When to start teaching vibrato (and how)?

December 14, 2018, 2:03 PM · Hey everyone,

I'm just curious as to when vibrato should be taught (after what point?) and the best way to start.

I don't remember exactly when I started, or if my teacher specifically said "let's start vibrato". I think I just kind of started experimenting and copying what I saw being done (resulting in some bad techniques that I'm working out).

I've got an eighth grade student (she's 14) who isn't the most amazing player, but she tries, for the most part. She's doing the Bach Bouree from Suzuki 3 right now, and just started Wohlfhart etudes over the summer (on number 2 right now). She has a tendency to play "surface sound" and doesn't like to play out unless I'm playing with her. She says she's afraid to play out (been there!) She also still has some intonation issues.

So, I'm wondering if it's too early to start vibrato, or if introducing it will make her more confident because it could potentially make her sound better? Even I'm working on intonation (aren't we all?), so I'm also not sure if we should get her intonation more solid on straight tones before starting vibrato. (Tips on how to get her to play out are also much appreciated. I can only say "give me more sound/dig in" so many times)


Replies (30)

December 14, 2018, 2:29 PM · Hi! I've heard from many teachers that you can start learning vibrato when you can play clearly (at least) in 1st position :)
December 14, 2018, 2:43 PM · I start when the students asks me about it!
December 14, 2018, 4:42 PM · I like to wait till the student can play in third position and shift smoothly before I start them on vibrato.... on the other hand, if they're being introduced to vibrato in the school orchestra before that, I have to work with them on it earlier.
December 14, 2018, 4:52 PM · Seems early. I’ve been told when a student plays with good intonation and core sound in 1st position, and can shift from first to third.

Starting too early could make things worse.

December 14, 2018, 11:59 PM · About making her play out: If you played duos with her would that help? You prodding her with your tone rather than in words?
Edited: December 15, 2018, 12:07 AM · Albrecht, I usually play along with her, and she's okay, but I overpower her every time and play with the correct technique that I'm looking for from her.

I challenge her to out-play me, but I don't think she gets that she will make a good tone if she presses in with the bow. She says she's afraid because it sounds bad. She even uses a viola bow (courtesy of the rental place), which gives her an advantage over me in that area. My bow is pretty light.

We're getting her some Warchal Karneol strings and an Amber E. She says her teacher at school (a cellist) always says the E string is ugly, and so my student is afraid to play out, especially up there.

December 15, 2018, 12:19 AM · I agree that the ability to shift smoothly is a useful prerequisite because often a student can produce a more effective vibrato there initially.
Edited: December 15, 2018, 12:23 AM · Tom, I agree. I was a long term substitute for the teacher, and every time I see those kids they tell me how much they miss me and how we got so much more done in the month I was there than the whole year with the normal teacher. I told my student that her teacher is so wrong for saying what she says and that the E string is gorgeous when it's played confidently.

I have introduced third position and we have been doing her C and D two octave scales regularly. She's getting better at shifting, but still needs improvement.

December 15, 2018, 3:26 AM · To return to the question (!) I don't teach a "real" vibrato straight away, but right from the beginning I induce a few basic motions before the main substance of each lesson: shifting up & down along the neck to avoid gripping, stretching and curling the fingers along the strings to avoid pressing too hard, and enable (hopefully) intonation correction.

Later, my underwater-plant motion will combine these two basics with a wave from the wrist, before homing in on precise notes.

Edited: December 15, 2018, 3:36 AM · On the other question, why on earth should a young child play loudly if it hurts? Most adult violinists have damaged hearing (a good violin produces nearly 100dB measured right under the ear - I measured it!) It is utterly outrageous to subject a child with more sensitve hearing than ours to a damaged cochlea. To my innocent mind, this constitutes physical abuse.
December 15, 2018, 5:03 AM · What child abuse ? Isn't that excessive overthinking? Where did OP say that the student's ear hurts if she plays loudly? She said the student like to play "surface sound" which I assume the bow would glide over the strings with little to no pressure.

I was taught vibrato and shifting 3 months in. My fingers are quite flexible, so my teacher started me early. No harm to introduce some finger exercise to get her started first.

Edited: December 15, 2018, 7:04 AM · How many of us actually stop to consider why a few children persistently play with a small sound? Apart from amateur psychology, that is..

(I feel the same when folks buy UV-proof sunglasses for themselves, but nothing for their children, whose eyes are more at risk.)

I admit taste comes into the equation: some of us like the violin for its sweetness, just as I want my viola to sound velvety, rather than like a bassoon with a broken reed.

December 15, 2018, 11:46 AM · I mean, playing loudly doesn't mean you have to blast your ears off. Playing softly and sweetly is all nice and great for your own enjoyment, but most of us will have to play for someone else one day. You also have to know how to play with loud dynamic so audience can hear you.

I'm sure OP only meant to show her how to play both softly and loudly, not try to damage her hearing.

Edited: December 15, 2018, 12:07 PM · For a few children, playing loudly hurts. I was like that, and after putting up with comments about my temperament, I later discovered the simple expediency of a dedicated plug in my left ear, to reduce both the volume and the "aggressive" high frequencies. This permitted me to play for others with success! A number of v.com adult posters (probably not a majority) have raised the issue.

Of course none of us wish to intentionally damage a child's hearing. But when I see any reticence in a student, I look first for physical issues before playing the psychoanalyst.

Ears are as varied as noses!

Edited: December 15, 2018, 12:47 PM · I don't teach vibrato until the student is playing consistently in tune with a correct left hand position and is shifting smoothly between first to third.

May I respectfully suggest that you stop referring to producing a bigger sound as "pressing in with the bow?" That is going to result in a pressed, ugly sound. Bigger sound is produced by allowing the weight of the right arm to sink into the string. I would bet money this student is also hunching her right shoulder, especially when she is asked to play out more--if so, that is counterproductive. Both shoulders should be relaxed.

Edited: December 15, 2018, 9:35 PM · Mary Ellen,

Thanks for your advice! I've taught her that she needs to allow her arm to sink into the string, like you said. Her shoulders and elbow are pretty relaxed and move well, but could use more flexibility in her wrist. Her hand is relaxed, almost too much, and I've had to get her a little helper to keep her pinky curved instead of straight. I've also shown her that heavier bow pressure requires faster bow speed, and modeled both heavy pressure/slow bow and heavy pressure/correct bow speed. She heard the gross, scratchy sound and a nice, projecting tone.

To the others, she's not afraid to play out because it hurts. She's afraid to play out because she's worried she sounds bad, which is probably caused somewhat by her teacher at school.

I will be working more on intonation with her before introducing vibrato.

December 15, 2018, 11:53 PM · If she is afraid she sounds bad perhaps a discussion about how different an instrument sounds under the ear as opposed to a distance away.
Edited: December 16, 2018, 2:13 AM · Kristen, have you tried her violin under your ear, gently, then "digging in"? To hear what she hears...

I have done this with a softly-playing pupil (age 13). Starting at the other end of the room, I played on her violin, first softly for myself, then with a full tone that pleased her (..) Then I continued the full tone while approaching the pupil until I was playing right by her left ear. This pleased her much less!

She didn't want to try a ball of cotton wool in the ear, so I adopted a different strategy, allowing here her "own" tone, but with longer strokes and just enough pressure to maintain the same tone when louder.

One can't make a plant grow by pulling on it..
And different plants need different soils.

December 16, 2018, 4:31 AM · "Ears are as varied as noses!" And there are twice as many.

I would suggest trying NOT to play along with the bashful pupil to make her play more fully.

Let her play stuff all by herself and encourage her to play out as she does so.

When you're playing along it's kind of an invitation to stay under your radar.

December 16, 2018, 12:13 PM · Adrian, her violin is fine. Even with the metal strings on it (from the rental place), it actually sounds good. We're changing her strings to warm up the tone a bit, but the instrument is fine. She hasn't said anything hurts, so she is just timid and needs to break out of her shell a bit.

Herman, you're right, I probably shouldn't play with her unless she needs to match pitches better. I don't play with my oboe student unless we're doing duets, and my older violin student (the one in question) is old enough to be able to hold her own without me.

Bill, your advice is great. I'll show her that next week! I know the instrument sounds different when it's under our ears vs across the room, but it hasn't crossed my mind to show her that.

December 16, 2018, 3:50 PM · She sounds like she’s a while away from vibrato. Fix the fundamentals first.
December 16, 2018, 6:08 PM · When I first glanced at the title of this thread I misread it as "When to start teaching vibrato and howl".

Must get new glasses.

Edited: December 18, 2018, 12:45 AM · Im no teacher, so dont listen to me :D but does a teacher have to decide these things so much beforehand?

Why not just try a preliminary exercise and wouldnt you be able to see from how she does it, if vibrato is in her reach at the moment? Thats how my daughters teacher did it. You dont really have to talk about vibrato, just about the exercise. And if you can see she does not yet have it in her hands then just dont go further? How can a preliminary exercise make any harm? After all it will be a long time that she will be able to use vibrato on every note, so how can it muddle her intonation?

December 18, 2018, 8:29 PM · Maria, I'm not sure about starting her yet because sometimes her intonation issues are pretty severe. I think I'm going to wait and get her fundamentals more solid.
December 19, 2018, 4:26 PM · I agree with all the great feedback so far: I teach shifting to third first, allow some time to go by. If tension and "suface sound" is an issue I try to tackle that, then delve into vibrato. Sometimes the schools introduce it before we private teachers do, and then we have no choice but to go with it, even if it's ahead of schedule. If the student is playing out of tune or has another big issue, I have dangled teaching vibrato as a reward, ie. for fixing their achilles heal.
In terms of how to teach it, I'm a big fan of vibrato exercises as a start, and I usually make the process gradual. When they master a few of them, I let them go to vibrating some of their longer notes, and the rest is usually smooth sailing from there. You can find a bunch of my favorite vib exercises on my Practice Blitz Youtube Playlist: 11 Ways to Practice Vibrato


December 20, 2018, 12:21 PM · Thank you Susanna! I will definitely check out your YouTube for my student, and I'll probably use those exercises for myself! My own vibrato is lovely sometimes and other times not so much. I'm working on making it more consistent.
December 20, 2018, 2:47 PM · Here's my 2 cents. If a student is having problems with intonation I would hold off on vibrato until the intonation is more under control. Vibrato can interfere with intonation. If the notes are out of tune a beautiful vibrato won't help and also the sound is effected with faulty intonation. It's much easier to concentrate on playing in tune with a pure tone. I also would have the student learn to use a flat bow and play closer to the bridge. You need to use more weight on the bow and draw it slower to get a good sound but you learn to draw out the maximum sound the fiddle has to give you. The weight should come from the arm through the wrist and not from pressing with the index finger. With that said a lot of teachers like to begin with the wrist vibrato which is usually easier to manage. Whether you use wrist or arm the object is to get the first joint of the playing finger activated. Begin slowly and in time increase the speed only as much as you can control comfortably and without additional stress.
December 21, 2018, 5:47 AM · Hello from Wales, UK... Here's some wide vibrato for you... Merry Christmas! https://youtu.be/ur9LXkDkItM

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