VIBRATO - don't be a goat!
We flute players are in love with our own sound! We're pretty darn self-absorbed in our quest to beautify every single little detail of everything that we do. I'll be the first to admit that. But does adding a cup of sugar always make things better? Here are some thoughts.
If there's one thing flautists look up to it's a deep, beautiful flute sound with soul and expression. And vibrato. How we love vibrato ... Slow vibrato, fast vibrato. Fat vibrato, slim vibrato. Vibrato in the core of the sound and vibrato throughout all the layers of the sound. Vibrating feels great! Like painting an aquarelle with feelings, as leaving a part of yourself in the music. Vibrato can make the sound sigh or cry in despair. It can make it sweet and it can reflect joy and happiness.
Clarinetists (=players of the flute's bland and envious friend, the clarinet) aren't always as excited about flute vibrato.
Clarinetists (=players of the flute's bland and envious friend, the clarinet) aren't always as excited about flute vibrato. Sometimes out of jealousy, as vibrato on classical clarinet is borderline taboo (and at least controversial, should one believe secure sources I've talked with), but often times with good reason. 'Cus vibrato isn't always a good fit and vibrating isn't always technically executed in a good or beautiful way. To many a flautist it's simply a habit to turn on the "vibrato switch". Some have grown so used to one kind of sound that the vibrato simply is there, almost without any option to turn it off.
Even though use of vibrato clearly is connected to subjective preferences regarding type, amount, genre of music etc., there are some DO's and DON'Ts I'd like to shed some light on. Stuff it can be smart to be aware of if you want to get as much as possible out of your vibrato and if you want to be a good colleague when you play with others. 'Cus what is the effect called "vibrato" good for, really, and what function does it serve to vibrate?
When you vibrate you're going out of camouflage and saying "Attention! Look at me!"
Human attention is very much drawn to movement. Professor Lars Asbjørnsen (https://www.norflute.com) painted a really nice image during a lesson I took from him not long ago. Freely from my memory: Imagine a big, broad landscape. No wind, no movement. Somewhere far away there's a little rabbit that you cannot see because of its perfect camouflage. Unnoticeable, invisible ... Until it moves! In the same second as it jumps your eye has caught it and you're aware that it is there.
And what is vibrato if not movement?! When you vibrate you're going out of camouflage and saying "Attention! Look at me!". In fact, you're drawing more attention to the note(s) you're vibrating on simply by standing out from your surroundings. This can be very fortunate when you hit the nail on the head. And potentially less fortunate if you're not making clever choices.
being a good musician ought to be more important than being a good flautist.
"Look at me, look at me! Yeeeah! I'm playing the FIFTH in this chord in the accompaniment! Check it out! Listen to me!!"
... is something probably no one is consciously thinking, but it can certainly sound that stupid when someone rather thoughtlessly decides to love their own sound too much at the wrong time and place in the music. All components in a piece of music are naturally important for the piece as a whole, but can we not all agree that elements which aren't meant to be in the foreground need not be shaken about?
"Y'all! I'm the BEST second flute in this flute section and I'm gonna use my fattest vibrato in this soli so that everyone can hear that I'm the best and actually should be first chair and play all the solos!!"
... is an example of a way of thinking quite a few young, ambitious flautists are guilty of. I'm sure you know the type. They've figured out a thing or two about flute playing, found an outlet for an inner need to express themselves and now they're about to SHOW YOU what they're made of! These are valuable qualities that shouldn't be dismissed, but in a short-sighted and immature way they put oneself and one's ego before the music - which is a bit sad, especially when playing together with others. It simply isn't an act of a good colleague (even if not intended that way). As a matter of principal, your knowledge about flute playing shouldn't ideally trump your knowledge about music; being a good musician ought to be more important than being a good flautist. And everything in good time. A good group sound is not about disappearing or hiding, it's about being one with the group.
a lil' "twinkle in the eye" of the sound is acceptable from time to time.
So, let us please agree right now that when playing unisono with others in a group it's a good idea to keep the vibrato at a minimum (A tiny bit is cool though, it's in the nature of the instrument, but not a constant and static "wawawa" on every note). Are you playing a note in a chord, your musical assignment normally is to blend your sound with others - adding vibrato is going to offer you the quite opposite and make you stand out: Mission failed.
Are you however playing the highest note note in the chord, you're alone at the top, you may in some cases add a lil' hint of vibrato. My old professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, Torkil Bye referred to this as "charm vibrato", and I find that to be an utterly beautiful expression which I think every good flautist should keep as part of their fluterminology. A lil' "twinkle in the eye" of the sound is acceptable from time to time.
But vibrato is mainly a soloistic thing on the flute. Used wisely it can contribute to really touch your listeners deeply. It can soften and it can create tension, all depending on how it's done.
And let's go from WHEN and WHERE to HOW. Because how do we make vibrato really?
NO! You can not solve intonation problems by adding some vibrato. That's BS
People often think about vibrato as waves and the top and bottom of the wave as variations of the pitch. Meaning, the intonation is sharper on the top of the wave and flatter at the bottom. On string instruments it is like that. But on the flute, bending the pitch up and down isn't the best approach. The right way to go about achieving that beautiful vibrato you've always dreamt of, is creating controlled dynamic variations! Meaning, the top of the wave is louder than the bottom of the wave (if we're to still think about it as waves). Sudden, pulsating elements of something louder on the tone, so to speak. Should there occur some subtle variations in pitch as a consequence of getting sharper when getting louder I guess that's alright, but the goal should be to stay in pitch as much as possible.
And can we by the way thus kill a common myth right now: NO! You can not solve intonation problems by adding some vibrato. That's BS, and in the case of it not making things worse it certainly isn't helping. Done. Should you come across a conductor who claims something of the sort, you now know that they have no idea about what they're talking about.
Another myth is that vibrato is made with the diaphragm, and some people even teach kids that the vibrato waves should be pushed out from the abdomen. To that I have only one thing to say: STOP! It's incorrect. A GIGA misunderstanding. The vibrato is NOT produced in or by your stomach, and the diaphragm is actually an involuntary muscle that you can consciously control just as much as you consciously can make your heart pump faster or slower. As much as you can make your kidneys play table tennis or have your liver water your plants while you're on vacation. No matter who claims that, how famous they are or how fantastically they play: you can not consciously control your diaphragm, and that, my good flute friend, you can google the shit out of if you don't take my word for it. Anatomy is anatomy. Let's not teach anyone anything that's simply incorrect.
In my opinion one only creates problems with tension by encouraging use of muscles that do not have a function when it comes to a certain task. And tensed vibrato is a no no no no NO GO!
As if their flute is haunted by Edith Piaf
If you're tensing your body in a desperate attempt to vibrate, you can unfortunately develop something we call "goat vibrato" (fun fact: in my language we call it "bunny vibrato". Why? I've no idea! Haha!). You've probably heard some flautists who's vibrato sounds more like a bleat than well ... vibrato! As if their flute is haunted by Edith Piaf. Often times the vibrato is then too high up in the sound and the expression comes off as tensed and nervous. This is a bad habit that can be really hard to fix, when the damage already has been done. But don't despair should you feel that this goes for you. If you're patient and have the right amount of determination I have no doubt most things can be solved.
Here comes my best vibrato tips in the form of some exercises:
As vibrato on the flute is variations between loud and soft on a continuous note, preferable within the same pitch, it is smart to practice just that. But slooooowly and controlled, man! Very important!
Put your metronome on BPM=60 and do these small exercises thoroughly: make sure that the pitch is the same in p and f and that the diminuendi are as good as the crescendi. This might not be the most action filled practice activity, but have you been so unfortunate to develop goat vibrato it is an important point and the best medicine. If you don't have goat vib problems this is still a super good check-up that you ought not skip. Remember: bad habits can come sneaking up on you! Practice it until you can play it smoothly and relaxed.
A good sound is a flexible sound and the same goes for a good vibrato. Another pitfall than the tensed goat vibrato is a static, one dimentional vibrato. Static gets boring after three seconds: whatever life you gave to the sound becomes its death just as fast if you don't vary (No one wants to sound like a vacuum cleaner or the fan of an over heated laptop!). And the most effective mean for variation of the vibrato is the tempo.
Let your metronome continue ticking on BPM=60 and work on these:
Each bar represents a note of four beats. Your chore is to play the written rhythm with the help of vibrato. If you can do this effortlessly you have a toolbox filled with many possibilities. I consider that a realistic goal for anyone! The choice of the note B for these exercises was completely random. Practice on all possible notes in all registers.
And now I'm going to show you a really cool and fun way to use what you just worked on to add colour to ANY beautiful melody. Since I'm Norwegian, I choose to use a snippet from Edvard Grieg's Morning Mood as our guinea pig:
Practice this lil' snippet WITHOUT vibrato first. Make sure that your sound is equally good on all notes and that the intonation is impeccable. NB! Second octave G is often flat and D and C are often sharp! Can you do the whole thing in one breath? Good! You rock!
When it sounds good and you're happy with it, I want you to let yourself get inspired by the exercise you just did and bring it with you into Morning Mood. Let's not give two poops about the key signature and the rhythm, but let the metronome tick steadily on BPM=60 and practice two vibrato waves per note, like so:
Don't forget dynamics, breathe when you need to.
When you're satisfied you go on and do three waves per note:
Then four, five, six and seven:
After working like this it will be easier than you imagine to vary your vibrato on the given melody. Maybe the final result will look like this?
Or maybe completely different! Your imagination is the only limitation and the brush is in YOUR hand!