Student can't isolate wrist movement for vibrato or bowing

September 21, 2023, 10:01 AM · I have an adult student who has been playing for about four years. Clean bowing has always been a struggle, because he tends to use his entire arm for every movement, and can't isolate just the wrist or elbow movement to keep the bow parallel to the bridge. He's been able to increase the wrist movement, and now his bow is "mostly* parallel despite still having too much shoulder/upper arm movement.

About a year ago, we started working on vibrato, and I cannot get him to do it without moving his entire arm so that the violin shakes. Lots of students struggle with that in the beginning, but I've never seen it to this extent--and it's been a year with seemingly no progress.

I've tried every exercise I know, made up new exercises...this week I literally had him try Progressive Muscle Relaxation meditations to see if that would help his awareness of the different muscle groups. I just finished spending half his lesson just trying to fine tune the movement, and we still can't get breakthrough.

Has anyone had this problem and been able to find a solution?

Thanks very much for your time!

Replies (14)

Edited: September 21, 2023, 5:26 PM · With a metronome, I’ve practiced the vibrato motion with only with the left and right hands without the violin: the left hand performing the motion while the right hand encircles and holds the left forearm. When “vibrating” I can feel that the forearm and wrist share a set of muscles and it’s the muscles in the forearm and not the wrist that is the impetus for the motion. I think by holding the left forearm it might help reduce the unnecessary arm motion when the vibrato is later performed on the violin.

September 21, 2023, 10:50 AM · Can you get him to isolate the wrist motion by practicing vibrato in 3rd position?


Can you teach him to develop a forearm vibrato by steadying the violin with a more appropriate (to his physique) chinrest and shoulder rest?

September 21, 2023, 12:12 PM · Have you done things like knocking on a door? Fingers up, knock with knuckles. Then knock to a metronome... Exercises away from the fiddle might help with isolating the muscles.
September 21, 2023, 1:39 PM · May or May not help, but.... place violin in valley between thumb and first finger, place ring finger on d on the a string, don't touch the neck at all with the thumb, then try moving the hand back and forth, with complete hand relaxation, it's a very difficult exercise, but may help, remember the thumb shouldn't even touch the neck, it should be supported solely by the v, its even better if the violin can be supported by just holding the fiddle in place with the head on chin rest so that the hand hangs in space with just the finger touching the fingerboard. There are probably videos of the technique somewhere or other, don't know ifit will help but no harm trying.
September 21, 2023, 4:18 PM · Hi Sylvia, I have taught an *immense* amount of beginners over the years, at least half of whom were adults.

Instead of giving you a suggestion (it sounds like you already are trying to hit the problem from multiple angles), I'm going to tell you this:

Some people - particularly amongst adult beginners - are *remarkably* clumsy, and will never be able to overcome that. You can spend 10 or 20 years with these individuals trying every technique under the sun, and they can be totally dedicated to implementing your teaching at home, and their progress in physical movements will be so slow that it's almost imperceptible.

Everyone has a weakness, and in some people that weakness is just their awareness of their body. For me, it's remembering lyrics to music. I can try very, very hard to remember lyrics, but to be honest it's just not worth my effort. I would have to spend weeks and weeks practicing, just to remember *some* of the lyrics, even to a song I know very well. My brain simply doesn't work that way.

So, forgive yourself for this student's lack of progress. There will likely never be a "breakthrough" moment where one technique suddenly opens up their wrist. I'm not saying you should stop trying, but rather to change your timelines; instead of thinking of this as a "several week" problem, think of it as a "several year" problem. Make sure to keep trying to improve *other* aspects of their playing while you keep the "slow burn" of the wrist improvement happening in the background. Don't push too hard for that one thing, even though you might realize it's a strong impediment to their tone production during vibrato. Perhaps steer them away from vibrato, actually. It may just make both of you frustrated. There are plenty of other things that usually need work before vibrato, even if it's been 4 years.

I don't want to give you false hope, but I will give you *one* suggestion that I have found to be very helpful in my own students, particularly with those who seem to have "unsolvable wrists":
Instead of focusing on keeping the bow parallel to the bridge, have them work on *moving the tip of the bow away from them as they do their upbows, and moving their bow hand away from them as they do their downbows"..... the up-bow aspect is the most important, in my opinion.

Another version of this is having them imagine a balloon that is in-line with the length of their bow. Try to have them "pop" that balloon on their upbows. By becoming aware of where the tip of the bow is going, I've noticed many peoples' wrists will naturally activate in order to "aim" the tip of the bow.

You can help by putting a physical "target" where you want the tip of their bow to go on their upbows, so they have a real physical object to aim towards.

I know you said that the problem is only when they do vibrato, but that is probably because they're normally using most of their mental resources to just keep the bow straight, so vibrato pushes them over the edge and they revert to their stiff wristed form. So by teaching them better techniques for using the wrist, it may also help when they're doing vibrato.

Ok, last thing: are they doing arm or wrist vibrato? Wrist tends to be easier for physically clumsy people, and of course it's also more stable for the violin. So I recommend doing the wrist vibrato route if they're currently trying arm vibrato (you might even try the "easy mode" wrist vibrato, where you stick the thumb way out to the left and rest the violin on the base of the thumb instead of the 2nd joint).

If you're stuck on the arm vibrato idea, trying rosining their fingertips so they stick more to the string. Often, students with dry/slippery fingers will slide around when they attempt arm vibrato, which then leads to them tensing. And the tension in the left hand will also carry over to the right arm, thus causing the elbow/wrist to lock up. So, if teaching arm vibrato, make sure their fingertips are sticky.

September 21, 2023, 5:30 PM · Erik's reply reminded me of the Simon Fischer straight bowing exercise, if you haven't already tried it (you can find it on page 119 of "The Violin Lesson" and I'm sure it's somewhere in "Basics" as well). Basically you hold the bow and the student moves his hand up and down the stick, following the path of a straight bow, to get used to the feel of it. It is impossible to do this without moving all the joints of your arm. The bow needs to be positioned against the violin where it would be at the lowest point in a downbow.
September 21, 2023, 6:43 PM · Greetings,
Laurie has pointed out what might be termed the sin qua non of basic vibrato exercises: knocking on a door. For me, there is a version of this I prefer. I think there is possibly a greater need for conscious programming of the mind in adults which has to be more overt . So, rather than make this exercise continuous I ask the student to work in groups of five. That is F/B/F/B/F Stop B/F/B/F/B. The student can take as much time as they want between chunks to think about what they are doing, relax their body, visualize the next block or whatever. Likewise, when the movement is transferred to the violin it is also approach in smaller units.
September 21, 2023, 6:50 PM · BTW
For straight bowing I always come back to the maxim that the arm follows the tool and not the other way round. So rather than try every trick in the book to bow straight, just have the bow straight by balancing the tip on the strings and the screw ona table or music stand. Then the hand can run up and down the stick as though the bow was being moved and much of the necessary adjustments will have to take place.
Edited: September 22, 2023, 1:07 AM · I second 3rd position (Andrew). I had read somewhere that the easiest note to begin vibrato on is E on the A string in 3rd (2nd finger), so that's how I began. The contact between wrist and violin prevents the arm from moving. And if necessary press the scroll gently against a wall to steady the violin.
September 22, 2023, 9:09 AM · Thank you all so much for your input and ideas!
September 24, 2023, 5:15 PM · My breakthrough to this skill was to imagine a string tugging on the back of my hand while massaging the string so the finger tip rolled on the string. It was a great way to isolate the relaxation needed to perform this skill.
September 24, 2023, 8:11 PM · "Who's that, knocking on my door? Who's that, rosining my bow?"
September 24, 2023, 9:59 PM · My breakthrough were the vibrato exercises in "warming up" by Fischer
September 26, 2023, 5:04 AM · Perhaps he is squeezing with both thumbs. If that is the problem, there are various exercises to mitigate this.

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