This past summer, we launched a video contest with the theme of “Play.” Entrants were encouraged to show us how they play, why they play, where they play, or just how they have fun with their stringed instrument. We really enjoyed getting to watch the videos submitted. We are pleased to announce that Ted Whittington of Alabama is the winner!
Nice work! In his video, Ted was playing a Franke Henner violin with Dominant strings. As a prize, he wins a Prodigy Coda Bow!
If you want to win prizes too, follow our blog or checkout our Facebook page for the latest contest information.
One of the trickiest, but most essential techniques to learn on a string instrument is the practice of vibrato.
What is Vibrato?
Vibrato is the act of actually altering the pitch of the string by rocking or vibrating your finger the pitch of the note through the physical movement of your fingers.
It’s an artistic effect, an embellishment that adds to the musicality, phrasing, and beauty of notes that might otherwise be played flatly and without character.
Using the Left Hand
Vibrato is as essential to phrasing and musicality as dynamics and articulation with the bow. But unlike the nuances of volume and texture created with the bow in the right hand, vibrato is a unique expression performed with the left hand. For those of us who are right handed, it may seem challenging to train your left hand to do such minute and intricate movements, but with dedicated practice, it will eventually feel so natural you’ll hardly realize you’ve conquered the technique.
The Mechanics of Vibrato
The mechanics of vibrato are slightly different on violins and violas versus cellos and basses because of the angle of the instrument in relation to your body. Cellos and basses are played in an upright position, with the endpins towards the ground and vibrato performed by rocking the forearm and fingers on the strong. Violins and violas are played with the violin perpendicular to the body, in a horizontal position somewhat parallel to the ground with vibrato played with a motion centered in the wrist.
When to Learn Vibrato
Learning vibrato isn’t recommended until you are consistent and confident with your left hand positioning and finger placement first. Ideally, you have learned to play in tune without tapes or guides on your fingerboard. Your muscle memory (in terms of the proper shape of your hand and where your fingers contact the strings) is precise.
Your “Vibrato Mentor”
If you don’t have a private teacher or mentor working with you on your technique, now is the time to “consult” with an experienced player. With these fundamental techniques, like a proper bow hold and vibrato, learning how to do it correctly from the start is so important! Bad habits, especially when it comes to playing a string instrument, are extremely hard to break if initially learned improperly.
Sometimes students learn vibrato and bow holds in school orchestra programs without working one-on-one with a teacher. That one-on-one attention is invaluable with these more difficult and artistic techniques. Be sure to get that individual attention in this learning process.
Tips to Learn Vibrato
Here are a few tips when learning vibrato, whether on the cello or the bass:
Find an experienced teacher to be your “vibrato mentor.”
Relax your hand and arms. Playing with tense muscles will undermine your technique.
Begin practicing vibrato without the bow, simply moving your wrist (on violin/viola) or rotating your forearm (on cello/bass) in a rocking motion on the string.
Practice that rocking motion very slowly, even with a metronome, from slower to faster speeds until the motion is comfortable. Listen for the pitch to bend, actually changing in frequency.
Vibrato is not a “shaking” motion; i.e. don’t shake the life out of your instrument trying to vibrato. The instrument itself shouldn’t move, shake, vibrate, or respond to this movement of your fingers. The instrument will remain still as you rock your fingers on the fingerboard, somewhat like a wheel rolling back and forth on a flat surface.
Once you feel comfortable with the motion itself, add the bow. Practice first with long tones, drawing the bow from frog to tip and spending time with each finger: first, second, third, and fourth.
Using vibrato with your left hand while bowing with the right feels something like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Don’t get frustrated as you practice until the motion in your left hand, wrist, and arm is comfortable! Learning vibrato takes patience and time.
Once you feel confident playing with each of your fingers, try out your vibrato with a slow song with more long tones, like a Largo of some sort.
Now you’re ready to use your vibrato for phrasing throughout a piece. Try varying the speed of your vibrato or starting with a straight tone and adding vibrato to the note.
Remember that vibrato isn’t necessary on every note. Use vibrato with discretion.
Baroque pieces, such as works by J.S. Bach, are typically played with very little or no vibrato at all.
Romantic pieces, such as works by Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky, are typically played with lots of dramatic, wide vibrato,
Good luck! Remember, patience, patience, patience while you practice, practice, practice. Before you know it, what felt like an awkward, impossible technique will soon become second nature. You can do it!
One of my most memorable experiences in high school was my very first time playing in a pit orchestra. I remember it very clearly: the musical was called The Nifty Fifties, all the girls on stage wore poodle skirts, and there was a song called “The Blob” about the 1958 sci-fi horror film with choreography reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. To top it off, I had a huge crush on one of the saxophone players who taught me how to solve the Rubix Cube between songs. What a riot.
In the following years I found myself in the pit again, playing in Fiddler on the Roof and 42nd Street. Little did I know, what I thought was a simple extracurricular activity was just a glimpse of future opportunities playing in pit orchestras as a freelancing musician.
The dark, crowded pit of musicians sitting elbow to elbow below the stage became even more familiar through college. Orchestra students were required to be a part of the annual opera productions, and I became acquainted with La Boheme, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Book of Gold. Then I was thrilled to land a gig playing of more than 60 performances of Forever Plaid and My Fair Lady with the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Not to mention Christmastime productions of The Nutcracker, a piece orchestral players become very familiar with over the years.
It had never occurred to me that there are musicians who can make a living solely as pit orchestra players, especially in major metropolitan areas like New York or London where musicals are constantly running. While it may seem archaic to have live orchestral accompaniment in modern theater, pit orchestras are definitely still alive and essential in musical productions.
Sure, performing in a pit orchestra may not seem very glamorous. After all, you play the same music night after night, which (I admit), can get a little dull after a while. That and no one even sees you! Maybe (just maybe) they’ll see the top of your head and the conductor’s baton occasionally poking up from the depths. But then, on the other hand, you can enjoy being a part of the long-standing tradition of live music in theater.
If you’re looking for gigs, there are actually many opportunities to be a part of pit orchestras—especially at Christmastime when those Nutcracker performances are in full swing in community theaters across the nation. Consider how many musicals and operas are performed every day of the year in New York City alone! There really is a steady demand for skilled musicians in the theater community.
So if you’re set on becoming a glamorous on-stage soloist or orchestral player with the stage lights warming your skin, consider the pit orchestra as a humble, but unique and rewarding opportunity to contribute to the arts community. Who knows—maybe you’ll even learn to solve the Rubix Cube while you’re at it. The possibilities are endless.