4 ways to improve your vibrato and develop a personal tone
by Paul Stein
How to maintain control of a violin or viola while eliciting a pure, warm, and personal vibrato tone.
One of my earliest musical memories was the first time I heard vibrato coming from the violin of my elementary school music teacher. I had never heard anything quite that clearly, a testament to the effect that vibrato has on us. I had not started working on vibrato, but that subtle moment of discovery was exactly what I needed at the time. Since you only play as well as you hear something, I had the most beautiful vibrato ringing in my ear.
The most valuable lesson when you start vibrato is to stay focused on the subtle movement of the fingertip going and up and down as it highlights the pitch. The goal is to hear the pitch loud and clear with a hint of warmth generated by the vibrato. If the pitch isn’t dominant and obvious, then the vibrato is too slow or the amplitude of the movement is uneven. The basic vibrato exercise of moving the arm up and down from first to third position, while sliding with one finger, should successfully develop an even amplitude around the pitch. If you experience uneven rhythm and distance, try eliminating any counting of beats. The pendulum that is inherent in a vibrato relies on a different rhythm from our usual metronomic counting system.
My first exercise was to hold the violin scroll against the wall to keep the violin from moving up, down, and sideways. Not surprisingly, my violin still jerked around, but I was able to live with it. Tolerance and patience are important factors in learning such a movement that begins its life rather shakily. Self-taught vibrato usually turns out the best. It’s like learning how to walk: a teacher can give step-by-step directions, but he can’t describe how each student’s mind gets the vibrato started and keeps the process balanced. Here are five tips on building the foundation for a pure, warm vibrato:
1. Start Strongly
A good beginning vibrato exercise is to learn to identify the moment that vibrato starts. Move the bow confidently with no vibrato and then, after a count of two beats, vibrate quickly and simply. The mind is better at controlling small movements if all the moving parts are synchronized.
2. Analyze Your Movements
Each player has a personal preference as to whether the vibrato should be an arm or hand-wrist vibrato. Sometimes, however, the actions can fight against each other. Keep the movements distinct and pure. While some powerful vibratos have developed while integrating both hand and arm, all that’s really necessary is that all the joints, knuckles, and so on remain neutral and flexible.
3. Chart your Course
The geography of vibrato includes the physical direction of the fingerboard; the offset, oblique angle of the hand (think scaffolding); the four different planes of the string; and the direction of the bow (which has a way of influencing everything else). Imagine the complications that arise from all of these competing angles! Now, just respect the differences and keep all motions independent yet interdependent.
4. Overcome the Wobble
The wobbly vibrato is sometimes caused by a lack of firmness as the fingertip oscillates between two close pitches. An exercise for a more firm vibrato motion is to move the bow smoothly, generating a perfectly smooth vibrating string, with the fingertip firmly on the pitch. Then rock the finger to a pitch slightly below the original pitch, and then rock it back to the original. The firmness is achieved by thinking of the ratchet mechanism in a socket wrench. That will make the pitch difference firm enough to overcome the wobble, and the smooth bow will blend it all together. An interesting way of hearing this exercise is on page 54 of the The Backyard BirdsongGuide: Western North America (Chronicle Books, 2008) by Donald Kroodsma. The call of the hairy hummingbird sounds just like this exercise, both slowly and in the finished product. Listening to this recording of the birdsong places the vibrato in the student’s ear, the most important place for any vibrato to begin.
Violinist and educator Paul Stein is a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.