Violin Technique: Stability and Vibrato

November 17, 2021, 11:56 AM · Since its publication 10 years or so ago, Simon Fischer’s slim volume Warming Up has become the go-to material for busy professionals and amateurs alike. In particular, the vibrato exercises have become ubiquitous. Aside from Simon’s own videos, Nathan Cole has produced an exemplary version them too (See his video, How to develop a flexible, effortless violin vibrato). I strongly recommend taking a look. The vibrato exercises provide an wonderful means of understanding and improving the mechanics of the vibrato action itself.

stable left hand

However, there are two aspects of the issue that they do not address which I am going to explore in this blog. These are, the problem of continuous vibrato from note to note, and stability.

I have found the issue of continuous vibrato to be not only an extremely widespread problem, but also one many teachers do not seem clear about how to resolve. Advice such as "vibrate on every note" is often heard, but if a student does not know how to do this it is not going to help that much.

The other day I found a delightful video by Max Baillie (How to Get Magic 'Left-Hand Legato'), demonstrating an exercise that I think provides an effective solution. I will assume that if you have read this far then you are interested enough to watch the video so I will not explain it here. Remain intrigued…

Having got this far, I would like to hesitantly suggest that vibrato also has another problem which is almost never discussed. I suspect that some of the difficulty of vibrato actually lies in the notion of stability. That is, if we are exerting minimal pressure from the fingertip, or rolling back and forth with a pressure release, in some senses the finger is balancing on a very narrow area. Metaphorically speaking, it is somewhat like a tightrope walker.

I suspect that for some people, this very slight sense of insecurity might actually be having a detrimental effect on the vibrato itself. A sort of minuscule yet very real sense of insecurity. The initial comment that started me on this train of thought was Rodney Friend demonstrating in his videos on practicing in 5ths, how this heuristic leads to greater "stability" in the vibrato.

While this concept was percolating in my subconscious, I was looking at the videos of vibrato tips provided by the brilliant pedagogue Daniel Kurganov. (15 Ultimate Violin Vibrato Tips). Lo and behold, his Tip No. 3 (right at beginning!) is practicing in fifths, although he doesn’t explicitly talk about the stability issue so much.

However, I think he is making the same point: when the finger tip is balanced on two strings it feels secure, and the small muscles of the hand and arm have a chance to function well, leaving the mind unhindered to direct the vibrato action. Then, when one goes back to "normal," things feel a lot better.

These days I am doing more and more fifths practice above any other method. One of my favourites that intermediate players might like to try is Kreutzer 29, played in fifths. Not only does this have a marvelous effect on the left hand but, the initial point of the etude (smooth string crossing) immediately begins to self-correct because the bow moves more clearly in the direction of where it is supposed to go next.

Another interesting example I found the other day is the opening of the Bach E major concerto. I am not too fond of the fingering 1-1-3 but it is perfectly legitimate. In order to make the shift and subsequent 3rd position B in tune, practicing the shift over and over in fifths and an E major tetrachord in 3rd position works wonders. The bowing issue is something else! Aside from these examples, one might practice Warming Up in 5ths I suppose…

Cheers,
Buri

Replies

November 17, 2021 at 06:55 PM · I'm grateful for this blog, Buri, and I'll be investing some time over the weekend to study the videos and see what I can apply to my own practice.

Years ago I saw a video of a woman who had vibrato that was wider than conventional boundaries of taste will ordinarily allow. Here is an example of her playing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPNV_W6CVyo

For a while I really struggled to get wider vibrato higher on the fingerboard, where it should be easier because the same finger deflection (as measured in millimeters, for instance) should give a larger pitch variation. Inspired partly by Ms. Karkowska, I decided to see what happens if I allow the tiniest bit of actual finger slippage into my vibrato. Of course this required loosening my death grip on the string, which is maybe all I really needed to do in the first place. But, after just a little experimentation, the result was that my vibrato was much better. It feels like I was allowing my finger to slip, but it doesn't sound like it is. To me it just sounds like normal vibrato, but wider.

November 17, 2021 at 07:13 PM · Buri, I wonder if the tightrope walker thinks of themself as having their weight down into the tightrope, or (as I might suspect) having a sense of lift and upward direction from the tightrope. I think that in a quest for "stability", it can be tempting to think that we need to press more, when might feel more mobile and have a greater sense of control by trying to attain maximum lightness.

Paul, I don't know if you've listened to Daniil Shafran - I think he's right at the limit of objective taste (Just a little more, and I don't think he would be bearable to almost anyone)

November 17, 2021 at 08:31 PM · Hi Christian,

I agree. Extrapolating from a different field, when doing a one legged pose in yoga one needs an -awareness- of contact of the ground through the feet and then energy flow upwards through the body lifting the chest. Intuitively try to achieve balance by screwing the weight downwards does not help at all.

Cheers,

Buri

November 17, 2021 at 11:40 PM · when playing in fifths what do we do with the fourth finger? my pinky tip is just a bit too narrow to touch both strings well.

November 17, 2021 at 11:45 PM · Greetings,

I know its a problem. But I think it7s one of those that each individual can solve in their own unique way (some kind of placement or even pulling) with patience. It’s probably rare to find anyone who is immediate;y comfortable playing fifths with the fourth at firth. It’s just something we almost never do and, oddly enough , those can be the things that really develop our technique if we do practice them (or not)

Cheers,

Buri

November 18, 2021 at 01:44 AM · Hi Paul,

thanks for the comment. I find the vibrato you mention absolutely unbearable but art is always a question of taste and preference, as you well know. I love Simon7s advice of making it sound like sautille rather than thinking in terms of swing.

Cheers,

buri

November 20, 2021 at 08:42 PM · Bravissimo Buri!

Following your advice, I've got Friend's "The Violin in 5ths" and am loving it! I recommended to others often, as a matter of fact my current teacher Lynn Kuo is considering include it for the next year's bootcamp of hers.

Back to vibrato, I love it and use it whenever I can. I've been told that I shouldn't cover my intonation insecurity by vibrato, and of course that's absolutely right. But vibrato does relax my fingers, especially with difficult double stops like the ones in Paganini #9, which I'm currenlty working on. So I use vibrato to relax my fingers and to "sweeten" theese double stops without affecting my handframe. I even tried to apply vibrato on double stop trills, while not easily achieved,I'm doing it for my head rather than my fingers; that is, I believe violin practice is pretty much all about what's going to my head and how to keep them there, the fingers are just the tools to get there. Not sure I'm making any sense.

Fischer's "Warming up" is great, but I feel that it's rather straneous for me to use it as a warmup, if I were do it properly.

My current daily practice routine starts with Ysaye's scale system, one can get the PDF from scribd (https://www.scribd.com/document/369644658/Ysaye-Exercises-et-Gammes-Exercises-and-Scales). For me warming up is first and for most to sharpen my hearing, review handframe and mental focus. It's not a physical warmup as I would with gem workout. But that's a different topic I hope one day will engage more discussion.

Thanks again Buri for your great services!

Yixi

November 24, 2021 at 12:33 AM · Hi Yixi,

sorry I missed your post. I love the Yasue work. I do think it is a great way to capture the essence of violin playing in a very calm way . You can’t get away with anything. I believe one should never underestimate not only the dangers of a static left hand that, on the surface looks perfect or the value of vibrato as a means of relaxing. That is why Donis went on about it so much. It is , as you say, a mental thing in the end.

I suspect vibrato needs to be taught earlier than it usually is. ‘after you can play in tune’ is the usual advice but I have known people who didn’t play in tune and got into music college and we all have bad days…

Take care,

Buri

November 24, 2021 at 12:33 AM · Hi Yixi,

sorry I missed your post. I love the Yasue work. I do think it is a great way to capture the essence of violin playing in a very calm way . You can’t get away with anything. I believe one should never underestimate not only the dangers of a static left hand that, on the surface looks perfect or the value of vibrato as a means of relaxing. That is why Donis went on about it so much. It is , as you say, a mental thing in the end.

I suspect vibrato needs to be taught earlier than it usually is. ‘after you can play in tune’ is the usual advice but I have known people who didn’t play in tune and got into music college and we all have bad days…

Take care,

Buri

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide

ARIA International Summer Academy

Austin Chamber Music Center Coltman Competition

Metzler Violin Shop

Bein & Company

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Leatherwood Bespoke Rosin

Annapolis Bows & Violins

Los Angeles Violin Shop

String Masters

Bobelock Cases

Things 4 Strings LLC

Violin-Strings.com

Viola-Strings.com

Baerenreiter

Fiddlerman.com

FiddlerShop

Sleepy Puppy Press

Jargar Strings

J.R. Judd Violins, LLC

Southwest Strings

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine

Subscribe