Vibrato is an ORNAMENT!

Vibrato is something that I’ve been known to get tetchy about. Only the other day, I leapt out of my comfy chair to pull the plug on a Radio 3 broadcast of Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), because even though it’s one of my all-time favourites, the (nameless) soprano was warbling so wildly that I was finding it hard to distinguish the individual notes. Of course, this is exactly the sort of piece where the singer can and probably should use lots of vibrato – but, you know, there is a limit. The overdone wibbly-wobbling of this gruesome recording just killed it dead for me. Vibrato is an ornament. Uncontrolled and ill-considered use of vibrato is as crass as squirting tomato ketchup all over your dinner, or peppering your writing with exclamation marks. Less is more.

Now, I mention vibrato because not only does it give me an opportunity for one of my favourite whinges, but in addition to this, I picked up some useful tips at this year’s BIG Double Reed Day, and I thought I’d share. The tips were provided by Deborah Goodyer during a workshop on ‘Improving Sound’: I’ll make this workshop the subject of another post, but for now, the focus is on vibrato.

I’ve already mentioned in another post that the player should try to make sense of the music without vibrato. Vibrato should also be something that you actively practise, odd as that may seem. Deborah Goodyer suggested the following exercise:

  1. Practise long notes without vibrato: play a couple of long notes at mf, one at f, one at p, then cresc. to dim., dim. to cresc., and so on. Basically, vary the dynamics.
  2. Then add some vibrato. Practise vibrato with a metronome, so the pulses come in crotchets, then quavers, then triplets, then semiquavers, and finally in sextuplets (the latter not pictured).

Tonguing exercise screenshot

This is quite tricky: once you get to the semiquavers it becomes increasingly difficult to control, but I think it is something worth working on because you need to be able to master your vibrato, not to have it dictate to you. And you should resist the temptation to use vibrato to cover up various evils such as bad tuning. I freely admit to having done this. I have hit a note and then consciously whacked on a shed-load of vibrato because I knew the note was out of tune and I didn’t know how to correct it. This is very naughty.

There is just one more point to make (for the present, anyway). If you play regularly with an orchestra or wind band or whathaveyou, then you should try to blend in with the other oboists present. This is particularly important if you are playing second oboe: you should aim to match the vibrato of the first player because the idea of playing in an orchestra is that everyone is working together to produce a blended sound. Ideally, the oboes should sound like one player playing two different parts.

I’m going to end with a personal anecdote to support my argument here. I remember once, years and years ago, I was playing in an orchestra with a cor player whose vibrato was so wide that a) it was impossible to match what she was doing, b) it was also impossible to play in tune with her, and c) it sounded horrible. In fact, I think the conductor had to have a kindly word with her in the end. I’ve noticed ever since when players favour a heavy vibrato and I’ve never found it anything other than trying. I always feel like saying ‘Just. Play. The. Note.’ It’s so much better if the player can produce a true, clear note and then embellish with a little bit of vibrato here and there, where it makes musical sense to do so. It may come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, that my favourite kind of singing is that which you hear in early church music – lovely pure notes and no mucking about. Emma Kirkby stuff. The sort of thing that Stile Antico do. I can’t even be bothered with The Sixteen these days, because I think they’ve gone a bit too warbly.

To finish where I started, here’s the peerless Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs on YouTube – and yes, there’s plenty of vibrato here, but it’s a considered use of vibrato and this is much closer to my idea of how the piece should be performed. Much, much better than that monstrosity on Radio 3 the other day.


  4 comments for “Vibrato is an ORNAMENT!

  1. Andrew Taylor
    December 28, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    Too true, Gaenor. I find that if I conscientiously practice vibrato (and that’s a big if, these days!) it sort of happens without thinking about it. My favourite vibrato then comes as a natural by product of properly-supported long notes. Can’t get it to work like that often these days, or at least not with the oboe – more successful on CA. Otherwise, my vibrato tends to be forced and yes, often used to cover up tuning issues! At least I don’t use my eyebrows like the legendary Albrecht Mayer! 😀

    If you haven’t already heard them, may I recommend Nancy Argenta and Grace Davidson as two wonderful sopranos who know how to control vibrato? All best, Andrew.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 28, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      Thanks Andrew. I’m going to write some more about vibrato and the whole ‘sound’ issue in general, because the workshop referred to in this post was excellent and really made me think – it’s not enough just to have a beautiful sound, is it? Beautiful sound beautiful sound beautiful sound = bit boring after a while. It’s got to be dynamics, colour, tone, the whole caboodle. Fave oboist is Roy Carter, who is very sparing on the vibrato side of things and overall an enormously robust and versatile player. One of my favourite singers is Anne Sofie von Otter and the reason for this is that her singing is so full of character. She doesn’t always make a nice sound, but she presents a full-blooded interpretation of the music. A courageous and gutsy singer (but she’s getting on a bit now, of course).

      Thank you also for the soprano recommendations – I know about lovely Nancy, but will have to investigate Grace Davidson…and I just have to see the Mayer eyebrows – YouTube ahoy!

      Best wishes


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