3 Exercises for Brilliant Vibrato!
Vibrato is one of the most expressive tools we have as string players! Developing a wide range of vibrato speed and width (and really practicing control over those choices) is like taking 3 primary paint colors you’ve been given and creating 100+ shades. Especially in combination with bow speed, contact point of the bow and other variables — we’re talking about nearly infinite expressive possibilities!
Why is vibrato usually so noticeable and attractive to the ear? To me, it has a “human” quality— when done well, it oscillates similarly to how the human voice can while singing. We relate to it! It sounds familiar and we understand it as something passionate and with motive. It is extremely influential to your listener — A controlled, even wave sounds warm and relaxing. On the flip side, a wide, fast “wild eyed” vibrato can make the listener bolt right up in their seat!
Let’s chat about developing vibrato consistency and range, so that you have a large palette to work with…
Vibrato is an actual variation/waver in pitch:
So— we are searching for a hand and arm motion that creates consistent recurring waves and, because we must vary the pitch, that motion must move easily up and down the fingerboard (…cuz how do we change pitch? By altering the length of the vibrating string!)
So— what does this look in physical motion?
What NOT to do —- the “turn over”
*Turning our hand over one spot on the string does NOT give us effective and rapid change of pitch. This is a lot of work for very little reward.
Correct form — “The Pump”
*Ah hah! Now, we’re covering more ground and creating a clear and consistent wave. This sounds energized and strong!
Are you panicking right now because your hand turns over? Do not fear!! I gotchu :)
Here’s how to not only fix it, but improve your vibrato consistency, range and comfort by leaps and bounds!!!!
I can’t hear youuuu…. I said ARE. YOU. READY??!?!!!!!!! …. k here we goooooo!!!!!
3 Fantastic Vibrato Exercises
Exercise 1 - TOP TAPS
First learned this in a class at University of Maryland with the great Dr. Fischbach. I’ve used it with many students since and it’s a quick and great reminder of the fact that vibrato is a full arm activity.
Find fourth position (or area where neck of your instrument meets the body) and tap palm to the top of the strings
Ensure there is no “break” in your wrist, but a relaxed, straight line from wrist to elbow (see video!). This should be a FULL ARM ACTIVITY— if doing it correctly, you’ll also see some rotation in your upper arm
Once comfy with the motion, speed it up a bit!
Finally, maintain the full arm motion while allowing your palm/fingertips to get “krazy-glued” to the strings. Your arm moves, your hand stays “stuck”!
Exercise #2 - PAFT (PITCH AND FOLLOW-THROUGH)
Initially taught to me by one of my most important cello mentors, my undergrad teacher at Eastman - Alan Harris. Since, I’ve added some variation to it myself (see ADVANCED section below!) You’re the best, AH!
*This exercise uses a relaxed, throw and follow through motion that is not unlike throwing a baseball or softball! Haven’t done that in a while? Maybe work in a game of catch with a buddy this week. :)
Start in first position, with 2nd finger on F natural. “Throw” your hand up to fourth position, so that 2nd finger is now on Bb. (See “Form” video). **This relaxed shift is initiated by your left elbow - your elbow moves first as if it’s drawing a small rainbow from your back to front, and your forearm and hand follow the arc. Some teachers call this a “rainbow” shift!
Next, as a continuation of this arm motion, let your throw/pitch “follow through” by allowing your hand to relax and sink right back down to where it came from (F natural in first position). *Note: Steps 1 and 2 equal one complete motion. Do not pause in-between! Additionally, your left hand should maintain the same general angle this entire time, not “turn over” (Remember your training, grasshopper!!!! ;) )
Once you are comfortable with this motion and do it fluidly, start increasing the speed, maintaining the interval of a perfect fourth (F natural to Bb). We’re going for extremely relaxed and as quickly as possible, and this will take time to develop! Don’t expect yourself to be able to do this immediately :) Chill out, do it each day and you’ll get better and better— and then it’ll be a fun party trick at chamber music rehearsal!
Once you’re feeling relaxed, comfy and can maintain a decent speed and consistent interval — decrease the interval you’re working with! Now, let’s master it from 2nd finger on F natural to 2nd finger on A natural, a major third! *Same finger, on same string, same arm motion and going for speed and accurate intonation!
After that, try going between F natural and G natural (whole step!) Then, F natural and F# (half step!).
Now that we’ve worked our way to tighter intervals, pretend your 2nd finger is “krazy-glued” onto F natural. Same pump motion, but now “stuck” on just one pitch! and TA DAAAA!!!!!! YOU’RE DOING IT!!!! YOU’RE AMAZING!!!!!! :D
Exercise #2 - ADVANCED PAFT - Next Steps…
Once you’ve mastered the exercise above, try it with different fingers, on different strings
Finally, try it in thumb position! (see video below) (I find that it’s a very quick and effective reminder that our arm actually vibrates at a different angle altogether in thumb position!) This exercise is such a fun challenge and massive workout!
Exercise #3 - VIBRATO SCALES
Choose any scale that’s comfy for you— we will be playing with long whole notes, using full bows.
Keeping a consistent, slow bow speed on each note, begin the note with extremely slow and thin/slight vibrato pumps.
As you continue the note, gradually speed the vibrato up to your top personal speed, as wide and fast as you can go!!!!
Then, let it gradually decrease (reverse process), winding down to slow relaxed vibrato, and eventually, nothing (straight tone).
Move onto next note (scale degree) and repeat!
**Want more exercises because you just LOVE VIBRATO SO FREAKIN MUCH???!!!! Practice vibrato with a metronome! Stick it on quarter note = 60, play some long notes and start with two vibrato pumps per metronome click. Keep it even! Then try vibrating in triplets, and 16th notes! Turn the metronome up a few clicks, repeat. You are a vibrato mastaaaaaaaahhhhh!
Happy Practicing! :)
(P.S. If you’re looking for some extra reading, there are some super interesting studies out there about how trained and non-trained ears perceive pitch in string vibrato. Long story short, multiple researchers agree that the middle of the pitch wave (the mean) or slightly above that is focused on by your audience, depending on how well practiced you are at critical listening. Interesting! More on the complexities of vibrato in future posts :) )