Blog / Ask A Musician: Vibrato

Ask A Musician: Vibrato

Posted on 3 Feb 2015 by Neall Kriete

We’re here to help with advice: if you’ve got a musical quandary, ask one of our musicians! Simply send an email to education@aco.com.au and we’ll post the answer to our blog.

Q: how do you practice trembling a note? I was wondering if there are exercises. Its kinda like patting belly and circling head with hands I think. So do you do?

A: If I understand your question correctly you’re asking about how to learn and practice vibrato. In some ways it is perhaps a little like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, although, in my opinion, it has a more beneficial aesthetic outcome. As you can hear when you listen to someone playing or singing using vibrato, it is an oscillation of a note that hopefully creates a pleasing sonic effect. It can also sound quite awful in some contexts, so beware! There is a school of thought that back in Baroque times vibrato was used more as a special effect or an ornament, rather than continuously applied. If it’s piled on to thickly or heavily, or on the wrong material, it ends up a bit like spreading an oily layer of peanut butter onto a nice delicate ceviche.

In broad terms, cello vibrato is a pitch oscillation caused by the movement of the left arm and hand. It is important to note that vibrato is initiated by the arm and not within the hand itself. In my opinion it’s also worth starting with a vibrato that is initiated by the left arm moving up and down (in the plane of the fingerboard) as opposed to the forearm rolling forwards and backwards and using the finger as a pivot point. You could imagine that it is a little like gluing a matchbox car to the end of your left-hand fingers and then sliding the car up and down the strings of the cello. Only move about 2 centimetres and try and set up a nice rhythmic pulse – you can try experimenting with different speeds – and try and keep your arm and fingers relaxed. The next step it to refine this motion when you anchor the tip of a finger on the note you desire.

As you can imagine, it’s not the easiest thing to write about, without some kind of visual or sonic reference. Luckily there’s a lot of good material on youtube about vibrato, just put in “cello vibrato”. I’d especially recommend Steven Doane’s ideas – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GhMUZCbC14.

Cheers,
Julian