By Laurie Niles
Vibrato is one of the string player’s finest tools of expression, but it does not always come easily. Physically, it’s a tricky motion, not used much in “real life.” If your vibrato is weak or somehow just not working, your best move may actually be to take a step back. Are you set up for vibrato success?
As a string player progresses, problems with set-up can become problems with technique—and vibrato is certainly one of those techniques that will test your set-up. Here are a few specific points to check in your left hand and arm to make sure you’re ready for an effective vibrato.
“Explore how it feels to rock each finger back and forth in this hanging position, making the fingers as loose as possible but still keeping the fingertip in place.”
1. Left-Hand Release
Vibrato requires two points of contact with the violin: the pad of the thumb on the neck and the tip of the finger on the fingerboard. The side of the left hand (next to the index finger) must be able to release the neck in order to do vibrato. This is a subtle, but absolutely necessary detail. For many students, it’s also new and difficult. Having the side of the hand on the neck provides a guide point for the placement of the hand, and by extension, for the placement of the fingers.
The introduction of vibrato does not mean that the side of the hand will never again touch the violin; as a matter of fact, it will frequently “check in” with the neck, especially in fast passages. But one has to be able to “let go” when doing vibrato—otherwise the motion will shake the entire violin! However, it’s possible to carry “letting go” to the other extreme, torquing the left hand in an effort to get far, far away from the fingerboard. This also can create problems, including unnecessary distortion and tension in the left hand.
Use this simple exercise to practice the subtlety of this motion: Hold the violin in the normal position, with any finger or fingers down. Then simply touch the side of the violin with the side of the hand, and then let go. Touch, let go. In letting go, the hand may still remain just a half-millimeter away from the fingerboard, but as long the hand has let go, then it’s possible to do vibrato effectively.
2. Relaxed Left Thumb
Depending on the size and shape of your hand, the thumb should be fairly low and straight. For those with longer fingers, the thumb may be a bit higher. The important thing, whether the thumb is low or high or straight or slightly bent, is that the thumb is not squeezing, holding, or wrapped around the neck. When playing vibrato, you’ll feel a certain interplay between each individual finger and the thumb, which provides a counter-balance to the rocking finger. To test if your thumb is squeezing, try tapping your thumb against the side of the fingerboard.
3. Loose but Secure Fingers
In order to rock your fingers, you’ll have to feel a kind of looseness in your finger joints, while still keeping the finger on a given pitch. The fingers will be curved yet relaxed. If you are exerting too much muscle into your fingers, they can become frozen and immoveable. In order to simulate this strange sensation of being in place and yet also being in motion, one exercise that can help is to try “hanging” from the fingerboard.
First make sure your violin is securely on your shoulder, not held up by your hand. You might even want to get someone else to hold the scroll (or you can gently and very carefully push the scroll against the wall with a towel behind it). Then choose one finger (a lot of people find the third finger to be easiest) and place it on the fingerboard as you normally would.
Once placed, release the side of the hand, and then release the thumb, until you are simply hanging from your curved finger. You’ll notice the feeling of weight in your fingertip, but there is also mobility in the rest of the hand. Explore how it feels to rock each finger back and forth in this hanging position, making the fingers as loose as possible but still keeping the fingertip in place.
4. Understand the Motion
There are two main kinds of vibrato that I will address here: wrist/hand vibrato, in which the hand waves from the wrist, and arm vibrato, in which the entire arm vibrates. (Arguably there is a third, “finger vibrato,” but this is more of a refinement of how flexible the finger is when touching the string, and it happens in conjunction with a well-developed arm or wrist vibrato.)
At rest, the left wrist should be relatively straight, not collapsed inward or pushing outward. This allows for a straight line from the back of the hand, all the way down to the elbow.
In arm vibrato, this entire unit moves together, with the finger “hanging” from the string, causing the finger to oscillate.
For wrist vibrato, the hand moves from the wrist joint, causing a similar kind of oscillation in the finger. Isolating the motion required for the vibrato impulse in wrist vibrato can be tricky. It can be helpful to start with some exercises away from the violin: for example, waving at yourself, making sure that your hand is moving from the wrist, keeping the rest of the arm still. (Sometimes people will shake their arm to make their hand flop back and forth—this won’t help! The hand must be active, not passive.)
To refine and speed up that motion, try shaking a box of Tic-Tacs or an egg shaker. Use a metronome and try two shakes to a beat, three, four, etc. Or you can shake to increasingly fast syllables. For young students, I like to say “pizza, pizza,” then “pepperoni, pepperoni” and then quite fast, “buy a pizza, buy a pizza!”
Move to the fingerboard, and try rocking the hand while keeping the thumb in place. Once that motion is working, use the same wrist-initiated motion to slide a finger up and down a string. You can put a little piece of felt under a finger and practice “polishing” a string.
When doing any of these exercises, it’s important to remain aware that the motion is coming from the wrist, as it’s certainly possible to slide your fingers around without the motion originating through the wrist.
When you have removed all impediments to vibrato, then it’s time to speed it up and refine it. Be sure you are vibrating under the pitch, i.e. to the pitch and below it. Once you gain control over the motion and positioning, practice various speeds of vibrato, using the metronome to accelerate. Simply practice one finger at a time. As you count each oscillation, listen for only a small difference in pitch.
Students sometimes try to alter the pitch an entire half-step just to make this exercise sound more palatable to the ear, but then it becomes something that is not a realistic simulation of vibrato. The fingers should not slide around—they should only rock to the pitch and slightly below.
Practice narrow vibrato and wide vibrato at various speeds, and also practice speeding up and slowing down the vibrato all in the same bow stroke.
Vibrato is a long-term project, requiring the refinement of the left-hand position as well as the coordination of some unusual fine-motor skills. Once the vibrato mechanism is working, a violinist can then work toward developing different speeds and widths of vibrato that can be used in various musical situations.