By Katharine Rapoport

A good time to start on vibrato is when your violin hold, bow hold, left-hand balance, and some shifting skills are comfortable and working well. Although it may seem almost magical when you see and hear a player making a beautiful vibrato, the approach to vibrato is logical and involves some step-by-step preparation.

Everyone is different; you might take a few weeks to a few months to develop your vibrato. Hurrying the process causes tension and discomfort, making the end result less satisfactory. Allow your hand the time it needs to develop each step, and keep on exercising even the simple warm-ups after your vibrato is established. Violinists who can vibrate after a short period of practice don’t necessarily end up with a better-sounding vibrato than players who need months of preparation and practice.

Exercising without the violin and bow

Starting without having to deal with the violin (or bow) allows you to focus entirely on your new left hand movements. This exercise gets your wrist and arm joints moving freely while you maintain a little “holding power” in your hand — just like when you do real vibrato.

  1. Dig out an old pill box that fits comfortably in your palm, and then fill it about full with uncooked rice.

    One of those egg-shaped shakers from the music store also fits nicely in your palm — and produces the requisite sound when rocking back and forth.

  2. Begin by sitting in front of a table or desk and leaning your left elbow on the surface, in a close approximation of your violin position.

  3. Hold the shaker lightly in your violin hand, loosen your wrist so that your hand flops toward your shoulder, and then send the wrist in the opposite direction so that it flops away from your shoulder.

    In this step, your wrist and hand are moving, but everything else stays pretty much still. Keep the movements regular, so you can hear a rhythmic “swish-swish” as the rice moves around in the container.

  4. Allow the movements described in Step 3 to flow a little faster and to become somewhat bigger: Your elbow joint is opening out a bit as your hand flops outward toward the tabletop and closing inward as your hand flops toward your shoulder.

    Go slowly at first. Using the second hand of your watch gives you some idea of a relaxed starting speed. You can feel the movements and keep them smooth and in sync with the ticking of your watch.

  5. Stand in playing position to repeat Steps 3 and 4, but this time, allow your elbow joint to open out a little more as your hand rolls outwards (and, of course, to close as your hand moves inward).

Exercising with the violin, but still no bow

After you get familiar with the basic movements for vibrato, you’re ready to put them to use on the violin. Trying vibrato moves with just the violin enables you to focus on the new movements without having to coordinate the bow.

For the following exercise, be sure to move your hand parallel to the neck of the violin when rocking:

  1. Hold the violin in guitar position, so that you can see your hand very easily, and let the scroll of your violin angle a little up toward your left ear.

  2. Slide your whole hand (the thumb too) freely back and forth along the violin’s neck, with your left elbow’s hinge moving freely and your fingers lightly brushing the strings (no pressure) as you go.

  3. Reduce the size of the brushing gradually, and let your thumb remain in one spot while your hand and fingers continue to brush the neck and strings.

    By this point, your hand and fingers are using a scope of just an inch or two.

  4. Imagine the tip of finger 2 is glued very lightly in place, so that the fingertip stays in one spot, while the slight brushing movement continues along the neck of the violin.

  5. Try Steps 2 through 4 again, but this time, hold your violin in playing position.

Repeat the exercise using each finger in turn. Some fingers will find the motion easier and others will be less willing, but giving them all a workout prepares them all. The skills do eventually even out!

Now, try these exercises that combine the violin and bow to develop your vibrato skills.

Vibrato impulses

Alternating between playing a finger with some vibrato and then playing an open string gives your hand time to loosen again between impulses.

To play this vibrato exercise, make sure to relax your hand every time you play the open D string, and then almost throw your finger as you land it, so that you can spark a little vibrato wobble (indicated by the wobbly line next to the finger number) on each note.

Vibrato impulses on the D string.

Vibrato impulses on the D string.

Rockin’ wrists

Your last vibrato prep exercise involves starting vibrato in third position to allow your wrist a chance to rock. Try this exercise without the bow first, and then later, bow out the notes while keeping the rocking movement in your left hand. Here are the actions (no music required!):

  1. Place your left hand in about third position, so the heel of your hand is leaning against the violin.

  2. Place a fingertip (try finger 2 first) on the D string.

  3. Rock your hand slightly from the wrist, causing your fingertip to rock also, while maintaining the contact of the heel of your hand on the ribs of the violin.

  4. Try Steps 2 and 3 with each finger in turn.

The rocking motions are slow at first, but after a few days of exercising, you can gradually increase the speed of oscillation of the rocking motions. A sign of readiness to increase the tempo is that the rocking is even.