Facets of Vibrato by Heidi Castleman

The following post by Heidi Castleman comes in two sections.  The first is a list of things to consider about vibrato, and the second is a checklist for ensuring you get the most out of your vibrato.

Vibrato Considerations:

Aesthetic – How much vibrato? Sparingly (as a special enhancement) or continuously?

Emotional aspect – What character does the vibrato reflect – love, joy, anger, fear, sorrow?


1) What is the nature of the pitch variation?
Amplitude – how deep into pitch?/ does the vibrato go to pitch or above?
Speed of pattern – is it fast, slow, moderate?
Contour of the pattern – is the pattern rounded, i.e., does it swing evenly toward and away from bridge or is it pulsed (dotted) meaning it swings faster toward bridge than away?

2) The #1 rule – hear the vibrato you want, not as a general affect, but as specific pitch variation.

3) Speed-width combinations – possible associations of vibratos and characters.
fast/narrow – anxious, agitated
fast/wide – tragic, wailing, passion
slow/narrow – mysterious, timeless
slow/wide – melancholy, longing

4) Vibrato “fingerprints” – What kind of vibrato captures a composer’s metabolism the best? Does the pitch level, speed and pattern of the vibrato suit the composer?  The vibrato used in Bartok, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Brahms, etc., should sound very different.

5) Vibrato projection – Listen to the sound from the back of the hall; how does the vibrato project?

Physical aspects
Left hand joint flexibility – warmup left hand frame with all fingers down by moving hand perpendicularly away from and toward neck
Sensitivity and awareness of fingertip pad – the fingertips should enjoy the “buzz” of the vibrating string;  think 1/4 finger pressure letting blocking come from a released arm.  If the fingertip is appropriately relaxed, the finger should be able to slide on the string in a wiping motion.
Finger dropping (or “plopping”) – relax base joint of finger, flex finger in preparation, and then drop it with a super-loose tip; the fingertip will automatically swing from very slightly below the pitch up to the pitch and back, making one complete vibrato cycle.

Note: the vibrato always begins with the fingertip swinging up to the pitch, not with the fingertip dropping on the pitch and then swinging away.
Hand movement – Imagine bouncing a ball with your left hand.  Turn left arm around to playing position; continuing the same motion supports the vibrato. Always be aware of a balanced use of complementary muscles (i.e., for lower positions, those muscles in the front and back of the arm, and for positions above fourth, the pecs and lats).
“Amplifying” the vibrato arc – The opposite end of the hand from the playing finger should be relaxed and soft, swinging more than the playing finger.

Arm flexibility – practice one-octave sirens up and down string with thumb folded into palm; expanding the rib cage at its bottom facilitates the collarbone and shoulder blade remaining relaxed while the wrist prepares to clear the bout.
Releasing of upper arm – swing arm up on inhalation; begin playing on exhalation, practicing same finger shifts of a second on consecutive down bows (or up bows). Go up one octave; also descend.

Right hand vibrato – the bow can provide a more alive, “spun” sound by gently rotating from one tangent of the string to the other.  Think stealth; no one should be aware of what you are doing!

Vibrato Checklist

• Left hand fingertips = Sensors

• Left arm free – release elbow, also release weight of collarbone and shoulder

• Pad blocks – use fleshy part of finger, especially for warmer sounds

• Vibrato spot – visualize a pitch as a point on the pad of the finger, not just a general area.

• First knuckle over string above

• Aim vibrato toward Bb on A string, except on A (perhaps Eb on D when on C)

• Originate from base knuckles

• Base of index free, no “hinge”

• Warmer, deeper sounds come from exploring lower part of pitch
(generally vibrato goes primarily from pitch to below; ear is in charge!)

• Finger farthest from vibrating finger most relaxed, moves the most

• In longer notes, left hand usually leads the development of the sound.

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