How to play vibrato on violin effortlessly

Vibrato basics

Vibrato improves our playing and makes it mature and colorful. Vibrato has thousands of colors, and indeed, it is very personal and individual for every violin player. Vibrato can be very delicate and tricky to study since it requires us to prepare our technique and be consistent in practicing it.
Many students are eager to do vibrato on violin and start shaking their hands right away in the hope to sound like their teachers or famous violinists. Many times  they produce a combination of shaky and faulty movements that involve excessive tension and uneven speed. Please do not do that. In a healthy vibrato, all parts of the left hand are involved. This is why it is incorrect to think about vibrato as a shaky thing. It is a long-term process of training your muscles and acquiring a new habit that with time will allow you to play with vibrato effortlessly. Vibrato is not a one-time thing, it cannot be polished in one day or week. Instead, it takes effort, consistency, and patience to refine this violin technique and bring it up to the next professional level. But don’t get upset, with correct exercises, guidance, patience, and persistence, you can achieve the first noticeable results much sooner, even in a week or two.

Fundamentals and pre-requisites for vibrato.

As I said earlier, vibrato on violin is a delicate technique. There a handful of so-called pre-requisites for starting to learn vibrato. Since it involves a complex of muscles and all parts of our left hand, understanding of left-hand motion, intonation, positions, etc., I usually ask my students if they are ready for it.

Pre-requisites are:

  1. Are you familiar with the first position and know all the notes?
  2. Are you familiar with the third position?
  3. Do you know how to shift?
  4. Do you have any ongoing issues with the left hand, such as tension or holding the violin?
  5. How good is your posture; are you still looking for a better setup?
  6. How is your intonation doing; are you able to play in tune?
  7. Do you clench the neck of the violin when playing?
  8. Are you completely comfortable with your left hand; does your left hand get tired when playing?

If you were able to answer these questions, and you honestly feel that you are ready to start learning vibrato, let’s move to its essential elements and fundamentals. 

Before you start learning vibrato on violin, we have to make sure that you are ready for it. Let's shortly check.

  1. You know 1st position and all the notes in this position.
  2. You also can play in 3rd position
  3. You are familiar with shifting, its basics, and your shifting is smooth, light, and flexible; your left-hand wrist is soft and floppy when you shift. 
  4. Your posture is good and you are satisfied with it, you have no ongoing issues with tension when playing the violin.
  5. You are pretty much comfortable when holding the violin, and your left-hand is loose and relaxed when you play.
  6. You don’t get tired when playing, and you do not clench the neck of the violin with thumb and first fingers.

Arm vibrato

Arm vibrato is a slower type of vibrato when we use the arm only. It is broader and more profound. We usually use it when playing lyrical music, sad pieces, or moments in music that carry more meaning. It is hard to achieve enough speed with only arm vibrato but it definitely rewards us with full deep colors.

Let's start practicing arm vibrato step-by-step:

Relax your left hand, wrist, and fingers; position your left hand as you were playing the instrument.
Make sure your left-hand elbow is loose and it’s hanging down; the upper arm of the left hand should be completely relaxed and free; feel the weight of your arm. While holding the violin touch your elbow with the right hand. It should bounce and return to its vertical position as before; completely free and relaxed.

Your left hand is relaxed and hanging. It is in vertical position.

relaxed left hand

Push your left hand and make sure it is relaxed. It should bounce back.

vibrato o violin, checking on your left hand

Start slowly moving your left hand up and down as you were shifting from 1st to 3rd position. Don’t place fingers yet because we just want to feel the motion of the left hand. Keep your wrist relaxed and floppy. 

The knuckle of the first finger doesn’t touch the neck so we can move the hand without any resistance. Start sliding with the finger on the string from the first position up to the body of the violin and back. Keep everything relaxed and free.

Spend at least three minutes to practice it. 

Play Video

A good preparatory exercise for arm vibrato. Start moving it slowly and even. Stop when tired. Increase tempo gradually. Remember about keeping your elbow relaxed

Play Video

Arm vibrato in motion

Put 2nd finger on the string. Start applying more pressure to the string so the second finger gradually starts pushing the string more and stays in the same spot without moving or sliding. Instead of sliding, the first knuckle of the finger starts to flex causing the pitch to change. Always start on the pitch and go back from the pitch. Do this exercise as before, increase the speed incrementally in one, two, four cycles per second. Continuously check on your wrist and elbow ( upper arm) making sure the stay relaxed.

Play Video

When you practiced at least one week and your knuckles bend evenly and in tempo you can start playing a very easy and slow melody with a slow vibrato. You can start playing a part of a scale or just any notes and connect them with continuous vibrato. When you start feeling more confident and your vibrato is even and continuous, you can increase the speed of it and decrease the width or amplitude of wobbling.

Wrist vibrato

Wrist vibrato is the most common type of vibrato that is used almost everywhere. It can be much faster and more intense. Also, it can be slower but not as slow as arm vibrato. While it is only wrist vibrato, we have to understand that all parts of the left hand work together. We cannot have a good wrist vibrato without having our hand relaxed and freed because the initial impulse comes from the hand. All organism works as a whole.

Start wrist vibrato with preparatory exercise without the violin. You have to move your wrist evenly and make sure it is not getting tense. Take rest after you notice that the movement loses its evenness. Whenever you push it forward it bounces back almost by itself.

Play Video

After a few weeks of practice, you can go to 3rd position and start sliding your finger by moving your wrist backward and back to the original position. Practice it in tempo. You want to start slow and then increase the speed gradually. You can do it in intervals starting with 1 second per movement; 1 second per two movements; 1 second per 4 movements. Use metronome. You have to do it consistently every day and at least spending 5-10 minutes on this exercise.

Do not use vibrato yet. Continue practicing it daily with patience. Take it slowly and spend at least 5-10 minutes a day. Soon, your hand and muscles will get used to vibrato and you will feel more confident doing it.

Play Video

Put 2nd finger on the string in 3rd position and start applying more pressure so it gradually stops sliding. As we did it with arm vibrato before, the knuckle of your finger will start flexing causing the pitch to change.  Start on the pitch and go back to the original pitch. Keep your wrist and hand relaxed. You will have to practice it slowly and spend some time on it. Do it in increasing the speed gradually as before.

Note that when moving back from 3rd to 1st position, you have to make sure that the left hand stays relaxed and the wrist motion is not interrupted by squeezing the neck or tensing up the upper arm. Any kind of tension in the left hand can prevent a healthy vibrato. You can you hard support for the violin when practicing wrist vibrato in 1st or 2nd position

Play Video

Note that when moving back from 3rd to 1st position, you have to make sure that the left hand stays relaxed and the wrist motion is not interrupted by squeezing the neck or tensing up the upper arm. Any kind of tension in the left hand can prevent a healthy vibrato. You can use hard support for the violin when practicing wrist vibrato in 1st or 2nd position. Your hand will rest and allow you to feel the freedom of movement.

Hard support for the violin

These exercises above are mainly for arm and wrist vibrato. There are three types of vibrato: arm vibrato, wrist vibrato, and finger vibrato. Also, we have a combination of arm and wrist vibrato but I wouldn’t count them as a separate type of vibrato because it is a derivative of both.

A combination of both types

Often we combine these types of vibrato, and sometimes, it’s even hard to define which vibrato we use because we can change it very often. It allows us to be flexible and expressive. 

Finger vibrato

Finger vibrato usually happens in higher positions where wrist vibrato can be hard to use. It is is not easy to achieve. 

Tips for vibrato

  1. Keep your wrist straight. It is a continuation of your forearm. It should not be bent or collapsing towards the neck of the violin.
  2. Find support for the violin. You can put the violin’s scroll on something soft in front of your eyes while holding the instrument and practice vibrato. It allows you to relax your left hand more if you previously struggled with the relaxation of the upper arm and improve the productivity of your exercises. 
  3. Remember that while practicing vibrato we start on the pitch and go back from the pitch. It means that you move down and back up to the original note. 
  4. Use hard support for arm and wrist vibrato when you start practicing it.

How to hold a violin bow for beginners- read here

I would love to answer any questions related to violin lessons and violin playing. You can email me at [email protected] or book your free trial lesson here.

Vlad Evstafiev, a violinist

Internationally trained violinist Vlad Evstafiev holds a Master in Music diploma from Glenn Korff School of Music where he was accepted as a Graduate Teaching assistant studying with David Neely, a former student of esteemed Joseph Gingold.Vlad served as a concertmaster of UNL Symphony Orchestra in 2015-2017.

Vlad also holds a Performer Diploma in violin performance from Indiana University, Jacobs School of Music, where he studied with a member of Grammy awarded Pacifica Quartet, Austin Hartmann.

Vlad, originally from Ukraine, received his first Masters of Music diploma in Moscow, Russia, studying with Prof. Golovina, a former student of both, Leonid Kogan and Yuri Yankelevich. He worked professionally with many orchestras including The Bolshoi Theatre and Moscow Central Philharmonic Orchestra under Yuri Simonov. In 2010, Vlad was invited to join San Luis Potosi Symphony Orchestra in Mexico, where he played with them for four years as the assistant principal of second violins as well as in a professional string quartet. At the same time, Vlad worked as a violin teacher at the State of San Luis Potosi School of Music and taught privately as well. Throughout his career, he has had great opportunities to work with such amazing, internationally recognized well-known artists as: Yuri Simonov, Maxim Vengerov, Anton Miller, Ben Folds, Leila Josefowicz, Midori Goto, Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham, Pinchas Zukerman among others

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