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Monday, May 23, 2011

What is Vibrato? -- Preparing for the Big Event

What is Vibrato? Basically, vibrato is an oscillation of pitch. Precisely, vibrato is the oscillation of a pitch from the main note to a note that is 1/2 step lower, e.g., vibrato on the note D will be an even oscillation between D and C#. I have been involved in discussions about whether the vibrato should go to a higher pitch, but in my experience, if the vibrato goes to a point higher than the original pitch, the note will consequently sound sharp to the listener. The teacher must also take care to monitor the student's vibrato to make sure that the oscillation is an oscillation between pitches and is not a movement across the strings (resulting in no pitch change) or in a circle (resulting in crazy pitches).

Three aspects of vibrato are important: width, speed, and evenness. At this beginning stage, all we can do is introduce the student and parent to the concept of vibrato. Vibrato involves some specialized movements of the student's muscles, and these muscles must be made ready before the student can successfully produce vibrato.

First I provide the student with a series of activities to help me determine whether the student is holding the violin correctly between the chin and the shoulder. The student should not be using the left hand or fingers to hold up the violin. To check that the student's posture is correct, I ask the student to perform these exercises:
  • peg knocking
  • waves
  • silent slides up and down the string with the ring finger
  • "sirens," where we use our bow to sound out the slides up and down the string. Sometimes we speed it up so that it sounds like the sirens used on ambulances in England

At this point, I check the student's equipment. In some cases, I might make adjustments to the student's shoulder rest to help the student maintain good contact with the violin through the shoulder and chin rests. Sometimes a student needs the shoulder rest adjusted to allow for more height in the front of the shoulder and less in the back to enable the student to hold the instrument a little flatter. This slight adjustment may also correct improper left hand position or the case of the left pinkie curling into the hand when the student is playing on the left ring finger.

Another important issue is the left hand posture. If the student is in the habit of letting their left hand fall under the fingerboard too much, then this student will have difficulty learning how to vibrate properly. Instead this student might be using muscles in the palm rather than in the fingers. Since I am usually teaching vibrato at the beginning of book 2, and book 2 is the point in the Suzuki repertoire when students start trying to let their left hands drop under the fingerboard, this is a crucial teaching point for me. I watch the student's left hand posture like a hawk from Minuet 2 onwards.

neutral relaxed starting position
backwards fall; relaxation
Muscle preparation exercises include holding a shaker egg or a film canister filled with a few beans in the left hand and letting the hand fall backwards and return forwards in a rhythmic motion. I am careful to make sure that the student does not move the hand too far forward to produce tension. See the illustrations for examples of this exercise, including the neutral relaxed starting position, the relaxed backwards "fall," and the improper forward motion.

improper forwards motion; produces tension

I generally talk with my student about the various kinds of vibrato: hand/wrist, arm, and finger. I prefer to teach the hand/wrist vibrato first, although there are some students who find the arm vibrato easier to learn. I have encountered so many students who develop tendinitis issues in their left elbows or wrists, and I wonder if using arm vibrato exclusively may be contributing to this problem. I prefer to follow the system suggested by Ed Kreitman in his book "Teaching from the Balance Point." He suggests using hand/wrist vibrato in lower positions and arm vibrato in the upper level positions.

I talk with my students about how vibrato is produced. Most, if not all, students assume that the finger is shaking, because that is what it looks like from the students' perspectives. I ask my students to imagine that they have a pony tail. Then I ask each student to shake the pony tail. Then I ask the student to shake the pony tail but not move the head or use the hands. The student realizes that it cannot be done. The head moves the pony tail. From this realization I move to compare the pony tail and head motion with the vibrato motion. The finger is the pony tail and the hand is the head that moves the pony tail. The vibrato motor is in the back of the hand, somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd finger knuckles.

I also explain that we will be teaching just one finger how to do vibrato, because the left ring finger is absolutely the most brilliant finger at learning how to vibrate. The ring finger will learn how to do it first; then this finger will teach all the other fingers how to vibrate too.

A crucial exercise I find is to do some "air bow" vibrato. In this exercise, we use only the bow. I ask the student to pretend to be playing with vibrato as the bow moves slowly across the violin "strings." At first the student is likely to either move the bow at the same speed as the "vibrato" or to slow down the vibrato to match the slow bow speed. Here are two videos to show what I mean.

One additional exercise is the dust rag vibrato. In this exercise, I drape a cloth or tissue over the student's fingerboard. The student uses the ring finger to "dust" the fingerboard with the cloth. At this point I usually hold up a mirror to show the student what the finished vibrato will likely look like.

My student may work on these exercises for quite some time before we move to the next stage of actually learning vibrato. I have taught vibrato to one high school sophomore at a university summer strings camp, and she worked so hard at the exercises and the dust rag exercise in particular, that she actually learned vibrato in that week of camp.

Next step is to teach vibrato! Stay tuned for my post "Vibrato: Pig Noses and Wibble Wobbles."


  1. My son's Teacher said to bring a bottle filled with beans (shaker) for next lesson to do preparatory vibrato exercises . Only after coming home did I realise I forgot to ask her what *size* of bottle. Thanks to the internet, I found photos of such a shaker on your Blog! ;D Now to go search around the house for little containers and to compare with my son's palm size. LOL!

    1. You could also use little boxes of Tic Tacs. These are smaller and fit a child's hand nicely. They make a great rattling sound too.

    2. Tic tac box sounds good... Except I've to go buy one and throw the sweets away. Haha.