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Developing Violin Vibrato

Samantha George | December 2012

    Vibrato is an essential component of a beautiful violin tone. Vibrato adds warmth to the sound and emulates a singing voice. The motion takes time to learn and students can become frustrated in their pursuit of a spinning vibrato. A basic vibrato often takes about three months to acquire. The following exercises help create a vibrato as well as refine an existing vibrato.

    Students quickly understand the feel of a loose and easy vibrato when they work on a shaking motion without the violin. Create a shaker that has a similar width as the violin fingerboard. Economical shakers can be made out of baggies filled with paper clips or rice. Practice shaking the baggie while holding it in a violin-playing position. Practice shaking with different rhythms and patterns. Students should shake the baggie in the syllables and accents of their names or other fun phrases. Shake slowly to work on fluidity and flexibility and then shake quickly to isolate the impulse that initiates an exciting vibrato.

    Give each student a tissue or a paper towel and have them polish the fingerboard with it while in playing position. Practice polishing with different fingers and combinations of fingers. Save the fourth finger for later stages of vibrato development.
    Practice fast glissandi up and down the fingerboard. By watching students play a glissando, you can identify the natural way their hands and arms move. Some students gravitate toward a hand (sometimes called a wrist) vibrato, while others demonstrate a natural arm vibrato. If the hand initiates the vibrato motion, it is a hand vibrato. If the left arm starts the motion, it is an arm vibrato. Many professional violinists use a vibrato that involves the hand and arm simultaneously. Encourage students to embrace and refine their natural motion to avoid tension and frustration.
    The polishing motion may cause  violin instability. Make sure students have shoulder rests or pads that allow them to hold the violin securely. Hold the scroll for students who struggle to stabilize the violin. Another option is to place a towel against the wall and have a student lean the scroll against it. While working on the polishing motion, make sure the left shoulder is relaxed and low. The left thumb should be loose and mobile.

Finger joint exercises


    Have students rest the left hand on a table, with the palm down and the fingertips touching the surface. Practice bending the fingertip joint in and out. The finger joint should not be forced, nor should the joint lock. Work on the fingertip joint flexibility with different speeds and rhythms. Make sure that the fingertip joint is able to move without the entire hand traveling with it. This is an exercise that students can practice just about anywhere and greatly affects how quickly and well they learn vibrato. The best vibratos come from those who have the most flexibility in the fingertip joint.

Knocking and tapping
    While holding the instrument in playing position, practice the up and down motions of vibrato without using the bow. Have students knock on the E-string peg with the index finger. Then have them tap the A string with the third finger, in third position or above. Start with four knocks followed by four taps. Gradually work toward one knock followed by one tap. At a fast pace, this should look quite a bit like a real violin vibrato.

    When students are ready to try vibrato on the violin, start in third position where the left arm is not fully extended. Have them experiment with rocking a finger back and forth. Remind students about fingertip flexibility and move the hand for them until they get a feel for the back and forth motion.
    Start with the second and third fingers, which are usually the easiest to vibrate. Save the fourth finger for last. Place the metronome at q = 60 and try to complete one vibrato oscillation per click. Recent vibrato studies indicate that most professional violinists vibrate below and above the pitch. The goal is to reach the center of the pitch right on the beat. Increase oscillation speeds with the metronome, practicing two, three, and four oscillations per second. Five oscillations per second are considered ideal, although professional vibratos have been measured between four and seven oscillations per second.

Incorporating the New Motion
    After a vibrato motion has been created, experiment with it. Start by adding vibrato into pieces that students already know. Have them vibrate only the third fingers. Then vibrate only the second and third fingers. Isolating and separating the fingers in this way teaches awareness of when they are vibrating and when they are not. It will also teach students to control their vibrato. Work on vibrating on all of the down bows or all of the up bows. Since vibrato is easiest to initiate when playing big, accented bows, allow students to use a separate bow on every note. Add accents as needed. Record students playing an easy piece without vibrato and then with vibrato so they can hear the difference in their sound and expression.

Vibrato Problems
    Although some students will be able to vibrate easily after only a few months of shaking and polishing, others will feel tense or stuck. Playing with vibrato requires more finger weight than playing without, so students often slam down fingers or press too hard. Practice vibrating on natural harmonics or with a finger that hovers just above the string to get a feel for how lightly the left hand can play.
    For students who struggle to vibrate while holding the violin in playing position, work on the motion while holding the violin like a guitar. While they are vibrating guitar-style, gently hold their violin and move it around. See if they can continue the motion while the violin is moved from side to side or up and down. Gradually move the violin back into a traditional playing position.
    Students may become tired while working on vibrato. Practice playing one phrase with vibrato followed by one phrase without. Move their hands for them occasionally to encourage effortlessness. Have students release their hands from the fingerboard and practice waving to someone sitting behind them while they are holding the violin.

Fourth Finger
    The fourth finger is the most difficult to vibrate. Students may need to rebalance their hand or incorporate more arm motion into the vibrato. Some players find it helpful to place the third finger right next to the pinky to offer extra support. Encourage experimentation but make sure that the hand retains an organized playing position.

Speed and Continuity
    Vibrato speed can be developed by working on vibrato bursts. While holding a whole note, initiate an energetic vibrato on beats one and three. Let the vibrato release on beats two and four. To work on continuity, practice tapping the fingerboard while vibrating. Begin by holding a long vibrated note with the first finger. As the vibrato motion spins, try to tap another string with the second finger while maintaining the primary vibrato motion. Practice with every finger combination. This exercise will also help students who are struggling to vibrate on a double stop. When playing a double stop or chord, focus on the finger that has the strongest vibrato. Let the other fingers ride along with the more powerful finger.
    Encourage your students to use vibrato as much as possible but make sure that their playing position is healthy and that the left hand is relaxed. Save time every day to work on fingertip flexibility exercises. Have students watch videos of professional violinists and singers and air vibrato along with the professionals. Identify the different types of vibrato that professional musicians use: hand, arm, fast, slow, wide, or narrow. Although vibrato takes time to learn, and each violinist’s motion is slightly different, students will love the way they sound when they develop a natural easy motion.