So you want to learn violin vibrato? In this complete guide, I'm going to go over the way I teach vibrato to my private students from start to finish. So you can get your vibrato to move in the way it should.
Step 1: Setup the Left-Hand Properly
To learn violin vibrato correctly, it all starts with the left-hand position. Many students think that if they have been playing the violin for a certain amount of time, their left hand should be good enough to learn violin vibrato.
This is not true, as I have seen students that have been playing for as long as 10-15 years have bad habits with the left-hand. Here's the thing. If your hand is in a less than ideal position to play the violin, there is no doubt you will struggle with violin vibrato.
Here are four fundamentals violin playing where tension can creep up with the left-hand, thus hurting your potential for beautiful violin vibrato.
- Your hand position is too low.
- You use excessive hand movement to find notes.
- Your finger angles are not far enough back.
- You lift fingers too high off the fingerboard (leads to over-pressure).
Does any of this sound familiar? You might have learned left-hand fundamentals incorrectly or built some bad habits along the way. Another thing that is very possible is your teacher, or online videos you have been learning from haven't emphasized violin technique as much as needed.
I know way too many stories of students that come to me after taking years of lessons not even see the importance of this stuff... Or how to spot when they are doing things that are crippling their vibrato. It is a shame, but bad habits can be fixed so don't worry.
Follow my System for Setting up Your Left-Hand to Learn Violin VibratoHere are the 4-steps to make sure your hand is in the proper position for vibrato. These are four fundamentals associated with my free vibrato checklist that you can download.
- Set your thumb up parallel to where you place your regular index finger on the fingerboard.
- Set your hand far enough back, while keeping the thumb forward.
- Make sure your hand is high enough in relation to the fingerboard.
- Turn your hand an inch away from the fingerboard.
Some students who learn left-hand fundamentals correctly right off the bat can glide through this first step of establishing proper hand position. Most though need some serious help in this area, as they will never get anywhere with vibrato until they master left-hand fundamentals.
Step 2 - Ensure You Have No Bad Habits with the Left-HandI would say 85% of people under ten years of experience playing violin have some sort of bad habits with the left-hand. Here are some of the most common bad habits.
- Poor finger angles.
- Over-pressing into the fingerboard.
- Using the meat of the finger for fingerboard contact, instead of the fingertips.
- Lifting fingers too high when placing other fingers down.
- Reaching for notes instead of keeping the hand still and relaxed.
- Not squeezing fingers to find E string notes.
- Dipping the hand in challenging areas of music.
- Having the hand too far forward which promotes tension in flat keys.
Focus on Hand Height
Here is a test of your left-hand position which will expose some potential bad habits associated with learning vibrato. Place your first finger low on the E string (F), along with a 4th finger on the G string (D).
Now keep the first finger and fourth finger on both of these spots at the same time. If you are feeling any "force" to reach for these two note extremes, you need to work on establishing a better hand position.
If you struggle to find the two notes simultaneously in tune, you definitely have developed a bad habit of reaching for notes. Which causes hand tension... And hand tension kills vibrato.
Step 3 - Build Flexibility and Fluency with the Hand
I've had every type of student you can think of come through my studio wanting to learn violin vibrato. What I always tell the student is that once we get the left-hand setup correctly, we can start the process of making the hand more flexible. And this can be done with drills to establish consistent muscle memory.
Here is what should be exciting for you. I've developed a drill I'm going to tell you about now that almost every student I've ever had has said it revitalized their vibrato ability. Not just vibrato ability but overall sound as well. Because when the right-hand tenses up, so will the left-hand almost every time.
And that folks is why so many students struggle with vibrato (without them even knowing why). But now you know, and we can be on our way to fixing the problem. Many students never fix this problem because they often don't ever get to this realization on their own. And that is a shame.
Focus on Right-Hand Fundamentals to Learn Violin Vibrato Fluency
All throughout the violin bow stroke, most students are misusing the right-hand to transition the bow for musical notes (another one of the 30-fundamentals). That means when you move the bow from one direction to another; your hand is not doing what it is supposed to.
The wall-index drill always succeeds in helping students fix this problem. If you are doing the drill correctly, you'll train your hand to transition the bow with the small muscles instead of the big muscles. Which will positively influence all aspects of your violin playing. This is huge folks!
Here is how you do it.
- Find a wall or solid object to place your right-hand wrist up against.
- Setup just like you are about to play the violin with your bow in your hand.
- Make sure all your fingers are curved and do not use the thumb or pinky to help the bow move.
- From a still position, "Flick" the violin bow back and forth with your index finger.
The "flick" should not move the bow too far because 99% of the time when you are first starting to do this, you'll have a ton of tension in your hand that should make it difficult to do.
Ensure You are Doing Violin Drills Correctly
If you are moving the bow too far for the wall-index drill, you are likely using your thumb, pinky or wrist to power the bow. And that is exactly what you probably are doing when you are playing the violin as well which is not good!
If you are struggling with this, you should conclude three things.
- You've gotten into a bad habit of using the thumb to power the bow stroke.
- You've gotten bow bounces and bow screetches because of this issue.
- Your vibrato has suffered because tension from your right-hand is imitated in your left-hand.
This along with everything I mentioned in the first section of this article are likely your most significant problems you need to fix in order to learn violin vibrato. I know it seems different to work on right-hand stuff when the vibrato is on the left-hand... But trust me.
I've guided hundreds of students through the process of mastering vibrato, and the right-hand has a lot more to do with it than you think.
Step 4 - Get Your Vibrato to Move Correctly
So at this point, you have your left-hand setup correctly and have been working on some of my drills to improve hand flexibility. Now it's time to get that hand actually to move on the instrument!
The way I like to start off teaching this is to explain how important it is not just to move the hand... But to start with tiny movements. Many people want just to do vibrato rapidly when they are first starting to try it.
This leads to an odd vibrato sound. Patience is critical in this process, so please keep that in mind. Here are the steps for getting the hand to move appropriately for vibrato.
- Choose either a wrist or forearm vibrato and stick to one or the other.
- Put very light pressure down on the fingerboard, to where your finger is very flexible, but pressed down just enough.
- Place a mark on your hand as shown in the image below. Use this a focal point to work on consistent hand movement.
- Move back and forth slowly with your hand, focusing on the consistency of the mark on your hand.
- Include the bow, but focus on tiny consistent movements.
Focus on Gradual Wave Progression for Vibrato Development
I like to teach a system for students to develop a consistent vibrato through a method of what I call "gradual wave progression." If you are just starting with vibrato, try to create four sound waves (or movements) in the down-bow stroke, followed by four sound waves in the up bow. This is an excellent place to start.
If you aren't sure what I mean by "gradual wave progression", envision the sound of two different half steps being played eight times total.
Like this... F# G F# G (Down Bow) F# G F# G (Up Bow)
Now imitate this progression with a lone second finger on the D string moving back and forth. Tip: The vibrato shouldn't move an entire half step, but I'm trying to explain it this way, so you understand the concept of consistency.
Tip: Never let your finger slide away from a fixed point on the fingerboard. The finger should rock but never slide.
Eventually, you can increase the frequency to 8 "notes" per bow and finally 16. Keep in mind (again) that consistency is what you are working on here - not speed. Speed will come. Don't just move as fast as you can hoping it will get better.
It won't! Consistent, consistent, consistent... Please?
Keep Your Vibrato Practice Simple and Gradual
I don't recommend trying to learn violin vibrato in songs yet as it's more important to focus on watching your left-hand while you are practicing vibrato. It could even be a good idea to do everything we have talked about thus far without the bow...
Especially if you are the type that has a hard time with tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. :) Yes, uncoordinated people struggle more with vibrato... It's just a fact. But don't let that get in your way... Everyone will eventually "get" vibrato if they focus on establishing solid fundamentals.
It just might take the uncoordinated person a little more time which isn't all that bad!
Avoid Bad Habits with Moving Your VibratoHere are my top bad habits at this "moving your vibrato stage" that you want to make sure you are avoiding.
- Not having the left-hand setup properly.
- Over-pressing into the fingerboard.
- Having stiff (un-flexible) fingers.
- Trying to move the vibrato too fast to start.
- Not focusing on consistency of the vibrato.
- Not holding the violin correctly under the chin while doing vibrato.
- Tensing up the right-hand as you start moving the left-hand for vibrato.
- Forgetting about other fundamentals in the right-hand like bending the wrist, extending the forearm and more.
All these habits and quite a few more are included in my Violin Vibrato Checklist which you can get access to here.
Step 5 - Intensify your Vibrato
As you start to feel comfortable with consistent vibrato, it's time to take things to the next level. As you probably know, doing vibrato on a single note is a lot different than in a piece or song.
The reason for that is as you have challenging situations that come up with violin music, you are likely changing things (building tension) and losing focus on fundamentals.
This happens to all of us at some point! Keeping both hands relaxed in all situations of violin playing is key to your success with vibrato. It's also key to your success in creating a beautiful sound on the violin.
You'd be amazed at how many violin players struggle to learn violin vibrato because of issues with tension.
Increase Vibrato Waves to 16 (Eventually)
As I mentioned in the moving your vibrato section, intensifying vibrato should mean going from four to eight to eventually 16 waves per bow stroke. This is the goal, but you have to understand the process takes practice and shouldn't be rushed.
Only intensify vibrato when you feel comfortable with the number of waves per bow in all musical situations. That means in your scales, your etudes, your pieces...Everything.
So that means you might be on four waves per bow for a while. And that is fine and expected! At one point I was there (yes I hated it, but now I understand why).
Don't skip the patience part; you'll thank me later. Reason being... Rushing vibrato progress is a common bad habit that will lead to inconsistent and sloppy vibrato. And trust me, you don't want that.
Practice Vibrato Intensification with Scales
One tip for practicing vibrato and getting to the point of intensification is to work on scale thirds. This means instead of just playing a simple up and down violin scale with vibrato, you could also play a more challenging sequence like this.
0 - 2 - 1 - 3 - 2 - 4 - 3 - 1 - 0 - 2 - 1 - 3 - 2 - 4 - 3
Ahhh I am envisioning some of my students that I teach struggling with this right now. :) What is tough with this sequence is it has both 4th fingers, as well as the crossing of strings to deal with.
Which means if you are trying to vibrato each note, you'll have to deal with those things as well as the vibrato, which can be challenging to multi-task. Being able to do 4th finger vibrato comes down to these three things.
- When placing make sure the finger is not over-pressing into the fingerboard.
- Use the tip of the finger with the least amount of pressure possible.
- Keep the finger relaxed so that the pinky is flexible to move when your hand moves consistently back and forth.
Finger pressure, pinky flexibility and many more fundamentals that I talked about in this post are summed up in my violin vibrato checklist. You can print it easily and put it right on your music stand. It will be a nice reminder of everything you should be working on.
Hope you enjoyed this post! Now get your vibrato on and start practicing!