit of area.

Weight:

A measure of the heaviness of an object.

The FORCE with which a body is attracted to Earth or another celestial body, equal to the product of the object's mass and the acceleration of gravity.

Force:

The capacity to do work or cause physical change; energy, strength, or active power.

So, we use "force" to move the string against the fingerboard. To hold the string there we apply "pressure". The pressure comes from a combination of muscular contraction and the advantageous use of the weight of our fingers, hands and arms.

I think the problem we are facing as performers and teachers is that certain perfectly correct terms have negative connotations with respect to playing the violin.

Avoiding the perfectly correct use of a word because of a perceived negative connotation can prevent us from clearly communicating.

I teach playing with relaxation, the use of "weight" when it implies relaxation as opposed to "pressure" when it implies squeezing. My students do "press" with their fingers, in other words, apply force to the bow and the strings. Sometimes the force comes from the application of weight and sometimes from muscular contraction; usually from a combination of both.

What are your thoughts about these concepts? This area has always been a tricky one for me to teach.

September 4, 2005 at 08:46 PM · Five months might be a little soon for vibrato...your set up and intonation needs to be very well-established first, and I find that usually takes a year or two, whether a student is a child or adult.

That said, to learn the feeling of vibrato, I think that the idea of "hanging" is a good one, even though ultimately it isn't exactly literally hanging. It is a motion that requires a certain passivity and flexibility in the finger while also requiring that the finger stick, with pressure, to the string. Hanging does a good job of simulating that feeling, even if, ultimately, it is achieved a bit differently, with some pressure from the thumb instead of gravity.

The exercise that taught me vibrato was to hang my hand from the curved fingers on the edge of a table and shake, sideways, actually. (The motion of vibrato is actually a little bit sideways by the time the hand is put around the fingerboard and the finger is placed down.) I try that with all the fingers down, then individual ones. The thumb is just in the air. This helps some people, but not everyone.

Vibrato is very individual, and achieving it involves a lot of experimentation and practice. It won't be perfect to begin with, as it involves the slow development of the muscles that do it.

September 4, 2005 at 10:41 PM · I wasn't clear. I don't have any trouble teaching vibrato. The concepts of pressure and weight, especially for the bow are tricky to explain.

September 25, 2005 at 01:29 AM · Scott, even when playing normally, there should be minimal force applied to the string. To find out EXACTLY how much is needed to get a decent sound, start by barely touching the string and drawing your bow. You will get a raspy sound that sounds almost unbearable. Slowly, increase the pressure until you have a clear sound. I guarantee you that it will practicing a lot easier.If you start to see ridges developing on your hand where you press the string, that's usually a sign that you're pressing a bit too much.

September 25, 2005 at 12:03 PM · Great discusssion. It is interesting that Jascha Heifetz, who had one of the most intense vibratos ever, appeared to advocate almost complete relaxation. I recall reading somewhere that Erick Friedman (the late violinist who was perhaps Heifetz's star pupil) said that when Heifetz played, he was so relaxed that he (Friedman) felt he could touch the violin with a feather, and it would fall off Heifetz's shoulder.

If you can accept the advice of an amateur, focus some attention on relaxing the shoulder when you vibrate. The shoulder is the source of much tension and relaxation in the arm and hand.

October 29, 2005 at 04:46 PM · I'm happy to see that I'm not the only one confused and frustrated by violin teacher terminology. I'm a retired engineering professor, so I take explanations pretty literally. Often what my violin teacher tells me to do, defies the laws of physics especially Newton's law of equal action and reaction. I've come to believe that he is expressing what the grip or pressure or force feels like to him as opposed to what it actually is. I wish I could have taken a lesson or two from Albert Einstein or that some violin institute would actually measure the forces exerted at the chin, thumb and fingers.

Another point of frustration is that listeners say my tone is fine and yet it sounds terrible to me. If you've ever smoked a pipe you know that the smoker doesn't smell the aromatic aroma that people around him smell. The problem is the same; overload of the senses. I've tried ear plugs, which helps. For private enjoyment I plug a violin bridge microphone into a karaoke machine with a little reverb and listen through earphones. Very satisfying.

October 29, 2005 at 04:55 PM · I agree. I've noticed the problem is generally a lack of clearly indicating the motion being described. For example

-move your left arm in

That statement is so vague as to be worthless. Better options

-move your left arm in 2 inches

-move your left arm in until you feel your left elbow lightly touching your ribs

-move your left arm in so your left forearm is perpendicular to the floor

-move your left arm in until your left elbow is directly under the center of the violin body

etc, etc. Discussions of pressure and speed are generally as worthless, given that there is always some nebulous action described with no frame of reference provided. To some degree I think this is insurmountable and is the reason why a teacher is generally the best source of help. However care in the way things are written would also help.

re: the original post. I find myself actually applying much less finger pressure when vibrating correctly than I do when I am playing 'regular' notes. What this says about the finger pressure I'm using the rest of the time is probably not good.

October 29, 2005 at 07:51 PM · Joel, you need to go to a room with really good acoustics. I go to church just to play with the acoustics, sometimes.

October 30, 2005 at 03:23 PM · Thanks Emily, but when the urge to play comes upon me it could be at midnight. Try finding an auditorium or church at that hour! As a retired engineering professor I look for the quick an dirty solution, so I'll stick with my karaoke machine. As an old guy (66 yrs) just satisfying a life-long itch, my priorities are different from most of you (but I notice not all). I'm playing for myself with no illusions. I even carved a piece of wood which fits into the notch between my thumb and first finger on which the neck of the violin can rest. It's not really cricket but it helps with maintaining good position with the left hand and even the vibrato. -Old Guy

October 31, 2005 at 12:29 AM · Playing in a church at midnight is even better sounding.

October 31, 2005 at 02:47 AM · Well, this is certainly one of the most interesting conversations I've run across in a long time. Most everyone has valid points, and forgive me if I'm wrong as I don't remember reading this from anyone else: make sure your left elbow is not tight. A lot of the conversation has involved the "hanging" of the arm.

Here is my suggestion for making sure your left elbow is loose (in other words, lightly flexing your biceps and relaxing your triceps): sans violin, have a friend or teacher hold your left wrist while your arm and hand are in a vertical position. Now...TOTALLY relax and let gravity take it's effect on you. Then, have your friend or teacher move your arm from side to side. Does your arm swing or is it tight? If it swings you are exactly where you want to be.

Too often, I played flexing both muscles and wound up with severe pain in my left elbow.

We should all be thinking of gravity pulling our left arm down (this is where we get the "weight" to apply "pressure" to the strings the most natural way possible). What is more natural than gravity?

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