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June 2009

Vibrato to your heart's delight

by John Krakenberger

This story starts about 15 years ago. At a chamber-music soirée in a private home, after playing and during the snacks served late in the night, one of the assistants, a neurologist, remarked that during the last years he was being consulted by a new clientèle: People with nervous disorders who were assiduous visitors to discotheques, and fond of rock-music, the louder the better. Our doctor attributed the disorders to our subliminal coexistence with our pulse, our heart-beat, which in this case was attacked by a strong exterior pulse imposed on our own: Hence the protest of our nervous system. It occurred to me that if we were indeed dependent, in some mysterious way, on our own pulse, this could also be used to our advantage.

What I did to start the process was putting my own hand in place of the fingerboard, asking the student to massage an imaginary spot where I just had received an injection. Everybody responded perfectly to this, by doing a vibrato-like motion to do the job. However, when asked to do the same thing on the instrument, the result was far less satisfactory. A pretty wobbly, irregular vibrato was audible. At this stage the student would be asked to go home and think about it, and have several attempts towards improving. After a week or two, the first resistance to new sensations having been overcome, I then started on my scheme related to the neurological phenomenon mentioned above.

With a half-note melody, for beginners, such as Sevcik op 2 no 4, or a two-octave scale, the student was asked to play this for 2-3 minutes each day with the metronome ticking away all the time, to start with at 80 beats per minute, four beats per half note,one half-note per bow. After a few weeks, the tempo would be changed to a range between 60 and 96 beats per minute, and the bowing pattern altered for longer slurs.

An average student would develop a very reasonable, regular, well-sounding vibrato as soon as three months after starting on this discipline. It appears that our organism wants to conform to the artificial heart-beat of the metronome, and supply by its own exact multiples of the given tempo. The metronome does not beat rhythm in this case but acts as pulse, and that is a different matter altogether. (I only resort to the metronome for rhythm if the student has trouble with beat, or to clarify a very complicated score; otherwise I like to rely on the student's own rhythmic ability).

Most students will stop vibrating just before the next note is to be stopped. This must be pointed out to them: They should vibrate until the next finger "falls" on the next note. A few reminders during the first weeks of work will do.

If any of the teachers reading this has access to an oscilloscope, it is easy to verify the results: You just feed one single note through a microphone, and adjust the beat of the oscilloscope to the one of the metronome. You will be surprised how after a few moments an average student will produce a remarkably even sinus-wave with his vibrato, and that crests or valleys will show the multiple of the given tempo, at a regular frequency. It is precisely this regularity which carries tone.

The remarkable result of the method is however that in some mysterious way the personality of the student has stayed intact: Good carrying tone is achieved, but different students still sound dissimilar and if you know them well you will recognize their inner voice and way of expressing themselves.

John Krakenberger is an accomplished violinist and highly experienced teacher and offers a number of articles on his own website at This article was previously published in "The Strad" Magazine and can be read there.