Cello Vibrato in Lower Positions
Analysis of Technique


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This article looks at the motions necessary for vibrato on the cello. As I have mentioned, we need to understand cello technique as precisely as possible so we are better able to teach and explain it. Vibrato on the cello is a motion that I believe has a great deal of misconceptions.

One misconception confuses passive and active motions in the forearm. When observing a cellist's vibrato it will be apparent that there is a pronating a supinating action in the forearm (a "rolling" action). It is often assumed that this motion is an active motion. However, in most cases, this motion is purely passive, a mere reaction to active motions further up the arm.

The misconception that the pronating action in the forearm is an active motion leads to teaching the "doorknob" vibrato exercise. This common method instructs the student to hold the left arm out and turn the wrist and forearm as in turning a doorknob. This makes the motion in the forearm active and is sometimes called a "wrist" vibrato. I have yet to see a professional cellist or well known cellist play a concerto with a "wrist" vibrato. Ironically, most who teach the wrist vibrato do not themselves vibrato that way. It is a matter of looking more carefully at the actual movement.

If the primary active motion is not in the forearm, where is it? I believe that the primary active motion is the upper arm, with the pivot joint being the shoulder. Remember, I am speaking only of vibrato in the lower positions. When I first mention this to students the first thing they thing of is a "chicken wing" motion, where the upper arm rises and falls. But this doesn't take into account the variety of ways our upper arm can move in the shoulder joint. The shoulder is a ball and socket joint so the upper arm can "swivel" in the shoulder socket. This is the active motion for cello vibrato that I like to teach first.

Another way cello vibrato is commonly taught is to teach that the primary active motion is in the forearm with the elbow as a pivot joint (not to be confused with the Doorknob Vibrato). This is similar to the "Door on a Hinge" exercise. This motion is certainly used for vibrato in the lower positions but I do not believe it is the primary active motion. It is the primary active motion in the upper positions but I believe the primary active motion for vibrato in the lower positions should be the upper arm doing a "swivel" motion in the shoulder socket. I would say that the secondary active motion is from the forearm doing a "door on a hinge" motion.

Try the "Robot Wave" (see video - named by one of my younger students) action study and work on feeling the motion from the upper arm in the shoulder. Please see my article on Teaching Vibrato. It is amazing how much more relaxed the entire left arm feels after this exercise.

There are other motions involved in cello vibrato but they are all passive motions, not active ones. I already mention the pronating and supinating action in the forearm. The forearm does in fact roll (pronate and supinate), similar to the doorknob vibrato exercise. Without the forearm motion, the vibrato will get "stuck" because the energy produced by the shoulder and forearm will have no place to go. But I suggest that the forearm not roll actively (as in the door knob exercise), but only passively. So the active upper arm vibrato results in a passive forearm roll with in turn results in the finger being able to roll (pivot motion).

Another passive motion in cello vibrato is a hand motion with the pivot joint in the wrist. Many teachers, whenever they see any hint of "wrist" vibrato, immediately stifle any hand motion. What I am referring to is a passive motion in the hand with the wrist as a pivot joint. If you adopt a slanted (pronated) hand position, as I advocate, your hand is in position for this type of motion. I strongly believe in not stifling passive motions (please see my article on the foundations of technique). Passive motions are natural and are only stifled if we tense up the muscles around the joint. It is perfectly natural to allow for some passive motion in the hand with the wrist as the pivot joint in cello vibrato. Also, allowing for passive motions takes work away from the active motions, creating a more efficient motion.

There is one more passive motion in vibrato; the knuckles. Actually, if I want to be more precise, I would say that the pivot joints are the knuckles. Loose knuckles are a great help in keeping the hand relaxed during vibrato. If you pronate the left hand, it is easier to have the knuckles be pivot joints.

So go and try it! Practice the "Robot Wave" and work on feeling the vibrato as an active "swivel" motion in the upper arm with the shoulder as the pivot joint. Also, work on passive motions in the forearm, wrist, and knuckles. With time, your vibrato will function more efficiently.

For ideas on teaching these motions, please see the action studies page.

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