This article was published in ARCO the magazine for ESTA (European String Teacher’s Association) in the Autumn of 2015
“How do you teach vibrato?” is probably the most commonly recurring question about violin technique. Perhaps the reason that it is seen as one of the harder skills to master is because it is focused on the left arm and hand – the arm that is already “backwards” for violinists. The position can feel very foreign and tense anyway without adding the “shake” of vibrato. But why should it be so hard? Someone impersonating a violinist and playing air violin adopts a passionate facial expression and shakes the left arm and wrist in mock vibrato with perfect ease. Why is it harder when a violin is inserted? The answer of course is that it should not be. Relaxation is as much a state of mind as a condition of the body.
That does not mean that there are not many things that need to be considered.
Vibrato is often divided into arm and wrist vibrato. An important thing to remember is that doing a wrist vibrato does not mean that the rest of the arm is locked, and arm vibrato must also be done with a freely movable wrist. . The great teacher Ivan Galamian also talked about finger vibrato. I think what Galamian is getting at here, is that the finger joints must also be free to move whenever one plays with vibrato (and all the time, for that matter!). In this way one can be said to be employing a finger vibrato.
To perform vibrato effectively, one needs to have complete freedom of movement. Yehudi Menuhin talked about developing a swinging pendulum movement of the elbow as part of the process of using arm vibrato. It is important often to check that the arm is free. Menuhin also described arm vibrato as like “smacking a wall with the back of a hand”. I tell my younger students to imagine approaching a giant’s castle with a great wooden door. In order to be heard inside when one knocks one really needs to use the back of the hand and whole arm keep it all really free. This is quite like the air violin impressions we see!
Simon Fischer demonstrates excellent exercises for developing vibrato in his “Basics” book. Particularly useful for students to try are the shifting exercises,(on page 278) where a single finger glides down or away across the string in ever decreasing distances but always returning to the starting note. I always get my students to imagine this glide to feel like ice skating: the arm moves, the thumb maintains the lightest contact with the neck of the violin as possible; the finger the same with the string. When trying these, a student should remember that total accuracy is not required. It is the feel and the movement only that is important. Fischer specifies trying it within a dotted rhythm (the starting note is the longer), which gives a good aural centre and a stronger sense of control. The final stage is no longer allowing the finger to release the string. Everything should feel the same, the arm movement continues, but there is no more skating, merely rocking.
This same exercise can be tried too with more of a wrist vibrato. The only change is that the arm is kept stiller, but never fixed while the hand moves from the wrist.
If it is difficult to grasp how the skating should feel, there is a lovely exercise I use with my students which helps, and it also develops real freedom of joints in the fingers. Play a D on the A string in first position with the third finger, then release the string from the finger board to play the harmonic there. This is where the ice skating gliding can be done. Once this can be done consistently effortlessly then the same freedom can be found without releasing the string from contact with the fingerboard with the least amount of effort. At this point a free vibrato is possible. This can be repeated on the same note using the other fingers.
A student can create extra problems by trying to vibrate. I always ask my students “what makes the sound?” The answer is the bow across the string. Tension in attempting vibrato can often transfer to the right arm leading to stiffer bowing. When a student tries to vibrate too hard, the movement can lead to a feeling that the violin might fall, so it is then gripped tighter by the neck and shoulder. A student can sense this, and does not enjoy the sound. This in turn creates negative feelings, more tensions and it gets worse. A lot of my vibrato teaching involves no vibrato! I try to get my students to play as expressively as possible with just the bow as the tool. This creates more freedom in the right arm and reminds them what mentally and physically how easy and colourful the bowing can be on its own. Then, like a pianist, I will do hands separate practice for the vibrato. The bow goes in the case and the student can concentrate on the sound in their head and the feeling of freedom in the left arm as they move and vibrate. Then it can be tried together. If this stage is unsuccessful, the student can be encouraged to think it has not been a failure at all. Can the bow be freer to help the vibrato? Little by little it will be improving.
I often find students are able to vibrate very successfully on individual notes, but struggle to connect them. Either the vibrato stops before moving note, or it can speed up and tighten as the next note is prepared becoming more of a spasm. The results mean that phrases do not really sing. Some students let themselves off the hook by not vibrating on certain fingers (usually the 4th and less often the 1st finger) and they need to be aware of this by listening to themselves. Again, the student needs to release to be successful. I encourage them not to think about vibrato at all but rather always to play with what I call an “alive left hand”. The results of this are often startling to the student. The thought process is different, the hand and fingers are being allowed to move without the effort of attempting the difficult vibrato. They can also hear a more ringing sound. This feeling of an alive left hand can help to give the feeling of continuous vibrato, as the hand is always able to move.
It is always worth remembering that vibrato on string instruments began as an attempt to imitate the most physically natural way to make music: singing. I love teaching violinists who also sing. Singing helps string playing a great deal. It helps us understand breathing and phrasing. Our bows are our breath. It also, I think helps us understand about how we can create sound and by extension how we can improve our vibrato. When one is in the presence of a great singer it always amazes me how resonant the whole body is. The sound seems to be coming from everywhere and travelling 360 degrees. One of my great violin teachers, Michael Bochmann MBE, who teaches at Trinity Laban, encouraged me to think about this with reference to vibrato. A singer creates the sound from the diaphragm and the sound vibrates from there through the whole body providing there are no blockages. Why should it not also be true for violinists? I now teach that vibrato can begin from the lower back and one can track the freedom all the way up into the shoulder, down the arm into the fingers. The resonance possible is incredible.