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Vibrato by Ivo van der Werff

Perhaps more than any other aspect of playing technique, vibrato can show the soul or personality of a player. Every vibrato is individual and unique and forms one of the most important expressive tools at our disposal. But, like every other aspect of viola technique, there are certain common principles that relate to every player.

The initial left-hand position is the determining factor that decides the basic vibrato of the player. I have already written about the optimum left-hand position that enables the greatest freedom and flexibility. If, for example, the wrist is pronated to an extreme position either way, then the vibrato becomes tight, the wrist is inflexible, and only an arm vibrato can be used. Many players naturally choose an arm vibrato, but even so, for it to work properly, the wrist still needs to be in the correct position.

Ideally, a player should be able to utilize both wrist and arm vibrato. On the video are a series of exercises that are much easier to view than explain in writing.

Tracks 14,15,16,17

There are some basic pointers I would like to share. Once the vibrato is working, you have to be able to vary the speed, amplitude, and weight. This latter is most important and an aspect not all players take into account. For a deep, rich, “viola sound,” you need to utilize the weight of the finger on the fingerboard. Putting the finger down is not unlike the feeling of putting the bow on the string: a comfortable, weighty, but easy feeling. If you support the shoulder of the viola with your right hand, take away the support of the left thumb and feel the weight of the whole left arm sinking into the string through your fingers. Of course, when playing, we have to use the thumb to support the neck of the viola (rather like the right thumb supports the weight of the arm with the bow), but this feeling of weight and depth will add to the quality of sound you produce.

I find it useful to consider vibrato, not just from the initial movement of the arm or wrist, but also from the finger itself. The joint that has to be most flexible, regardless of what the arm and wrist do, is the joint just behind the fingertip. If this is held tight, no amount of movement elsewhere will help create a flexible vibrato. With your hand in a playing position, get someone to push on that first joint on each finger. If it is tight, you need to learn to relax it. If it is flexible, look in a mirror and observe the way your wrist or arm moves. This movement may not be large, but this could be a basis for your general vibrato.

One way to free a tight vibrato is to literally trill using vibrato rather than the movement of the fingers. By doing this quite fast, keeping the upper finger close to the string, try playing a trill by rolling the hand from the wrist in order to put the upper finger down.

If you find it hard to move the wrist, play a trill in 4th position. Make sure the hand is resting against the shoulder of the viola to isolate the wrist from the arm. In other words, the arm cannot move.

Many players use this type of action for a fast trill. I personally much prefer to move the fingers rather than the hand as this makes for a cleaner trill, but, for this purpose, it is a very useful exercise.

A good vibrato is a rhythmical vibrato. Try varying the number of “vibrato beats” that you put into a whole bow. Put a metronome on 40 bpm with one whole bow per beat. Start with 2 vibrato beats per bow, then 4, then 6, etc. The movement should initially be large and exaggerated. As the beats increase, the movement should lessen. You can do this on any note on any finger or, alternatively, you could do this exercise using any scale, either normal three-octave scales or one-octave scales up each string in turn. This latter is particularly useful as you will learn to vibrate in any position on any string on the viola.

Make sure that, at all times, you are really listening to the sound you are producing. It is very easy to switch off and let things go. We always have to think about the notes, the intonation, the shifts, etc. but never forget that these are only the vehicles to recreate a piece of music. Our tone is THE most important tool that we have, and our vibrato has a very big part to play. So, always listen and consider what type of vibrato you should be using for a particular passage; how fast, how wide, how deep the vibrato should be. Always support the bow with the left hand; more weight in the bow generally means more weight required in the left hand. Ideally it becomes second nature by allowing the hand and arm to do what is necessary to create the “ideal” sound that you have in your imagination.


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