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It usually takes about a month to six weeks of practicing basic vibrato exercises for a student to begin to start using vibrato naturally in their regular playing. Other than making sure they are doing the exercises at increasing speeds, up to about sextuplets at mm=60, no other supervision is really needed. Sometimes you will have to encourage students a bit to get them to try incorporating vibrato into longer note values, but it often happens quite naturally without the student being aware that they are doing it.

When you can hear that they are beginning to use vibrato as another component of their tone, you can begin to provide some guidance on how to use vibrato to enhance expression and musical inflection. Here are a few things in no particular order that you can offer to help students to use their new vibrato more expressively:

  • There are two basic components of vibrato, speed and amplitude. The speed can vary somewhat (usually faster rather than slower) but the biggest expressive component is the depth of the fluctuation. More amplitude in the fluctuation means greater intensity, volume and excitement in the sound. A narrow amplitude is more appropriate for simple melodies or for creating an ethereal, floating color in the third octave.
  • Some judicious vibrato is great for showing inflection (very subtle) of strong and weak beats. Also intensity of vibrato can be used to show the apex or arrival point in a phrase.
  • Avoid slow vibrato, especially in the low register. Nothing like a slow, sagging or limp vibrato for putting the brakes on the momentum of a phrase.
  • Vibrato is a tool to be used with discretion, not a constant. Constant vibrato at the same rate and intensity, no matter what, is no more interesting than a totally straight tone.
  • For Pete’s sake, please don’t tell a student to put seven pulses (for example) into a note. Vibrato is not about mechanics but about feeling, expression and inflection. Show them that the note needs more vibrato because it’s the apex of a phrase, and help them learn to feel the necessity of that rather than providing a mechanical solution.
  • Teach your students to observe the hierarchy of beats with how they inflect the strong beats. In short, weak leads to strong 4-1-2-3-4-1-2-3, etc. Proper use of vibrato will follow naturally.
  • Make sure your students are blowing sufficient air along with the vibrato. Playing with vibrato requires being able to move more air than just making a basic sound. If there isn’t enough air, the pulses will sound kind of squarish and won’t add anything to the warmth or quality of the sound.

Here are a few examples from the band literature to illustrate the above points.

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