Vibrato - one myth and one truth

December 30, 2018, 8:24 AM · Good morning and Happy almost 2019! I’ve been collecting thoughts and myths about vibrato, from the perspective of a teacher and a player. Finding that It is extremely awkward to teach vibrato and equally difficult to examine my own...
So, just for fun and sharing ideas, please share one myth (could contain some truth) and one golden truth about vibrato. I’ll start-
Myth - always on everything in romantic music.
Truth- you should have a wardrobe of vibrato; just as we wear different shoes with different outfits, each piece needs the appropriate vibrato.
Viva Vibrazzi!

Replies (25)

December 30, 2018, 3:53 PM · Myth - don't vibrate fast and wide in Mozart

Truth - Mozart is singing, Mozart is opera. Everyone and their dog has heard that cliche from their teacher right? Well we should vibrate like singers. Nice and wide, expressive. Don't worry, you won't even get close to an opera singer's vibrato.

Edited: December 31, 2018, 8:58 AM · Hmm. I would prefer opera singers to imitate violinists!
Just enough vibrato, and in tune!

Myth: vibrato should be under the desired pitch.
Truth: we practice it below the note, but in practice it goes either side.

January 1, 2019, 10:30 PM · Myth: No vibrato before Haydn.
Truth: Vibrato is why they took out the frets.
January 2, 2019, 1:22 AM · Adrian - if everyone practices vibrato under the pitch, but the sound is on either side, what would happen if we practised the vibrato centered? Would it be sharp?
January 2, 2019, 5:00 AM · Mattias, yes, I think so.

I find that a too highly-pitched vibrato has a "bleating" quality, which I find in many light-opera singers.
But it also depends on the changes in finger pressure during the vibrato motion.

Edited: January 2, 2019, 5:30 AM · Funnily enough, as of last year, I ONLY practise vibrating above the pitch. This is the way electric guitarists vibrate, with around a 90% above/10% below ratio. Zukerman and Gitlis are close behind with around 65-70% above/35-30% below. These violinists are surely famous for their vibrato (amongst other things of course), I find that this way of vibrating is much more impactful.

On the contrary, I find a vibrato with a lower pitch ratio of 40% or less begins to sound bleaty...

Edited: January 2, 2019, 8:42 AM · James, I think it's timbre again. When the guitarist's finger goes over the fret it doesn't press right down and the tone must be momentarily less clear, and less loud.

But doesn't your last sentence slightly contradict your first paragraph?

But in any case, a soloist's vibrato must allow his/her tone to stand out from a basically noisier accompaniment. Some even tune their violins a fraction sharp on purpose!

January 2, 2019, 12:17 PM · Yes sorry, with my last sentence I actually meant a lower pitch of 60% or more!
January 2, 2019, 12:25 PM · "But in any case, a soloist's vibrato must allow his/her tone to stand out from a basically noisier accompaniment."

Should orchestral violinists therefore play with less vibrato, so that the soloist will stand out more?

January 2, 2019, 4:36 PM · Paul. Here are my thoughts.

Orchestral players are not in sync with their vibratii. Hence they make a homogenous wall of sound.
The soloist plays over the orchestra using vibrato that goes above the pitch as well as below (making him slightly sharper than the orchestra). A soloist should also play more compressed (as if played through a compressor) - depending on the ability of orchestra to play piano...
Then - a soloist fiddle is setup to be loud and brilliant and shiny, while an orchestral fiddle should blend in with the orchestra and support the “wall of sound”.

So, vibrato = cool for everyone.

Edited: January 2, 2019, 6:17 PM · Another vibrato myth that absolutely grinds my gears.

Myth: pp (especially in string quartet playing) means please oh please do senza vib.

Truth: the softer you speak, the more intensity you may need. Be open minded about having a calm right hand while having a fast taut vibrato. I think this whole new school way of thinking 'both hands must work together' is good in theory, but paradoxically very 1 dimensional. By saying that the vibrato only grows when the right hand grows, an entire realm of sound disappears, namely that of intense left hand and calm right hand. This specific combination of sound is something the old masters like Grumiaux and Heifetz captured so well, and is unfortunately less represented today because 'both hands must always work together'.

January 2, 2019, 7:33 PM · I have heard some cool senza-vibrato passage work from string quartets but I agree it's something that should be used sparingly and not automatically when one is playing pp half-notes.
January 3, 2019, 6:31 AM · "Should orchestral violinists therefore play with less vibrato, so that the soloist will stand out more?"

Yes. I am sometimes asked to use less vibrato so I dont't "stand out"!
(Usually after practicing solo pieces, and because my viola has a deep tone..)
But balanced string-section vibrato is heard as a general vibracy of tone, rather than as vibrato as such.

January 3, 2019, 6:40 AM · Another myth: Notes should start and finish without vibrato.
Truth (= my opinion!): a vibrato "bulge" on each note can be maddening; vibrato variations should follow phrasing.

Myth: vibrato just disguises poor intonation.
Truth: it can do for violinists, and usually does in opera singers, but a fine vibrato still gives us a very definite pitch.

Myth: vibrato is only for longer notes.
Truth: a short note can benefit from a hand which is "on the point of" vibrating.

Edited: January 4, 2019, 12:38 AM · I saw the experiment with the spectrum analyser to show the "it all happens below the note" thesis, but I can't remember the detail. One should note the important difference between "play below the note" and "if you play on what your ears tell you is the note, a spectrum analyser will show that you are playing below the note".

Truth: I deleted the two paras I wrote on sidebands in AM and FM, lol!

January 3, 2019, 11:11 PM · Myth: finger vibrato is bad, limited, and outdated. A well-meaning vibrato video on YouTube I saw a few years back spoke about it in no glowing terms, urging players to stick to arm/wrist types. For the record, I favor wrist vibrato for my own playing, so I am not advocating finger vibrato as the "correct vibrato." Thus...

Truth: any well-executed vibrato, be it arm, wrist, finger, or a combo, is worth using depending on the musical context (plus some players have excellent "finger vibrato", so why mess that up? Sometimes "old school" is not so old-if it sounds good.)

January 4, 2019, 5:05 AM · Adalberto, I'm wondering what the target audience of that video was? Finger vibrato is a fairly advanced technique, and maybe the person in the video was speaking to intermediate players who shouldn't be trying these types of things.
Edited: January 4, 2019, 10:49 AM · Myth: vibrato is a change of pitch.
Reality: vibrato is a change of pitch which should sound like a change in intensity. This is why we vibrate below, not above or around the note: a lowered pitch is more likely to sound like the intensity, not the pitch, is changing.

If you think about the most beautiful vocal vibrati, they also sound like changes in intensity rather than just warbling up and down. When the change in pitch becomes too obvious, the voice can be perceived as vulgar or just amateur.

Guitarists vibrate up in pitch only because, on the fingerboard, they can only do it that way because of the frets. What if they do it by vibrato bar? Then they tend to vibrate down as well.

Someone mentioned that certain players have certain percentages above or below pitch. I'm not sure how he got those figures. But I have a feeling it has more to do with physical limitations rather than artistic choices. But again, should the ear start to perceive the pitch going sharp in an obvious manner, then the vibrato loses its effectiveness. Even the very greatest string players don't have absolute, 100% control over every finger motion.

If you say this or that person is famous for their vibrato and 35% of the time they go above pitch therefore going above pitch is more beautiful, you risk a false logic. People can be famous for the width and frequency of their vibrato.

A look at other instruments is also telling: vibrato on the flute is an intensity change instead of a change in pitch. Also on electronic organs and other instruments. There are even Baroque bow and vocal techniques that can be used instead of pitch vibrato (they tend not to be sustainable or as efficient as pitch vibrato though).

Edited: January 4, 2019, 11:01 AM · "Guitarists vibrate up in pitch only because, on the fingerboard, they can only do it that way because of the frets."

No! During vibrato when a guitarist's finger is pushing towards the nut it is making the string tenser, and when it is pressing towards the bridge it is making it slacker.

Let's define vibrato as frequency modulation and tremolo as amplitude modulation.(although a guitar's tremolo bar is really a vibrato bar)

On the oboe or flute you practise diaphragm "vibrato" by means of crescendos and diminuendos, slowly at first, adjusting lip tension so that there is no pitch variation. Then you speed up. It takes 6 months of practice to learn on the oboe. But I surmise that the attempt to avoid pitch change gets left by the wayside as you get faster so that oboe "vibrato" is mostly tremolo with a tiny bit of vibrato in it.

So, can we ask of violin vibrato what percentage is pitch vibrato and what percentgae is inadvertent tremolo due to a varying amount of contact between the finger and the string?

January 4, 2019, 11:37 AM · Scott: my percentages are obviously estimates, however I think it is clear that different people have different 'default' percentages. By using the slow down function on youtube, I can hear in x0.25 that Zukerman has a higher upper-lower ratio than the average violinist.

You mentioned that people can be famous for the width and frequency of their vibrato. I completely agree, however if you take 2 vibrati of identical width and frequency, a different upper-lower ratio will create a noticeable difference, therefore I believe this to be a viable variable to add to width/frequency.

I hear so many people after hearing a Zukerman concert saying 'omg the sound.. his sound!'. Of course his right hand is extremely well developed, with excellent higher bridge-bowspeed ratio, but I think his unique vibrato is equally as much a factor.

'If you say this or that person is famous for their vibrato and 35% of the time they go above pitch therefore going above pitch is more beautiful, you risk a false logic.' Maybe it's the way I'm reading this comment, but I just wanted to clarify, I meant that an individual pitch goes 35% below and 65% over, not that 35% of the time the pitches are audibly going in a certain direction throughout a piece.

January 4, 2019, 11:52 AM · I must ageee with Mr. Cole in that going up pitch is not only unnecessary, but also a risk, and thus a skill I do not recommend developing. Many of the great soloists who do this often do not sound right themselves when their vibrato becomes too aggressive (which may be subjective, but the pitch going up too much *is* noticeable and distracting.) In practice, some of the "normal" players I have seen going up pitch do end up sounding like wild electric guitar vibratos, which are fine in context, but to my perhaps lacking ears sound very much too wild/out of control for Classical, and worse, like a caricature of non-desirable vibrato in a singer (and out of tune to boot.) I have heard many otherwise fine players mar their playing by such lack of control, and since it's not necessary in my view, I dispense with these "percentages" altogether.

I am not saying any of you who play/practice this way play out of tune or "wildly", but that in my experience, many players that go up tend to have poor control even when they meant their "percentages" to be well-measured. Going only down pitch (and perhaps only "accidentally" slightly up on ocassion) is safer for the music and the audience, in my opinion-and not only for beginners, but also for "Ernst level" violinists.

In any case, for beginners at the very least, I will never advocate going up pitch for classical violin repertoire, And barring a specific demand from a modern composer or the such, also do not see the need for it at an advanced level.

Just my opinion.

January 4, 2019, 1:28 PM · Andrew Fryer wrote: I saw the experiment with the spectrum analyser to show the "it all happens below the note" thesis, but I can't remember the detail.

This one shows that about half of it happens below the note:

(It must have taken a nontrivial amount of signal processing to slow down the sound while keeping the original pitch and without audible hiccups.)

January 4, 2019, 1:37 PM · Andrew,
For the guitar, I had the typical rock guitarist in mind. They typically bend the string up and down, and if you bend the string, it goes sharp. It's just part of the idiom. Classical guitarist may do it differently.

I had always been taught that if the vibrato goes above the pitch, it makes the note sound sharp. Done correctly below the note, it does not tend to sound flat. It sounds non-intuitive, but that is the case, especially if the motion itself-- an accelerating pulse instead of an even down-and-up--is used.

The litmus test for any of the violinists you mentioned would be how they teach it. Galamian says this in his Principles of Violin Teaching and Playing: "It is important that the vibrato always go to the flatted side of the pitch. The ear catches far more readily the highest pitch sounded, and a vibrato that goes as much above pitch as below makes the general intonation should too sharp." (p. 42).

So does Zukerman, in his lessons, tell students to be X% above pitch? I don't know--I haven't sat in on his lessons. Maybe someone can reach out to him and ask how he (or any of the other ones mentioned) teach it. Perlman has an idiosyncratic "all wrist" vibrato which few others can (or should) do. Does he make all his students use it? I doubt it. It's just what he does. I have a feeling that Zukerman et al do what they do, even if it's not exactly what would conform to their perfect vision of how they should themselves to it.

Perhaps students of his can chime in.

Edited: January 4, 2019, 5:40 PM · Famous soloists are not necessarily the authority on teaching vibrato to students who may not have the same abilities. I've studied with several good teachers who were/are orchestral players, and they said the same thing as Scott about going below the pitch.

Myth: You need to use a combination of 2-3 types of vibrato in whatever you play.
Truth: You can choose what you think is appropriate & sounds best.

Edited: January 5, 2019, 12:13 PM · I used the Intonia program to record my own vibrato on the middle finger, starting "non vib" and increasing the motion behind the note. On the screen the forward motion increasingly overshot the target pitch, no doubt due to its momentum.

The "crest" of the wave was louder than its "dip", and also brighter, presumably because of the tip of the finger is bonier than its pad.

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