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Laurie Niles

Five tablespoons of vibrato

February 19, 2009 at 7:28 PM

She'd just finished playing the slow movement of her Vivaldi concerto, and it was very good, especially considering this was her first week. A 9-year-old doesn't always have the patience for slow movements.

"Wow! You really did great work on this!" I told her. "The rhythms are right, notes are in tune, you did all the shifts, even all the right bowings. Very well done!"

She smiled.

"Basically it's only missing one thing," I said. "Any idea what that is?"

She looked at me guiltily. "Vibrato?" she said.

"It needs....about five tablespoons," I said.

She nodded.

"Per measure."

She smiled.

"Do you know how big a tablespoon is?" I asked.

"Pretty big," she ventured.

I disappeared into the kitchen for a moment, then emerged with a large, silver measuring spoon.

"This is a tablespoon," I said. "Okay, from the beginning." I stood, poised with the tablespoon over her left hand. She started with good vibrato, then after about a line, oops! A dead half note.  I tipped the spoon over her fingerboard -- ah, instant vibrato! We continued this way for about half the movement before quitting. She had the idea.

"All right," I said. "Take the spoon with you this week and put it on your stand. Show your mom how to work it, too, okay?"

I wrote in her notebook: "Vivaldi: 5 tablespoons vibrato, per measure." No more explanation needed!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 19, 2009 at 8:14 PM

Jeez Laurie,  you did a great job of teaching her about vibrato, but the A-415 crowd would disagree with your prescription.  In their view, the last thing Vivaldi needs is vibrato.  I detect heresy (lol).

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 19, 2009 at 8:55 PM

Yeah, I knew someone would say that actually. One has to balance the progress of young student with those kinds of issues. She's right on the edge of having a workable vibrato, and right now, that's what she needs to do; apply the vibrato as much as possible. Would you really have a student do it completely sans vibrato? I just wouldn't, not unless we had a Baroque bow, etc. etc. But probably not even then would I want to to be completely without!

If this were a graduate student doing a Vivaldi concerto, we might talk about the difference between Baroque performance, and all the 20th century permutations of how to play Vivaldi, from the extremely drippy early 20th c kind of Romantic ideas until the Baroque performance practice movement until now.  Then we'd talk about exactly how much vibrato to add, because usually you still do at least a little.

But when someone is just starting their vibrato, it's either on or off. No vibrato or yes vibrato. We're playing a slow movement, one of the only slow movements in Suzuki Book 5, and her vibrato is right at the edge of happening. Suzuki has it fingered with all kinds of shifts, etc., a rather Romantic interpretation. So unless I take it completely out of that context, I'm going to go with the vibrato!

From Leonard Young
Posted on February 19, 2009 at 10:10 PM

How refreshing that a nine year old is encouraged to develop what she herself knows is missing. There are STILL too many teachers, of all instruments, let alone violin, who fob the desire for vibrato off with avoidance and obfuscation, as though it was a mystical concept unfathomable and unattainable.

Vibrato is inherently a necessary thing in the majority of expressive, single note, instruments, perhaps clarinet and horn excepted, and it is NOT an optional diversion (baroque players who falsely promote the myth of vibrato-free playing please note). The human ear physically gets stressed when hearing any sound which does not change over time  - that's why supermarket bleeps, reversing lorries and loud, unchanging artificial noises irritate us so much, because the receptors in the inner ear and the brain cells receiving the information become overloaded and irritated when sound is static.

Vibrato literally relieves the ear from irritation. The question is, how much vibrato is needed to stave the irritation off, and furthermore, how much is needed to be appropriately musical for a given style of music. That is open to debate, but the core of my argument is that vibrato should be taught as soon as there is the slightest hint that the student desires it, and even if the student does not desire through ignorance of its existence, it should be discussed and introduced as an option which it is then their free choice to develop.


Posted on February 19, 2009 at 10:30 PM

Gee, when I was nine I had this rather energetic teacher (aka CRAZY Italian) who would also use a spoon but more apt to threaten than sprinkle "vibrato" sugar...ahhh memories, did not stay with him too long but in those days nobody screamed abuse, it just was the way it was.

From Anthony Barletta
Posted on February 19, 2009 at 11:07 PM

I think it would be quite something to have you as a teacher, Laurie.  Makes me wish I were 9 years old again.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on February 19, 2009 at 11:07 PM

Laurie - I was joking of course.  Your approach makes a great deal of sense.  In your place, I would have done the same.  No reason at her stage not to use Vivaldi or any other piece to help her perfect her vibrato.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on February 20, 2009 at 12:15 AM

I hope you have an extra spoon to use this week.  Otherwise, how will the baking get done?

Actually, I usually take a colored pencil and mark a big "V" over the note to be vibrated.  (A big "V" is handy, so it doesn't get confused with an up bow).  The kids have a good time helping me pick out notes to "V" on.  After awhile, they don't need a "V", or even start throwing in extra "Vs"!

I like the spoon idea.  It is cute.  I might try it.  Can I borrow your spoon???

From Bethany Morris
Posted on February 20, 2009 at 3:37 AM

Leonard, that's fascinating. I didn't know that.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 20, 2009 at 4:54 PM

Tom, no worries, no offense taken. It was definitely an issue that lurked around the edges!

Leonard, how very interesting! I'd never thought about the need for interruption in a long sound, I've just always liked the sound of vibrato and got going on my own as soon as I could, probably because I'm left-handed. Also, I can remember still the moment it started feeling right; it was when I switched to a more resonant violin.

Anne, I've lent out my tablespoon for the moment ;) but, mi tablespoon es tu tablespoon!

From Anne Horvath
Posted on February 20, 2009 at 7:21 PM

Thanks much!

From Leonard Young
Posted on February 20, 2009 at 7:31 PM

Hi Laurie,

>>Leonard, how very interesting! I'd never thought about the need for interruption in a long sound, I've just always liked the sound of vibrato <<

Well,  I missed out the fact that a movement in volume and intensity also relieves the ear. But we don't see these things this way when listening to a pleasant musical sound; we just perceive it as desirable, but the roots of this lie again in the intolerance of the ear, or rather the brain, when bombarded with never ending and static sound.

So I should add that music becomes a pleasure to the listener by virtue not just of the change in notes that make a logical sense, but also the changing sonority of sustained sounds. In the 1980's I did a lot of work on synthesis and the nature of instrument timbres. If you take almost any wind instrument and record a long note with no variation in volume or vibrato (ie pitch), then cut off the attack part, it is almost indistinguishable from any other instrument. The resonance of the inherent waveforms only come alive when vibrato or at the very least ampitude variations kick in.

The violin sounds like a violin by virtue of the attack of the bow (that woodish boxy sound coupled with the "squelch" of the bow action), and then the vibrato which allows the highly complex and very piled up harmonics (overtones) to resonate properly, especially when the environment has reflective surfaces to re-enforce the sonorities.

It's a whole subject of its own, but I'll stop now before this post begins to sound nerdish!


From Drew Lecher
Posted on February 20, 2009 at 8:04 PM


Did you sugar, salt or pepper the vibrato?


From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 5:48 AM

Drew: special Maui-grown cane sugar. Of course!

From Karin Lin
Posted on February 21, 2009 at 10:13 PM

Loved this post, and also all the comments!  You show yourself to be a wonderfully sensitive and colorful teacher, Laurie.  Too bad you're just a bit too far south to send my kids :)

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