Teaching vibrato on the cello – the beginnings of a good technique

Teaching vibrato on the cello can be a very daunting thing for teachers just starting out.  We all want our students to be able to master it first time, and that means insisting on good technique from the very beginning.  As someone who passed all the grades early on and entered university naively over-confident, having my new teacher tell me that my vibrato wasn’t up to standard and that we had to start again from scratch was tough to hear.  As a result of this, I’ve done lots of research to try and get it right with my own students.


When should cellists start learning vibrato?

ABRSM states that “By Grade 5 Violin, Viola and Cello candidates should have acquired some skill in vibrato”.  This suggests that it is a skill that shouldn’t be introduced too soon – however there is no harm in introducing it a little earlier if the student is ready (as if they’ve seen others do it in orchestra etc, they will try and copy and undoubtedly learn bad habits that can be hard to break!).  I tend to begin to introduce vibrato when:

  • The student has a good sitting position – feet flat on the floor, round fingers and a high left elbow
  • Without the thumb, the left hand fingers are strong enough to hold the string down (see scale exercise below)
  • The student can play in tune in at least 1st and 4th position.  Remember, vibrato is not supposed to hide bad intonation!
  • The student can shift easily between positions

Understanding the basic motion of vibrato

Before beginning to think about vibrato, it’s very important to understand what the basic motion is.  Unlike the violin, vibrato on the cello is a full arm movement.  The elbow acts as a pivot point, and the wrist shouldn’t twist.  It is an up-and-down motion, and there are lots of preliminary exercises students can do to get used to this.  Basically it is a rotation from one side of the fingertip to the other.  The student should remain completely relaxed, with shoulders dropped and even spacing between the fingers.


What exercises can students do to prepare them to learn vibrato?

There are lots of exercises students can do both with and without the cello to begin their journey to a good vibrato technique.  Here are just a just a few (that I’d recommend doing in this order):

  • Pretend their thumb doesn’t exist!  I ask students to practice a scale slowly without their thumb on the back of the cello.  They are also required to use no more than 2 fingers to press down the string – so for example if they were playing a note with their 3rd finger, they would have just their 2nd and 3rd finger on the string (and not their 1st).  This builds up strength in their fingers, and also makes sure that their fingers ‘cling’ to the string in the way that is needed for vibrato.
  • Tic tac technique for teaching vibratoThe tic tac technique. Shaking a packet of tic tacs up and down with the left hand/arm is the exact motion that is needed for good vibrato!  This can be practiced with a metronome – I recommend setting the metronome to crotchet = 60, and then practice a vibrato motion with firstly minims, then crotchets, quavers, triplets, semiquavers etc, slowly building up the speed.  This will also help prepare the student to vary their vibrato later on.  This exercise is also useful when practiced with the elbow resting on a wall – as this will make sure that the student’s elbow remains in a constant position.
  • Polishing the string.  Starting with the 2nd finger on one of the middle strings, practice sliding up and down the cello.  Start with big movements, and gradually reduce the length of the slides until it is being done from a fixed position.  Repeat this with other fingers and all the strings.  All joints should remain flexible and loose, and the shoulder relaxed.
  • Wobble exercise.  Very similar to the tic tac exercise – start with the 2nd finger on one of the middle strings.  This can be anywhere on the cello, but I find that around 3rd-4th position is the best place to start as this feels the most natural.  Practice a very slow vibrato movement with a metronome – with the timings as suggested in the tic tac exercise.
  • Wobble exercise with bow.  The same as above, but this time introduce the bow.

Don’t rush through these exercises.  It’s worth spending the time to make sure the student is happy with these and has the beginnings of a good technique before attempting to add vibrato to their everyday playing.


What next?

When the student is comfortable with the above exercises, and can complete them all with everything feeling natural and relaxed, vibrato can start being introduced (gradually!) into the student’s playing.  Slow scales are a great place to start.  The vibrato should be warm, wide and rich, and the student should get to the point where all of the above exercises feel like second nature.  Make sure that the vibrato continues to the end of each note, and doesn’t stop when the bow changes. I’ll cover all of this in more detail in a later post!

If you’re looking for a book that the student can use to get more practice with learning to vibrato, I hightly recommend Viva Vibrato.

And if you have any tips or advice that you’d like to add to this, it would be great to hear them in the comments below.

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