Cello Vibrato and the Thumb
PART 1 – Welcome to another edition of Advanced Cellotips. In this video I would like to pay attention to the function of the thumb when playing in neck and thumb positions, as well as in the vibrato motion.
Vibrato is a shaking action of the wrist producing a pronation, supination motion between elbow and fingertips and not a rolling motion of the hand. A common mistake is to press the finger down on the finger board as this action will tense up the whole hand. It is the natural weight of the arm, transported to the finger pads, which let the fingers “sink” into the fingerboard.
It is essential to keep the elbow down. I often use the image of a floating elbow or an elbow that rests on an imaginary side table. Keep the wrist slightly curved when vibrating, except on the A string, where the natural hanging down of the arm gives a straight line from elbow to the hand. If we play with flat fingertips, the ‘fleshy, sticky’ contact gives a wider oscillation and a broader vibrato sound.
PART 2 – I consider the thumb as the ‘motor’ of the motion; if we vibrate it actively behind the neck of the cello, this motion will automatically bring the fingers into action. A defectuous vibrato could thus find is cause in a tight thumb behind the neck.
Vibrato is a two-side oscillation, around the centre of the perfect pitch of the note. Take notice that when vibrating in thumb position, due to the effect of gravity, the hand will tend to vibrate only backwards. I therefore advice my students to place the hand in a more ‘open’ position. In that way you can ‘open’ the shaking motion of the wrist in the direction of the bridge to get a wider vibrato.
I will now show a little trick to practice a continuous vibrato when moving up to the upper neck and thumb position the following: I concentrate on the shaking action of the thumb while letting the finger slide down in a passive way.
I use two different hand positions in thumb position, the first one where the fingers point slightly towards the bridge, the so called ‘closed’ position, usable to play a D mayor scale, with the half tone falling between the 2nd and the 3rd finger. The other one, as said before, I call the ‘open’ hand position, where I turn the hand slightly towards the little finger the fingers pointing towards my chest thus helping the index finger to fall naturally on a half tone with the thumb, to perform the b flat in a d minor scale. Popper’s 40 studies, f. e. the number 15 and the number 18, the latter one, where the ‘open’ hand position enables us to place the little finger without effort, offers perfect practicing material for the use of both hand positions.
PART 3 – I use a circular ‘preparation’ motion of the wrist to prepare the sliding action of the thumb and I unify both preparation and sliding action in one single fluid motion. Take notice to keep the playing finger down, use it as a pivot.
A perfect example of the ample and varied use of vibrato we can find in the second and third theme of the Dvorak concerto, where different speeds and intensity are needed to express the opposite character of both themes. In the first excerpt I vibrate the thumb freely behind the neck to get a wide, open sound, while in the second excerpt I tighten the grip between thumb and playing finger to get a narrower and faster vibrato, to bring out the intensity of the music.
If you want to get tips about how to obtain more colour and depth in your sound, watch my video “Artistry in sound”.
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