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The Art and Science of Expressive Violin Vibrato

Tong Keat has an M.A. in Violin Performance from MTSU in Tennessee. He is the founder of Just Violin, a free resources site for violinists.

Illustration of playing the violin

Illustration of playing the violin

The Art of Vibrato

Vibrato on the violin involves oscillating the fingers of the left hand between the main pitch and a slightly flatter side of the same note. The action of vibrato can be initiated from the arm, hand, or fingers.

There are many teachings out there that describe each type of vibrato, and how to practice them. However, in Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, Ivan Galamian said that it is very rare to see only one form of vibrato in an artistic performance, as “each vibrato type will normally bring about an interplay of the neighboring muscles and introduce elements of the other two types.”

Mastering the art of vibrato can enhance one’s playing. The human-voice-like quality of the violin is very versatile in expressing various human emotions and portraying different moods. A good player can adapt his vibrato to the color and intensity of the sound that he wishes to hear. For well-trained violinists, the action of vibrato is mostly subconscious and spontaneous.

The Science of Vibrato

From a technical perspective, what gives the vibrato its various shadings and intensities are the speed and the width of the oscillation. In general, loud passages call for fast and wide vibrato, while gentle passages call for slow and narrow vibrato. However, this cannot be the rule for every piece of music as musicians need to take into consideration the style of the music as well.

At the learning stages, students should strive for a consistent vibrato. The oscillations should not stop or get affected when changing fingers. The new finger should be able to continue the vibrato with the same speed and width. This can only be done when the left hand is relaxed and balanced. However, in an artistic performance, the vibrato does not need to stay consistent but may vary its speed and width within a phrase or a note, according to the interpretation of the performer. For example, a fast-to-slow vibrato is very useful for accented notes or pieces that are very lively.

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Statue of a violinist

Statue of a violinist

A Step-by-Step Guide to Playing Vibrato

There are many ways to develop vibrato, and there is no such thing as the best way to learn vibrato. For students, it is important to find a good teacher that can guide them. The following instructions are mainly for the reference of those who seek additional information.

  1. To play the vibrato, start by getting used to the shaking motion (playing the shaker). Hold your left arm up in a way like how you would hold a violin, with the palm facing you. Try to move your forearm back and forth (from the elbow). Keep in mind that every oscillation should begin with a movement away from you and then a rebound back. Feel that the motion is continuous and non-exhaustive. The wrist and every joint of the fingers should be very loose, and they react to the forearm’s motion, similar to how we flip our hands dry after washing them.
  2. Next, hold the violin in playing position, place the thumb, and find a note with the second or third finger in the third or fourth position. Try to recreate that action on the violin. The fingertip should be rolling from the tip to the finger pad (from curved to flat) as the arm is moving back and forth.
  3. Once you have done it, change to the other fingers and also try them on other strings and in different positions.

Tips for Improving Your Vibrato

  • Some students may find their fingers very stiff, and that is why it takes a while to develop a good vibrato. Keep in mind that the thumb should not be squeezing or gripping too hard. When doing the vibrato, the base joint of the index finger should move away from the neck to allow space for vibrato. The “double contact” mentioned in Improve Your Violin Intonation will make way for the vibrato.
  • Practice the vibrato in a measured and controlled way, starting from slow to fast with the help of a metronome. Always start slow enough so that you can hear the siren-like sound between the main pitch and the flatter version. As you speed up, watch out for unnecessary tension in the arm and fingers.

"I love power. But it is as an artist that I love it. I love it as a musician loves his violin, to draw out its sounds and chords and harmonies."

— Napoleon Bonaparte

© 2017 Goh Tong Keat

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