Vibrato on Violin: How to Master it

5 January, 2019
Vibrato on Violin: How to Master it

Vibrato on violin is one of the best vehicles of expression for a string player. For beginners it seems to be one of the most intriguing aspects of the violin. So I wanted to inform you about the proper performance methods and also to warn you of starting too soon. You should introduce vibrato on violin around the time you begin to play generally in tune and are able to hear and correct when you are out of tune.

Vibrato is the rapid (yet slight) lowering (in pitch) and returning of a single note in music. Take note: our ears favor higher pitches. What this means is that if you quickly shift pitch equally above and below the desired note, it will sound sharp (too high). What we must do is vibrate from the desired note down, and return to the desired note.

Practicing vibrato separately

Vibrato on violin will initially be just another thing to think about while you are trying to play a piece of music. For this reason I suggest practicing it on its own at first. Do this by playing scales for the purpose of learning vibrato. When you first start, you should practice scales both with and without vibrato. This allows you to practice intonation as well as vibrato.

How fast should vibrato be?

With a little experimentation you will discover that there is a range of quickness for vibrato on violin that will produce a tasteful sound. Because the pitches/notes on the violin or viola sound higher than the cello or bass. It stands to reason that vibrato for a violinist should be slightly faster on average than the lower instruments.

I suggest practicing a violin vibrato range of 5-7 beats per second (bps). This gives you a range of colors to use for different styles of music. This means 5-7 full cycles of vibrato, from the original pitch, to below that pitch, and back.

How wide should vibrato on violin be?

The width of your vibrato (or how far below from the original pitch you go) will also give your playing different colors, and again there is a tasteful range you can practice. Naturally, the faster the vibrato the narrower it will be. The slower your vibrato, the more time you have to get away from the original pitch.

In music, the semi-tone (or the closest distance between two musical notes in Western music) divides into 100 degrees called cents. This is so that we can talk about the slightest differences in pitch. Most people can't hear a difference between pitches a couple cents higher or lower, but it is a way to talk about these subtleties. 

I would say that a wide vibrato streches 40-50 cents below the original pitch (or around a 1/2 semi-tone lower). A narrow vibrato might be very, very close in pitch to the original note, maybe 5 cents, and create a shimering effect on the sound. Narrow vibrato is naturally faster than wide vibrato. I would try to practice a medium to narrow vibrato so that you keep the intonation accurate and are able to produce a relatively fast vibrato.

Arm vibrato, hand vibrato and finger vibrato

There are different ways to create vibrato on violin. The basic vibrato (arm vibrato) is achieved by moving the arm at the elbow away from and toward your body so that the finger which has been placed on the fingerboard rocks on the string, minutely changing the pitch. In arm vibrato, the wrist is kept steady (aligned with the arm) and the fingers relaxed, so that the movement in the elbow can affect the placement of the fingertip on the string.

Hand vibrato is a variation on arm vibrato. It is the same motion of the hand away and toward your body, yet achieved by the wrist instead of the elbow. Some violinists use hand vibrato on violin all the time, which can be very tiring. I suggest using hand vibrato only when you are in the higher positions (especially on the G and D strings) when you can no longer align your wrist with the arm. 

Finger vibrato is the very fast very slight (vertical) movement of the finger in response to the action of placing it on the fingerboard. This is difficult to master and is used for very quick passages where you would not have time to use arm or wrist vibrato on violin. I just wanted to mention it here so that you know it exists and what we use it for.

Open string vibrato

Believe it or not, there is a way to get a vibrato 'effect' on an open (unstopped) string. This is usually only used for the open G string. Because it is the only note on the violin that there is no alternate 'fingering' for. (That would be the open C string on viola).

The way you do this is to stop the note one octave above the open string with your finger, on the next highest string (ex. G, 3rd finger on the D string). And apply vibrato to that note, while playing only the open string below. This creates a shimmering vibrato sound for the open string.

This happens because the vibration of the open string creates a sympathetic vibration in the string next to it (especially when it is one octave higher). And because you are applying vibrato to that higher octave. It passes the effect back to the open string in a similar way, through sympathetic vibrations. It also affects the overtones of the open string.

A brief history of vibrato & when should I use it

Vibrato was initially used in the Baroque era (1650-1750 AD and perhaps earlier) as an ornament to the legato sound of the string instrument. It was not considered the standard way to play. Just the opposite was the norm: a smoothe, round tone produced by the bow and a quiet hand.

Vibrato first appeared in music to intensify the sound, and change the emotional impact of the music. Not all were impressed with the use of vibrato, yet it continued through the Classical era (1750-1850 AD) being included in compositions as something written into the music: specific notes were designated to have vibrato, while generally there should be none.

Not until the beginning of the 20th century did the constant use of vibrato become the standard way of playing. Ensembles looking to revive the sound of Baroque music and older string music have, in many cases, taken vibrato out of their performances to recreate the sound as it would have been heard when it was composed.

Vibrato on violin is a personal vehicle of expression, and so no one should tell you to always or never use it. Music is changable and through the ages the perfomance methods have also changed. Learn to use vibrato, but do not become dependant on it to play music. In this way, as you become more masterful at playing the violin, you will be able to choose what suits the music better.

Vibrato practice methods 

As mentioned earlier, you should practice vibrato practiced 'separately' from the pieces you are playing at first. This means using long, sustained, legato notes for each finger. Slow scales are a good tool for this, but initially you can just use any note.

Generally, the fourth finger (pinky) is the most difficult finger to train. It is usually the weakest and the joints tend to lock (straighten). I would start with the second or third finger, whichever is most comfortable.

Get started

To get the general motion in the arm, get in playing position and tap all four fingers against the upper rib of the violin by moving your arm at the elbow. You can practice like this for a while until you can tap a steady beat.

Use a metronome set at 60 beats per minute (bpm) (or 1 click every second) and tap at various speeds. Start with three or four bps and tap it continuously for at least a minute. If you succeed and remain rhythmically accurate, increase the bps by one. Continue until you can do this at 6-7 bps for an extended amount of time (45-60 seconds).

Make sure to take breaks, relax your arm and shake it out between practices.

Once you can tap these different beats on the rib of your violin, place your fingers on a string. And try moving your arm while allowing the tips of your fingers to rock on the string. Do this to the metronome without the bow, and place all four fingers on the same string all at once. (You do not need to place them 'in tune'). Try to keep each of your fingers relaxed and rounded with the joints 'unlocked'.

Once you are comfortable with this motion on the string, do the same thing with individual fingers. Without the bow at first. Add long sustained notes with the bow, changing the bow consistently every four beats. It is important to keep the bow changes consistent at first so that you can eventually 'forget' about it. Let it be automatic and focus on the left hand. You do not need to play scales at this point, just one finger at a time on any note you choose.

Add vibrato to scales

Add vibrato to scales when you begin to get the hang of it. Again, choose a consistently timed bowing. When you start scales with vibrato, look out for these traps:

  • Inconsistent vibrato: rhymically different from one finger to the next, or one finger without vibrato entirely which happens to the fourth finger sometimes.
  • Vibrato stopping when you need to change bows: you should try to continue the vibrato through the bow changes as though there was no change
  • Vibrato stopping when you change strings or shift: this is similar to when you change bows. Just be aware of your consistent vibrato through string changes and shifts. There is a slight break in the vibrato as you are shifting, yet once you have finished the shift, there should be no hesitation 

Don't forget to practice scales without vibrato for intonation purposes as well. 

Practice first what you can't do well. It seems obvious, but it is tempting to practice what we can already do well. It is more work to practice what we can't do well. But you will advance more quickly if you practice vibrato on the fingers that feel the least comfortable.

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Arisson Santos
Arisson Santos

Arisson Santos graduated in Computer Science at the University of Wales, and he has a Masters degree in Advanced Computing from the Manchester Metropolitan University both in the UK. He has always been interested in computers, technology and of course music. He used to play the trumpet as a child and has been playing the piano for several years. He's currently learning how to play the violin.

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