Jan 3, 2008

A whole lot of shakin' goin' on

've had quite a few requests for an article on vibrato, so this month I will try to give an overview on the way I approach and teach vibrato. First of all a player must decide whether the study and application of vibrato is a desirable thing. A common view is that the conscious study of vibrato will result in a person not being able to control it until it becomes an unwanted, habitual thing that can't be turned off. The exact opposite is the truth. Uncontrolled vibrato is always the result of not specifically working on vibrato, but trying to incorporate some expressiveness without knowing how to go about it. I believe singers are not born with a certain type of vibrato, which is a widely held belief, but learn to sing with whatever vibrato happens to be in evidence at the beginning of their singing. To be sure, there is a certain type of vibrato that suits each individual voice, but that vibrato is not always the one that ends up with a particular voice. Instrumentalists have the same challenge as singers as far as choosing a style, which may or may not include vibrato. The study of it, however, will enable the person to turn it on or off at will, which is an invaluable tool toward being a complete musician.

My instruction here applies to brass instruments in general and the trombone in particular. It is very important to first separate the beginning study of vibrato from normal musical activity. While the study of vibrato is beginning, no attempt at vibrato in normal playing should be made. Consciously playing without any vibrato at all is a good thing to practice, especially if someone has been using a small amount of vibrato because of not being sure how to incorporate it in their playing. The beginning study of vibrato should be kept completely separate from day to day musical practice. The first aspect of vibrato study is a purely mechanical one; that is to be able to physically produce the vibrato in a non-musical setting. I start people off by having them play a middle Bb and pronouncing the syllables "tow, (rhymes with cow,) wow, wow,wow, wow, wow, wow,etc, as long as possible on a single breath. Each "wow" syllable has a sudden almost violent rush of air, that makes a strong pulsing sound. To make this description easy to visualize, think of repeated slurred quarter notes on a single note, each one with an "sfp" under it. Because of the slur marking, this would be done with the surge of the breath alone. There's your vibrato. At first all the pulses should have a sharp point on the forward end, emulating a strong sforzando piano. This is to activate the use of strong air in producing the vibrato. Later on, after spending time and getting proficient with these exercises, the ends of the sforzando's will be rounded off to produce a warmer pulsation. However it is important to start these exercises with strongly accented pulses of air at this stage to get used to thinking proactively, and to forever avoid the dreaded "Quiver." If done while visualizing blowing on a flat plane, the pitch will not, and should not change. This is a vibrato caused by a surging forward and then relaxation of air, and not the bending of pitches. The idea is to exaggerate it way beyond what will be used, which is essential to build a proper technical foundation. Naturally, as in normal sound production, the diaphragm should be as relaxed as possible, with the lungs and rib cage providing the impulsion. This is usually called jaw vibrato, but this is not accurate. The lips move in order to pronounce the syllables described above, but it is activated by the flow of air from the lungs, just as sound is produced from the flow of the air vibrating the lips against the mouthpiece.

Start at a tempo of a quarter-note equals 60. Do this as many times as it takes to feel comfortable producing very long, wide, exaggerated pulsation's. After feeling completely comfortable with the quarter notes, do the same exercise, but on eight notes at the same tempo, being very careful that the width or surge of the pulsation's stay every bit as wide, even and exaggerated as in the quarter note version. That brings us to an important point; most vibrato's are too small and too narrow, which gives the illusion of a small sound. Also, there is something about the use of so-called jaw vibrato, which always feels more pronounced than it actually sounds. It is important then to judge the amount of vibrato from in front of the bell, and not by how it feels, because this is not an accurate way to tell how it sounds. Recording yourself is a good way to judge vibrato, after completely going through the groundwork using this method. I believe if someone uses vibrato on a certain passage, such as in solo playing and certain orchestral passages of a solo and expressive nature, that a large, full type of vibrato should be used to enhance the sound and phrase. To accomplish this, it is imperative that the vibrato not automatically get narrower when it gets faster. The player should such have such a technical command of vibrato, that the width and speed of the vibrato are completely independent and free to match the needs of the phrase. What I mean by this; having such a complete command of the vibrato that the player is capable of producing any combination of width and speed of vibrato at any moment.

An important point; because the exercises I advocate require so many pulsation's in a specific time period such as a breath, does not in any way mean there should a specific number of pulsation's on a given note within a musical phrase. The specified number of pulsation's per breath are meant only for the technical acquisition of the rudiments of producing vibrato. When applying vibrato in a musical context, the decision concerning the type of vibrato used, ie. fast, slow, wide, narrow, is an emotional, instantaneous and artistic one, not a preconceived plan of so many vibrations per note.

After the pulsation's on eight notes, the next step is to increase the speed to triplets, being careful to keep the width wide and exaggerated as in the quarter note version. Then on sixteenth notes, again keeping the same width and exaggeration as before, so no matter what the speed, the pulsation's are always the same, very wide and exaggerated. Then proceed to sextuplets, however at a slower tempo. These exercises will sound almost humorous, and are not meant to sound musical in any way because of the exaggeration in the size of the pulsation's, but that is necessary to acquire the technique of producing the vibrato. This exercise should be practiced for several weeks until it is completely reliable and comfortable. During this time no attempt should be made to use vibrato in any musical context. The next step is to take long notes and apply the vibrato on one long note at a time, starting softly and using the vibrato in a hairpin crescendo, progressively increasing the intensity of the vibrato with the volume, being careful not to let the width of the vibrato get narrower solely because the speed increased. When long notes using vibrato sound comfortable, like a singer vocalizing, and by the way, this should be done patiently over time, the next step is to take an etude such as Rochut, book one, and apply the vibrato to notes with a duration of two beats or longer, keeping it full, round, wide and on the slow side. I believe vibrato on a tenor trombone, when used, should imitate a singer with a large baritone range voice, as opposed to a singer with a tenor range voice. Also, a bass trombone vibrato should imitate a singer with a bass range voice. However, with proper training, a player on either instrument should be able to imitate the other by being able to vary the vibrato so freely that changing the register of the voice is easily accomplished. Because of the fact that the beginning exercises for producing the vibrato were purposely exaggerated, the ability to totally turn off the vibrato is no problem whatsoever, because they require radically different actions. Which brings me to an important point; if a player decides to use vibrato, there should be no doubt about the fact that they are using it. Using a miniscule amount of vibrato simply doesn't work because it will be heard as an unsteadiness of tone instead of something that fills out and projects the sound. If someone decides to add the ability to use vibrato to their playing, then a comprehensive study as outlined above is critical. How does one know how far to take the vibrato, as far as amount, speed, size, etc? As with other aspects of playing, I always advocate taking things TOO far, (in my practice room that is,) finding out where that line is, then only retreating back to that line. Don't strive to be an average player and be satisfied sounding like everyone else.

I can't help but think of Arthur Pryor's comment when asked what was the secret to his beautiful tone, his answer was the jaw vibrato. As good a style as was displayed by Arthur Pryor, it was a product of the taste and times he lived in. My idea of a great vibrato, and therefore a great sound and style would be one that couldn't be pinned down to any particular style, region or school, but had an international quality and could be applied to any instrument, especially the human voice. My advice would be to listen to the great singers of the past and find one that had a great voice and therefore a great vibrato, using it as as template for your own. You will never sound exactly like someone else, so copying another artist's desirable features won't impinge on your personality if done in the right manner. Interestingly, my favorite singer of all time, Lauritz Melchoir, the great Danish tenor, had what was termed a " cheap little tin-hammer" vibrato and lazer-beam quality to his voice that I usually abhor, however in his case the phrase "genius make's it's own rules" certainly applies. However in his golden years a foundation was started to find another tenor of his stature, but alas, apparently none was ever found. He was a freak of nature, and nature only gives us one of each, and then breaks the mold.

This article has been translated into Italian by Claudio Chiani.

This article has been translated into Polish by Lukasz Michalski.

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