Welcome to this week’s edition of Flute Friday!
Vibrato is a mysterious element of music making that many beginners struggle to understand and few seasoned performers truly master. At its most basic level, vibrato is a wavering of sound produced by manipulations of air and pitch designed to express different tone colors as appropriate to the musical line. The goal is to capture a natural sound using unnatural techniques. Many students are initially uncomfortable learning how to use vibrato and, once established, have a difficult time controlling and manipulating vibrato speed or, conversely, attempt to measure vibrato so that the speed and corresponding affect do not change. Introverted students may even hide their vibrato, only applying it sparingly on longer notes when they know their teacher is listening. Today’s blog will help demystify vibrato in terms of how to learn, practice and refine the technique. I hope these approaches help beginners better understand how to shape their budding vibrato technique and experienced performers conceptualize vibrato in new, more effective (or affective) ways.
Ha Ha Ha!
The most basic way to produce vibrato on the flute is to use silent “ha ha ha” syllables. When one laughs or says “ha ha ha,” small puffs of air dance on top the air stream. When these “ha ha ha”s are connected (as if a large slur was placed over all of the syllables) the result is a wavering or spinning of the air. Try this exercise away from the flute: Simply yet silently say “ha ha ha” connecting each syllable with the air stream. You can practice this exercise anywhere – at school, at work, at home, in church, in the shower, etc. Once you are comfortable creating air vibrato away from the flute, apply the same wavering air stream to the instrument. Select a comfortable note (low A or B for example) and practice using the silent “ha ha ha” to create a spinning or vibrating sound. You have just used vibrato! It feels weird, right? With enough time and practice, vibrato will become a natural part of your playing. While you are still learning, however, it is best to practice the vibrating stream away from your flute and consciously try to use your new vibrato on every note you play on the flute. Do not be afraid of vibrato and do not become disheartened if you are not a vibrato master right off the bat. Vibrato takes practice and patience.
Hearing Vibrato – Descending Exercise
Vibrato must sound natural but it should not be so disguised within the sound that it is inaudible. When I was learning how to create vibrato I was very self-conscious that I was “doing it wrong.” To conceal my uneasiness with the technique, I tried to bury my vibrato in the sound so that it could only be heard on longer notes. Luckily my flute teacher at the time knew precisely what I was doing and gave me an exercise that I use to this very day to help me practice hearing vibrato. The following exercise should be played starting on a middle B natural and the beats of vibrato should be slow and wide enough to count:
Start on middle B natural. Descend chromatically from B, Bb, A, Ab playing 8 beats of vibrato on each note.
Start again on middle Bb. Descend chromatically from Bb, A, Ab, G playing 7 beats of vibrato on each note.
Start again on middle A natural. Descend chromatically from A, Ab, G, Gb playing 6 beats of vibrato on each note.
Start again on middle Ab. Descend chromatically from Ab, G, Gb, F playing 5 beats of vibrato on each note.
Start again on middle G. Descend chromatically from G, Gb, F, E playing 4 beats of vibrato on each note.
Start again on middle Gb. Descend chromatically from Gb, F, E, Eb playing 3 beats of vibrato on each note.
Repeat the above vibrato progression beginning on F natural descending chromatically from F, E, Eb, D playing 8 beats of vibrato on each note.
The beauty of this exercise is that it forces you to listen to your vibrato in terms of speed, transparency and sound quality. This can also be used to perform experiments with your vibrato. Did you hear a performer on YouTube whose vibrato you admire? Try to replicate their speed and consistency using the above exercise. Do you want to experiment with bendy or washing machine vibrato? This exercise is perfect! Is your vibrato consistently too fast? Too slow? Use the above to iron out all of the kinks in your vibrato by training your ears to listen and correct.
Washing Machine Vibrato (or “Bendy” Vibrato)
Once you have mastered the “ha ha ha” style of vibrato (sometimes referred to as “air vibrato”) you may begin to refine the way you produce and think about vibrato. Compare how vibrato is created on other instruments to how it is created on the flute. For example, on a stringed instrument, vibrato is made using a gentle rocking of the string back and forth from the wrist. Essentially what is happening in this context is that the pitch is being lowered and lifted with each pulse of vibrato. What many flute players do not know is that we can do the same thing on our instruments using our embouchure and air stream. Begin with a straight tone, perhaps on one of our safe notes such as low A or B natural. Lower your air stream and bring both your jaw and your upper lip slightly forward and down to lower the pitch as low as it will go then lift your air stream and return to a normal embouchure. This is a slow motion recreation of string vibrato. Repeat this process moving slightly faster between the bent pitch and the standard pitch and repeat. Practice this exercise faster with each repetition, focusing on dropping the pitch with the air stream rather than overusing the embouchure, until you hear a spinning vibrato produced at roughly the same speed of your air vibrato. The result is a vibrato that emanates directly from the sound itself rather than one that dances on top of the air column. I refer to this type of vibrato as “Washing Machine” vibrato because it sounds similar to a washing machine running on the rinse cycle. The sound created on the flute, however, sparkles brighter (and better in tune) using washing machine vibrato than it does with air vibrato. Try it out!
Vibrato Pitfalls and Scared Chipmunk Vibrato
I like to tell my students that there is a major difference between Scared Chipmunk vibrato and Yo Yo Ma. Many students begin with a fast, tense vibrato because they are trying very hard to both create and hear their vibrato. Search for any recording on YouTube featuring Yo Yo Ma or, my personal favorite, Luciano Pavarotti, and listen to the ease with which they create their vibrato. There are no scared chipmunks on stage. Strive for that slower, effortless vibrato when the music calls for beautiful, melodic playing and an intense but controlled speed during climatic moments. Vibrato speed should remain flexible and appropriate to the tone of the music. Too much is overkill. Too little is empty. Listen to the masters and find a vibrato speed and sound that compliments your playing style. Always experiment using the above exercises. Record yourself. How does your vibrato sound in a recording compared to the vibrato you hear yourself creating in the practice room?
Do you have any vibrato exercises that have improved both the sound and consistency of your vibrato technique? Have you experimented with different ways to create vibrato? Is there a performer whose vibrato you love? Please comment below.