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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Teaching Tip: Using “Italian” Vibrato for Speed and Control

I have written several posts previously related to vibrato. Here is another exercise to help a student build up speed and control. I call it “Italian” vibrato because of the lyrics, but the lyrics could just as easily relate to something else. For now, my Italian lyrics are easy for me to remember.

Here are the previous posts I wrote concerning how to teach vibrato:

Once a student can perform the vibrato motions, it is time to build up speed, and with the building up of speed the student gains greater control over the vibrato. Some caveats before I begin.

1. Start on the A String. I generally practice vibrato exercises on the A string for several reasons. I think the hand placement and finger usage on the A string are less stressful all around than practicing on the D and G strings, although those can be future exercises. But, for learning how to do this exercise, I anticipate that the student will be spending a great deal of time on this exercise on a daily basis, and therefore I would wish the student to perform the exercise on the least stressful string area. The E string is fraught with difficulties in that it requires extreme vigilance that the left hand remains at the correct height, and I find that students may not be as vigilant about this matter as I am. So, I ask my students to stick to the A string.

2. Begin with the Ring Finger. I ask my students to begin with the ring (third) finger. As I stated in previous posts, for some reason this finger seems to be the “smartest” concerning vibrato movements. Perhaps it is because it has the best potential arch and springiness in the joints and finger shape. The middle or second finger might also be good since it is a strong finger, but sometimes students have difficulty letting the middle finger joints be loose and easy enough for good vibrato motion. The index finger in its “square” position is a tense posture, and generally most students have difficulty doing vibrato with this finger for this reason. The pinkie finger is the weakest finger, so I save this finger for later, sometimes encouraging the student to try vibrating with both the ring and pinkie fingers together. Sometimes this works for me and sometimes not.

3. Perform Vibrato Without Assistance. The student must be able to perform the vibrato motion in first position without any crutches or external aids. If the student must still rest the wrist against the violin shoulder and perform the vibrato movement in fourth position, then the student is not ready to reap the benefits of this exercise. Once the student is able to perform vibrato, even slowly, in first position, then I think it is time to introduce this exercise.

4. Use Two-Tone Vibrato. The vibrato movement should produce the sound of two pitches, or two-tone vibrato as Ed Kreitman (Teaching from the Balance Point) calls it. Therefore, if I vibrate the note D in first position on the A string, my vibrato should alternate between D and the C# that is one-half step below D. One good reason for using the following exercise is to help the student to maintain the full range of vibrato motion between the two tones. Because the exercise starts with the slowest speed, the teacher and student can monitor whether the student is correctly performing the exercise.

5. Watch out for Things that Will Hinder Vibrato. I watch for certain things in addition to listening for the correct vibrato width of two tones:
  • Squeezing Violin Hold: I look to see if the student is squeezing the violin neck in any way between the left hand thumb and fingers. If there is any squeezing, it is usually between the base of the index finger and the thumb. I ask the students to “unhook” the hand or index finger.
  • Sagging Left Hand: I look to see if the student’s hand maintains the correct height above the fingerboard. Sometimes students attempt to shift their left hand musculature so that more of the hand is underneath the fingerboard rather than to the E string side of it. This left hand placement will cause the student to use more hand muscles rather than finger and skeleton. This placement will also interfere with tone production, causing more of a fuzzy tone as the finger plays with more pad. It will also cause problems later when the student attempts double stops.
Besides, it is easier to vibrate correctly if the hand is at the correct height, which is usually that the base of the left pinkie or the “life line” lines up with the E string level. The fingers will then play more on the “thumb-side corners” of the fingers, which lends more pointedness to the sound because the finger’s skeleton helps to pinpoint the pitch. This can be a problem for students with large left hands, as they can still reach the correct note pitches even though the left hand position is incorrect.
  • Improper Thumb Placement: I look to see if the student’s left thumb remains in the correct place. Some students when learning vibrato will try to move their violin neck so that it rests in the shelf at the base of the left thumb. This is more subtle than a student who makes a “pizza hand,” which is what we call it when a student holds the left hand so that the violin neck rests on the palm of the hand or on the thumb “pillow,” which is the fleshy part below the thumb joints. This posture resembles the way a waiter carries a pizza tray in a restaurant. I look carefully to make sure that the student is not making an almost invisible "shelf" at the base of the thumb in order to hold the violin. I want to be sure that the student maintains the proper hand balance during vibrato movements.
  • Holes in the Violin Hold: I look to see that there are no holes between the left index finger and the neck of the violin. Although we do not want the student to squeeze the neck, we also do not want the student to overcompensate for squeezing by opening up a hole between the base of the left index finger and the violin neck. In general, we touch the violin in three places with the left hand: thumb, base of the index finger, and finger tip. However, when executing vibrato, we must be sure that there is enough “space” between the base of the index finger and the violin neck that the vibrato motion can occur.
My mother used to give me butterfly kisses at bedtime. She would place her eye close to my cheek and she would flutter her eyelashes. This would create the sensation that a butterfly was kissing my cheek with its wings. I often demonstrate this butterfly kiss sensation with my fingertips on a student’s check or arm to show them how lightly the index finger should be touching the violin. The hand should be free to brush along the violin neck with a space of about the width of an onion skin between the neck and the hand.
  • Hyper drive Speed: I watch that the student does not go into hyper drive mode. This term stems from my recollection of a Hans Solo demonstration on the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, episode 4 (which was the original first episode). When Hans Solo banged the frame of the star ship and sent it into hyper drive, the ship went so fast that the ship’s passengers could not see the star system outside the window. When a student reaches this critical speed, I too cannot see or hear the vibrato because it is too fast. Usually the vibrato is also too narrow, which is another reason why it is fast. Or is this the chicken and the egg question? Whichever, speed and narrowness seem to go together. Refer back to my fourth caveat above concerning the two-tone vibrato.
If a student comes to me with hyper drive vibrato, I have to teach the student how to stop it. This is not an easy task. Perhaps I will devote a post to this topic. Let me make one observation, and that is that this affliction seems to hit those students with more phlegmatic tendencies. Perhaps it is because this personality tends to “let” vibrato happen rather than to work to control it. I also find that students in general mistake how fast vibrato should be. I usually ask students to work up to “40 mph vibrato” and then work on “60 mph vibrato” when we are doing vibrato accents or vibrato during martelé bow strokes. I have to show students how fast 40 mph vibrato is. If a student is playing a two-tone vibrato correctly, then generally I find that the vibrato speed is also correct.
  • Tight Finger Joints: I look to see that the student is actually loose in the finger knuckle joints. If the student is harboring any tension, I will see it when the student’s finger does not extend and loosen with the vibrato motion. If the student’s finger retains the same shape throughout the vibrato motion, then the student is usually harboring unnecessary and inhibiting tension.
  • Unnecessary Tension: I ask permission to touch the student during the student’s execution of vibrato motions. I can often tell in an instant by touching the student whether and where the student might be harboring tension or exerting too much effort. The muscles in the hand and finger should be soft and pliable. If anything feels like a rock, then it is a place that needs to be addressed for loosening undue effort.
Whew! That’s a lot for a teacher to watch out for let alone a student. Now you can understand why students tend to be less vigilant about the process. There are a lot of things to think about in addition to the difficulties of executing vibrato in the first place.

So here is the exercise. Basically we play one note with different rhythms to a metronome tempo of 60 (the speed of a second hand on a clock). I start students off with the slowest level, and we build up from there to the point that the vibrato stops short of hyper drive vibrato or that the student has major difficulty executing the movement. Note in the exercise below that I have written two notes: D and C#. The D note is the main note, and the C# is the vibrato note a half tone below. I do not ask my students to change fingers; instead I ask that the vibrato on the third finger D be done so that a C# is heard. Here is the exercise in its entirety:

Here are the basic words and rhythms I use in the order that I teach them:



"Black Olive, Green Olive"

"I Love Pizza, I Love Pizza"

I do not know where I found the words for this exercise. I have used the rhythms for myself without words, but I find that students have an easier time recalling the exercise with these Italian words.

Of course, after practicing the exercise with the ring finger on the A string, we can add the other fingers and strings as well. I find this exercise to be quite useful for students of all ages, particularly any older students or professionals who need to warm up and loosen up joints and muscles.

Let me know about your favorite vibrato speed and control exercises.


  1. Great tips, Paula! Thanks for sharing!

  2. That is very helpful - thanks. I have struggled with learning to play with some vibrato and this will help I know.

    1. I have seen many students struggle, and many times it is because the student is trying to hold the instrument with the hand in some way or the hand is squeezing the neck. These little things are tricky to see and find, but once these tension spots are released by the student's holding the instrument with the chin, the vibrato also loosens up. Sometimes too, students try to maintain the finger curvature, and they lock the knuckles tight so that they cannot loosen. Vibrato should be done with a very, very relaxed hand and fingers.

      Thanks for leaving a comment!

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