teaching vibrato and positions

January 11, 2006 at 07:14 AM · I have been teaching violin full time for about 6 months now, mostly beginners. The mother of one of my students is anxious for her daughter to learn positions and vibrato. The daughter previously studied suziki method and is in book 2. She just moved up to a 3/4 size violin and is not yet playing in tune consistantly. She also does not pay attention to details in the music ie; often misses accidentals, dynamics etc. even when reminded many times. I don't think she should learn positions or vibrato til she can play in tune in 1st position. When is it appropriate to teach either positions or vibrato?

Thanks for your input


Replies (36)

January 11, 2006 at 10:09 AM · Hi Judy,

to me, playing in tune is something that haunts every string player regardless of the position - even open strings cannot be left aside. Yehudi Menuhin even suggested to start children off at third position - easier on the elbow and it takes away the "fear factor" of leaving comfortable, familiar first position and go up into the icy realms of third, fifth - or, dare I mention it, maybe even second or fourth position.

Vibrato is sometimes misused to hide false intonation, therefore it should be discouraged as long as intonation is a problem. Along with all other "interpretative gimmicks", like tempo rubato, slides, blue notes etc., it should be the icing on the cake, not the basic ingredient. If it comes naturally, it's ok, but I wouldn't rush it - probably a beginner needs help in relaxing more than anything else.

Bye, Juergen

January 14, 2006 at 04:51 AM · Hi Judy,

Generally I start vibrato at the beginning of Suzuki book 1 and shifting starts midway through the book. (I teach shifting in Lully Gavotte since the fourth finger extension often sounds like a dying cow when played by beginners.) However, students must be able to play in tune in the keys of A, D, and G before either of these techniques can be learned. Generally, good intonation should be pretty solid by the end of book 1. With students that have a little more trouble in this area, or with remedial students, I would spend ALOT of time reviewing book 1 pieces, scales, and maybe doing some simpler supplemental pieces or fiddle tunes until intonation is more consistent. I would move very slowly through the early book 2 pieces since more keys and finger patterns are introduced. If students cannot play in tune in the 3 easiest keys, they certainly won't be able to play other keys in tune.

Hope this helps,


January 14, 2006 at 05:48 AM · I believe I started learning vibrato in book two. It worked out nicely because I went back and practiced it on the Chorus from Judas Maccabaeus (since it has those nice long notes)

Shifting...I learned that a little later. The Suzuki method actually has an exercise book on this (position etudes) that is pretty useful. I think it was when I was in book three that I started learning shifting...I'm not sure. I had third position pretty solidly down by book 4 so I imagine I had been doing the etudes from early on in book 3 at the latest. Also, my memories might be a little mixed up because for about a year after I started learning vibrato I was afraid to use it ><

January 14, 2006 at 11:03 AM · Hi,

First off, you shouldn't let parents decide when something should be learnt. There is too much of that these days. Be careful with opening that door. You will regret it. I don't know why this is such a problem in North America...

That said, vibrato should be learnt when the other fundamental, such as intonation, hand positions and basic setup are done. It is not a question of how much time one is playing, or what. As for shifting, I guess the answer is when the time is right, repertoire and all. Again, I am not a Suzuki teacher, so I don't know where in the series that would take place. I would suggest adding the shifting exercises by Whistler. They are excellent and acheive good shifting in not long a period of time.

But really. I depends on the kid. Like Zukerman says, "It's not about time or speed, but about doing it well." That is in essence the framework for mastery.


January 14, 2006 at 06:42 PM · When parents want a student to learn something which should best be preceded by developing other underlying skills...explain it to the parent, logically and in detail. Not only are they are entitled to such explanations by those whom they pay to educate/train their children, but providing such allows us teachers to clarify our own teaching methods and establish trust with others.

January 14, 2006 at 08:49 PM · Vibrato should definately not be started at the beginning of Suzuki book one. Near the end of the book, or the beginning of book two is better. In the beginning, the students need to concentrate on having everything held correctly, it wouldn't help to have to wobble your hand when you can't play yet.

And if the student definately can't play in tune pretty well, then it's not time to start. Make sure they don't have any major posture issues to address before you start. Start with wrist vibrato, and do slow oscillations.

January 14, 2006 at 10:47 PM · Oops, typo. I meant to say I start vibrato at the beginning of book 2! Right around Judas M.

Thanks for catching that!


January 14, 2006 at 10:57 PM · It's all good advice here, imo.

I tend to go along with the grand oldies (Auer School, Flesch, etc.) who basically said that vibrato can't really be taught, that it will come when it needs to be there and is felt, almost as if by a process of empathetic osmosis, by the violinist to be necessary. After all, vibrato is a part of tone production, and tone production is ultimately subjective. How can you teach a subjective concept except by demonstrating and letting the student listen to other violinists and try and emulate the tone?

Of course there are many exercises that can be used and they are listed throughout this forum. But the end result is it will come when the student is ready.

Positions is another kettle of fish altogether. The basis of all positions is the same as the basis of the first position one learns, i.e. intonation. Suzuki methods, among other things, rely a great deal on the students inner musical ear so I don't see why positions can't be started as soon as the ear is ready to listen.

I think I'm mostly repeating what Christian said.

January 15, 2006 at 02:31 AM · Rick,

But isn't this quote "vibrato can't really be taught, that it will come when it needs to be there and is felt" sort of like saying, DIY, or do-it-yourself? Like, leaving vibrato up to the student? I've seen dozens of people attemps vibrato without having any lessons on it and it's a disaster. What Auer says reminds me of singing and how I've heard that vibrato will come when the singer is ready.

I don't think vibrato and tone production on violin are as internal and subjective as say, a singer. We can SEE vibrato, and tone production is partly, maybe mostly, it depends on who you ask, physical.

January 15, 2006 at 08:46 AM · Okay, I want to know how many violinists out there were taught vibrato, and how many just acquired it. I know it works either way. I want to hear more stories about people who just "got it" one day. I know I'm not alone. For me, I didn't think about arm, wrist, finger, whatever. I knew what it looked like, and I knew what I wanted to sound like, and one day I just decided to give it a try, after thinking about it for a while, and there it was, just exactly like the one I have today. Since then, I've been developing varieties, but they're all still basically my own trademark vibrato, that no teacher has ever tampered with.

The downfall of this is that now as a teacher, I don't teach vibrato. I don't know how. Luckily, the only student who is anywhere near it still needs to work on intonation, and as far as I'm concerned, as long my student can't hear when she's putting a half step in the wrong place, she should probably work on that before working on vibrato.

Perhaps I'm too strict. I feel like an overbearing mother who won't let her teenage daughter wear makeup or something.

January 15, 2006 at 09:01 AM ·

January 15, 2006 at 12:17 PM · My story is the same as yours. I was playing something I thought needed it and I told my teacher so and he showed the basics and the options in a couple of minutes and in a few days it was working I think. It would have been better to have me working on tone production without it though. And although I'd get compliments on it, in retrospect I think had problems. Not the sound so much as what it was doing with my hand position. So, I wasn't taught it really, but maybe I should have been.

January 15, 2006 at 02:44 PM · I was 'just doing it' more or less right away without noticing but only with my third finger. On sustained notes I would just be doing it without thinking about it.

My teacher told me, we need to get you doing that same thing with the other fingers and explained vibrato in great detail. So I just started trying to vibrate each note of whatever scale I'd be practicing. The only 'tough' part was getting first finger in first position to play along. What my teacher did show me was how the shape of the hand and position of the unused fingers could be used to create leverage to generate a wider vibrato than what I had been doing on my own.

January 15, 2006 at 02:47 PM · Hi,

Emily, my story was the same as yours. It just came. My hand position was just there so it was not a problem. It was and is still mostly an arm vibrato, though I added wrist through exercises over the years. It's really a combined vibrato now of all three: arm, fingers and wrist in various proportions.

Teaching vibrato is harder, but I do. I do have exercises that I made up to teach or correct vibrato. In the end, it is very hard to correct a not so good vibrato no matter what the means of production are. So, if I have to teach it, I avoid leaving to the student to prevent remdedial work later. Some get it instantly, but most have to work at it for a while.

I usually go with the basic tendency of the student first. I ask them to try to vibrate and notice whether their impulse is from the wrist or arm. Then I give the training exercise for that (better to start with the most natural) and then we add if needs be.


January 15, 2006 at 03:24 PM · I agree with you Christian, it's hard to correct something that's been done wrong. At least, if you teach it correctly, then if the student wants to experiment on his/her own, they have yours to fall back on if theirs doesn't work. BUt if they do it themselves, wanting to change and having to may be much harder.

January 16, 2006 at 01:24 AM · Catherine, of course experience, and logic I would suggest, dictates that vibrato is never just "there," that, at least to some extent, develops over a period of time.

As we all know there is an ongoing debate on the teaching and the type of vibrato that is best. My experience is that there are a great number of various vibratos that I've heard that work beautifully and yet are not the coveted "right from the body to the tip of the finger" vibrato that usually ends up having some sort of physiological proof attached to it. I've heard wrist vibratos that are excellent, finger vibratos that will steal your heart, etc., etc.

So what do we (rhetorical 'I') mean when we say that a vibrato must be a certain way and that a 'bad' vibrato is hard to correct? In light of the professional violinists/fiddlers I've heard with various types of vibrato I would suggest that it means a violinist must overcome whatever physical handicaps s/he might have in order to emulate the sound of their choice. Everyone will be inspired by someone's playing and try to emulate that. And since 'that' particular tone can be the product of a wide variety of vibratos, the natural question is, then, why should we interfere with the tonal quest of a student other than to help them achieve that quest?

Now I realize that this sounds cloudy and perhaps it's a little misleading, because I do believe, as I previously said that there are techniques to 'improve' ones vibrato. I myself was taught to play all scales with no vibrato at all. When I finally made attempt to achieve the tonal sense I wanted I could control the on and off switch. Whereas I've seen, first hand, many professional violinists try and do this and, especially when they come to the tonic, there is an almost instinctive vibrato. What is this? It is definitely not controlled. So how can it be taught?

The other issue is that, imho, I feel that vibrato is overdone today.

January 16, 2006 at 06:34 AM · I'm like Emily and so many other people. I just started doing vibrato without thinking too much about it. Now I hear debates of wrist vibrato vs hand vibrato vs arm vibrato, and all I can say is, "Whatever works." I like the way vibrato is taught on violinmasterclass.com. Has anyone else seen that?

January 16, 2006 at 10:24 AM · I gotta say, I'm glad to hear so many of you just happened upon vibrato.

I think at this time that I will let my students explore it as they feel motivated to try it out, and offer suggestions and give them some exercises I think might help, if they need it. So far, it seems as though the thought hasn't even occurred to my beginners yet.

The most important tips I've been given when playing is to consider the main variables when decorating a phrase: width and speed. These can be used to mix a large palette of colors. Also, to work on having the ability to be consistent with all fingers. And more recently, to listen for the shimmering, revolving sound that you get when you've centered the pitch just right.

January 16, 2006 at 07:08 PM · I was definitely taught how to do vibrato. I had to think a bit to remember that, though.

My current teacher (who has taught for 50+ years now) enjoys telling me how she has spoken to some of her past students and asked them things like, "where did you learn such a marvelous vibrato?" The answer typically is something like, "it just came upon me one day." Of course, my teacher remembers the grueling hours of lessons spent on teaching the student just that!

I don't really remember not knowing basically how reading music works. I remember doing those silly exercise sheets, but only if I try very hard to I actually recall being taught. It's just that it's so automatic now that I've forgotten the details of learning it. It seems like it must've just come upon me one day. :)

January 16, 2006 at 08:20 PM · Patty, that's a very good point. I don't remember learning how to read sheet music, either, but I know it was not instinctive.

January 18, 2006 at 12:26 AM · My teacher would not teach vibrato, so I learned on my own. It suited me well for many years, until I tried to slow it down substantially for a particular type of music.

I have studied, practiced, taken physical therapy, consulted other violinist, and by gosh, I can't change my natural vibrato.

I play at about 6.5 to 7.0 cycles per second. I would like to be able to slow to about 5, but just can't do it. I even started over again, using finger, then wrist, and then arm. My natual vibrato is a combination of all three. And, I can play any one of the three types slowly, as I desire, but when I do, I sound almost like a beginner. That isn't acceptable.

So, even though most people think my vibrato is fine, I would like to change it. Any suggestion on how to slow down would be greatly appreciated.

I should mention that I have now been playing for 50 years.

January 18, 2006 at 01:42 AM · Greetings,

cut down on stimulants like coffee.....?

Have you ever tried working with no vibrato at all for a considerable time ? That at least would give you a break from your habit. The problem is what to do differently when you go back to it. In order to stop doing somehting that you consider undesirable it is not enough to try and `lean a new habit.` The result of this is setting up two actions in opposition which leads to deeper tension. if you practice the new habit you wish a lot then it may displace the old at times but the grooves are still there and you will slip back under stress.

It is really necessary to avoid the `vibrato` grooves that you have dug so deeply for the last fifty years. This is done by not activating the`wish` to do something, in this case the vibrato. Taht is , you are `non doing` rather than doing. Once this is achieved a new trigger that avoids the old grooves needs to be found. There is a very detailed explanation of this in one of the best known workds on Alexander Technique. I will look out the title and author for you later.

I suppose another way to look at things might be not that you want to slow things down but rather , you want to work on eveness or rythmic impulse. So it is very helpful to practice phrases with a clearly specified number of vibrato beats. Four 16ths to the crotchet and so on.

Anotehr possibilty is to chnage the set up of your instrument in such a way that less finger pressure is required to depress the string to an adequate level



January 18, 2006 at 10:20 PM · Buri:

Thanks for your comments. This is a huge issue for me, as I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to develop a vibrato over which I have more control. I'll follow your advice, maybe including the caffeine reduction and see what happens.

My old vibrato looks good, but is too fast. My newer wrist vibrato feels good, looks bad, and is slightly too slow. I can't seem to do it comfortably past about 4 cycles per second. Arm is really the hardest for me, not natural at all, but sounds the best when I am loose.

Should I switch to piano?

January 18, 2006 at 10:59 PM · Greetings,

doing vibrato with a piano is far too strenuous...



PS sorry, forgot to getyou that book title this morning. Send me a rude message if I forget again.

January 18, 2006 at 11:21 PM · Hah!

Indirect Procedures: A Musician's Guide to the Alexander Technique

by Pedro De Alcantara



January 18, 2006 at 11:35 PM · Buri:


January 19, 2006 at 01:08 AM · haha, try to imagine a pianist reaching into the piano with one hand while he's playing to bend the strings!!

.... but wouldn't it be cool if they invented a kind of keyboard where you can do vibrato by slightly moving the keys sideways?

January 19, 2006 at 02:06 AM · Keyboards (as opposed to pianos) do have such a mechanism. In fact I believe it's even called the 'vibrato' wheel, though it's been quite a while since I messed with one.

January 19, 2006 at 02:07 PM · Yeah, the little joystick thingy at the left.... i was meaning more like a sideways motion sensor on each key (stupidest idea ever!!)

January 19, 2006 at 09:53 PM · You'd be amazed what you can do with a pressure-sensitive keyboard synthesizer.

January 19, 2006 at 10:10 PM · Judy, Daniel. I think Stephen's idea of looking through books by and about F.M Alexander's technique is a very good one. The critical examination of the body's negative and positive movements cannot help but yield answers to such individualist questions as "when should a student begin vibrato" and "how do I change the one I have."

Daniel, a fast vibrato is not, in and of itself, a sign of something wrong. Francescatti had an amazingly fast vibrato. So fast that you can identify his playing by listening to a couple of seconds (or less!) of a recording. Other violinists have/do as well. So I would suggest your issue has to do with the subjective aspect of your own vibrato and something about it you don't like.

For instance, there is 'fast and loose' which is, as in Francescatti's case, beautiful; and then there's 'fast and nervous' which is absolutely horrible (almost as bad as 'slow and nervous'). Nervous vibratos often have to do with constrictive application. A good vibrato is not 'tight'. If you feel the left wrist and arm of someone playing a good vibrato on a long note you should find them extremely supple.

Besides studying the Alexander Technique you might want to try the following:

-relax, think about what other stresses, besides coffee :-) you might have in your life and picture them going away with your imagination.

-listen to Oistrakh play something slow.

-play something slow yourself.

-alternate between using vibrato and not using it in a scale (or slow piece) from one note to the next in order to gain the control you will need to change your vibrato.

-alternate rubbing your tummy and patting your head (silly isn't it, but it works) to give you the objective sense that the bow arm is naturally integral yet must have a controlled separation from the left hand.

-play long notes with full relaxed bows.

-play notes using < > dynamics so you can study the relation between increased bow implemention and vibrato.

-hold the violin in a relaxed position, but have the thumb supporting much of the weight and practice sliding your thumb up and down the neck (without help from the chin) trying to keep the violin still. This will help give you a proper sense of the relation between the thumb and the finger(s) doing the vibrato as there should be an equal pressure between them to begin with. Pressure variations come later and are more applicable to faster pieces, whereas a relaxed wrist/arm can yield a fast or slow vibrato.

-Don't get frustrated.

As an aside, Carl Seashore's 'Strategies for Learning Music', which is still implemented by most music schools in their vocal training programs, insists that vibrato cannot be taught. He states that voice vibrato is the pleasing flexibility of a naturally healthy voice, that vibrato is a result not a technique. It is a sign of a healthy free, properly centered voice and cannot be taught.

All a teacher can do is draw attention to the unhealthy vibrato so that the singer (or I would suggest any musician) can work on correcting it. And as I've already mentioned, this doesn't mean a teacher can't help with suggestions and give technical advice. Doing this only stands to reason and is the responsibility of the teacher to do so. But, ultimately, vibrato is subjective. That sound/tone that the violinist is striving to emulate (and believe me, it will never be the teacher's in the final quest as a student will (always) try and master the teacher, and this is how it should be if you think about it. And even if a teacher could watch their student every hour of every day, it's simply that with the millions of combination of nerves/muscles/tendons/bones/joints and the individual condition of these in everyones' bodies, there will always be 'unconscious movement' inspired by the tone the student is trying to emulate.

January 20, 2006 at 01:31 AM · Greetings,

in bringing up the vocal aspect I think Rick opens up an importnat area for exploration.

The violin is about singing (through a tool) yet good violnists often don`t reach their potential because there actaul voice as a human being is er, stuffed. The causes being social, or whatever.

Every human being has a particalur note which belongs to them in the same way they have a fingerprint and DNA. To find and release this note helps to develop how to appraoch the violin from a vocal perspective. So I have my students work on this exercise.

Learn to stand comfortably by relaxing the ankles, knees, hip joints. Caress you buttocks in a downward direction so ther tailbone goes back under a little where it should be. allow the head to rise and basck expand etc.

Now hum the highest note you can on the sound `hum` . The sound is located in teh forhead. Now run the sound down your spine to the pelvis . The spine is in the middle of the body -not- the back. As you descend drop the pitch until you bottom out. Your range may be anything from one to three octaves. Practcie coming up and down until it is easy for you. Its good fuyn. Imagining it is an elevator can be useful. After this, go down and then come up but stop at the lower chest level where your heart chakra is. At this point change the sound to Hah which is the one corresponding to the heart. That is your signature note. Practice this exercise evben a few times and the way you feel and use the violin will begin to change for the better.



January 20, 2006 at 12:05 AM · > Every human being has a particalur note which

> belongs to them in the same way they have a fingerprint

> and DNA.

The C# on the 3rd octave is mine. No one else is allowed to play it. As far as you're concerned, THERE'S NO C# ON THE 3RD OCTAVE. Got that???

*sits in foetal position, clutches guitar tightly, lower lip shaking*

January 20, 2006 at 01:32 AM · too bloody right.

lay off b flat while you are at it.

January 27, 2006 at 05:58 PM · Rick and Buri:

I've been out of town on a business trip and just read your most recent comments. Thanks for the time and effort.

My game plan is to embrace my old vibrato, trying hard to relax as suggested, and trying to understand a little more the force that is driving it. Last night, I was actually able to slow it somewhat by introducing slighly more arm than I typically do.

I'll try most of what you have suggested, and will post the results later.

BTW, I think my note is F sharp. Whoever claimed C sharp can have it.

January 27, 2006 at 07:38 PM · learning vibrato early is less likley too be used as a "gimic" to hide pich as long as the the student knows that vibrato is to start intune and then osolate to below the note and back to pitch Exactly, never going sharp. I often have students whom experiment with vibrato on there own, out of imatation. With that said you have to tell them to imatate violin or bowed string vibrato NOT guitar vibrato as it osolates above the pitch as a result of bending the string slightly. This is most prevalent in students that already play guitar. As for positions ear traing, have them associate each pitch with one of the first pitches or intervals (helpful for double stops) of a song that is already permanantly engraved in there menory. this often leads to relative if not absolute pitch. I also start students in third position.

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