There are a variety of ways to teach violin vibrato as well as several different types of vibrato. The arm vibrato and the wrist vibrato are the two most common forms of vibrato. I teach an arm vibrato. Some argue that an arm vibrato is not as versatile as a wrist vibrato, but I have seen violinists of all calibers who use it, sometimes exclusively. In my opinion you can get a lovely vibrato using either form as long as you are taught how to use it properly and effectively.
Let’s start out with what a vibrato is NOT:
- A vibrato is not a “wiggling” or “shaking” of the hand, finger, arm or wrist
- A vibrato is not a sliding of the finger on the string between two pitches
- A vibrato is not an uncontrolled spasm of the hand
- A vibrato is not created by tensing the muscles of the arm, hand or wrist
Learning the arm vibrato starts with an understanding of how the finger, hand, wrist and arm work in tandem to create the vibrato. I usually teach students vibrato shortly after they learn 3rd position for two reasons:
1) By this point they should have a good understanding of the basics and be ready to add a new technical element into their playing.
2) The hand in 3rd position hits up against the body of the instrument, creating a natural starting and ending point to each oscillation of the hand.
Have your student start with their 1st finger on the D on the A-string. Their wrist and thumb should be straight and the edge of their hand should be resting against the body of the instrument. All fingers should be curved over the fingerboard.
Beginning with the arm the student slowly moves the arm back, the wrist stays straight and the hand follows requiring both joints on the finger to open (the finger elongates). The side of the index finger slides along the edge of the fingerboard. If done properly there should be a ½ step change in pitch (D to Db). This is created by the fact that the finger is actually “laying back” on the string. Both joints should open, but neither should collapse. The student should then bring the arm, hand and finger back to the starting position, keeping the wrist straight.
Note: A proper vibrato goes below the pitch only, not above it. You start and end on the “in tune” pitch.
The student should hone this skill until they can do it comfortably keeping their hand position correct. Make sure that the student’s fingers (all of them) are relaxed.
The next step is to do several oscillations in a row at this slow tempo. The bow changes as needed.
Once a student can do this step confidently you will add a metronome to the exercise. Put the metronome on a tempo where they can move their hand forward and back (D to Db), each on a click, keeping the hand movement correct.
Speed this up as the student masters the tempo. Think in rhythms. Have the student do quarter note oscillations (D, Db, D, Db), then 8th note, then triplet 8ths, then 16th notes, etc. Feel free to change the metronome speed as needed to accommodate the student. Perhaps the metronome is on 60 for the quarter note oscillations, but on 50 for the 8th note oscillations. That’s fine. The objective is to incrementally increase the tempo at a rate that the student can keep their hand position correct. Soon they will be at a tempo that could be considered a “working vibrato”.
At this point you can tweak and hone the vibrato so the two pitches are not so clearly distinct. This will create the warmth that we are looking for in vibrato.
This process takes a different amount of time for each student. Some students learn it in a matter of weeks, some take a year or more. Remember that it’s not how fast the student learns the technique that’s important, but how accurately they learn the technique. You can also use this technique for students that already know vibrato, but have been taught in such a way that they have a tight spastic vibrato, or only have one speed of vibrato. This technique teaches students how to control their vibrato at every level.
Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers