Continuous vibrato by Abby Elder

This post is by Abby Elder.

My first memories of working on vibrato begin at the age of seven, as I wiggled my wrist back and forth with a film canister filled with rice.  Eleven years later, I understand that learning to maintain and develop one’s own vibrato is a constant process.  In recent years, I’ve worked very hard to develop a continuous vibrato, which would afford me an expressive tool on my musical tool belt to color and enhance musical passages.

Every student is receptive to different imagery.  Over the years, some analogies have sparked “ah-hah” moments for me whereas others haven’t really made much sense.  Below, I have included a compilation of ideas and imagery from teachers and of my own that have helped me in my quest to obtain continuous vibrato. The key is to find what image works for you!

Allow the fingers to drop from the base knuckle.  This dropping feeling will loosen the hand, enabling easier vibrato.  A finger’s reaction to dropping will be a natural oscillation (vibrato).  Feel this drop on each new finger as it falls to the fingerboard and react to the “fall”.
Imagine that your left hand fingers are arrows.  As your finger waits to drop, feel as if you are pulling an arrow back in the bow, creating potential vibrato energy in your fingers.   Just as the shaft of an arrow quivers in a natural reaction to striking the target, so should a viola player’s left hand fingers vibrate.  Let the fingerboard be the target and have the finger react in a natural oscillatory response to the striking of the fingerboard.

Make sure your left hand is “alive”.

The Earth is constantly sending out vibrations and sound waves.  Let your vibrato pick up on the natural vibrations in the atmosphere around you.  Pass these vibrations from finger to finger while playing a passage.

Often it may be difficult physically to feel where in the body vibrato actually starts.  Feeling the vibrato stimulus start from the middle of the forearm will release the hand, knuckles and wrist, allowing for a much easier flow from finger to finger of the vibrato motion.

Allow the vibrato to feel as if an electric pulsation is originating in the forearm and spreading to the hand to keep the whole left hand unit in vibratory motion.

Imagine that the fingerboard is a very hot surface, and every time the finger is placed on the fingerboard, the finger reacts to pull away from the heat in a “wiggle” of the finger.
Imagine a series of taut strings flowing from each finger and down the forearm.  Imagine that as you place a finger on the fingerboard, the string connected to that finger is plucked, with the natural vibration of the imaginary string creating a natural vibration through the finger and finally causing the vibrato to flow from each new finger to finger.

Allow the finger to rebound back from the initial finger rocking towards the bridge.  Let the rocking pass from finger to finger.

Imagine creating a wave-like shape with each new dropping of a finger.  As the first finger’s wave gets smaller, a fresh large wave begins with the dropping of the next finger.

Below is a list of ideas put forth by Caroline Coade, violist in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, on ways to think about vibrato:

  • Is your instrument well-balanced?
  • The vibrato “cycle” starts just slightly BELOW the pitch
  • Independence of fingers (no tension)
  • Flexibility of left hand
  • Loose left thumb
  • Lift and drop left fingers from the base knuckle
  • Play on the pads of the fingers
  • Fingertip is “flexible” and alive
  • (1/2 vibrato “cycle” is the rock forward, 1/2 vibrato “cycle” is the rebound back)


Heidi Castleman, faculty member at the Juilliard School, believes that “in the vibrato motion, a balance between forward and backward motion is essential.  However, the initiation point of the vibrato motion is the forward swing.  Thus, vibrate towards the bridge, not away from it.”  Furthermore, in relation to the finger dropping idea, Professor Castleman suggests “dropping each left-hand finger on the body of the instrument, allowing the fingertip to feel like jello, resulting in a slight give in the fingertip as it rocks forward.  The slight give in the fingertip as it rocks forward = the first half of the vibrato cycle; the 2nd half is the rebound back.”

To aid in your quest for continuous vibrato, I have included some exercises that have helped me develop a more natural vibrato.

Exercises for developing continuous vibrato

Play the following rhythms with the rocking back and forth of the vibrato.

  1. Hold and sustain your bow for 4 counts per finger, moving from finger 1 to 4 (to practice bow speed and distribution)
  2. Practice without the bow to feel the rolling of the LH finger pad (from the note to below the note)
  3. Move the metronome up by six beats each new tempo

Moving the metronome up from 120 to 196 per quarter by 8’s, play four sixteenths within each quarter beat.

  • Choose a string, playing 8 beats in a bow and per finger with a narrow vibrato
  • Choose a different string, playing 8 beats in a bow and per finger with a normal vibrato
  • Choose another string, playing 8 beasts in a bow and per finger with a wide vibrato.
  • Essentially, in the left hand, the player will start on the first finger, vibrate at a quarter=120 for 8 metronome clicks, then switch to the second finger at the bow change, working all the way through the fourth finger
  • This exercise can be played in any position to develop a consistent, natural vibrato in both the low and high positions
  • This exercise will, in turn, help you to create approximately 32 different vibratos you can use in your next piece!

Finally, always remember to maintain a loose left arm, elbow, wrist, and hand, as this is essential to a natural, continuous vibrato.
Continuous vibrato is an attainable skill.  However, if there is not constant effort and thought put forth to keeping your vibrato continuous, old habits of stopping vibrato early or starting it late can creep back into your playing.  If you are sitting in orchestra, spend at least five minutes of each hour specifically concentrating on making sure you are playing with a continuous vibrato.  The extra effort makes all the difference.

I hope I have given you a fresh perspective and some new ideas on how to achieve a continuous vibrato.  You can do it!

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