Achieving a smooth, consistent vibrato can be challenging, even for the intermediate player. I’ve seen many violinists and fiddlers give up in frustration, never fully able to grasp the simple mechanics of vibrato. I don’t want you to be one of those players!
Regardless of your age, you should be able to learn vibrato–I’ve helped 10-year-olds and 60-year-olds alike master it. As with many aspects of learning to play well, the key is understanding what you need to work on and what muscles to use (and NOT use). This article will help you understand the fundamentals of learning vibrato, which will lead to a much more beautiful tone from your violin and/or viola.
Consider these vibrato tips
1. Relax Your Hand
If I grabbed your hand while you weren’t looking, I would feel little or no tension in your hand muscles. I would be able to feel the bones of your hand, and wouldn’t feel the rigidity of muscle activity (at least not for a few seconds). This relaxed state is exactly what you need to achieve for smooth vibrato, as being able to move your hand fluidly is all about avoiding tension.
Consider the other extreme. Imagine you have a body-builder friend with a crushing handshake. If he extends his hand toward you, you will instinctively create extra tension in your hand to prepare for the grip you are about to experience. This type of tension in the hand is exactly what you want to avoid when adding vibrato. Unfortunately, that “tense-up” reaction is exactly what most people experience. Tension in your hand can shut down your ability to get a fluid, consistent hand movement.
Visualize your hand as relaxed, loose, even limp when you play. Try this: put your hand to the neck of your instrument and achieve a good hand position, but keep your fingers and hand completely relaxed. Imagine your hand is exhausted, spent. Slowly press down one finger down on one string, engaging as little muscle activity as possible. If you feel your hand tense up, stop and start over.
You’ll discover that fingering a note requires far fewer muscles–and less energy–than you think. That’s how relaxed your hand should be all the time as you play, but especially when you’re adding vibrato.
2. Use the Right Amount of Pressure
Think about how hard your fingers have to squeeze when using a cheap can opener. The muscles in your hands and fingers have to press hard just to get the can opener knob to turn a few times. If you don’t open cans the old-fashioned way, consider how hard you have to press your fingers and hand to open a tightly sealed pop bottle.
This type of muscle engagement is exactly what you want to avoid when doing vibrato. Pressing your fingers too hard into the fingerboard will make it nearly impossible for your hand to move freely. Using “can opener” force on your instrument can even cause your fingers to cramp up. Too much pressure can also cause your fingers to end up too close together, instead of relaxed and properly spaced.
Try playing a note as you normally would with your second or third finger. Begin relaxing your finger, reducing how hard you’re pressing down on the string. Keep lightening up the pressure until the note no longer sounds cleanly. If you were pressing much harder than you needed to at first, you’re in good company. Most players (beginners and seasoned veterans alike) tend to press harder than necessary on the fingerboard.
Pressing too hard makes smooth vibrato difficult, and can even affect your ability to play fast and in tune. Learn to play with the minimum pressure required to sound the notes, and you’ll find vibrato much easier to achieve.
3. Use the Tips of the Fingers
With tension and finger pressure in check, how you place each finger on the fingerboard is the next crucial aspect of getting a fully developed vibrato sound. The goal is to use the tips of your fingers, pressing down on the string as close as possible to the nail (without actually touching the nail). Correct finger placement helps with points #1 and #2 above as well, making it easier to reduce tension and pressure.
Touch one of your fingertips for a moment, and notice that there’s less “squishy” muscle and skin at the very tip as compared to further down your finger. If you use your fingertip to depress the string, you don’t have to push nearly as hard as when using the softer side of your finger. This frees up your hand muscles and helps reduce tension.
Think of a baseball player hoping to hit a home run. Which bat would she reach for–a metal one, or a foam one? The hard metal bat will transfer more energy to the ball and hit it much farther. In the same way, using the hardest part of your fingertip makes a better “connection” with the string and allows you to use less pressure. Less pressure equals smoother vibrato.
For more vibrato tips, check out this how to do vibrato forum post.