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August 2005

Vibrato Exercises for a Stiff Wrist

by Julie Tebbs

This question comes from an adult violin beginner in her 40's who has taken lessons for about 6 years. "My teacher says my wrist is stiff and says this is because I started as an adult."

These problems, stiff wrist, play slow, nervous, are all normal beginner problems. As for the wrist not being loose, I believe that in the case of the adult beginner this is due more to nerves than physical limits.

I've recently been trying to get into the triathlon sport, mostly for weight loss, also for fun. I have never been active in any sport, and have actually been quite athletically challenged most of my life! So the whole thing was a new adventure. Last year, before my first (short sprint distance) triathlon, I took a class from a personal trainer. I was one of the slowest bikers in the class, and the teacher kept telling me to push harder, you can do more than that, etc. I thought I was giving it my all and was really frustrated with her.

One day I finally realized that it wasn't that I couldn't do it physically, it was that I was scared to do it! That bike is really intimidating to me, it had been literally years since I had been on a bike and I was still working on staying upright, much less trying to go fast. I have since been reading everything I can about bike technique, and at the same time I'm spending more time on the bike to get used to it. I'm seeing lots of improvement now, but of course still have a long way to go. I also purchased the cool biker clothes -- the tight shorts, bright colored shirt, funny shoes -- which is purely psycological since I'm still not going fast enough to worry about drag. But it works, it makes me feel like a biker!

I guess what I'm trying to say is that a tight wrist isn't because the muscles have atrophied, but simply because it's a skill that needs to be learned. I believe poor technique causes a stiff wrist, (not the other way around). A few people do it all naturally and make it all look easy, but most have to work at it quite a bit.

Vibrato exercises are great for loosening up your hand over time. BUT don't get frustrated with it, vibrato takes most people (of any age) a long time to get comfortable with, even as long as a year or two. These exercises are great however as long as you do them when you're relaxed and quit when you're frustrated.

Before you begin, you will need to be able to hold your violin up with no hands, making sure the violin stays in a comfortable position and doesn't slip. Shoulder rest or no shoulder rest is completely up to you, you just need to be able to have both hands free.

These are a few vibrato exercises I recommend to my students. It's a bit hard to explain in words, much easier to show you, but here we go:
  1. Put your left hand loosely in first position ready to play. (You don't need your bow for any of these exercises.) Taking your whole hand as if you're shifting, slide your second finger on top of the A string going up the fingerboard as far as you can reach until you're over the top of the violin. Then slide back down. Up and down with no pressure on your 2nd finger at all, just gliding on top of the string. The most important part of this is to be loose from the wrist up through your fingertips, bending at the wrist when it's time to go over the top of the violin.
  2. When you feel like you can do that with no tension, then do this one: Start again with your left hand loosely in first position on A string. This time "glue" your thumb where it is and don't move it (but don't put any pressure on it either!). Now glide your second finger up and down the fingerboard again, going as far up and down as you can reach without unsticking your thumb. You should see your 4 knuckles (the ones attached to your palm) moving forward and backward and your wrist bending easily. Don't try to add speed, just loose consistent motion.
  3. Start doing the above motion with your thumb glued in place and the second finger gliding up and down the string. Now gradually make the gliding motion smaller and smaller until your second finger stays in it's original 1st position place (C# will probably be good). But keep your wrist/hand moving in that same forward and back motion. This will cause your fingers to bend in and out rolling your fingertip on the string. The motion should originate from the 4 knuckles attached to your hand. That part of your hand moves gently forward and back and takes your fingers along for the ride. Only put just enough pressure on your finger to keep it in place, not enough pressure to touch all the way to the fingerboard at first.
  4. Here's an idea I got from a forum on "Knocking-on-the-wall: I find it useful for speed control and moving the hand from the wrist. Holding your left arm in violin position, minus the violin, stand with your forearm against the wall, elbow-to-knuckles. Keeping your hand relaxed, knock gently against the wall with your knuckles, operating from the wrist. Use a metronome to increase your speed, always aiming to stay relaxed and maintaining an even rhythm." I wouldn't increase your speed right away, and when you do, don't try to go too fast.
For all of these exercises, you will see more progress if you work daily rather than in one marathon practice session. So take 5 minutes every day and work on vibrato, and expect progress to be very slow, but well worth the effort.

Reader comments:

From Jennifer, a violin teacher in Salt Lake City, UT:
The hand is a grabbing instrument and does its job very well, especially when used by an adult. It needs to be retrained to be loose so the thumb does not grab. Often when one is taking tension from one place, it migrates to another…such as the wrist, so if the wrist is tense that is often misplaced tension from the thumb.

One way to practice is to take the thumb away and to feel gravity pulling the string down through your finger. One must be very careful, though, that the setup of the chinrest and shoulder rest is working well. If that is not comfortable, the head will not be holding up the instrument and therefore the hand will have to take up the slack. Another place that thumb tension moves to is the jaw, and another is the neck. One must try to make sure that these muscles are loose as well. It is better to get any residual tension to move down to the legs as these are capable of carrying the extra energy. That is why I do not recommend sitting when one practices.

From Rylee:
I used a film cannister with beads or something in it so that I could hear it shaking. I put it in my hand in the position that my violin would be in and shook it back and forth as if I was doing vibrato. I think that it took me just over a year and a half to get it down that way. I thought that it worked very well.