Why does vibrato suddenly stop, tighten up, get wobbly, or be sporadic? Vibrato can seize up if it starts too fast or it forgets to coast. As is often the case in sports and music, trying too hard causes tension. The last thing you want in the vibrato’s pendulum is friction. The bow has something in common with this. Friction can also get in the way of a smooth bow sound. It makes sense that the bow arm and the left hand can identify with each other’s fear of friction.
For most orchestral violinists it’s expected that they should keep the vibrato going much of the time because it greatly enhances the quality of the sound. Some conductors make a point of asking for a lot of vibrato, even asking to magnify it for an especially romantic sound. If it turns off, it can take a long time to turn on again. Fortunately, vibrato has a friend in the bow arm. Each encourages the other to keep moving. Unfortunately, the bow can turn off as well, taking the vibrato down with it.
There are two techniques that help you prompt the vibrato to begin and to keep going. They involve only a few notes and detachés, but help set up the system of reminders that vibrato depends on. When you’re distracted with dynamics and fingerings, you may need a gentle nudge to keep vibrating.
Exercise One - Right Hand and Left Hand Propulsion
1. Vibrate on four notes in succession, each of them two or three beats, while bowing with a strong, expressive quality. Notice that the movements of both arms, while not exactly the same, complement each other. Like two people dancing with each other, they’re moving to the same drumbeat, but they’re independent. Fluidity and momentum are the hallmarks of dancers, vibratos, and bow arms. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers happily demonstrate this principle on roller skates.
2. At a very moderate speed, notice that the bow arm can be strong and energetic, or gentle and sweet. The vibrato will have a different tempo than the bow arm, with the priority for the vibrato being an even, natural oscillation.
3. If you start the vibrato too fast, it may implode on itself. Let it start gently so it doesn’t overtake itself, even if the bow is playing with extreme zeal.
Exercise Two – Handing the Vibrato from One Note to the Next
1. One of my favorite sensations in the left hand is feeling the ending of vibrato in the first finger, followed by the start of vibrato in the second finger. It combines the clarity of rhythm, as opposed to the type of rhythm on steroids that’s aggressive and knows no boundaries.
2. Let the vibrato be activated more by coasting than by power itself. An overwrought vibrato has trouble finding its coasting gear. The exercise is to pick two fingers and play it on four different strings. They don’t have to be adjacent fingers. Play the first finger with a confident, synchronized movement of the bow. Establish the coasting phase as soon as the note unfolds. Prepare the second finger to start in a timely manner without formally stopping the first finger. This transition is more organic than if you ploughed from one finger into the next. This keeps the beats from seeming blurred. A well-defined beat gives you a little more time to plan ahead.
3. If the bow gets confused by the bow distribution and suddenly stops, chances are the vibrato will stop as well. It’s as if the circuit breaker for the vibrato is activated and the vibrato bales. To prevent that from happening, change your focus often from the left hand to the right hand. If bow distribution is ignored or simply non-existent, running out of bow is as unavoidable as a runaway truck. Better install a runaway bow ramp.
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