Vibrato Master Class with Shakeh Ghoukasian

June 25, 2013, 3:52 PM · Vibrato gives our playing color and character, and yet it's one of the more difficult violin techniques to learn and teach.

"This is the most unnatural thing we do on the violin," said violinist Shakeh Ghoukasian, who taught a violin master class at Metzler Violin Shop in Glendale, Calif., last Friday evening. A longtime violin teacher, Shakeh is also Dean of the Nevada School of the Arts and principal second violinist in the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

Shakeh Ghoukasian

"It's a humanly impossible action that we're expected to master," she said. "You hear the sound, you want the sound, and you don't want to do it."

And yet, you must; and to do so, you (or your students) may need some physical training. It's all a matter of conditioning the muscles, Shakeh said.

"It's a very athletic process, but we don't think of it that way because it's so minute," Shakeh said. Yet there are so many physical exercises we can do to condition and refine those muscles.

It all starts with getting a feel for the basic physical motion in the wrist and arm. For this Shakeh recommends using a shaker -- which can be a box of Tic-Tacs, a pill box filled with coffee beans or dry rice, or something else that makes noise when you shake it. Below, Shakeh demonstrates how to do the shaker exercise:

Most people can handle the shaker exercise, but "the minute we put the violin up on the shoulder, everything goes out the door," Shakeh said. So there are a few more exercises that can help ease your transition from shaking Tic-Tacs to shaking your hand while also balancing a violin on your shoulder, placing your finger precisely on a particular note and drawing a silky-smooth bow.

For example, vibrato should not cause one's left-hand position to completely fall apart once the shaking starts. How does one retain a good left-hand position when doing vibrato? First of all, the thumb will serve as kind of an anchor, remaining in its normal place. But it's a rocking anchor. Below, Shakeh demonstrates exercises for getting a feel for the role of the thumb.

To take this thumb exercise a step further, one can bring the fingers over the fingerboard. You won't actually plant any fingers down, just keep shaking from the thumb and then gently move the fingers over the fingerboard, even rubbing the strings a little bit.

The next step is to try this same motion, but to set a particular finger down very gently. Again, this finger will not be down solidly as of yet; instead, it will rub the string, or possibly between strings. Shakeh uses a small felt square to practice this motion, which is like "polishing" the string.

Still using the felt square, one can narrow the vibrato motion, making that little "polishing" sound shorter and shorter and varying the speed of it.

It's important to practice vibrato while standing and to keep your good posture, with the violin well-balanced on the shoulder (whether you use a shoulder rest or not!). Below is an exercise Shakeh showed us for getting the feeling into the wrist:

Another step involves adding the bow, and this brings to mind a saying that one of my teachers used to bark at me: "You must divorce your hands!" This is difficult for a number of reasons: 1. Both hands are connected to the same brain. 2. In this case, the violin hand must jiggle and shake while the bow hand directs a smooth, gliding motion. Sometimes, a vibrato beginner tells the left hand to vibrate, and the bow hand decides to get jittery and tremulous as well. Here's an exercise to practice separating those motions:

A good vibrato also requires loose finger joints, and that is something you can practice, away from the instrument. Here is Shakeh's exercise for loosening the finger joints:

In general, in the left hand, there are three contact points with the violin: the thumb, the base knuckle (on the side of the hand, at the base of the index finger) and the finger tip. For vibrato, we keep the contact with the thumb and fingertip but slightly -- just very slightly -- come away from the base knuckle, to allow for the motion.

In general, the best policy for delivering the good pitch to your listener's ear is to vibrate below the pitch. In fact, it's really the only acceptable way to vibrate, Shakeh said. If you vibrate above the pitch, the note will sound sharp. If you vibrate around the pitch, the note will sound like a drunken goat. If you vibrate below the pitch, the listener will hear the proper pitch.

Once the vibrato is coming together, you can try putting the scroll against the wall, or against someone else's hand, to stabilize and help support the violin. Then put each finger down, and feel a sense of hanging from the fingerboard.

When applying your (or your student's) newfound vibrato to a piece, "start with something easy, not a Brahms sonata," Shakeh said. (For example, "Chorus" from Suzuki Book 2 works quite well).

As your vibrato develops, you can also practice different numbers of oscillations per second, to give yourself a range of vibrato speeds and widths.

"There's no quick cure for vibrato," Shakeh said in conclusion. "Just like you can't be an Olympic athlete all at once, vibrato will take time and practice."

At the end of the class, Shakeh showed us a number of ways that different artists use vibrato, comparing their use of vibrato in one piece, "Leibesleid," ("Love's Sorrow") by Fritz Kreisler. Here are some links, check out these widely varying uses of vibrato!

"Liebesleid," played by Dajos Bela (1926)
"Liebesleid," played by Anne Akiko Meyers (2011)
"Liebesleid," played by Joshua Bell (2008)
"Liebesleid," played by David Oistrakh (1937)
"Liebesleid," played by Ivry Gitlis
"Liebesleid," played by Josef Gingold
"Liebesleid," played on the piano by Sergei Rachmananov (I could swear I hear vibrato in there!)


June 26, 2013 at 12:44 AM · Beautiful, clear and simple! I will certainly try these with my students. Thank you Laurie and Shakeh.

June 26, 2013 at 03:20 AM · I can do a decent vibrato (both wrist and arm) with the scroll against the wall but when I remove the wall support it all goes out the window. I wonder how useful that exercise of using the wall really is ? I know everybody recommends it but I am beginning to think it might be a waste of time.

I have been meaning to raise this point for a while now so any comments are welcome. I do have a very narrow wrist vibrato but I am far from happy with it in the first position. My third position vibrato is better.

June 26, 2013 at 12:18 PM · I've been meaning to incorporate vibrato exercises in my bare-essentials practice routine so this is a very timely entry for me, thanks!

June 26, 2013 at 03:50 PM · Brian, it sounds like you have the feel of it, and maybe you are simply past the wall stage! Just keep shakin' and those muscles will get stronger and your vibrato will take off.

June 27, 2013 at 07:33 AM · Oh, how I remember 'polishing the string'. Week, after week. then the weeks became months, and the months became terms. and yes, the terms, became semesters. As the semester became a year, I finally was told, I no longer had to practise the exercise, I was allowed to use vibrato in the piece.

I was such a slow learner :(

June 27, 2013 at 01:14 PM · Thanks, it is similar to what I have been taugh and even goes a bit further in the originality of exercises (and it looks fun!) Thanks a lot for that Review!

When I learned vibrato some years ago, I worked an awful lot with various explanations from various teachers. My fingertips are tiny with no fat at all. It added a challenge...

But I think the most important discovery was to realise that in order to acheive a vibrato (and these exercises), the pressure has to be very light on the fingers and the whole hand, arm etc so relaxed. It's a very zen thing and most of us, teen/adult learners (but even kids I am sure...) have way to much tension when we start the violin to even imagine what it is to play tension free. Of course, tension free comes not only from the body but from the proper instrument fit (chin/shoulder etc.) A tense upper body won't allow mush vibrato...

Anyway, I remember as if it was yesterday... I was playing easy Christmas music with a string group and suddenly I was able to do vibratos! It was the first time my playing actually really sounded like a violin, like an intermediate player able to do some passages and notes similar to "on the Cds"! What a joy it was...

June 27, 2013 at 03:38 PM · Kreisler all the way. But it isn't just the vibrato. The tone production has to be first.

June 30, 2013 at 11:42 AM · Thank you, Laurie. I'm learning vibrato as an adult beginner. I'm learning the song Ashokan Farewell, and vibrato certainly adds color to it. My vibrato learning has hit a wall. I think a different tack will help me grasp it.

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