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Developing expressive vibrato


By Bayla Keyes


The use of vibrato is one of the most important elements of our sound. Vibrato increases the beauty and resonance of our sound, and like a singer’s voice, must be tied to the ebb and flow of musical tension. Below are three of the best exercises for developing the movement of your hand and arm in vibrato. 


Amplitude and Release: the Dounis Flicker

Place the hand in fifth position, so that the heel is touching the body of the instrument. Totally relax the hand and wrist. Make one flick forward, as if from an electrical impulse, so that your hand comes closer to the violin and the first joint of your finger bends. Immediately relax the hand back. Repeat this, always making sure to relax the hand completely between flicks. Notice how you can control the amount your first joint bends and straightens; if you are trying to develop a wider vibrato, allow as much movement as possible; if you are trying to narrow your vibrato, control the size of the movement. Next reverse the direction, so that the long note comes in the upper direction; the short note should release backwards completely, almost as if your hand is swooning. Continue adding flicks as suggested below. Remember to wait between flicks as long as necessary, so that the hand is completely relaxed and the vibrato impulse feels almost involuntary. In this example, R = Release or Relax and F = Flick.



Continuous Vibrato: Pulsing

Put the metronome on eighth equals between 70 and 84. Play your scale or passage, pulsing four times per eighth note. Pulse forward to the beat. Do not allow the vibrato to stop or vary when you change fingers, when you cross strings, or when you shift.

















Vibrato Between Notes: Bayla’s Four Part Special

  1. Choose a doublestop (e.g. a major seventh). Start a downbow non-vibrato and increase the vibrato into the next bow change, so that at the upbow you have moltissimo vibrato. Gradually decrease the vibrato so that by the frog you return to non-vibrato. Watch your hand (in the mirror if necessary) to make sure the vibrato actually continues and connects across the bow change.

  2. Now, keeping both fingers of the doublestop on the string, draw a downbow on the lower string and change to upbow on the upper string. Do the same continuous crescendo and diminuendo of vibrato.

  3. Lift the upper finger and bring it directly over the same string as the lower finger. The finger should be so close that it almost touches the string. Feel the doublestop in the air as you repeat the vibrato crescendo and diminuendo; put the upper finger down just as you begin the upbow, without any interruption in the flow of the vibrato.

  4. Keeping the lower finger on the string, draw the upper finger away from the violin so far that it almost touches the pegs of your scroll. Do the vibrato crescendo and diminuendo; during the crescendo, gradually bring the upper finger in close to the string, feeling the doublestop in the air as in #3 above. The vibrato should reach its peak just as you put the upper finger down. Leave the finger down as you diminuendo.

Do this exercise with every combination of fingers, but emphasize going from lower to upper fingers as well as from fourth to first finger. In your repertoire, if you hear any stops or holes in your vibrato between notes, apply this exercise






There are specific releases and ways to move which will allow us the widest range of possible vibrato speeds and widths with the least amount of work and tension. Understanding how our bodies work best and learning how to feel and maintain as much physical looseness and relaxation as possible will help us tie our vibrato to our heartstrings so that we can instinctively express the feeling of every chord and note in our music -- the ultimate goal!


One obvious killer of a free vibrato is overpressing with the playing finger. Another is clenching with the thumb. Less obvious are the tiny circular movements which if inhibited will create blocks to the vibrato.


Loosening the Thumb 

The thumb can be one of the prime preventers of expressive vibrato. On a scale of one to ten, the thumb should never be pressing into the neck more than a three, and the thumb should never squeeze up in response to the playing finger.  My favorite thumb exercises are:

  1. With the left hand in playing position, hold your left thumb with your right hand to stabilize it and tap each finger down against that thumb. The thumb should not move. Repeat without the right hand. The thumb should not move.

  2. Simon Fischer Basics p. 218 # 284 (notice how the movement encourages forearm rotation)

  3. Simon Fischer Basics pp. 146-148 (I call this the thumb spa)

  4. Place a cloth against the wall at an appropriate height for you and place the scroll of the violin against the cloth. (You will have to lean into the wall slightly to keep the cloth in place.) Now play your passage or scale, taking the thumb entirely off the neck. Repeat, allowing the thumb to rest gently against the neck. Move away from the wall and play the passage or scale again.

  5. Play a slow scale. On the downbow, support the violin on the vee created by your thumb and the base of your index finger; gently take your head off of the chinrest and move it around. On the upbow, settle your head gently into the chinrest and take your thumb off. Try to maintain a beautiful sound and vibrato. Are there passages in your music where you can take turns or alternate holding the violin with either the head and thumb?


Forearm Rotation

Remember that the vibrato motion itself is not linear but instead a kind of oval. Make a clockwise motion with your left arm (see Simon Fischer Basics p. 214 #277); allow the hinge at your elbow to open and notice how your forearm is now rotating. Although the motion is slight, it is hugely important.






Circles are always more natural for our body to create than lines, and this is especially true in vibrato, when we want every muscle and joint in our left side to be as open and loose as possible. If we think of vibrato as a linear motion up and down the string, the more we try to vibrate, the more we will start to tighten; but if we find the natural circles in each joint we can generate a spiraling effect which will allow the vibrato to pass through into our fingertips as if it were electricity passing through liquid.

Without the violin but with your arms in playing position, make figure eights as you shift your weight from leg to leg. (See Connecting Upper and Lower Body.) Exaggerate the movement of your hips and allow this same circle to move into your upper arms; you can also feel tiny circles in your shoulderblades. As you become more aware of the circle in your left upper arm, allow the forearm to relax and begin to circle in the opposite direction – as your upper arm moves to the right, the forearm moves to the left; as your upper arm moves to the left, the forearm moves to the right. Now release the wrist and allow it to circle in the opposite direction from the forearm. Your entire left side is making a spiraling wave!











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