Back in the dim and distant past, I carried out the first half of an experiment that I’ve thus far failed to complete. Depressed about my apparent lack of progress, I recorded myself playing a piece and promised to record the same piece a month later, compare the two, and report back. For six months I failed to do this because:
(a) I was afraid I wouldn’t have improved
(b) Listening to a recording of yourself playing an instrument is almost as bad as listening to a recording of yourself speaking, and
(c) I’m not very good at following things up
Then moment of truth finally came last night when I did the second recording, then listened to both in quick succession.
The original November recording was absurdly bad, like the audio from some awful St Trinian’s music lesson sketch: terrible tuning, erratic timing, no redeeming features whatsoever. Tonight’s attempt was only slightly less bad, I did notice a significant difference in tone and vibrato but the tuning with still really off in places. So, there has been improvement but rather less than I’d hoped for. Thank goodness I dithered for six months, the results after one month would have been crushing.
Moral of the story: listening to a recording of yourself, however painful, is a useful exercise, – it’s been a timely reminder that my tuning needs some work, and that if I want to make a better sound any time soon I’ll need to practice a bit more regularly and a bit more efficiently (more on that soon).
“A regular, pulsating change of pitch used to add expression to vocal and instrumental music”
“A slight rapid fluctuation in pitch of a note”
Using vibrato on a stringed instrument is a way to mimic the human voice – it adds character and depth. There are evidently all sorts of politics surrounding it: the extent to which it should be used, how long it has been widely practised etc. I don’t have the time, space or knowledge to go into it but there’s a bit more detail on the debate here.
As for the practicalities, I’ve found it to be a lot harder to do than it sounds. And, if the countless YouTube vibrato tutorials are anything to go by, I’m not alone.
I still feel quite dependent on my left hand to hold the instrument at the neck (rather than having it safely gripped between my chin and shoulder) so I have trouble relaxing my left hand enough to roll my finger back and forth as required. Inevitably, the only way to get any better is to do regular vibrato exercises. They sound revolting but, by all accounts, work.
For me, there’s also a psychological aspect to it. As I said before there’s something a bit ‘unEnglish’ about vibrato, like pronouncing correctly a foreign word that’s now widely used in English: a proper French ‘r’ for your Tesco croissants, the gutteral ‘j’ for your extra jalapeno from Dominos. Vibrato a feels a bit show-offy, “look-at-me, look at me I’m not just playing the notes, I’m doing a bit of vibraaaato”. It’s all very well for real musicians but for the rest of us is it not just a little bit pretentious? (The answer is of course no.) And then there’s the fear that you could have a go, not quite manage it and then feel silly for trying. But that’s true of more or less everything.
“Play C major like it’s the most beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard,” said my teacher during my first (adult) lesson. “Plenty of dynamics and vibrato…”
Like a lot of people, I find that kind of thing a bit awkward. Playing with passion makes you feel exposed. Adding your own dynamics smacks of showing off. Vibrato is a bit… un-English. So much easier to just plod faithfully through it, eyes fixed on the music, focusing on keeping time and getting the accidentals in the right place. But, as teacher pointed out, it’s not all about time signatures and chromatic scales, it’s about making a beautiful sound, no matter what you’re playing. And working on the principle that if something feels difficult it’s exactly what you should be doing, embarrassing is good.
Here are some of the other things I learnt:
- I’ve been holding my bow the wrong way for at least 15 years
- Strings need to be replaced every now and again, even if they don’t break
- If your neck really aches after you’ve been playing, you’re probably holding the instrument the wrong way
- Having the occasional lesson is very worthwhile