Explaining how to create vibrato is one of the bigger challenges for a cello
teacher. One of the problems is that there are differing opinions on how to
do it. Some say you should bunch up your fingers around the playing finger
to give it added strength. Others say that you shouldn't do this because you
are limiting your mobility.
Phyllis Young, in her book, Playing the String Game, has devised some
1. "Let's see if you can make your arm so relaxed that all that fat on the
inside of your upper arm will shake like Jello! Hang loose." Hopefully, you
aren't offended by this imagery.
2. "Let's see you move your left hand as though you're shaking dice. Every
bone in your hand will rattle! Now try vibrating again, using this same kind
3. "Sometimes, when I think of a cello vibrato, I envision two parallel
walls about 3 feet apart. I see a weightless ball thrown against one wall.
It immediately bounces back to the second wall, which in turn sends it back
to the first wall. I have a feeling this could go on for years."
In the back of All for Strings, Book 2, there are some techniques for
teaching vibrato. One technique involves holding a match box in your left
hand, between your thumb and first and second fingers; rattle the matches.
Another technique from this book is called "polishing the string" where you
slide your fingers up and down the string, gradually shortening the travel
until you are no longer sliding, though your hand is still "shaking."
Another image that may help is the "ointment technique." Place the pad of
your middle finger on a table in front of you. Imagine you are rubbing
ointment into the table, but don't let your finger slip back and forth. Feel
the pad of your finger flexing over your bone as you go back and forth.
Feel your first finger joint flexing a little. Notice that your whole
forearm moves. Feel how relaxed your arm is. Once you get this feeling, try
getting the same feeling on the fingerboard.
I have heard of one teacher who even uses male sexual imagery to get the
motion down. I will leave this to your imagination. Ahem.
Louis Potter, in his book, The Art of Cello Playing, has a nice two page
explanation. He gives exercises that may help. He emphasizes that the
vibrato motion is a motion of the entire forearm. Do not vibrate with just
your wrist. Don't role your wrist either.
Maurice Eisenberg, in his book, Cello Playing of Today, recommends the
following introductory practice:
"Close up the fingers into the palm of the hand. Hold the forearm over the
strings at second position level, so that the cuff or inner wrist rests on
the strings and the fist is just beyond them. Then rub the arm up and down,
slowly and very lightly, with a movement directed from the elbow."
Victor Sazer, in his book, New Directions on Cello Playing, recommends
removing "the thumb from the neck of the cello to maintain a consistent,
The speed and width of the vibrato should vary both for technical and musical
reasons. Vibrato on the lower strings should be slower and wider than on the
upper strings. A slow and wide vibrato sounds funny in the upper range. A
fast and narrow vibrato in the lower range can hardly be heard. Vibrato
should be wider and faster the louder you play as well. Also, musically
speaking, vibrato should vary depending on the musical demands of the music
to avoid monotony.
To help get control of the speed, use a metronome and vary the number of
"shakes" per beat.
Play long notes with gradual crescendos from piano to forte. As you get
louder, widen and speed up the vibrato. Then start loud and diminuendo,
narrowing and slowing your vibrato as you go. Then do a long note with a
dynamic swell in the middle, which combines the above actions.
Make sure you aren't clenching your fingers or hand or tightening your
shoulder as you play.