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The vibrato, more perhaps than any other feature of violin-playing, excites the ambition of youthful players, and seems to represent to them the very pinnacle of musical joy and aspiration. This oscillation of the finger is to them a constant delight; and until they can produce a tone-effect resembling in some degree the results of a good vibrato, their happiness is incomplete, and violin-playing is devoid of all charm and elegance. That the vibrato is a peculiar and, often, dangerous accomplishment, no one knows better than the teacher who, so frequently, finds it a serious impediment in the development of a healthy and beautiful tone. Often it is advisable,—if not absolutely necessary,—entirely to eliminate the vibrato from the pupil’s work; for not only may it mar, but actually destroy, a performance otherwise admirable.

Few violinists, indeed, can remember their earliest acquaintance with the vibrato. It is, perhaps, no exaggeration to say that, in most cases, the vibrato is an unconscious acquirement. At any rate, it is taught but rarely, as little need exists for pedagogical assistance. The average pupil is so delighted with that wavering and intensified tone that he requires no urging to make the first awkward experiments that precede the acquirement of the vibrato. These early and eager attempts soon form into a very strong habit which, more often, the teacher finds imperative to repress rather than encourage.

Before attempting to acquire the vibrato, all pupils should learn its true mission and possibilities. It is a general misconception among inexperienced players that the vibrato is the chief mechanical means of beautifying tone. This accounts, perhaps, for the uncommon zeal they display in acquiring it. In reality, the causing of a vibrato lends additional warmth to the tone by means of the intensifying process of oscillating the finger. In other words, the vibrato intensifies tone. More than this it cannot accomplish; for beauty and purity of tone-production are easily traced to other causes.

At the beginning, every player may decide for himself which one of the two kinds of vibrato he wishes to cultivate—the slow or the rapid vibrato. In all probability, the pupil will make no deliberate choice. The rapidity of his vibrato may be decided solely by his temperament. But it is well to call attention to this possibility of choice, since two distinctly different kinds of vibrato may be employed, each differing very materially from the other in the character of tone which it produces. And it is specially worthy of mention that the mechanical means of producing the one cannot be successfully adopted in producing the other.

Either deliberately or intuitively, most players acquire the rapid vibrato. Here, the wavering of the tone is due solely to the effort of the finger. If the vibrato be a good one, the tone will gain in warmth and brilliancy. But a vibrato of excessive rapidity should always be avoided, inasmuch as it inevitably causes impurity of intonation, and reduces the possibility of cultivating a tone of any great breadth and volume.

The slow vibrato is a peculiar accomplishment. Its production is not dependent upon, or the direct result of, finger-effort. The mechanical process may be described as being a delicate swinging to and fro of the whole forearm. The resultant tone contains an element of pathos which is entirely absent in the rapid vibrato. Great care is required, however, to avoid an extremely slow movement of the forearm. Exaggeration of the slow vibrato proves destructive of good tone, and, like the too-rapid vibrato, renders perfect intonation absolutely impossible.

Needless to say, the subject under discussion is, like many other questions related to violin-playing, peculiarly opposed to word-analysis. However clearly one may describe a mechanical process of the nature of the vibrato, the result must be inadequate as far as a complete comprehension of the subject is concerned. But the question is an interesting, as well as important, one, and assuredly is deserving of more attention than is usually bestowed on it by teacher or pupil.

As I have previously stated, the vibrato is more or less a natural or unconscious growth with the majority of violinists. Like the staccato, it is an irrepressible ambition to which even the least capable player joyously succumbs. And though, in pedagogical work, it is generally assumed to be an accomplishment which, with little or no apparent effort, becomes a part of the player’s technical equipment, it must be obvious that it is deserving of special care and supervision since it easily and frequently degenerates into tonal abuse of a quite serious nature.

In the old and original editions of Spohr’s concertos, this great violinist carefully indicates just how and when he wishes the player to employ the vibrato. He employs the sign


with the utmost conscientiousness, even going so far as to lay down didactic injunctions regarding the exact degree of speed which he desires. If, for instance, he wishes the player to begin the vibrato slowly and terminate it more rapidly, he employs the sign

vib2.jpgSuch restriction and minute measurement applied to an art whose higher forms reject cold method and calculation must, in our day, seem very pedantic, if not actually opposed to things artistic. We cannot very well repress a smile when even so great an artist as Spohr seriously attempts to regulate and systematize human passion and temperamental glow. Indeed, nowadays, such methods applied to artistic violin-playing would hardly meet with sympathetic acceptation, but, on the contrary, would excite much opposition or even ridicule. While all good teaching recognizes the necessity of curbing undisciplined or  unbridled utterance, it is hardly compatible with true artistic achievement coldly and scientifically to prescribe exact proportions for the guidance and expression of musical feeling.

But, after all, a lesson may be learned even from such obviously puerile pedantry. In thus limiting the pupil in the use of the vibrato, Spohr’s sole object may have been to guard against excess and misapplication. It is not unreasonable to suppose that a man of Spohr’s artistic dimensions knew full well the futility of attempting to accomplish the purely artistic by scientific means. In all probability, he utilized the above vibrato sign for reasons of discipline—more to restrain the pupil’s ardor and direct his unripe knowledge of tone-beauty than to encourage a stilted or methodical form of expression. And if we can discover any virtue or practical merit in Spohr’s system of indicating the vibrato, we must conclude that it served, at least, the commendable purpose of limiting the use of the vibrato to notes of more or less long duration.

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You are reading Vibrato. from the March, 1900 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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