By Greg Cahill
When it comes to musical instruction, Phyllis Young has a way with words. “Let’s see if you can make your arm so relaxed that all that fat on the inside of your upper arm will shake like Jello!” she says while offering tips on perfecting vibrato on the cello. “Hang loose. Let your left elbow float in imaginary water.”
A respected author, former president of the American String Teachers Association, and professor of cello and string pedagogy at the University of Texas at Austin, Young is a leading authority on cello vibrato. She has taught in nearly every state and 30 countries.
No doubt about it, Young has strong feelings about the technique she calls The Beautifier. “The thing that has handicapped cellists more than just about anything else,” she says, during a break from her classroom duties, “is a lack of a beautiful and expressive vibrato.”
Shakin’ All Over
What is vibrato? It is a wavering effect of tone obtained by rapidly shaking the string that the finger is stopping, notes the Schirmer Pocket Manual of Musical Terms. The technique is used on notes of longer duration—notes of shorter duration usually are played without vibrato. When the vibrato is beautiful, the result is a note or a phrase that exudes emotion. The desired effect, adds Young, is like shaking dice.
Sounds simple enough. But the path to mastering vibrato is fraught with hazards. When learning a fundamental skill on an instrument, it’s better not to rush into it and best to get it right from the start. In her 1978 book Playing the String Game: Strategies for Teaching Cello and Strings (Shar Publications; $13.95), Young offers a detailed set of “pre-vibrato conditions” that should be in place before a student tries to execute the technique.
Many of these conditions are applicable to violin and viola as well.
Her teaching method also uses a wide array of “mini games” and mental images that ask the student to imagine her body and the fingerboard in a variety of altered states—like the Living Fingerboard—and capable of eliciting a desired response. Under Young’s guidance, the aforementioned shaking Jello makes perfect sense. “The imagery is a must in my way of thinking,” she says. “People usually don’t know where the muscles are located and they don’t think anatomically.”
The Best-Note Principle
Young suggests that a student who is beginning to use vibrato find the finger and the note that is most beautiful and use it as a model for the other notes. Her book features hundreds of creative ideas that can assist in this pursuit. Young doesn’t believe that exercises found in standard étude books are always suitable for developing vibrato since most etudes were not designed for that purpose. “It’s much more useful to stay on a single note while trying to find a beautiful balance in the hand and arm centered on the playing finger,” she says.
“Find the most beautiful note in the world. I call that the Best-Note Principle. When you find the best note on the cello, then watch the gorgeous vibrato, and then notice how you are balanced on the pad of your finger, and you’ll have your own model right there in the practice room. Then switch to a different finger or try dragging it over to a nearby string.”
But first, Young recommends that you and your teacher assess your readiness by gauging these 7 important pre-vibrato conditions.
1. Does the student play with good intonation and have a good knowledge of the fingerboard?
These basic points, Young stresses, are essential before moving on. After all, a student will feel insecure about vibrating on a note if he or she is unsure of its location.
2. Is the left thumb free of any kind of tension and not pushing up against the cello’s neck?
A tight thumb can produce tension in other parts of the hand and inhibit the production of perfect vibrato. The single biggest obstacle preventing the player from executing perfect vibrato is tension. “If you have tight joints, even a single tight joint, then you can hear the result in the vibrato,” Young warns. “Never push up with the thumb–that’s an important lesson and one that’s not easy to relearn. The thumb should just barely touch the neck.”
3. Is the power line between the player’s back and through—not from—the left arm and hand and on through to the fingerboard, completely free and unobstructed?
If the live weight does not reach the finger pad so the string sinks easily into the fingerboard, the player will feel insecure when he starts to shake his hand in the vibrato motion, Young coaches. His fingers will start to grab or push, actions that are harmful because they tighten the finger joints. The larger the motion, the more suction is required (see “Do the fingers feel sticky?”); thus, the flow of energy from the player’s back must not be restricted.
4. Is the cello positioned so that the player’s left elbow does not feel tight?
If the arm is folded up at a sharp angle so that the forearm is cramped against the upper arm, Young observes, it is impossible for the student to execute the vibrato action freely. The left elbow should “float” as if on water.
5. Is the left hand positioned so that the base of the knuckles forms a line that runs almost parallel to the strings (in the lower positions)?
This is important because the shaking of the hand will follow the line formed by the base of the knuckles. If the hand is not parallel to the fingerboard then the motion will be wasted and the vibrato on the fourth finger will be restricted, she cautions.
6. Do the fingers feel “sticky,” creating a feeling of suction between the skin and the fingerboard?
Players possess two basic touches: One is when they are tapping their fingers, Young says, and the other is when they feel as though there are little suction cups—or sticky wet glue—on their fingers. “These are two completely different ways of sensing touch. When we play fast passages and we’re ‘tapping,’ then we feel as though the fingerboard is made of wood,” she points out. “But I want my students to have that suction-cup feeling even more than the tapping at the beginning stages. It’s sort of a clinging, sticky feel, and it’s out of that that the vibrato grows so beautifully–if we just emphasize dropping the finger as a separate unit, it doesn’t seem to invite a beautiful vibrato later.”
7. Is the student able to produce big, vibrant tones?
Young recommends that students begin with “wide and free” motions in which every part of the forearm shakes. “When we play loudly, the amplitude of the vibrating string is wide,” she says. “I want them all to start with a wide vibrato. If you start with a wide vibrato it’s easy to refine it later to a smaller vibrato, but the reverse is very difficult and causes tightness.”
A Balancing Act
In the final analysis, it’s all about balance. “The whole concept of vibrato is based on balance and making of tension-free motions,” she concludes, “which are guided by the aural dream of a beautiful tone.”
To help achieve the feeling of balance on the playing finger, Young also suggests that beginning students take a “spring check-up.” In this exercise, the student should play single notes using those metaphorical suction-cup fingers to adhere to the strings while the teacher tugs lightly on the student’s left elbow. While this playful tug-of-war is taking place, the student should imagine a spring in every joint—sort of like the spring on a kitchen screen door—allowing the fingers to remain limber and to spring back to their original position.
She also cautions against thinking that the weight should be distributed evenly among all fingers on the fingerboard. Instead, assign one of the fingers to be the chairman of the committee. It will be the finger that determines the pitch.
“So if all four fingers are on the fingerboard,” she adds, “the fourth finger is the designated spokesperson and carries all the weight. If the third finger is making the pitch then three, two, and one are all there but one and two are just like little specks of dust. The balance is always on the playing finger unless one is playing a very fast passage.”
For Young, the introduction of vibrato is an extremely rewarding experience, for student and teacher alike. It is “the high point” of a player’s training and marks “the transformation of the straight tone so characteristic of the rookie player into the rich, warm tone usually associated with the instrument,” she says.
“Vibrato is the thing that makes the cello a very expressive instrument.”
Learn to perfect your practice through expert advice from top string players and educators with the insightful e-book A Practice Primer.