A student asked if it was possible that she was too old to learn to do vibrato on her violin. She described her hand convulsing into all sorts of unnatural positions, fingers poking out in all directions, tension, and just plain frustration that her hand did not seem capable of the relaxed, fluid motion she sees other violinists doing.

Old hands are more stubborn, for sure, but they CAN learn new tricks.
What my student was describing is a type of “co-contraction,” where 2 muscles are working in opposition to each other, causing tension and unwanted motion. (such as making obscene gestures….save that for driving!)

I learned this term from Jennifer Johnson, the author of “What Every Violinist Should Know About the Body”, a great book, and I want to give credit to Ms. Johnson.

How to train your hands for violin vibrato

Here are some tricks people can use to help their stubborn hand to learn new tricks.
Think of it this way: if you want to teach your dog to sit, but he just doesn’t understand what you want him to do, you gently push his bum toward the ground to help him sit.

Same with your hand.

Use your right hand to guide and help the left hand to learn this new, strange motion. You can do this without the violin in hand at first, just on a table top, or in a “pantomime” gesture. Use your right hand to stabilize the left hand, to isolate the motion you WANT, and eliminate the motion you DON’T want.

Here are some steps for you:

  1. So, start WITHOUT violin when you need to.
  2. Next, you can move to GUITAR position, still helping with your right hand.
  3. Next, move to normal violin position, but you can pin your scroll against a cushion on a wall to fully support the violin, leaving both hands free to work together to learn the motion.
  4. Next, left hand does the motion all by itself, your scroll can still be pinned against the wall.
  5. Next, left hand does the motion all by itself WITHOUT pinning the scroll to the wall, and without help of right hand.
  6. FINALLY, left hand does the motion WITH THE BOW playing a long note.

As you can see, there are lots of little baby steps we sometimes have to take to get our hands to learn to relax while doing an unfamiliar motion. You might be able to skip some of the steps, but you might need to go through every single step.

I recommend at first that you go through every single step, just while you learn to flex that cupcake/pancake motion, and the pill bottle rocking motion.

If you can get those two things implemented, then you won’t have to go through all those baby steps for EVERY SINGLE THING you do on vibrato.

But some students really really need to start with guitar position, going to scroll pinned on wall, and finally normal position on every new vibrato step they learn.

It’s OKAY!!

It is so worth it to take your time, learn balance and relaxation, get rid of co-contraction, assist with right hand (eliminating the bow from the equation), whenever necessary.

And, remember that eventually, you will be allowed to implement a little bit of arm vibrato to help you once you get through learning wrist vibrato, and that will help A TON.

My online violin lessons featuring the Suzuki violin method give extremely thorough vibrato instruction. Take a look at the details right here.

*Featured image credit: “Sonata for keyboard and violin.” Photo by Mitch Huang. Used under CC license.