The great mystery of the wobble...

By James Dickenson  -  12 October 2015

So as I set about writing a small meme for Musical Orbit on violin playing, it occurred to me that one subject that is very rarely tackled is vibrato….It is after all I guess quite a difficult area, the movement in essence is quite an unnatural movement. It is probably a brave individual who attempts to explain vibrato in 500 words. 

That being said there are basic concepts associated with vibrato that I would argue are unerring, and as so often with violin playing, I feel that in its fundamentals we should not make much of a book, more of a postcard really.Before we do this though, let us consider the following, all of which are topics that are regular discussed: Do we use arm vibrato, wrist vibrato, or finger vibrato, does it start on note, below, does it go forward or backwards or both…….? I say consider, as what we should now do is forget about these ideas, throw them in the violin playing trash, and get back to simple ideas.
  1. Vibrato, if we listen to a great singer, is a colouration of a note. In order for that note, say C natural to be in tune with vibrato, the emphasis needs to be on the pitch of the note, not below or above but on the pitch. This means that the action of vibrato must, must, start below the note and rise to the note. A vibrato that for instance moves the pitch either side of the note, will sound vague, amorphous, similarly if the vibrato starts on the pitch and goes forward the note will sound sharp.
  2. Vibrato has rhythm to itself. Again listen to great singer you can hear a pulse through vibrato, 4 pulsations 6 or 8 whatever, it has a rhythm to itself. This gives the sound life. By varying these pulsations we can manipulate the colours of our vibrato.
  3. Vibrato is in essence an impulse. There is no such thing as constant vibrato, it is a series of impulses, each finger drop has its own impulse, strung together it looks like a constant vibrato but it is not, each note has its own impulse. This has two benefits, it makes vibrato in very fast passages easy, actually very easy, it also gave definition to each note.
  4. Vibrato that occurs via impulse must start from the finger, it can do nothing else, the rest of the arm, if relaxed will react in a natural way. Containing the vibrato to a wrist action is probably most preferable as some passages are not possible if you use the arm, having said this using the arm as well can be useful in large acoustics were we may for instance need a wider vibrato. This being said, whether we use the wrist or arm, is kind of irrelevant as the basic idea does not change.
  5. There is no 5……….Oh yes there is: If someone says that vibrato starts in the elbow not the fingers tell them to walk thinking the motion starts from their bum......Don't laugh when they fall over!!!!

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About James Dickenson

London based violinist James is the leader of the Villiers String Quartet and a freelance orchestral and session musician

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