Vibrato and cello playing is a technical aspect that comes with some debate, both in terms of execution and musicality. There’s quite a bit of historical implications for vibrato as well, having to do with its presence throughout each historical time period and our relationship with it today. This is an aspect of cello playing that I didn’t get to in depth in my recent article, How to use the left hand in cello playing. Here, I will try to address some issues dealing with vibrato, including its stylistic necessity, how to achieve a controlled effortless vibrato, and how to work on getting more color and options from it.
Vibrato and Cello Playing
When it comes to vibrato, the best place that most instrumentalists should look to, in my mind, is a singer. The best singers (for cellists, listen to someone like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) have the natural ability to shape the speed and width of their vibrato to match the intensity of, or lack thereof, a given phrase. Further, it is a technique that adds to, rather than detracts from, an already well-shaped phrase. The danger for string players tends to be to have a left-hand oriented sound, one that is driven by a wide unvaried vibrato that is applied on the surface, with no regard for the shape of the phrase. Remember: the left hand cannot create sound, only the right arm can. That being said, try to be absolutely certain in your idea of the shape of the phrase with no vibrato at all. Then ask yourself: How can my vibrato ADD to the effect that I’m trying to create? This will lead to a more organic approach to finding a suitable vibrato for a given passage, driven by the music instead of by the technique itself.
From a technical standpoint, it is important to keep in mind the history of vibrato for cellists and string players. Vibrato was not something that was viewed as being necessary or appropriate stylistically until the end of the 18th century and into the 19th century (as a result of prodigies like Niccolo Paganini). Much of the life of the cello was without the use of vibrato at all, if not sparingly. With that in mind, enjoying the pure sonorities of the instrument, especially in double-stop passages, is imperative if vibrato is to be used appropriately. Also, as with many aspects of cello technique, bigger muscles are to be used in order to garner more control and less fatigue. Think of the vibrato happening as a result of the left arm opening a closing at the elbow, controlled by the muscles in the lower back and shoulder. This motion can be controlled easily in all places along the fingerboard, including high thumb position. Further, having more than one rate of vibrato is absolutely imperative in being musically convincing, so experiment with keeping the vibrato constantly changing speed in scale work. Finally, try to achieve a uniform vibrato strength with each finger. To work on this, find a comfortable rate and width on a strong finger, and then try to find the same level of comfort on a weaker finger by experimenting with hand angle, elbow level, and thumb position.