Effortless vibrato

Violin vibrato: how to make it flexible and effortless

Effortless vibrato wave
Of all string techniques, violin vibrato is the most misunderstood. In fact, I feel sorry for him: sometimes people talk about him like he’s the most important guy in the room:

“You’re the fingerprint of the sound! You’re what keeps me coming back for more!”

Then a minute later, he’s an unwelcome bore:

“Everyone vibrates everything these days. Give it a rest already!”

A violin vibrato to forget

Sometimes it seems like the best solution is just to “get by”: to produce a vibrato that doesn’t intrude on the sound, doesn’t mess up the pitch, and doesn’t tire out your arm in the process. That way nobody can complain, right?
It is true that your violin vibrato should not do any of the following things:

  • Change the fundamental character of the sound your bow is drawing
  • Distort the pitch
  • Introduce tension in the arm or hand

But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be a beautiful, distinctive feature of your playing!

A vibrato to remember

Fischer Warming Up The key is flexibility: flexibility of speed and width, all while decorating the pitch rather than distracting from it. My favorite exercises for developing and maintaining that flexibility come from the Simon Fischer book, Warming Up.
I use this book every day to maintain the key components of my playing. Unlike Fischer’s other books, I haven’t seen this one for sale on Amazon, but you can order it directly from his website:
Simon Fischer’s Warming Up
I especially love the way he lays out the section on vibrato. His key concepts make so much sense:

  • all vibrato derives from finger flexibility
  • vibrato relaxes down from the pitch
  • just one impulse: “up”, rather than two (“up, down”)

But I have found that many people need help understanding the four specific exercises that Fischer describes in the text. I’ve seen some interesting interpretations, some of which I fear won’t bring about the desired results!

A video to point the way

So I made a video showing how I use Fischer’s vibrato exercises. In the end, the four motions combine for some rhythm practice with the metronome. If you do these exercises daily, you’ll find that your vibrato starts more easily, passes from finger to finger, and adapts to different tempi and characters. In a word, effortless!

31 thoughts on “Violin vibrato: how to make it flexible and effortless”

  1. WOW! Thank you very much Nathan for this video. This is a fabulous
    Christmas present.
    Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  2. Thank you for your helpful writings etc. on violin. I am subscribed for your newsletter already, but I cannot locate my username and password to access the members’ area of your website. I tried twice earlier this week to sign up, but no email ever appeared with a password. I hope you can help me with this. Thanks again for what you do – I’ve shared your website and newsletters with my students and friends.

  3. Thanks Nate, like and will try steps 1,2,3 put 4 seems like it might confuse the arm vibrato motion my teacher has been showing me.
    Happy Holidays

    1. Well, part of Simon Fischer’s rationale is that every vibrato can use elements that come from arm, hand, finger, etc. But any of these motions that you practice will build flexibility and awareness! Do the ones that you can now, and you can always visit the rest later.

  4. Thanks for the explanation, Simon Fischer’s comment on the vibrato motion of forward, forward, had me at a loss of what he was trying to convey with just words.

  5. Thanks Nate! I’ve been playing with these ideas all day . . . the idea of UP has already put more energy and control in my vibrato. Long term, I think it will address the left hand tension issues that have plagued me. Thank you again!

  6. I disagree with what you said about the sliding vibrato. One of the greatest and most famous violinists of our generation, Anna Karkowska, uses this style of vibrato to hauntingly beautiful effect. I believe her vibrato was clocked to be far faster than the second place winner of fastest vibrato speed, that of Jascha Heifetz, and at a rate of Mach 5, it was five times faster than the speed of sound. You could see it before you could hear it, but the sonic effect, once heard, could fell trees upon impact.

  7. Hi Nathan. I would like to comment one thing about vibrato that all professional violinist have been misunderstanding during years and years. The vibrato modifies the pitch up and down. Vibrato, definitely, is not below the pitch. You need a software called intonia to see it. You can record any violinist and you can verify that his vibrato goes up and down the note. The software is cheap. Here you can see some examples of great violinist. Press “Heifetz Plays Vitali” to see Heifetz’s vibrato. Each white line is a note. Pitches above the line (sharp) are showed in red colour and in blue the flat notes. Enjoy!
    PS: I highly recommend this sofware to analize playing. Is designed for string instruments.

    1. Hi Raúl, and thank you for this link. I just played for a few minutes with the software, and so far you’re absolutely right! I pulled up the Heifetz opening to the Bruch concerto to test. This may be one of those pieces of wisdom that’s useful for producing the result (I certainly have found it useful) while actually being wrong! Now, Heifetz did have the reputation for riding just above the orchestra’s pitch, so could it be that the top of his vibrato produced that effect? Nevertheless, I didn’t expect it to be so evenly distributed on both sides of the line. When I have more time I would like to record myself the same way.

      1. Hi Nathan, I’m happy you find it useful. I’m only an amateur violinist, but I have analized the vibrato of most great violinist (Perlman, Milstein, Julia Fischer etc) and it is always the same: vibrato is above and below the pitch. I don’t know why great violin pedagogues don’t know that fact.
        The software is also great to check that no violinist play in tune, I mean 100% in tune.

  8. Thanks so much for putting together this video. I’ve heard many of the concepts before, but your explanations and demos got a lot of it to “click” for me. I’ve started incorporating the Simon Fischer warmup exercises into my warmup, and even after just a few days, I notice a difference in my vibrato.

  9. Great video thanks! As you play without a shoulder rest, when you vibrate does your hand still hold/touch the violin neck with the (first finger) side of your hand? Does the thumb offer more support underneath the neck? Or does a sufficiently relaxed hand allow it all to move even while touching? I am playing without a rest now (much better on the neck) but struggling with vibrato. It is worse on the viola with the added weight!

    1. Generally it does touch with the first finger: one of the three “points of contact” (thumb, finger, collarbone). On occasion, if I need a wider or more free vibrato, the thumb alone will support the instrument but that is the exception. A “soft” hand that doesn’t squeeze should allow sufficient movement for a normal vibrato even when the first finger contacts. I imagine the viola is more cumbersome! At least you aren’t dealing with the additional weight of the rest as well!

  10. Nathan, I do have Simon’s book and did review your videos in detail. After trying the motions the way you explain them for several days it’s rather unclear from my standpoint on how to produce these motions (nail joint, rolling finger) without using the concept of arm or wrist motion, the way vibrato is traditionally thought. The exception is the “sideways” motion away from the neck, and I’m completely baffled by this. In fact, when I work with students at the early stage of vibrato, they sometimes attempt this type of lateral motion, but to no good effect.
    In short, aren’t these motions really the result of an impulse from the arm or wrist, perhaps adding in a touch of “finger” vibrato?
    Thanks for this deeply granular look at vibrato!

    1. Hi Bill, sorry to have missed your comment before! You’re right of course. Any vibrato worth its salt will involve the hand, wrist, arm, in some combination. What I love about Simon’s approach is that it focuses on the finger as the end result: the thing you’re actually trying to get at. I’ve seen it demystify the process for many students (and even professionals)! But the old ways survive for good reasons too. If they make more sense and bring better results, by all means stick with them. Likely your end result will be the same.
      As for the lateral motion (number 3), it’s very subtle in the “finished” vibrato. But there are side benefits to practicing that motion in rhythms, I believe (increased flexibility, softness of the hand).

      1. Nathan – Thanks for that clarification. Looking again at #3, the lateral motion, I’m finding it’s a bit easier to get that motion started with the violin in “guitar” position and the scroll high. And yes, now I can see how that is subtly part of a finished vibrato, especially in an arm vibrato motion. The more I look at this, I find there are many, many moving parts in a great vibrato, and the real job is to avoid impeding any of that motion.

  11. Watching Milstein, I noticed his vibrato tended to originate from the arm, as it seems to from you as well. Is this my imagination? I ask because I am in the process of developing vibrato and I practice both motions.

    1. Milstein, like all the greats, used a combination and changed it as it suited him. But you’re right that compared to some others, there is less obvious motion at the wrist. It’s all about whatever combination is going to get things moving where it counts: at the fingertip! It can be hard to tell where the motion starts, sometimes even for the player himself. But as long as you keep the flexibility of the finger in the front of your mind, you’ll find what works for you.

  12. Hi Nathan, I have like many others struggled learning vibrato. I have seen your videos, i have a couple of Simon Fischers books. When I read Simon Fishers up, up, I get confused, does he mean towards the scroll or towards the bridge. I guess most violinist and their teachers do not know anatomy and biomechanics and that’s why there is som many “good” advices concerning the learning of vibrato. I therefore analyzed what the finger, the wrist and the forearm does i the vibrato. I am an amateur violinist but also a medical doctor. When you look at the hand from a biomechanical point of view it is in the most relaxed position with the knuckles and the fingerjoints a little flexed. This is the hand shape you want as playing position on the fingerboard. If you want to change this shape and straighten the distal finger joint as you want in vibrato, you have to make an active movement of the hand towards the scroll by making a dorsal flex i the wrist. When you stop the movement and relax, the finger and the the hand makes a passive movement back to the relaxed hand shape because of the elastic properties of muscles and tendons. The thumb is rotating around it axis going clockwise when the hand move towards the scroll and counterclockwise when the hand goes back to its relaxed position. You can with this method vibrate without effort and in full control of speed and width. You can make “arm” vibrato in the same manner, you make the wrist movement lesser and rotate more in the forearm. Even “finger” vibrato is easy, just smaller movement i arm and wrist. I my opinion there is only one way to make vibrato, but you can “tune” it by how much arm and wrist contibute to the movement. Try it.
    Best Regards Palle Thaarup

    1. Hi, and thanks for the detailed note! I agree that my fingers are relaxed when a little flexed. The question is whether the vibrato motion goes from that position to more flexed, or less. Either way involves some kind of active motion. So mine (and most other vibratos I have observed) works the second way.

      1. hi Nathan, I enjoy your videos and excellent tips, but this time you have me confused. What Palle says makes sense to me. When playing without vibrato, I would like to have my hand and fingers in a relaxed position. Adding vibrato would imply adding tension. It seems to me that you do the other way around: the up movement is the movement in which you add tension, and up means ‘to the right pitch’. So in that case you play the lower off-tune pitch relaxed, and the higher in-tune pitch with tension. Somehow that sounds weird.

        1. It depends on how you think of tension, I suppose. Some muscles have to contract in order to do anything on the violin: place or lift a finger, shift, draw the bow, etc. So it’s about which muscles and how many, and avoiding having different muscles “fight” each other. The vibrato motion should not be too taxing in any case. You could simply play the whole vibrato with the same effort or tension, down and up. How much that would be, you’d need to experiment to find out. And in fact, that’s how most people learn the motion.

          The nice thing about having a more “relaxed” point of the motion (circle if you think of it the way Simon Fischer does) is that it helps create the feeling of one motion, one circle, rather than both a down and an up. It’s debatable how much of this truly is audible, so it’s whatever helps get you that relaxed and flexible (in terms of speed and width) motion!

  13. Philippe Cluzel

    Hi Nate, and thank you for the video.
    I was wondering if you could comment on the relationship between the motion of vibrato and clamping the violin with the chin. I am asking because I am not using a shoulder rest, and unsurprisingly I find that if I make a large motion with my arm I need to ‘hold’ the violin harder with the chin, which can also develop tension. Alternatively, smaller hand motions relying on more finger flexibility can have a much smaller impact on the chin and neck. In fact, I have been trying to play the Fischer exercises with the chin up without clamping the violin at all in order to explore whether it would help to develop an efficient vibrato by not involving the chin at all…Of course it is all about exploration and trying what works for you, but could you share your thoughts about how hard you hold the violin with your chin when you vibrate or/and if you ever had to think about this?
    Additionally, I would like to thank Palle for sharing his quantitative analysis of the pitch during vibrato. What a great finding!

    1. When you play without a shoulder rest, you’ll find that you need a subtle pressure not only “up” from the left arm/hand but also “in” toward the body/collarbone. This way you won’t need to clamp with the chin/head so much. Also another reason to develop that flexibility in the fingers so that you don’t need big arm motions for your vibrato!

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