Tips and exercises for vibrato?

Edited: January 17, 2020, 3:47 AM · Hi: I'd like to get some additional tips for my vibrato learning and practice.

My teacher is teaching me how to do arm vibrato. He always teaches it first and only moves on to "wrist usage" with more advanced students once their arm vibrato is sound and secure. So all of my vibrato learning process and struggles refer to arm vibrato.

I can do a good slow to moderate paced vibrato movement with my fingers over the strings without using my bow. My teacher says my form is generally good and my wrist is mostly relaxed. I also feel that I'm making enough pressure to "stop" the string.

But the problems come when I introduce the bow. If I try to relax my vibrato arm, I stop pressing with the bow and the sound cracks. If I try to press with the bow, my left arm tends to get more and more tense until I just can't vibrate. And if I try to lessen the bow pressure a little bit and use more bow speed, my vibrato starts getting fast and irregular, my left arm and left hand get tense, and I also reach a point in which I just can't vibrate anymore.

My teacher says that in my case, there's almost no point in practicing vibrato without using the bow, since I know how to do it. He also says it's a coordination issue that will probably solve itself over time and practice.

What kind of tips can you give me and what kind of exercises would you suggest me to help me solve this problem? Also, do you know of any exercise that can be performed silently at late hours after work?

Thank you very much.

Replies (9)

January 17, 2020, 5:02 AM · May I quote from myself?!

Learning vibrato.

To start with, I teach a forearm movement, but with a flexible wrist and fingers: the elbow leads the wrist which leads the knuckles which lead the fingertips. Visually, the effect is rather like an underwater plant, waving to and fro in a gentle current. As the motion speeds up, the hand vibrates a little more than the forearm, but something is still happening in the elbow. The fingers stay slightly passive, but tonic enough not to slip.

My "underwater plant" motion is mainly to find that subtle synthesis of tonus and flexibilty. For a faster, maybe narrower vibrato, my "plant" get a little stiffer, but only just enough.

I have never practiced a "finger" vibrato as such, so I am still learning! But in the highest postions, when the whole hand is leaning over the violin's shoulder, my vibrato is more vertical than along-the-string; up there it has to be narrower anyway.

Depending on the student, the weather etc, I find I can choose between an "analytical approach", mastering individual elemets separately before combining them; and progressively refining global movements in a "combo" (Gestalt?) approach.

I hasten to add that my wave-motions are done without the bow to begin with!

I have had a few students who have found a beautiful vibrato on their own: my approach tries to give the others this possibility.

I'll try to describe briefly what I do:
- Pressure Zero. One finger on each string; minimal or no contact between the base of the index and the neck; no pressure; a gentle back & forth shifting/sliding motion.
- Pressure No 1. Slight finger pressure with equally slight thumb counter-pressure; the strings descend halfway to the fingerboard. .
- Pressure No 2, a little more pressure; the strings arrive on the fingerboard, the fingertips drag more on the strings; as the forearm approaches, the hand leans back and the fingers curl; as the forearm recedes, the hand leans forewards and the fingers stretch.
- Pressure No 3, only just enough to stop the fingertips sliding; the complex motions of Pressure No 2 have become a combined arm & hand vibrato, with equal pressure from all 4 flexible fingers.
The only risk is increasing the finger pressure (and thumb counter-pressure) to Nos 4,5,6 etc without realising.

Excess tension, e.g. from the middle finger, or from the thumb, will block the wrist and stiffen the whole process.

It usually works!
Hope this is comprehensible...

Concerning the "patting head & rubbing tummy" syndrome I have found that on long bowed note, the student's right arm wants to join in the vibrato when both elbows have a similar opening (usually mid-bow). This is normal: when we hold something in both hands, (e.g. a tray of drinks) they work in perfect synchronisation.
I try a de-sync exercise: a quick flapping motion in one hand, plus a long, slow arc in the other arm, so slow, that one can keep an eye on both sides at once.

January 17, 2020, 7:01 AM · My teacher always teaches wrist first, and then he adds arm vibrato later. So I don't think my advice will be of much use to you.

Vibrato is one of those things where there is a combination of making it happen and letting it happen. An interplay between firmness and flexibility. You have to exert enough muscle force at the end of your finger to hold the stop on the string. But you have to leave the joints of the fingers relaxed enough that they can flex and your fingertip can roll back from its starting position.

A great pro violinist that I know is the kind of guy who, if he hears you warming up for orchestra rehearsal with a scale or something, he'll come over and give you a whole violin lesson's worth of advice about the five notes you just played. In other words, he's awesome. He advised me to be careful not to let my vibrato mechanics be guided by how it feels in my hands, but by how it sounds. I took his advice back to my teacher (the two of them are best friends), and that is when he sighed and said the only way forward would be to rebuild it from zero. Which I did, and now I'm in a situation where my wrist vibrato in the upper register is so fast and wide that I have to be careful it doesn't become tasteless, especially for Mozart and stuff like that.

Since the finger is rolling back from the tip to the pad of the finger during normal vibrato, if you start with it half-way onto the pad already, your vibrato will be thinner. Start closer to the tip. Even a slight change there in how it feels will widen your vibrato a lot.

January 17, 2020, 8:08 AM · I was told that learning vibrato is a slow process when I started on it. I'd recommend to practice it often but in small doses. Have patience and I am almost certain your teacher is correct and the problem will resolve itself. it is amazing how many of my violin-technique-problems solve themselves at the end without me knowing exactly how and why.
Edited: January 17, 2020, 6:58 PM · Miquel,
This flys against your notion of practicing without a bow, but I made my greatest breakthrough NOT playing at all. Watch some youtube violin performances, and then imitate the movement WITHOUT even playing - just use the left hand fingers on the strings (guitarists do this quite a bit) Forgetting about form may help too- you can always fine tune that as the vibrato comes later.

My own experience- only a couple or three years ago was how I heard many others describe it before I "got" it- vibrato seems elusive and difficult, but all at once comes on- maybe not perfectly, but it suddenly comes on- because IT'S NOT REALLY THAT HARD to get it going. Perfection is another matter, but I'll bet you'll have a sudden breakthrough.

relax and have fun. You'll be thrilled when you get it.

January 17, 2020, 6:49 PM · Sounds like it is mainly a coordination issue to me. Try long bows - tip to frog - with a metronome at 60 or so. On the third beat, vibrate then stop on the fourth beat. Start slow with one iteration, then two, then three and so on until you get a smooth vibrato. If it gets out of control, backup. Remember to keep a steady bow speed and pressure. This is much like the exercise of fingering a passage on one string while bowing another. It can be hard to build that independance.
January 18, 2020, 5:35 AM · do you have Basics by Simon Fischer? a good book to have anyway, and, it has an entire chapter on vibrato tips and exercises (what you are asking for here).
January 18, 2020, 6:05 AM · Miguel, I had the same problem. Your teacher is right, over time the issue solved itself. But be patient, to disappear it probably took two years. For me it was useful to listen to great singers like Christian Gerhaher and to try to imitate their tone and vibrato. Perhaps, that just kept me focused, engaged and inspired to not loose my patience.
Paul, how long did it take you to rebuild your vibrato?
January 18, 2020, 10:26 AM · Thank you everyone for your tips and suggestions.

Adrian, Paul and Bill, your explanations are detailed and I’ll try to put them in practice.

Albrecht Nancy and Eva, I hope it solves over time, since my violin playing seems “impaired” whenever I try to vibrate anything. I will also try to imitate violinists’ and singers’ vibratos.

Jean, I don’t own that book. I will probably search for it. Do you know if there’s a Spanish translation?

January 19, 2020, 9:00 PM · I think Adrian's suggestions are spot on. I often ask my students to vibrate on one string while playing a different string with the bow. You can find a video here:

It's part of a playlist of 13 vibrato exercises and tricks, which is here, in case anything it useful to you. It will come sooner or later - usually when we stop stressing about it :)

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