hacks for your technique, part 2: cultivating vibrato from the arm

Vibrato may be describable in words, they’re not easy to come by. For most students, it’s a bit of a long haul to add it to the list of techniques considered well in hand (pun resisted). I’ve had several freakish students pick it up instantaneously, like some sort of sorcery, while the majority of others toils away for months and usually comes out the other end with some kind of serviceable technique. For me, vibrato may be something I can automate after all this time, but it’s admittedly the first thing to get weird and require a bit of conscious effort when I return after spending time away from the instrument. This is all to say that I have sympathy for those who are still not quite there with it.

The most common sticking point seems to be where the rotation/wobble comes from– which, in the tradition I belong to, is the forearm. There is a tendency to either allow (or force) the wrist into a torsion of its own, creating a conflict in the mechanism. I call this the “doorknob” effect; a twisting wrist that finishes each movement of the arm much the same way the hand and wrist operate when turning a doorknob. The entire structure: the forearm, wrist, top of hand and fingers is supposed to move as a unit. A loose, wobbly unit. Even writing that feels ridiculous. There are so many apparent contradictions in the way it’s supposed to function that I do most of my work by asking students to watch me, watch themselves in a mirror, listen, and try not to get too discouraged.

One learning aid is pictured below: a line drawn on the bottom of the arm that is hidden when the hand is in a neutral position (90º angle to the fingerboard) and then is revealed when the forearm moves backwards, and is more or less hidden when the forearm is at its forward most point. I do not tend to draw on students, but rather trace the line with my finger to give them a haptic sense of the area we’re after. The theory is that if the student focuses on moving both endpoints of the line at the same time, the arm will move as a single unit, allowing the energy to flow from the deep forearm to the fingertip unimpeded by an interfering, undulating wrist.

There are lots of other things that can go wiggy with vibrato, of course. But this is a decent enough starting place for work to proceed from.

Oh, and to clarify, the line I painted on myself is more of a triangle. It narrows near the wrist. Sorry if there is an optical illusion making the arm look twisted. Look at the top of my arm for reference, and that should clear it up. Flat city! No twists, I promise!

The line on the underside of the forearm, mostly on display during backwards rotation
The line, mostly hidden, as the arm passes through neutral and the forward rotation


See you tomorrow! I’m here for questions, as always.

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4 Responses

  1. Is there a back, or perhaps a back ribs vibrato tradition? I’m not being silly, that’s where I feel mine has to start from. Otherwise it’s too much work. I can’t believe that I’m the only one with that sensation,

    1. I feel like the weight of the arm may come from the back a bit, but there should be no flexion or work in the back for vibrato, as far as I can tell. How would the back- the scapula, trapezius, lat dorsi, levator- send a rotation to the fingers? What does your shoulder do while the back (or back ribs) is generating the vibrato? Could it be simply increased sensation rather than a driver of the motion? Tension? Some byproduct of arm movement? Especially from my recent body work, the back muscles seem unlikely to produce vibrato. Maybe it’s a semantic problem. You’ve piqued my interest!

      1. Back some years ago I bought a DVD tilted Jaqueline DuPre In Portrait. It was interesting and entertaining all around. But I was especially intrigued in watching the camera shots of her back during her playing of the Elgar Concerto. It’s quite different from the loose, sometimes almost limp limbs as seen from the front.

        Here’s a still of JDP I pulled off the video of vibrato. See the tense rope of muscle under the skin that goes from the ribs, passing under and bypassing the shoulder, and attaching to the arm:


        I think that rope acts as a sort of spring, with the arm vibrating to and from it’s tension.
        I don’t know of anybody that talks about and can explain it, but obviously she puts in a lots energy in working that muscle. So I just have my own, private explanation that the arm vibrates because that spring it attached it.

        1. I feel like that might be a tendon or fascia- but even if it’s not, you’ll never catch me endorsing “a tense rope”. Too many of those have nearly ruined my life. It may be muscle undergoing a co-contraction, and we’ll never know if JDP was due for an injury from such tendencies. Some people also just have the ability to play with terrible technique and get away with it. You may have excellent vibrato technique and just articulate it differently than I imagine it. The area you are referring to is notorious for causing problems in string players: the Teres muscles are brutal- I break out in a sweat when a PT or massage therapist touches them, because they’re so tender.

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