#17: Vibrato

Welcome back to the land of "All Things Brass." This installment of Brass Advantage delves into an all-important musical technique that is a must for both amateur and professional musicians to better understand and incorporate into their performances, "Vibrato."

Vibrato is a musical effect, produced in singing and on musical instruments by a regular pulsating change of pitch, and is used to add expression and vocal-like qualities to instrumental music. Vibrato can be characterized by the amount of pitch variation ("depth of vibrato") and speed with which the pitch is varied ("speed of vibrato").

The extent of the variation in pitch in instrumental vibrato is usually decided by the performer, but does not usually exceed a semitone either way from the note itself.

To create vibrato on flutes and oboes, players usually modulate the airflow through the instrument by moving the diaphragm slightly up & down. On reed woodwinds such as clarinets and saxophones, players tend to create vibrato by repeatedly moving their jaw up and down slightly.

Vibrato can be produced on brass instruments in three ways. They are:

  1. using the lip or jaw
  2. using the hand
  3. using the abdominal muscles ("diaphragm" vibrato)

All three have both their adherents and their critics. Rather than take sides, I have decided instead to list the main arguments usually advanced for and against each method. Most of the comments made here about the various methods of producing vibrato on brass instruments also apply to the woodwinds.

A survey of top brass players carried out in the mid-1970s showed that jazz oriented trumpet players tended to prefer lip vibrato, while mainstream classical players favored hand vibrato [Joseph Bellamah, A Survey of Modern Brass Teaching Philosophies, Southern Music Company, Texas, 1976]. The same survey revealed that euphonium teachers were almost unanimous in recommending the use of jaw vibrato, while trombone players favored both jaw and hand vibrato. Interestingly, most French horn teachers surveyed did not advocate the use of vibrato at all. Diaphragm vibrato, often favored by woodwind players, was the least popular. In fact, diaphragm vibrato remained unpopular among brass players throughout the twentieth century. An article published in the Instrumentalist in the late 1980s did not even mention diaphragm vibrato as a possibility for the trombone [See Donald Wittekind "On Trombone Vibrato", Instrumentalist, March 1987].

Lip or jaw vibrato

Even today, lip or jaw vibrato remains the most common form of vibrato among lower brass instrument players. Articles published in professional magazines such as The Instrumentalist dating back to the 1950s and 1960s make it clear that most brass teachers have consistently rejected diaphragm vibrato in favor of lip and (to a lesser extent) hand vibrato [See Ira Lee "Vibrato for Brasses" in The Instrumentalist March 1954. Also Lorin Richtmeyer "Teaching Lip Vibrato" in The Instrumentalist January 1961]. Interestingly enough, the arguments for and against lip and jaw vibrato have hardly changed in the past 50 years. Critics insist that lip vibrato interferes unnecessarily with the embouchure and often results in a "nanny goat" sound. They also point out that, in the case of some players, lip vibrato can become so habitual that a straight tone becomes almost impossible.

Even so, there are many professional players and teachers who disagree. Echoing views commonly expressed by an earlier generation of musicians, they argue that lip vibrato actually helps in the development of a good embouchure by acting as a safeguard against excessive mouthpiece pressure, and is a very good exercise for the lips in gaining strength and endurance. Others see lip vibrato as being easy to control and less visual than hand vibrato.

Hand (slide) vibrato

Many trumpet players use hand vibrato, which relies for the production of a vibrato by altering the pressure of the mouthpiece on the lips. Trumpet players often achieve this by placing the thumb of right hand between the first and second valve casings and moving the hand back and forth. Trombone players use slide movement, employing both the wrist and the fingers. Critics of the latter means of achieving a vibrato usually focus on the problems facing the trombone player in controlling the pitch variation. Because the trombone slide is actually a double tube, an adjustment of just a quarter of an inch produces a half-inch actual change in the total length of the tubing. This makes it difficult to achieve a truly refined vibrato without considerable practice.

Diaphragm vibrato

Despite the fact that it is more difficult to control in comparison with both lip and hand vibrato, the misnamed 'diaphragm vibrato' has gained some limited popularity among brass players in recent decades. ['Diaphragm' vibrato is misnamed because players actually use their abdominal muscles. Contrary to popular opinion amongst many musicians, the diaphragm is not involved in exhalation at all]. Advocates of the method consider it superior to other forms of vibrato production because neither the jaw nor the embouchure is compromised by motion. Instead, the method depends on changes in the airflow produced by regular pulsations of the abdominal muscles. The change is one of intensity rather than pitch.

The main argument against the use of diaphragm vibrato is similar to that put forward by the critics of lip and jaw vibrato, i.e. that the technique interferes unnecessarily with other -- more important -- tasks. In this case, diaphragm vibrato is said to distract the player from using the lungs to keep a steady stream of air going. Students attempting to gain facility in the method (often by practicing the vowel ooo, ooo, ooo) are also in danger of using the throat instead, producing undesirable glottis pulsations.

In closing it's extremely important to remember whichever technique you pick you must always maintain a characteristic quality of sound... Tone is King!!!

Well that's about it for this month, don't forget to check out all the new brass and percussion technique books, marching band warm ups, drum cadences, drumsticks, CDs and DVDs on my website at www.XtremeBrass.com & www.XtremePercussion.com, send your questions or topics to: wdbd at xtremebrass dot com.

"Don't Let The Chance Pass You By". See Ya Soon...