Joseph Mendoes - cello expert
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Vibrato on the Cello

Basics to learn vibrato on the cello

Released on April 2, 2014

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Jeff on April 23, 2015 @8:03 am PST
Joseph, the vibrato you present in your videos is outstanding. This makes me very interested in your techniques, recognizing that your views may be in the minority regarding hand vs arm as the dominant force.
Suppose you had taped a pencil to the back of your hand, perpendicular to the forearm. As you vibrate, would we see the pencil flutter in a rotating motion, or would it remain flat, moving essentially parallel to the string? Would it be different for each of the four fingers?
What I struggle with is the extent to which my hand should look like its turning a door knob or simply sliding along the string. To my eyes, your 1st finger vibrato seems more rotational that that of the other fingers.
Also, what's different about vibrato in the neck positions as opposed to the extended positions and thumb positions? To me it seems that as one moves to higher positions, the hand orientation becomes increasingly pointed down (towards the bridge), and the vibrato motion becomes less rotational and more simply pushing along the string.

Thanks, and great work with these video. Your playing reminds us that the cello can produce the most beautiful music of all the instruments, and why we study it.
Joseph - host, on April 30, 2015 @7:28 pm PST
Wow Jeff, thank you for such a great comment!

It is true, my views are in the minority. Many people have adopted the Starker approach, which insists that motions for correct cello playing start from the back. This may are may not be true, but I feel that information like that is generally unhelpful for most students. Learning to have all the impulses for playing the cello in your hands I think is a much more helpful idea. Do you think about your back muscles when you grab a mug off of a table? I don't think so! You definitely are using back muscles, but they are being activated as a passive support to where the real action is, the hand. I think the same is true for cello playing, and this image of how to play the cello is much simpler.

The answer to the pencil question is both! The key in vibrato is to feel the proper ratio between strength and flexibility, i.e. enough force to stop the string at a pitch but not so much that you cannot vibrate freely. Focus less on the way the motion looks, as looks can be deceiving. Focus more on getting this ratio correct, and of course not squeezing with your thumb. If the ratio is right, a vibrato will likely come on its own!

The great thing about treating vibrato as more of a sound/feel concept is that it makes it easy to reproduce anywhere on the cello. The feel of vibrating is the same to me whether I am two octaves above middle C or on a low Db.

I hope I answered your questions, and thank you so much for your kind words!
Jeff on May 4, 2015 @11:56 am PST
Joseph, thanks for your response.

Other than your clever "finger shaking" exercise, are there other exercises you recommend to students? A common one I've encountered involves sliding a finger along the string in, say, whole step intervals at the pace of 8th notes. Then the interval is reduced to a half step and the pace increases to 16ths, The process is continued to reach the ideal frequency and breadth of the vibrations.

One also hears of various mental images used by teachers. For example, a student may be taught to imagine he is polishing the string with his fingers. Some have suggesting moving the hand as if you were rolling dice, or turning a door knob. One image I thought of involves freely sliding the finger along the string, but then imagining the finger hits a spot of sticky chewing gum on the string that prevents it from sliding further. Your video stresses the importance of flexibility in the joints that would act as a shock absorber in this case.

I may be channeling the Music Man Prof. Harold Hill's "think system" here, but I find these types of mental images useful.

wpweeks * VSM MEMBER * on January 24, 2015 @6:01 pm PST
Hi, and thank you for the video.
I played cello many years ago, and have taken it up again more recently. In the interim, as a result of a car accident, the two bones of my left forearm are fused; I cannot twist my left arm in a doorknob type motion at all.
I think, despite what you have said, that there is a bit of that motion in your vibrato, and that is my excuse for mine being mediocre.
Or, perhaps I am wrong, and my problem is some sort of laziness?
My arm is fused such that if I hold my hand in front of me my thumb points up. The lack of freedom in the forearm also means that I have to concentrate a bit more on the stretches between fingers.
Or that is laziness, also.
Thank you again.
Joseph - host, on January 27, 2015 @8:51 am PST

I am so sorry to hear about your injury. It must be very difficult to deal with, not just in terms of cello playing.

I doubt your problem is laziness. What kind of effect does your injury have on your wrist? Does it still have a completely free range of motion, or is it locked as well?
wpweeks * VSM MEMBER * on January 27, 2015 @4:33 pm PST
My wrist has a normal range of motion, possibly not quite as loosely as the other one. My elbow flexes about normally. And that injury doesn't hurt anymore, so that isn't a problem. It is just that the forearm doesn't rotate. It would be impossible, for example, for me to play violin, or guitar (at least in any normal position), so it is well that cello was my instrument.
Joseph - host, on January 28, 2015 @9:56 pm PST
That is good news! I think we could figure this out if only I could see you! What you can do for now is try vibrating and then moving your elbow around as you vibrate. You should be able to find an elbow position that allows your vibrato to be its loosest. At the same time try to keep your thumb very free. Then, tell me what happened!
wpweeks * VSM MEMBER * on February 2, 2015 @7:23 am PST
Ah. Holding my elbow higher puts my fingers in a much better position to flex loosely.
Unfortunately it also makes it harder to stretch the first finger (such as for B flat on the A).
I shall continue to experiment.
Thank you again.
Joseph - host, on February 2, 2015 @10:02 am PST
This depends on your overall flexibility, but try angling your elbow either forward or backward when you need to reach that B flat. Moving it back will get it into a better position for vibrato, but angling it forward might allow you to flatten your finger a little more so it it has a longer reach.
Ro on November 2, 2014 @9:59 am PST
Thank you for the tips
Jan on May 28, 2014 @12:33 pm PST
I am without a teacher atm, and a beginner, so your videos are extremely helpful - thank you! I am beginning to sound somewhat decent vibrating in 1st & 2nd positions, however higher positions seem to be far more of a challenge. Is there a different technique involved when it comes to vibrating in higher positions?
Joseph - host, on May 29, 2014 @8:10 am PST
Hi Jan,
Once you get to fourth position the biggest problem you will encounter is the cello itself! The upper bout of the instrument can get in the way of the vibrato motion, so first check to make sure your left elbow is high enough so that you hand and wrist are not banging against the instrument while you vibrate. If that is not your problem, then the same solution of raising your elbow should help. Raising the elbow typically increases your range of motion in your wrist and fingers, which should help that vibrato to get going. Also make sure that the impulse for the vibrato is more focused in the hand and not in the arm.

Hope that helps!
Jan on June 10, 2014 @12:18 pm PST
Yes, a great help, Joseph! I also appreciate other people's questions and your replies to them .... a lot to be learnt here ... many thanks!
Cassie * VSM MEMBER * on May 7, 2014 @9:34 pm PST
I was never taught vibrato in any structured way so this was very helpful, thank you!
Joseph - host, on May 8, 2014 @11:08 am PST
You are very welcome!
marianmacleod * VSM MEMBER * on April 23, 2014 @4:47 pm PST
Thank you so much, Joseph. I started learning cello very LATE and am still struggling with this. I think you have given me some very fine tools.
Joseph - host, on May 8, 2014 @11:08 am PST
There is no such thing as starting too late! In fact, an adult mind may be better at understanding the proper fundamentals of playing the cello than an immature mind. The primary advantage of youth is that they are typically more in touch with their native playing instincts, but they are at a disadvantage when it comes to applying any scientific or logical principles to what they are doing. Use your wisdom and intelligence to your advantage!
marianmacleod * VSM MEMBER * on May 10, 2014 @6:51 am PST
Thanks! Actually, I didn't say I started TOO late. I am learning and improving. But I was 63 when I started and am now 72, and still have trouble with vibrato! I'll keep working. That kinesthetic memory is not so good at an older age, but I'm persevering.
Abraham Naim * VSM MEMBER * on April 17, 2014 @6:06 am PST
As a fellow professional cellist maybe we could share ideas and concepts about the art of playing the cello.
My email is
Member * VSM MEMBER * on April 17, 2014 @1:47 am PST
Hi Joseph.
Thank you for the videos.
In the video about vibrato, I should like to see you demonstrate the vibrato in practice a little more, also in close-up. Would it be possible?
Thank you Lotte
Kathryn Arriola * VSM MEMBER * on April 9, 2014 @9:35 am PST
I like your technique to help students learn vibrato (shaking their finger for them)good idea! I have often struggled on new ways to get my students to understand this concept and still stay relaxed. Also, what is the piece you are playing before and after your video? I'd love to play it. Thanks
Joseph Mendoes - host, on April 10, 2014 @9:32 pm PST
Hello Kathryn,
I still haven't found a better way to teach kids how to vibrate. It has worked many times! The piece is the Prelude from the Fifth Suite in C minor by J. S. Bach.
Randy Smith * VSM MEMBER * on April 8, 2014 @12:56 am PST
Thank you for the suggestion on how to practice changing fingers smoothly while applying vibrato. I am working on that now. I noticed in one of your replies to a student that you stressed that the fingers of the left hand should be active, and the rest of the left arm should be reactive. Yet I have been told that a cello vibrato needs to be created with an arm movement similar to a "polishing" movement up and down the fingerboard. I know it's going "back to basics", but if you have a few minutes in the next video, could you briefly walk us through how you mechanically teach a student to move the left arm/hand/fingers when first learning how to make vibrato?
Regarding my cello wobbling when I try vibrato, I am trying to form a mental picture of the movement of the left hand. Of course, the finger needs to be kept from sliding up and down the string as you said, but is the general motion of the arm/hand one of a sliding back and forth parallel to the fingerboard, or more of a rocking/pivoting at the wrist, or a combination of both?
One last question: my cello is an entry-level student model, so perhaps the quality of the materials is somewhat inferior. Should my endpin have a very stiff feel to it when extended? Mine has a bit of flex to it. I also have a bit of trouble with my cello sliding across the floor on smooth floors, even with a good rock-stop device. What is your opinion of angled endpins, like the Stahlhammer? OK, I'll stop, as this is getting too long! Thanks so much!
Joseph Mendoes - host, on April 10, 2014 @10:14 pm PST
Hi Randy!

Lots of questions! I will do my best...

Lets start with something easy, like endpins! It is very normal for an endpin to have a degree of flex in it. The longer the endpin you use, the more flex it will have. Some endpins probably are a little stiffer than others, but not by much. Do you find that the flex of the endpin is distracting? Without looking at how you are set up I can't tell what is really going on, but I suspect that the cello is not resting on your body properly. Or it could be that you are using too long of an endpin. Are you very tall, or do you have a very long torso? If so, I have heard that a bent endpin can help. It doesn't work for me at all, but both Tortelier and Rostropovitch sounded great with one, so give it a try! Just be warned that getting a Stahlhammer can be pricey, and they are difficult to uninstall (mainly because a larger hole needs to be made in the bottom of the cello to fit the endpin housing.) Some hardware stores will cut and bend a steel rod for you and sharpen the tip, just make sure you measure the diameter of your endpin so you can find the right size rod. I made one with a little trial and error for about 10 bucks and it taught me that the bent endpin is not for me, and I saved some money!

Somewhere in the vibrato video I made I briefly mentioned how I angle my finger back a little when I vibrate. This is very important, because if you vibrate when you are more square to the fingerboard you will be stuck doing either a parallel sliding motion controlled from the arm or a rocking/pivoting motion at the wrist. I think that a good vibrato is neither of these. When you angle the finger back you are able to engage the joint near the tip of the finger, which needs to be free to produce a good vibrato. In fact, every joint needs to be free and unlocked in order to produce your best vibrato, and a vibrato that comes from a square left hand forces you to lock every joint in your finger. I know this getting very technical, I wish I could show you face to face! I always explain things better with a cello in front of me!

I know that the idea that the hand is active and the arm is passive in a good vibrato is an unpopular one. What is commonly taught by around 90% of teachers is that the arm is what generates a good vibrato, and that puts me in a tiny minority. Nevertheless, I teach what I teach because it works, and my beginners almost always are able to learn vibrato in the first two years of playing, sometimes earlier. The arm should move when you vibrate, but the movement should be sympathetic to the motions in the hand, and should only seek to support the motions going on in the hand. The impulse for the vibrato should happen in the hand, and nowhere else. This is why I teach vibrato the way I showed in the video, by shaking the students first finger. It gets them to feel the correct sensation of vibrato almost instantly, and I haven't yet found a better way to teach vibrato (I have a few other tricks just in case that one doesn't do it!)

Anyway, I hope this was more helpful then it was confusing! I wish you all the best with your cello studies,

Sue Leitch * VSM MEMBER * on April 2, 2014 @7:56 pm PST
Thank you for your interesting video on vibrato regarding the fingers. Could you also do a video on the movement of the left arm in vibrato? As a violinist I use a wrist vibrato and I feel my wrist is possibly too loose when I use vibrato on the cello. (My cello friends tell me I'm doing it "wrong" although I am getting a good sound.)What are your thoughts on this?
Joseph Mendoes - host, on April 3, 2014 @10:53 pm PST
Dear Sue,
If you are getting a sound you like, don't listen to your cello friends!

Any motions that occur in the left arm are purely passive. The active motions are all in the hands and the fingers, especially when using vibrato. The impulse for vibrato should come from the tip of the vibrating finger, and all of the motions that occur in the arm are passive and reactive to that impulse.

There is no such thing as being too loose! A free, loose vibrato is the objective. With it, you can play with whatever sound you want! You can play with searing intensity or complete serenity, whatever the music demands.

Thanks for watching!

Randy Smith * VSM MEMBER * on April 2, 2014 @5:22 am PST
Dear Joseph,
Thanks so much for this video on vibrato. I've been making some progress, according to my teacher, getting a more relaxed thumb and a wider vibrato. But I still have some concerns in a couple areas. 1) I have trouble keeping a consistent unbroken vibrato when switching fingers. It's like a mental block for me. At the moment when I need to move from one finger to the finger for the next note, my left arm tends to stop for a moment, or I will suddenly speed up the vibrato as my hand prepares to move to the next finger...if that explanation makes any sense. So, if you have any suggestions for exercises for maintaining vibrato while changing fingers.
2) I watched your video and just shook my head, because when you play with vibrato, your cello is motionless. It seems when I try to play with vibrato, my whole cello can be seen moving with the vibrato. So I'm thinking that I'm pushing somehow or moving my left arm in such a way that it moves the cello when using vibrato. How can I correct this?

Thanks so much for these helpful videos!
Joseph Mendoes - host, on April 3, 2014 @10:43 pm PST
Hello Randy,
I am so glad to hear that you are working on a continuous vibrato technique! This I think is a lost art in modern string playing. Players like Heifetz, Casals, Kreisler, and Feuermann could do this effortlessly, and it is an objective of my own playing style. For a good exercise, try this; while maintaining your vibrato on your first finger, slowly (really slow!) put your second finger down while maintaining the vibrato motion. You should feel your balance change very slowly from the first to the second finger. When you get good at maintaining the vibrato motion while placing your second finger, speed it up little by little, and you should get the right feeling in the hand. Don't worry too much about maintaining motion in the arm, the hand and fingers are what should feel active.
Excessive movement of the cello is a sign that the vibrato is not balanced. The first thing I always check for is whether or not the thumb is squeezing, because even a little bit of pressure from the thumb can cause the cello to shake during vibrato. If the thumb isn't the issue,
then it probably is an issue with the ratio between strength and flexibility in your vibrato (in this case, too much strength.) Pizzicato is the ultimate test for a balanced vibrato. Try playing a scale pizzicato while vibrating. If you here a dull thud instead of a beautiful ringing tone, then you know you have a problem. When you hear a beautiful ringing tone with vibrato, then you can confidently add the bow and play with a gorgeous sound!

Alison * VSM MEMBER * on April 2, 2014 @3:52 am PST
Great thanks.
It all makes sense. Now I am off to try it all.
One thing that is interesting, that Diane Allen ('my violin vidoes') describes really well in her violin vibrato video, is the concept of vibrato up to but not beyond the note. ie dont oscillate equally around the true pitch but oscillate from below exactly up to the true pitch. I had never thought of that, but it makes a lot of sense. If you do a follow up, maybe discuss this as it does (or doesn't ) relate to cello. thanks.
Joseph Mendoes - host, on April 3, 2014 @10:26 pm PST
Hello Alison,
The issue of whether or not the vibrato goes north of the pitch is an interesting topic. I think that what is more important in a vibrato is that it feels free, and that you can vibrate however you wish. The intensity, the width, whether you want it to go above the pitch or not, or any other variable you can think of should be a part of your vibrato technique. I think I probably don't vibrate above the pitch all that much, but I would never make that a rule. I can think of many great cellists who occasionally vibrate above the pitch, such as Yo Yo Ma, Lynn Harrell and Daniil Shafran, and they all sound wonderful!

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