Perhaps no issue causes more divisiveness amongst bassoonists as the one of “correct” vibrato technique. Players vehemently defend their preferred choice to use what they call “diaphragm vibrato,” “throat vibrato,” “larynx vibrato,” or “jaw vibrato” (along with various possible combinations of each), but many of the disagreements about vibrato are actually due to the inaccuracy of these same terms.
Arthur Weisberg advocates the use of “diaphragm vibrato” in his book The Art of Wind Playing, but the term “diaphragm vibrato” is somewhat of a misnomer since the diaphragm itself plays no role.1 Instead, “abdomen vibrato” would be a more accurate label, because it is the abdomen that actually creates the pulses Mr. Weisberg refers to.2 David McGill, on the other hand, is a strong proponent of “throat vibrato,” explaining that we should strive to imitate the vocal style and technique of vibrato as much as possible.3 However, the term “throat vibrato” has historically been used to describe a vibrato created by a series of glottal stops, which creates a series of “Eh-Eh-Eh-Eh-Eh-Eh-Eh” sounds. This glottal movement is the “throat vibrato” Weisberg describes, explaining that it is “executed with the very back of the tongue against the throat.”4 But since McGill’s playing bears no trace of this “Eh-Eh-Eh-Eh” sound, I am led to believe that what he is actually referring to here would be more accurately called “larynx vibrato,” not “throat vibrato.”
McGill’s whole approach is based on the fact that singers produce their vibratos in the throat region. Weisberg dismisses this basis altogether, stating that the movement in the throat—which he calls “throat vibrato”—is actually caused by pulses originating in the abdomen.5 However, as discussed above, McGill’s definition of “throat vibrato” is not the same as Weisberg’s definition of “throat vibrato.” Once again, in the context of discussing the vibrato technique of vocalists we must assume that Weisberg’s “throat vibrato” here actually means “larynx vibrato.”
So, if McGill and Weisberg are talking about the same type of vibrato—as it appears they are—who is correct? Is the singer’s throat creating the vibrato as McGill suggests, or simply reacting to the pulsations from the abdomen as Weisberg suggests? A number of studies using very precise medical instruments have observed clear movement of the larynx during vibrato, but whether the larynx is responsible for vibrato or simply reacting to abdominal pulses has not been proven conclusively.
I believe that both the abdomen and larynx should play a role in producing vibrato, but that it is the abdomen that should primarily be responsible for the pulses. I can say with great confidence that the primary source of my vibrato is the abdomen, because if I angle my head downward I can actually see small pulsations occurring in my stomach.6 Even so, there are certainly times where I feel a definite movement in my larynx, such as when I use a narrow vibrato or a vibrato on soft notes. This seems to be a similar feeling to what Michael Burns describes:
[…] I believe that a slow vibrato is often abdominal but that it travels up to the larynx as speed increases. This results in a very ‘vocal’ quality to the vibrato. Some argue that the vocal cords are just vibrating in sympathy with an oscillation generated from lower down (perhaps the abdomen) and this may be correct. Nonetheless there is very definite oscillation of the larynx and vocal cords during my own vibrato at least.7
Despite the movement in my larynx during certain situations, I still always feel at least slight pulsations coming from my abdomen.
I have often experimented with exaggerating the movement in my throat region, and found that it is similar to voicing the syllables “EEE-OOO-EEE-OOO” very rapidly. I feel that this movement occurs naturally when producing vibrato on the bassoon due to the interaction of the air pulses from the abdomen with the resistance of the instrument. This simple test allows me to understand where my vibrato is really coming from: when I actively concentrate on lessening this throat movement, I am still able to produce clear pulses in the sound; however, when I attempt to produce a vibrato while consciously preventing my abdomen from moving, I find it completely impossible.
Some pedagogues believe that focusing on the larynx might eventually provide a more efficient method for learning vibrato; but I strongly believe that since vibrato is just an ornamentation of the air stream, we should focus on creating it from the same source as our air. The fundamental idea that I firmly believe students should understand is that vibrato should originate in the abdomen, and from there will create a natural, complimentary movement in the larynx. If we only focus on producing pulses with the larynx, then the resulting vibrato will be too narrow by the time it travels through the instrument, and the option of producing an operatic vibrato that is both wide and fast (such as what we might use on the high A♭ in “Una furtiva lagrima”) is lost. Waterhouse agrees that the focus should be on creating vibrato pulses with the abdomen, not from the larynx itself:
It has been shown recently that the larynx may become involved during vibrato, but we should allow both larynx and throat to respond freely to the pulsations from below rather than deliberately initiate movements from there.8
The best exercise to develop vibrato is also one of the simplest: choose a note in any range and practice creating sudden—not smooth—pulses with the airstream. Start at ♩= 60 in 4/4 time, and play (at least) one bar of quarter note pulses, one bar of eighth note pulses, one bar of triplet-eighth note pulses, and finally one bar of sixteenth note pulses. Make each pulse as wide as possible at every rhythm—much wider than they should tastefully be played in actual music—and work to increase the metronome speed in small increments. You will likely not notice much movement in the throat if the pulses are being kept sufficiently wide during these exercises.
Try to get the tempo as fast as you can. Personally, I am comfortable creating very wide sixteenth note pulses at tempos above ♩= 80, which I believe is a good goal for students to strive for. Once you have reached the fastest tempo that you can physically create the pulses at, move to another note and begin the same sequence of rhythms on it. For the sake of this exercise, try to avoid narrowing the pulses in order to reach a faster tempo; when playing actual music, the pulses will naturally decrease in amplitude as you consciously think less about producing the vibrato and more about playing the music. As the pulses become narrower and faster, you will become more aware of the pulsations in the larynx. I often find myself coming back to this exercise while working on music that calls for a wide variety of vibrato speeds and widths (such as Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony), and find that using it in my practice warm-ups helps open my throat and deepen my breathing.
Opinions about the expressive uses of vibrato have evolved a great deal over the past century. Fifty years ago, Archie Camden shared a common sentiment about the vibrato of the time:
There are various opinions regarding the use of vibrato. It seems to be generally agreed that a small amount of vibrato can give life, warmth, and vitality to the tone. I suggest that ‘small’ be the operative word.9
Since then, bassoonists have come to realize the expressive possibilities that come from altering the speed and intensity of their vibrato. Waterhouse eloquently explains the prevailing current attitude:
Depending on the music in question, it might be employed only sparingly, or indeed not at all. But when it is be used, it should be applied audibly and with conviction—almost at times like a deliberate ornament. It should not be a mere blanket wobble over everything—like cream on a cake—but a varying and subtle means of highlighting the points of a phrase in order to heighten the expressiveness and eloquence of what we are playing.10
If we accept that our vibrato should have varying width and speed for different situations, then its use becomes another musical decision we must carefully consider. Weisberg explains some of the general guidelines we should follow:
Of the factors determining which speed to use, the most important is the music itself. That is, whether or not it is emotional or placid. Beyond this there is the question of which range of the instrument is being used. The lower range of any given instrument should have a slower vibrato than the upper range, and at the same time this slower rate must have a wider amplitude. One of the main reasons for this is that the notes are farther apart in the lower range than in the upper. We can see this by looking at the frets of a guitar. The higher we ascend in the upper register, the closer together they become. If a string player were to use as wide a vibrato in the upper register as he does in the lower, he might find himself covering more than the range of a semitone. In general the violin and the flute have a faster, narrower vibrato than do the cello and the bassoon.11
We do not need to feel obligated to apply vibrato to each and every note we play. Unfortunately, though, only using vibrato on some notes can also lead to a number of bad habits, as McGill explains:
Some musicians have acquired the chronic habit of leaving the vibrato off the penultimate note of a phrase or note group. Playing that way can make that note stick out, breaking the natural flow of the line… The extreme example of thoughtless vibrato usage is also often heard—using it on every other note. Avoid this like the plague!12
To develop an expressive vibrato that can be tailored to the musical needs of each specific phrase or note, players should work on being able to incorporate the following variables:
- A wider or narrower vibrato
- A faster or slower vibrato
- A vibrato that starts right when the note begins
- A vibrato that starts after the note begins
- A vibrato that stops before the note ends
Each of these variables can be developed through the basic exercise described earlier. Instead of immediately moving between rhythms, however, practice gradually transitioning the speed of the vibrato to reach the next rhythm of pulses. Start from a plain tone and gradually increase the speed of the pulses to the sixteenth notes; and then start a note with sixteenth-note pulses and gradually decrease the speed of the vibrato until you have a flat tone.
I believe that we should be able to discuss the application of vibrato with the same type of concrete terminology we use for dynamic levels or styles of articulation. I prefer to indicate the intensity of the vibrato I use on specific notes with labels like Vib. 1, Vib. 2, Vib. 3, etc., examples of which can be seen in the pedagogical discussions for Donizetti's "Una furtiva lagrima" and Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony. The speed of the vibrato is designated by the number level—the higher the number, the faster the pulses—but the amplitude (width) of the pulses is contextually based on the note's dynamic, and to a certain degree its range. Just as Weisberg explains above, applying a very wide vibrato to upper register notes can distort the actual pitch a great deal, so this should be taken into consideration when interpreting the labels. For example, a Vib. 3 on a forte D4 should be narrower than a Vib. 3 on a forte D3, even though the actual speed of the pulses should remain identical.
1 To be fair, Weisberg actually mentions that he is only using the term “diaphragm vibrato” for the sake of simplicity.
2 To avoid confusion, the term “abdomen vibrato” will be used whenever an author incorrectly refers to it as “diaphragm vibrato.”
3 McGill, 214.
4 Weisberg, 58.
5 Ibid., 58-59.
6 Over the years I have had a number of colleagues comment on the visible movement of my abdomen during vibrato, seemingly surprised that the physical pulses creating the vibrato were so noticeable. That this was so unusual for other musicians to observe has led me to believe that many bassoonists who think they are using “abdomen vibrato” may in fact be using “larynx vibrato.” Of course, the basis for this theory is entirely anecdotal.
7 Michael Burns, “Thoughts and Strategies for Bassoon Vibrato.” Double Reed 28, no. 2 (2005): 122.
8 Waterhouse, 165.
9 Archie Camden, Bassoon Technique (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 30.
10 Waterhouse, 163.
11 Weisberg, 63-64.
12 McGill, 216.