A popular discussion about vibrato’s direction has always confused me. It’s the debate as to whether you vibrate up to the pitch from below, or starting at the pitch and vibrating below it. I heard this first in college, and I bought into it because it had an air of logic and erudition around it. (I don’t remember which direction was "correct," but it’s not important.) Many years later I found a more logical way of understanding vibrato, without worrying about which direction I was using.
Vibrato in Its Purist Form
The explanation that makes sense to me is that it’s an even oscillation around the pitch, not below it or above it. In essence, make sure the note is in tune, then vibrate around it. The center of the oscillation will ring with pure intonation. Parsing a pendulum, and over-analyzing which direction you’re going in, will dig a deep hole that’s hard to get out of.
In the scenario of vibrating around the pitch, the purity of the intonation is always heard, helped along by the fact that the distance from the pitch is consistent. In other words, the center of the movement is always the dead center of the pitch. However, if I split hairs and let things get too complicated, while concentrating on vibrating up to the pitch, I’m more likely to play out of tune.
If you alter the basic area or equilibrium in which vibrato resides, the pitch will start migrating. If you change the principle of vibrato having an evenly spaced area above and below the pitch, you’re complicating a simple process.
The Hummingbird Principle
Vibrato presents an interesting paradox: the pitch changes, but the underlying, dominant pitch doesn’t. A hummingbird’s speed of flapping its wings shows how vibrato can be mirrored in nature: though the wings are in constant motion, the hummingbird can hover in one place.
The success of vibrato depends on:
How the Ear and the Fingertip Work Together
Vibrato reminds us of the role that the ear plays in finding the right intonation target. Not only does the ear teach you to play well in tune, but it directs you to play sharper or flatter, depending on the context of your ensemble’s playing. What effect does this have on vibrato?
The ear serves two functions when it comes to vibrato. First, it lets you know the moment that the pitch is slightly off, so that you can keep it centered. Second, the ear both begins and ends the cycle of vibrating. That is, it starts the process by telling you the quality and richness of sound you’re trying to produce. Vibrato begins during the moment of silence before playing, and then it starts suddenly, instantly blooming with full movement. It ends the cycle with affirmation, letting you know you got the results you hoped for.Tweet
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