What is Proper Vibrato Technique?

October 11, 2017, 4:29 AM · I've practiced vibrato for a couple years, longing for the lush, wide, romantic vibrato that professionals make look so easy. But I've never been able to come close.

Lately, I've watched a lot of videos on vibrato, and looked closely at soloists' hands in videos, to see what I'm missing...and it's led me to question my entire technique.

I was taught to hold the violin/viola with 2 points of contact from the left hand:

(1) the thumb
(2) the base of the index finger

But a lot of vibrato videos insist you have to detach your index finger completely from the neck in order to get a wide, lush vibrato.

I've practiced that style for a week now, and while removing the index finger from the viola certainly gives a wider ranger of motion, it really throws off my stability and intonation since I use the index finger as a guidance point.

And since I have to move my index finger back to the neck to play regular non-vibrato notes, it feels awkward going back and forth between detaching and re-attaching the index finger. Vibrato on short notes feels especially awkward: Detaching and reattaching for the next note quickly is tough!

Separating the index finger on the C and G strings on viola also feels extremely difficult, and puts a lot of tension and stress on my hand. And I can't do 4th finger vibrato at all without the index finger touching the neck to give some stability.

So this leads me to a question for the extremely knowledgable and helpful community here:

Is detaching the index finger completely from the neck indeed the best way to get a nice vibrato, and I just need to relearn my left hand technique and get used to it over a few months? Or can you achieve a beautiful vibrato even with the index finger touching the neck?

Thank you for any advice!

Replies (11)

October 11, 2017, 1:10 PM · When playing open strings, the base of your index should touch to provide stability. When playing notes with fingers, it should detach, but only after the finger has been placed. Between any two fingers, the latter finger should be placed before releasing the former finger, so that you ALWAYS have 2 points of contact on your violin (usually, those 2 points will be your thumb and the tip of the finger you're playing with).

1 point of contact, at any point, will cause consistency problems.
2 points of contact with allow for both stability and vibrato.
3 points of contact will provide stability but inhibit vibrato.

You should practice scales in order to master "walking" between fingers without having to resort to clamping with the base of the index ("walking" refers to the act of placing the next finger before releasing the former finger... in other words, only having 3 points of contact for a very short time).

But honestly, the real answer to your overall question is this: violin/viola is just really hard. The pros make it look easy, but that's only because what you see was crafted by 1000s of hours of experimentation, practice, and observation. Vibrato doesn't "just happen." It is tirelessly worked at to produce the effect you're speaking of. This is especially true of vibrato on consecutive short notes.

Meanwhile, you're been doing it the correct way for a week. So keep at it for a couple more years and then it will feel more natural, but never completely natural.

You also should get a teacher if you don't have one.

The phenomenon you're noticing, regarding how it's very difficult, is the reason I always tell students how hard something is going to be to implement, so they don't spend a month expecting it to be easy and assuming they're doing it wrong as a result. I remember the first time a teacher told me to "vibrato every 16th note." That's all he said. So, I spent a bunch of time feeling like a failure because he didn't give me the disclaimer of "this will be very mentally and physically challenging to do, and won't feel natural whatsoever."

Oh, also, you might be focusing too much on creating tons of space between the base of your index and the neck. "Detach" can mean just a millimeter. It doesn't have to be much space at all.

October 11, 2017, 2:15 PM · Erik, thanks for that very useful post.


October 12, 2017, 5:24 PM · If you are finding your instrument unstable after disconnecting the base of your index finger from the neck of the instrument then you may need to work on your setup (chin rest, shoulder rest) to get more security, especially with the viola which is longer and heavier.

You can find videos online that show you exercises you can do to improve your vibrato including widening it. Look for videos by Todd Ehle and Kurt Sassmannshaus. However, as Erik said, vibrato is one of those things were the motions are very subtle and it is very helpful if not essential to have an in-person teacher to guide you.

Edited: October 13, 2017, 1:48 AM · To create the Gap (1/32" is often enough) I slightly elongate the circle fomed by the thumb and fingers, but not enough to distort the hand shape.

Short notes?
There isn't time for an audible vibrato, but the hand can have a king of inner quivering which avoids the audible switch from short to longer notes.

- My viola is set up with a 45° tilt (30° for the violin);
- My left thumb is then horizontal, and my left elbow swung sufficiently to the right.

BTW I am an unrepentant user of the shoulder-rest!

Edited: October 13, 2017, 1:53 AM · More generally, we can spend a few minutes daily re-awakening movement and sensation in the spine and shoulder-blades, even if we then spend more time concentrating on more "local" motions.
October 13, 2017, 3:04 AM · Thank you everyone for the insightful comments! I'll continue to practice with a small gap--it feels especially necessary for the first finger in first position.

Reading through past discussions, I found a comment by Nathan Cole saying that his index finger contacts the neck during vibrato, except sometimes for the first finger in lower positions. He seems to be an incredibly accomplished violinist, so does it come down to personal playing style in the end, I wonder?

With professional violinists using all different sorts of hand positions, it feels hard to decide whether or not my hand hand position itself is to blame for unsatisfactory vibrato, and whether or not I should change it and get used to the gap style over a few months, or just keep contacting the neck with my index finger as I've done until now and hope a few more years of practice will result in a nice vibrato.

Edited: October 25, 2017, 3:36 AM · I have played violin for a little more than 2 years and I have had exactly the same observation as you do: some videos advise players to let the side of index finger contact the neck of violin, and some don't.

Then I watched videos of famous violinists playing concertos, I notice that some of them do, some of them don't.

1. Index finger contact with neck is only mostly seen at lower positions (especially 1st position). Even more so, if they are playing fast passages in 1st position, on the G and D strings, due to three other fingers reaching out to those strings, the side of their index fingers are naturally inclined to touching the neck.

2. The higher the positions, the less likely for such contact. Very high positions completely rule out index finger contact.

3. Those who let their thumb get high above the neck tend to make this touch. (Note even for those who do, they do not let their index finger touch the neck ALL the time.) Example:

Maxim Vengerov 0:52 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsJdLv38fy8
Joshua Bell 7:05 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WqWl8K3svoI
However there are exceptions (low thumb but index touching): David Oistrakh 0:28 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKd0VII-l3A

4. Those who let their thumb lower tend to not let their index finger touch the neck (probably since the thumb, being lower meaning more anchoring under the neck and providing enough stability). Watch any concerto videos of Janine Jansen, Hillary Hahn. Or the whole short video of this lovely lady: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xF2WhUXQUpA

But as I said, it's not the case of completely either touching or not touching. I see that the majority of violinist fall somewhere in between (sometime touch, sometime don't, in the same piece). Like all those names mentioned above. As Angelo Xiang Yu in this whole video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sov58PtoJeA

October 25, 2017, 2:18 AM · A great many players don't do what they say the do...
October 25, 2017, 6:37 AM · The best way for any particular person to play the violin depends on their physical attributes" hand size, lengths of upper and fore-arm, shoulder width, neck length, hand size, relative finger lengths and so on.

Your teacher will take all these things into account (maybe without even thinking about them) when teaching you how to hold your instrument (and bow) and how to use them. At least this is what I did during the 45 years when I was teaching (part time, as an avocation).

I guess my point is that good teaching and practice over years will make the proper playing habits natural for you.

My own "tutored" violin studies ended after 8 years just before I was 12, but when I resumed playing a year later I found the way I played was still with me as a completely natural thing. Over the next decades I was able to advance my technique many-fold on my own and with what pother musical contacts I continued to have. Many years later, when I was asked to teach I had to think about all these things to be able to transmit them, and I read all I could about them (for example - Galamian's book had just been published) to confirm that I was not transmitting erroneous ideas.

In my opinion, if there is one "rule" that overrides all others it is this: for both hands that are in contact with instrument and bow, the flow of strength and control to the hands and fingers should be maximized by minimizing the angles of the joints - especially the wrists. You cannot eliminate angles but you should be aware of those that reduce your strength.

October 25, 2017, 9:56 AM · Vibrato develops even for some pros throughout their careers (many "debut" recordings/performances sound very different than their most "mature" ones, and not only because of different repertoire needs.)

One easy "rule" that can just as easily be overlooked is that even the fastest, most intense vibrato requires a very loose hand-rarely a tight grip. Some learners (maybe none of you), mentally realizing vibrato is rather complex to master, unwittingly make it harder by "stressing" their vibrato with too much pressure, ultimately killing the intended finger oscillations, and producing a "nothing" sort of effect.

Be patient, and keep working "hard" without being hard on yourself or your hands.

(Some thin finger types, such as mine, often need to vibrate at a different angle depending on finger and position. I couldn't possibly have a good vibrato on my pinky if I don't flatten the fingertip a little, or even quite a bit. I can indeed vibrate this way with my pinky without index finger "support"-but of course every hand and player is different.)

October 25, 2017, 11:24 AM · The greatest key to vibrato is being really relaxed and having a good conception of finger placement. Once you have those you can start to deviate from "good form" when you want to have a really huge vibrato, but you won't get lost because you always know where you are on the finger board.

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