Thursday, September 12, 2013

Learning Vibrato as an adult

Although no one had attempted to teach me vibrato until this year, I've been playing the violin slash fiddle for a long time now.

Oh, holy relics. I just realized how long ago I started. @^! I mean 26 years. That's... calculating hours... assuming I played 4 hours per week (never was strong at practicing) times 50ish weeks a year - years without touching it (let's say maybe 5, scattered here and there)...

That's about 4,200 hours. I still have, according to the idea popularized by Malcom Gladwell, 5,800 hours before I am good at it.

Because I don't hope to be excellent at it. As Temple Grandin so rightly pointed out here, some talent is also required. And though I have enjoyment and enthusiasm, talent is left out of the equation.

No matter. Let's saw away, happily. And maybe get a touch better at it.

So, to that end, what about this idea of vibrato? If you didn't start when you were a kid, and you have no innate talent, can you still do it? My teacher, John Sumerlin of the Proteus Quartet, thought so, and he gave me a lesson on it. Here's what he said I should do. (Special thanks to John Sumerlin for reviewing the steps to learning a good vibrato.)

1. Put the bow down. You won't be needing it for a while, and you might even want your right hand to help hold the fiddle up, to relieve your jaw a bit.

2. Move the left hand up against the fiddle, to prevent the arm from wobbling in the air, and to keep the wrist steady. Have the violin contact your arm just BELOW the hand, immobilizing the arm but allowing the wrist to move freely. It's only the hand and the fingers that are supposed to do the moving.

3. Choose the most adept finger, and get the motion down with that one, first. I used the second finger, the middle finger. Now, the motion:

4. Place the finger on the fingerboard, preferably on an actual note, on whichever string is easiest for you. Choose an F natural on the A string for the note, and include the release as you flatten the finger, causing a harmonic to be produced. That is the crucial element, because without the release the vibrato will be too tight and therefore too narrow.

5. Make the finger bridged up, bent at all the joints, and then, second motion, roll back until the finger is lying down with all the joints flat and the finger merely touching the string, not pushing it down at all.

6. Repeat this action as if the point was to create a kind of bunny running action, a quick contact with the ground,accompanied by a more leisurely rolling back away.

7. Do this once, then twice, then in quadruplets, until you have built up an ability to be regular and rhythmic. Work on speed in the next step.

8. Now work on speed.

The idea is that if you work on this for five minutes a day, said my teacher, then you should get it in a few weeks. Then you move on to other fingers, and other positions. As the below video demonstrates, it is even possible to do it with your third finger. Even your fourth.

I have to confess, though, my husband still walks into the room looking for the fly he needs to kill when I bow this vibrato.

Oh well. Only 9,998 hours to go.

It seems like everyone teaches vibrato differently. What advice have you been given? Do you feel it's important to learn it?

For more of my posts on fiddle tunes: Improving on the Fiddle,  Giraffes and, well, fiddle songs about drugs, House Sings Saint James Infirmary, Ashokan Fall, Setauket, a Mystery So Far, Fiddle Advice, Noveling Novelties, and Wildness, and Improving on the Fiddle

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