Joseph Mendoes - cello expert
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Vibrato on the Cello

Basics to learn vibrato on the cello

In this video, Joseph gives you an easy approach to playing with vibrato on the cello.

Released on April 2, 2014

  
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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello, this is Joseph Mendoes, a cello expert for virtualsheetmusic.com with another teaching video. I hope all of you enjoyed my last two videos, I really appreciate all of the comments. Everyone is asking some wonderful questions and I hope my answers are helping. Anyway, so many of you have asked now for a video on vibrato, so I'm gonna try my best to do one. This is a very difficult topic. As most of you know there's a lot of competing theories and different things. And so what I'd basically like to talk about is some of the fundamentals behind vibrato, because I think mastering these fundamentals is incredibly important before you really can start to attempt vibrato and start to understand what it means to actually play with vibrato.

The first fundamental has to do with how we get the string down in the first place. Getting the string down, it needs to be something that is very efficient and very balanced. First of all the string needs to be all the way down, that's bottom line, in order for vibrato to really work. If it's not all the way down we end up kind of distorting the pitch, we slide on top of the note and this is not really, at least in my opinion, musically desirable. However, if we pressed too hard, if we're pressing especially and for squeezing with the thumb, we're pressing really hard, then when we try to vibrate we get a very pinched sound and the vibrato doesn't have kind of a natural feel to it.

So what I just mentioned about the thumb, we'll talk about that, the thumb really needs to be free. And I remember when I learned vibrato I actually taught it to myself. I was very impatient, I remember I was in sixth grade or seventh grade or something like that. I must have been, I don't know, 11 or 10. It must have been 11, yeah, and I saw the principal cello at my school orchestra using vibrato, and I'm sure it wasn't very good. But I so desperately wanted to do it so I emulated him but I couldn't figure out how to do it so what I did was this, I remember I just took my thumb off completely like this. I don't know how I figured that out, but I just took my thumb off completely and I thought, "Oh, without the thumb I can move around a lot." And so I learned how to vibrate that way. It wasn't a very efficient vibrato, it wasn't very good sounding vibrato, but it was a vibrato, it was something that was working.

And I didn't realize how close I had gotten it because my vibrato...once I switched teachers to the man I consider to be my number one mentor, he really taught me a really good way to vibrate and it wasn't that far off what I already was doing. I was squeezing with my thumb a little bit and there were a few other little tweaks that needed to be made. But that's the biggest thing, that if you're a beginner or intermediate and you are struggling with vibrato, the first thing that you can do is just getting that thumb out of the equation, that can help quite a bit. And then of course you can reintroduce the thumb and get it to the point where you can put it behind the neck without really clutching the cello and just kind of let it rest there.

So the other thing is getting the string down. Now there's a lot of ways, a lot of different strategies to get string down, and I'll tell you what mine is. I think that the fingers should be curved, I'm a curved fingers guy. I think you should play closer to the tips of the fingers generally speaking, a little bit more on the tips when you're playing fast, but when you're playing slow even then your fingers shouldn't be too flat like this and too much on this lower part of the finger. You should be generally a little bit more on the tip and these fingers this way should ever buckle. I think that a good vibrato means that all the joints are able to move, they won't all necessarily move but they will be able to move, and especially this first knuckle needs to be able to flex slightly in the vibrato motion. And you'll see that if I play a note, you'll see if I slow down the motion you can see, at least I hope you can see that this first joint is actually flexing quite a bit, and it's that way for all of my fingers when I'm vibrating. So that's really important as well. So curved fingers and no pressure from the thumb.

Then the thing I wanna talk about is this idea of balance that I alluded to in the beginning, and I'm sorry for jumping around here but this is how my brain works. This issue of balance, well balance has to do within the left hand, it has to do with maintaining a proper ratio between strength and flexibility. This is a basic, core concept I think not just in cello playing but in string playing. It has to do with the bow, and your bow hold needs to be this way, it needs to be again in the proper balance between flexibility and strength. Too much strength and then it limits flexibility, too much flexibility and it limits strength. And flexibility and strength are two things that you need in both the left hand and the bow.

So this balance is very important. This balance, if it's out of whack then it's gonna affect your vibrato. As I said earlier, if you're too flexible and there's not enough strength, then probably the string is not getting all the way down and you're gonna get this very wobbly vibrato where the finger is sliding around all over the top of the string again which is in my opinion not musically desirable. In the other direction if you're squeezing too much, there's too much strength, that limits your flexibility, that means that the vibrato itself will feel tight and constrained. What we want is we wanna be able to stay on the pitch and to vibrate as wide as possible but without causing any problems with the pitch. So that's when we know we're in the proper balance between strength and flexibility, which I think is probably something like this. Where you can clearly tell what the pitch is but the vibrato is as wide as it possibly can be.

I think most of the great cellists had this mastered very well. And while we have lots of varieties of different sounds and different approaches, they all basically have this in common, that the vibrato always found this balance, or if it didn't find the balance, then it was either restricted in terms of strength or it was made too flexible because of an artistic desire to do so, that they wanted the vibrato to sound either kind of tight and constrained which I sometimes do, or they want the vibrato to sound over vibrated, which in some pieces is actually called for. But I don't think either of those things should be a basic part of your sound.

So let's see, I've covered the strength, flexibility and balance. Oh, this other thing, the angling of the finger. Now, when you're playing a piece that is a little bit fast, what you need to do is you need to be able to stay very much on top of all the notes that you need to play, so your fingers need to be hovering. If I wanna play a really fast scale, you can see my fingers are staying right above where they need to be. However, when I vibrate, I'm gonna change at that position.

I'm gonna feel the change of balance between one finger to the next to ensure that the vibrato is able to go from note to note. So this is very important as well. So as you can see there's so many facets to being able to vibrate not only well on one note but well on all the notes, all the notes. Listen to me, all the fingers and also all the notes as well because ideally we should be able to vibrate with the same fullness and with the same perfect ratio between strength and flexibility on all the notes. I think this is really, really critical when it comes to vibrato.

So let me think if there's anything else here. I think I've covered everything I wanted to cover about vibrato. I know there's a lot of specific questions like some of you...I know some of you in thumb position probably have some difficulty vibrating especially your first finger, and that would be something that would be perfect to leave in the comments section, I can address very specific comments to that. But let me just review then what we've covered as far as fundamental things, in terms of getting the string down, that thumb cannot be a part of it. If the thumb is squeezing up in order to get the string down, it's gonna seriously limit your vibrato because of what I spoke about, that ratio. That ratio of strength to flexibility, it will be totally out of whack, it will be too strong. However, on the other end of it if you're too flexible you won't stay on the pitch. So you need to find that balance and that's really the key here for vibrato.


And there's something else I forgot to do too as well at the beginning. There's an exercise I do with my beginner students, because I do teach vibrato pretty early, and one of the things that I do is I have them just play second finger really anywhere. I think the most comfortable place to learn vibrato is actually just somewhere down here in either third or fourth or even fifth position, it's pretty comfortable, and I generally use the second finger because the second finger for most people is the strongest finger. So I have them put the second finger down and then I stand off to the side over here, and I shake their finger like that while they're playing with the bow. And this is very, very helpful exercise to get them to really feel this ratio of strength to flexibility. And if their thumb is squeezing a lot I have them hold their thumb out of here. And I told them that what their job is is to make sure that as I'm shaking wildly like this, that the finger is not moving, that it's not sliding around like that but it's staying stationary in the same place. This teaches them the appropriate strength that they need to actually keep the string down and to keep it in the same spot, but also the appropriate flexibility that's needed to actually play with vibrato.

So I hope all this was helpful. I know I jumped around a little bit in this video, but again vibrato is such a complicated topic, it's sometimes necessary to approach it from some different angles. So please feel free to leave your comments in the comments section, and thank you so much for viewing this video, and again I can't wait to hear all of your comments, I hope that we have a nice, heated discussion, I know vibrato is a contentious subject. And please if there's something that I forgot to cover then please ask and maybe I can even do it in a whole separate video or I can address it in the comments section. But either way please keep those comments coming and I look forward to hearing what all of you have to say. Thanks again, this has been Joseph Mendoes with virtualsheetmusic.com, and I'll see you again soon.
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Patrick Boshell on May 31, 2017 @11:49 pm PST
Hey Joseph. I guess I have been looking for instruction on how to coordinate the bow with the vibrato. I am really finding it difficult to use my bow hand in conjunction with vibrato. They both seem to do the same thing. Exactly the same issue with Piano left hand right hand. Try to concentrate on 2 different parts. Can you hep. Thank you Patrick.
Rachel on August 28, 2016 @1:24 pm PST
Hi, I am wondering if you have ever come across somebody with a double jointed 4th finger? Mine is double jointed at the knuckle, and because of this I am struggling to get any vibrato on 4th finger - I used to play violin and could get some but the increased pressure for cello strings means I am finding the middle joint locks so that my finger will be straight until the last joint at the tip which bends to almost 90 degrees. Any tips to increase the curve or sound vibrato on this tricky 4th finger?
Don on January 26, 2016 @7:02 am PST
THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!! I am 82 years old and trying...
Sincerai on October 13, 2015 @2:30 am PST
A huge thank you for posting these great videos , the comments are great too. The vibrato does take time and patience to perform but by using your approach , eventually I managed to hear a good sound for my efforts. Without this help and enthusiasm for teaching I would have stayed " stuck" in a bad place.
Claudette Sjerven on August 21, 2015 @5:57 pm PST
After 8 years of learning the cello (starting at age 60), after watching your video, I now know what is wrong with my vibrato!! I am pressing too hard on the string. Now to practice, practice, practice. Thank you, Joseph! I have been taking lessons all this time and am amazed that my teachers haven't been able to detect the problem.
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.
reply
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.

Thanks.
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.
reply
Joseph - host, on January 27, 2015 @8:51 am PST
Hello,

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?
reply
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!
reply
Joseph - host, on May 8, 2014 @11:08 am PST
You are very welcome!
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