Friday, March 23, 2007

Vibrato from a practical standpoint

I have been involved with studying and playing "early music" since the 1970s, when it was in its relative childhood. Music from before the time of Bach played on approximations of early instruments had its official "Renaissance" in the 1950s, though a few 19th century pioneers like Arnold Dolmetsch (1858-1940) should be given a huge amount of credit for paving the road to "hipness" that we now all take for granted.

I was originally attracted to the movement as a way of finding ways of playing baroque music (the stuff that I spent most of my time with since I was a flutist) in a more intelligent way than I had been playing it. I have read the well-known treatises, and have applied, for various periods in my musical life, "rules" that I thought would help me to better understand and play in a more "authentic" manner. I learned to play baroque flute in order to play music written for my instrument in the way that it would have sounded when it was written. I feel very fortunate to have devoted ten years of my musical life almost exclusively to the baroque flute and the recorder.

Because I was learning at a time when there were very few experts in the baroque field, and those experts were around were still in the experimental stage of their lives, I learned most of what I knew (and I guess still know) from treatises. The main thing, in retrospect, that I learned from reading treatises (the "big" ones are by C.P.E. Bach, Rameau, Hotteterre, Quantz, and Leopold Mozart) is that good musicianship needs to always be guided by taste. Each of these writers had a pedagogical agenda and addressed specific problems connected with specific students (Quantz addressed specific problems that his student and patron Frederick the Great must have had), and each had his own unique ideas about musicianship.

Some people read these treatises as "rule books." I know now they are not. They are personal statements by accomplished musicians who were in positions prominent enough to get their books published. These are the books that the people against vibrato (PAV, maybe?) regard as authoritative evidence.

All I know about vibrato is what I know from practical experience. I rarely use vibrato when I play Medieval and Renaissance music with recorder players (as a string player). Recorder players play with very little vibrato, if any, because a diaphragm-centered vibrato, the kind that good singers and good wind players use, sounds very wide on the recorder. Of course there are recorder players like Michela Petri who have total control over the instrument, but for most mortals a vibrato that doesn't originate in the throat oscillates too slowly to make any kind of impact on the musical line (and a vibrato that originates in the throat sounds horrible), so when I'm playing violin or viola with recorder players I find that my sound blends better when I don't vibrate.

During the 17th and 18th centuries recorder players started using a fast finger vibrato called flattement to add expression. It is usually made with the index finger of the right hand moving in the air to the side of the recorder's finger hole. If I were playing a French trio sonata with a recorder player (or a baroque flute player) using flattement, I would certainly want to vibrate in order to match his or her sound.

Leopold Mozart warned against having a tremolo in the sound. I think that he was warning against the evils of a bad vibrato, both vocally and instrumentally. He probably meant to say that it is more tasteful to not vibrate at all than to vibrate tastelessly. It is impossible to teach a good vibrato in a treatise. A good string vibrato comes from a lot of care, practice, muscle control, and most of all a correct physical position on the instrument. String vibrato is very easy and very natural once a string player has a good physical relationship with the instrument. Getting that relationship to happen takes a lot of work, and the musical rewards are great. Why should we deprive ourslves of the ability to express ourselves with all we have for the sake of what some people call "authenticity?"


Jason Heath said...

Great post! I'll be sure to direct my readers to it as well.

viola power said...

Elaine! Great post. Also, you must do the Shoh the Dog blog quiz.

Another Elaine Fine composition festival is in the works for April 19th here in Idaho! This is for the Caldwell School District: both Ugly Duckling and Happy Family. Right on.

Jen from Boise!

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks Jen! Give my best to the friendly folks in Boise.

I'll go over to Soho the Dog right now and do the quiz.

Thomas D said...

Why would you assume that 'expressing yourself' REQUIRES vibrato? Mightn't this simply be late 19th / 20th century conditioning: that 'expressive' playing somehow equals vibrato?

Can't you produce perfectly good expressive playing without it, using just the right hand (and wrist and arm) to modulate dynamics and timbre?

If not, why not?

Hans Keller (no friend of 'authentic' performance!) wrote already some decades ago about the decay of the right hand in violin playing at the expense of the left. Perhaps this is at the root of so many people's convictions that 'expressive' must equal vibrato.

Listening advice: Adolf Busch and Rudolf Serkin in Schubert, Fantasia in C. Recorded about 1935 if memory serves. The beginning is absolutely senza vibrato, and you have never heard anything so beautiful. That kind of musical expression would, in fact, be destroyed by vibrato!

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for the comment Thomas. Keller is right about the lack of real development in the right hand in modern players. It is a particular problem for student players, and when they are instructed by a person who craves the sound of Norrington's recordings to play without vibrato the sound usually dies and the intonation becomes unstable. (Yes, dealing with this issue was the motivation for my post in the first place). Playing baroque music with a baroque violin and a baroque is another issue entirely. Most people approach the whole genre of authentic instrument playing with a right hand that is ready to take on expressive responsibility. This, however, takes time and discipline.

Busch and Serkin, in my opinion, are two of the finest musicians that ever lived and ever played together. I haven't heard the Schubert (though I will try to find it), but I imagine that their choice for playing without vibrato was probably a musically-intelligent one. If Busch had decided to use vibrato I imagine it would have been equally beautiful, but in a different way.

Axekiler said...

I find Vibrato incredibly obnoxious when over used. Not every note should stand out above the rest. I always like to go to my Rehearsal Studio to see what it will sound like when played on stage. This is important on how it flows through the song in the venue.

Anonymous said...

I was an oboist for many years and recently took up the recorder. I would never say that "expressing yourself REQUIRES vibrato". However, I would say that one should never eliminate the use of vibrato altogether as it serves, along with a number of techniques, as an important tool in playing expressively.

As an oboist, and as a recorder player, I never play with continuous vibrato. Rather, I use it judiciously to enhance parts of some phrases.

The recorder obviously has some serious limitations when it comes to dynamics. Tastefully applied vibrato can create the effect of a crescendo and create tension and excitement in a phrase.

In my experience, those who are particularly critical of the use of vibrato are, more often than not, musicians who have poor vibratos in the first place.

Fantastic transverse flute players and oboists who know Bach well regularly use vibrato in performance of his works. Why should it be appropriate for some instruments and not for others?

I agree that Renaissance music should probably be played without it and it should be used sparingly and tastefully for baroque but I would never eliminate it altogether in post Renaissance music unless the composer specified to not use it. Just my 2 cents.