Roger Tapping, violist of the Juilliard Quartet, on the faculty of the Juilliard School, and formerly New England Conservatory, gives a lesson on improving vibrato, particularly for violists
This is an extract from a longer Technique article in The Strad’s January 2018 issue, featuring a number of tips, recommended exercises and repertoire excerpts. Download now on desktop computer or via the The Strad App, or buy the print edition
Vibrato is a wonderful, expressive tool that can add life, emotion, sensuality, inflection and so much more to our sound. It requires a deep connection between both hands, which unite to serve our creativity. This has as much to do with listening critically as with technique. Using our imaginations can guide us more effectively than thinking abstractly about vibrato speed and width. This article is for those who find that, as they play louder, their vibrato sounds tight and stiff, preventing the sound from blooming and singing, and for those whose vibrato is too wide and rich, like thick polish that hides the grain of a fine wood.
For a warm vibrato, viola players, more than violinists, need to play on their finger pads and less on their tips: viola strings are longer, so more of the finger is needed to make the same pitch variation. Lean your left hand back a little towards the scroll so that your fingers point down along the fingerboard without losing some curve of the knuckle; feel for the soft part of the finger pad. This allows more room to vary the vibrato width depending on the expressive needs of the music. On the other hand, you can play much more on your fingertips for precision in swifter passages.
Kreutzer no.5 (pictured below) is one way to practise passing vibrato from one finger to another. For some players, good training in finding a secure hand frame can make them reluctant to get off their fingertips. In constantly varying the amount of finger pad as one passes from fluttery to rich vibrato and back, the angles of the fingers will naturally vary with imagination of colour. This continuously subtle variation breaks up a rigid form which so often leads to fatigue and stiffness.
Listen to how expressively Menuhin varies his vibrato in the passage from 2’38” to 7’35”