by Martin Schuring ©2002

Perhaps vibrato is a subject more wisely left alone. As eminent a teacher and artist as Pierre Pierlot recently said in an interview that he could say "nothing sensible about it" ­ a sobering caution for someone about to say something about it.

Vibrato on the oboe is like a vocal vibrato: it is the natural result of a mature and efficient tone production technique. Thus, while it is rare to find a fourteen year old singer with a decent vibrato, it is just as rare to find a thirty year old singer without one. As technique and physique develop, so does vibrato. Thus, the placement of the vibrato ­ the long-standing rivalry between "throat" and "diaphragm" vibratos ­ is largely imaginary. The actual vibrato is created around the larynx, felt high in the chest. The player may perceive the origin differently, but that's where it ends up.

I prefer to teach tone production and let the vibrato come naturally, which it usually does. For those rare occasions when it doesn't, a regimen of controlled abdominal thrusts usually gets it started. The exercise is likely familiar to anyone who has ever studied the oboe ­ gradually increase the speed of abdominal bumps until they reach five or so per second. At that point, a sympathetic vibrato in the upper chest will become apparent and should be encouraged. Once reliable, refinement can begin.

Exercise (to develop a natural, singing vibrato)

Use a metronome setting of 60 as your pulse. Begin by sustaining a tone (use an easy, free, note in the middle of the staff) and "bumping" it very hard from the abdomen once each pulse. In other words, make a very fast crescendo/diminuendo once each second. It needs to be quick and firm ­ rather like driving over a speed bump too fast. When this is consistent, increase the speed to twice per second, then three times, then four, up to five. As the speed increases, the bumps will gradually become less violent.

At around four pulses per second, a sympathic vibrato will begin to be felt around the larynx ­ the student will perceive it at the very bottom of the neck where it meets the chest. It is this vibrato that we want to encourage. The whole point of the pulsing exercise is to cause this sympathetic vibrato to occur. Once it does, the abdominal pulses can cease and the support held steady, while the vibrato takes place in the upper chest. It will take the student some time to learn to control and refine this, but they will eventually gain a beautiful singing vibrato.

Vibrato produced in this way is completely natural, but rather air-speed dependent. If the air intensity drops too low (which it will when playing very softly, for instance), the vibrato will cease to occur by itself. However, after enough experience with producing it naturally, the student will also learn to create the same mechanism "artificially" to apply vibrato in any situation.

A few notes on the use of vibrato: Vibrato is decoration. It is not an essential part of oboe sound; it is an expressive device used to help explain the music. Vibrato used continuously is no more interesting than no vibrato at all. Be sure to use it with discretion. Be sure to use it only after the basic tone and phrase are beautiful ­ think of it as painting a piece of furniture. If the piece is ugly or damaged, or even merely scratched, paint won't help it look better. Be very attentive that you are not using vibrato to hide an underlying lack of integrity or intensity in your tone production.

Exercise (very difficult)

Play any slow Ferling etude with no vibrato at all. Make all of your dynamic and color changes; play all the nuances and inflections you want, but don't use any vibrato. Only after you can play in tune without vibrato, and play with true propulsion and intensity in your phrasing with no vibrato, should you allow it back in. Then it will fulfill its true purpose of making your playing more beautiful.