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Developing Effective Vibrato

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Vibrato is a part of virtually every advanced euphonium performance. Among other instruments, it is used for most of the playing on strings, and much of the playing on cornet, trumpet, trombone, and tuba in the brasses, and flute, oboe, and saxophone in the woodwinds. French horn players don't use it as much in the USA, although Europeans use it more. The same is true for clarinet. Vocalists use vibrato most of the time. Clearly, any player beyond beginner level will need to learn how to produce vibrato and how to use it effectively.

Types of brass vibrato

There are five types of vibrato in common use among brass players:

  1. Hand vibrato. Trumpet/cornet players can use hand movement to create a nice vibrato, but that technique is limited to instruments of that straight-out configuration for practical reasons. It may be used by valve trombone players sometimes.
  2. Slide vibrato. Trombones may choose to use slide vibrato because their main slide is integral to their playing and is easily moved. That is not practical for valved instruments (including valve trombone).
  3. Lip vibrato. This is produced by moving the lower lip (usually) up and down slightly to produce the variations in tone and possibly pitch for a vibrato.
  4. Jaw vibrato. Similar to lip vibrato, but produced by moving the entire jaw (not just the lips) up and down.
  5. Air vibrato. This is done by manipulating the airstream. It is extremely common for flute players, but not as widely used among brasses.

My own vibrato is typically lip (I don't move my jaw much; just my lower lip), but I sometimes combine/replace with air vibrato for a different effect. For this article I will address developing and enhancing the lip vibrato because it is the most common for brass.

First, learn to express without vibrato

An appropriate and useful first step is to learn to play with no vibrato to make sure you are in control of the situation. Play a couple of slow, pretty songs using no vibrato. Learn to phrase nicely with no vibrato, like more USA clarinet and French horn players do. This should be the foundation of your playing. Vibrato is an enhancement beyond that, but your basic phrasing has to be good to build on. Even if you already have a good vibrato, this is a wonderful mental exercise. It really makes you think about phrasing. You need that foundation before you add vibrato - the airstream is what really makes a phrase, not more/less/faster/slower vibrato.

Learning control, building muscles

Step two, which can actually be part of your practice right away, is to practice lip trills. Speaking in bass clef: start on open Bb on top of the staff, and slur up to open D, back to Bb, back to D, etc. Go back and forth between those notes at about one per second. Then gradually speed it up. At some point the notes get too fast to really be consciously "playing" one and then the other, so what you transition to is your lip moving quickly while your chops find the middle point between the two notes. If you find just the right point, the lip motion will then "automatically" play the two notes. Anyway, you should develop the ability to start slow, gradually go very fast, and then gradually slow down, all in one breath. Gradually add other notes, so next do it between 2nd-valve A and 2nd-valve C#. Then go up and do this between 1&2 B and 1&2 D. Spread out from there. You will probably start to have trouble when you get down to 4th-line F, so don't bother going lower unless you want to for exercise. The advanced stage of this is to do "bursts" of very fast lip trills for the length of a quarter note. Get good enough that you can start a lip trill immediately at full speed.

Why do step two? Because that is the same motion as a lip vibrato! The vibrato just uses less motion. Doing the exercises will help give you the control to do vibrato wider and narrower, faster and slower. The gradual-speed-change part of the exercise gives you the control to bring vibrato in on a long note after starting it with a straight tone (you can hear this on several of my videos). The "burst" exercise helps get the skill to the point where you can instantly add a fast vibrato to a short note that might need a little extra "ring" to it.

You should extend that exercise to your high register as well. In Morceau Symphonique, there is a lovely high C# in the middle. It is in a range where our muscles are pretty tight, and adding vibrato to that note requires a great deal more strength than adding it to a note an octave lower. But if you can do a lip trill on the high C#, then you have the muscle tone to do a vibrato.

When not to use vibrato

There are times when you need to keep a straight tone with no vibrato:
  • When playing in octaves or with other instruments that aren't using vibrato.
  • Sometimes in pure ensemble playing, depending on context.
  • On successive short-duration notes.

Of the three points above, the 3rd seems to be ignored the most often among players who have well-developed vibrato strength. Generally you should not use vibrato on notes of short duration, but you may still wish to trigger a strong, fast vibrato on an important note in a phrase, even if it is a short note. But in a line of slurred eighth notes, you would not typically want vibrato on each note. This will give an unstable sound to the line - vibrato usually varies the notes' pitch center, and when the notes are short you can generate some very odd effects with vibrato.

Effective use of vibrato

Have you ever noticed how much power a movie's soundtrack music has to influence the mood of a scene? Sometimes the music is very gentle and soft; sometimes it is driving and loud; sometimes it is absent, which can also be dramatic. When the composer wants to lift you and carry you along, the musical lines will often be ascending. Have you felt that lift? How much less power would music have if the entire soundtrack was medium tempo, medium volume, and mid range?

Think about vibrato in similar ways. It is not to be ever-present and always the same intensity. Listen to this video for a couple of minutes (it should jump you to 16 minutes and 50 seconds in):

This is the great Jascha Heifetz playing the Brahms Concerto with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony. The recording is well over 50 years old. He uses vibrato most of the time, although it varies in speed and intensity. But then, as the overall line is ascending, at 17:46 he plays a straight tone on the higher note. The note and pickup are then repeated with ample vibrato, and then the line goes up another step, again with vibrato. That little break of having a straight tone built the suspense much more than just playing vibrato everywhere could have. (While you're at it, you might listen to the whole video. It's worth the time!)

We hear effects like this more obviously presented in jazz music. Often on a long note a singer might hold a straight tone for a while and gradually introduce vibrato. Again, it builds a little suspense and may help lead your ear forward to the next note.

That type of effect can be done in various ways. You can withhold vibrato and add it; you can start with a narrow vibrato and widen it; you can start with a slow vibrato and speed it up; or you can use a combination of those. The same is true in reverse on ending notes. You may start with vibrato and then gradually reduce it until you are holding a straight tone. This may create a calmer, more settled mood.

So proper use of vibrato requires careful thought or instinct about where the phrase is going, where the energy needs to wax and wane, etc. And you have to have the muscle control to do what your heart and head tell you to do. As you listen to other good players, pay attention to that type of subtlety. Look at other recordings of the Brahms concerto linked above and compare how other violinists do it. Compare that passage above with this one:

Both are lovely music, but they are different. You can learn from the white-haired old man and from the young dark-haired woman... and many others. I like to pay attention to string players because they have mastery over technique that is beyond the current euphonium state-of-the-art. But you can learn much from brass players as well, and it may be easier for you to relate to them. Listen to the phrasing of Maurice Andre on this piece:

You can learn about vibrato and air control.

Same learning available in the jazz trombone world:

And hear the same performer actually discuss and demonstrate vibrato on video:

This is a type of learning that should never cease in your musical life.

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  1. John Lebens's Avatar
    You realize of course that a VIDEO of this or any other Euphonium technique from the Master himself would be worth more then a thousand words.
    With that said, I did find your treatise on the vibrato very helpful. Thank you.
  2. davewerden's Avatar
    Thanks for the comments, John! Making a video myself is somewhere on my list, but there is a lot of other stuff in front of it. I do still think it's very beneficial to listen to performers outside the euphonium realm.
  3. RickF's Avatar
    Excellent blog post on vibratos! I really liked your example videos too.

    My teacher/mentor was Fred Dart and he always used the air or diaphragm vibrato. He tried getting me to do that but I never could make it work. His theory was that instead of varying the pitch center as lip or jaw vibrato does, he was varying the dynamic (loud - soft) to get a similar affect.

  4. davewerden's Avatar
    Thanks, Rick! I use air vibrato myself (as mentioned), but much less often. I find it works nicely in combination to give more bite to a lip vibrato in some styles, and I use it by itself sometimes on notes where I can't risk varying the pitch (such as when I'm barely hanging on to a soft note as I diminuendo further but want a little vibrato).

    Related to musicality, but a little off topic: I love the entire Heifetz performance. He has another example of a favorite effect at 17:20-ish. He is ascending on a line, and creates a rit. and hesitation at the top, before gracefully coming down. I call it the roller-coaster effect. It's like when you have climbed up an incline, slowing toward the top, and then after not quite stopping, the car starts to accelerate again on the decline. It is that same hesitation at the top that Heifetz creates musically:
    Updated 01-15-2016 at 08:40 PM by davewerden