10 Exercises for Vibrato Control

Patricia George | October 2009

     Is your vibrato controlling you or are you controlling your vibrato? This is a question that every flutist should ask each time they play the flute. Unfortunately, the question may be yes one day and no the next. Vibrato  requires practice several times a week to maintain a high level of artistry. 

    Here are 10 exercises that I use myself and teach to my students. To get the best results, practice them daily until you can control the vibrato well on each metronome marking between 60 and 80. After you gain basic control, practice the exercises two to three times a week to keep in shape. 

1. Headjoint Only
    Great vibrato begins as the air is exhaled through the vocal folds. To find this location in your neck, pant several times. When you pant, the vocal folds separate on both the inhale and the exhale. This separation is what many teachers in the past have referred to as opening your throat. However, when I ask students what it means to open their throat, they incorrectly point to the base of the neck or to the inside of the the oral cavity while saying ah. This shows me that they do not know where the throat is located. 
    In my teaching I like to say: “Separate your vocal folds.” If you have ever panted in frigid temperatures, you might recall the pain and dryness that you felt in this area. This is also the area that you feel when swallowing. These are the vocal folds that we use when practicing vibrato. 
    On the headjoint play several notes using a very staccato breath attack – hah – no tongue, just air. Once you can make three identical notes followed by a rest, repeat the gesture slurred. Do not use your tongue to start the note at this phase of practice. To further develop this initial vibrato control, alternate the staccato hahs with the slurred hahs for several minutes. Be sure that the quality of the staccato is exact and perfect. There should be space between each note when playing staccato and no movement in the upper chest, lower abdomen, or jaw. To vibrate we only move air through the vocal folds. If you have a tendency to vibrate too slowly, then rather than using the hah placement, use hee. Likewise, if your vibrato is too fast, then move the placement from a hee toward a hah  

2. Slurred Headjoint Octaves
    Once you have mastered the first exercise, play octaves on the headjoint. This not only improves your vibrato technique, but it will also develop your embouchure. Play several sets of two vibrato cycles on a low note slurred to two cycles on the octave above. Be sure to change from the low note to the high note on the same place of the vibrato cycle each time. There should be no hesitation in the vibrato when you slur to the upper note. Vibrato should be continuous. Visualize a violinist’s hand as he moves from one note to the next without stopping the vibrato motion. 
    You may also play this exercise while covering the open end of the headjoint with the palm of your right hand. In this position you can get three pitches. Practice slurring vibrato from one pitch to the next up and down.  

3. Major and Minor Scales
    Many flutists have difficulty playing single notes in orchestra, band, and chamber music. The problem stems from not being able to initiate the vibrato immediately. The following exercise will solve this problem. 
    With a C-major scale in 2/4 time, play two vibrato pulses on the first beat and one vibrato pulse on the second beat and so on for each note of the scale up and down. In the key of F major, play three pulses on the first beat and one vibrato pulse on the second beat, up and down the scale. In the key of B-flat major, place four vibrato pulses on the first beat and one vibrato on the second beat. 
    Repeat this sequence of 2, 3, or 4 pulses for the other major or minor scales. Over a two week period, practice this exercise on each tick of the metronome between 60 and 80. 
    The vibrato should start and finish on the high side of the pitch. When the vibrato ends by going to the flat side of the pitch, phrases sound flat and dull.
    A side benefit of this exercise is that slow practice helps students play each note with the same color or timbre. When you add a tuner to this exercise, overall intonation improves as well.
4. Another Round of Scales
    If you played major scales in the previous exercise, use minor scales for this one. Play the entire scale slurred while placing 2, 3, or 4 pulses on each note of the scale. This will help develop a continuous vibrato. Be sure to change the vibrato cycle in the same place each time, and there should be no delay in starting the vibrato. The beginning of the vibrato must be on the beat. 

5. Vibrato Variety
    No one wants to listen to a flutist who plays with the same vibrato speed on each note. Vibrato speed is dictated by the period (Baroque, Classic, Romantic, or Contemporary) and even more by the composer’s style. To use vibrato sensitively, practice varying the number of cycles on each beat. Try these patterns on some high and low notes and on harmonics: 02320, 0234320, 023454320, and 023456
54320. Set the metronome between 60 and 80. 
    To control vibrato, learn to turn it off and on. I either use a five-note scale pattern (D, E, F#, G, A, G, F#, E, D) or #7 in the 17 Daily Exercises by Taffanel & Gaubert for this off & on exercise. On the first note, use no vibrato; on the second note use either 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 pulses. Repeat this sequence of no vibrato followed by vibrato throughout the five note pattern or #7. Then do the opposite. Use vibrato on the first note and no vibrato on the second note.
7. Vibrato on Harmonics
    Practicing vibrato exercises on harmonics always produces great benefits.  When vibrating on a harmonic, you feel some resistance, which makes establishing the feeling of good vibrato use a bit more difficult. After you have practiced vibrato on a harmonic note, a regular note feels easy and has a great flow.
    Use the notes of a five-note pattern, up and down, fingering a low D, which will sound a second-octave A, play between 2 and 6 pulses. This exercise also strengthens the embouchure.

 You can repeat this exercise using E, F, and F# as the fundamental. Any higher and it is not possible to produce all the notes at the third partial. 

8. Vibrato and Arpeggios
Joseph Mariano, the legendary Eastman School of Music flute professor, taught me that you can play low notes with a high embouchure placement, but not high notes with a low embouchure placement. Using this idea, practice slurred arpeggios from the top down and back up with counted vibrato. Use the metronome and the tuner while placing 2, 3, or 4 cycles on each pitch.

9. Vibrato and Seventh Chords
    There are five seventh chord arpeggios that flutists should practice and know well. They are M/M (a major triad with an added Major seventh), M/m (a major triad with an added minor seventh, m/m (a minor triad with an added minor seventh), d/m (a diminished triad with an added minor seventh), and d/d (a diminished triad with an added diminished seventh).

    With the exception of the M/M, all of these seventh chords are used in #12 and #13 in Taffanel & Gaubert’s. When first learning the notes, play 2, 3, 4, or 5 vibrato cycles per pitch as the exercise is written. As you become more familiar with the notes, use Mariano’s idea of starting the arpeggios at the top, descending, and returning to the top again – all with counted vibrato. 

10. Beginning Books & Hymnals
    Recycle beginning books for your practice. Most beginning books make excellent tone, vibrato, and embou-chure studies. If an exercise is written in simple time (2/4, 3/4, 4/4), practice with four pulses per quarter, two per eighth note, and six per dotted quarter. If the exercise is written in compound time (3/8, 6/8,  9/8, 12/8 ), use six pulses per dotted quarter note, two per eighth, and four per quarter note. Look for places where you may use the written note as the fundamental and then play vibrato at the third partial. These ideas also work well when using hymnals.
Julius Baker and Vibrato
    My first lesson assignment from Julius Baker in 1963 was to memorize all the slow movements of the Bach Sonatas. I was to play the movement through with counted vibrato while using the metronome. We tend to use less vibrato today in Baroque music because of a better awareness of Baroque performance practices. Then flutists produced vibrato with the fingers, by repeatedly hitting the side of a finger hole to vary the pitch. This technique was called flattement. That said, working on the Bach sonatas in that way helped me learn to play with a continuous vibrato and change from one note to the next without stopping the vibrato. It also taught me to play uniform vibrato cycles and think about the appropriate size and speed of a cycle in relationship to the style period. 

Filling in the Beat 
    Continuous vibrato and vibrato speed have a lot to do with the subdivision of the beat. Students who cannot count well, subdivide the beat, or understand the difference between simple and compound time, often have difficulty developing a usable vibrato. If you have a student with this problem, you must step back and teach them to feel the subdivision of the beat. 
    Once again, use a beginning book or hymnal as your source material. On each beat have the student fill in the quarter by playing four sixteenths using the single tongue (T). Repeat using the back syllable (K), then the double tongue (TK), then the throat staccato (HAH) and finally filling in with counted vibrato. Setting the internal rhythm first helps students understand the rhythm of vibrato speed. 

Vibrato Opinions
    There is debate among players as to whether flutists should use a continuous vibrato when they perform. Since the Classical era of the Stamitz musical dynasty, composers have often doubled either flute or the oboe with the violin line. Acoustically this helps bring the tuning of 8-14 violins into one center. For this reason, I suggest that you follow the lead of the concertmaster in an orchestral setting. If he vibrates, you should also. 
    However, if you are playing second flute in an orchestra or wind ensemble, you should follow the lead of the first player. In chamber and solo settings, there is much more leeway to paint with your vibrato. The bottom line is that the situation within which you are performing should dictate whether to play with vibrato and how much to use.
    Some flutists question whether we should teach vibrato at all. Many European flutists have felt that vibrato is akin to the soul, and when you have a soul in your flute playing, you will develop your vibrato. If I had taken this approach, I would still have a lot of students who could not vibrate.  The first teacher I had who worked on a controlled vibrato was Frances Blaisdell. She used exercises based on the teachings of Georges Barerre. These ideas are the basis for the exercises that I have developed today. 
    While it may seem obvious to many that we should be able to execute an even vibrato over a long period of time, this is a foreign subject to many students. The ability to do so improves our legato playing, enhances the forward flow of our phrasing, and provides a more beautiful sound. 
    I have had excellent success in teaching continuous vibrato with the following exercise. Have the student sit in a chair with his legs extended in front of him. The legs are extended to ensure that the student is breathing well and simply. On a low D, the student plays 16 counts of four vibratos per beat, pianissimo. Then rest two counts in order to get a good organized breath and repeat the 16 counts of low D vibrato at least 4 more times. The student will have vibrated for over a minute. Practicing a minute of vibrato several times a week will help students develop the vibrato control they will need to play musically.