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Leopold Auer weighs in on the vibrato debate

Violinist and pedagogue Leopold Auer in America c.1922

Responses to my post about Menuhin's vibrato drew a mixture of responses. I’d remarked on it being ‘perfectly shaped’ and ‘fluid’ and many loved it, but some people disagreed, saying it was too tight and fast, and hated it. I wasn’t sure what to think, so I went to the magical library that is the internet to find out. Where better place to learn about vibrato than from Leopold Auer, the legendary teacher of Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz and Toscha Zeidel, among others. Auer wrote down his thoughts and teaching techniques in 1920 in his book, Violin Playing as I Teach It, which is essential reading for any aspiring violinist.

Auer is plenty forthright, lambasting those who use vibrato to cover bad intonation or tone (‘an ostrich-like endeavour’), lack musical taste and use continuous vibrato (‘a physical evil’), or use just vibrato excessively (‘a habit for which I have no tolerance’).

He recommends really listening to oneself, and even denying oneself vibrato for 'weeks and months' until one has learnt full control, although he admits it’s not so easy to change his students’ habits.

What light does this shed on Menuhin’s performance? I suppose it could fall foul of Auer’s comment about ‘a precipitate oscillation of the hand and all the fingers as well’, although I assumed this continuous vibrato was intentional in a romantically-inclined performance of a slow Bach movement.

Anyway, Auer’s writing and opinions are a delight – no wonder he had such success as a teacher – so I leave you with his section on vibrato. You can read the whole book here.

‘The purpose of the vibrato, the wavering effect of tone secured by rapid oscillation of a finger on the string which it stops, is to lend more expressive quality to a musical phrase, and even to a single note of a phrase. Like the portamento, the vibrato is primarily a means used to heighten effect, to embellish and beautify a singing passage or tone. Unfortunately, both singers and players of string instruments frequently abuse this effect just as they do the portamento, and by so doing they have called into being a plague of the most inartistic nature, one to which ninety out of every hundred vocal and instrumental soloists fall victim.

Some of the performers who habitually make use of the vibrato are under the impression that they are making their playing more effective, and some of them find the vibrato a very convenient device for hiding bad intonation or bad tone production. But such an artifice is worse than useless. That student is wise who listens intelligently to his own playing, admits to himself that his intonation or tone production is bad, and then undertakes to improve it. Resorting to the vibrato in an ostrich-like endeavour to conceal bad tone production and intonation from oneself and from others not only halts progress in the improvement of one’s fault, but is out and out dishonest artistically.

But the other class of violinists who habitually make use of the device – those who are convinced that an eternal vibrato is the secret of soulful playing, of piquancy in performance – are pitifully misguided in their belief. In some cases, no doubt, they are, perhaps against their own better instincts, conscientiously carrying out the instructions of unmusical teachers. But their own appreciation of musical values ought to tell them how false is the notion that vibration whether in good or bad taste, adds spice and flavour to their playing. If they attempted to eat a meal in which the soup were too salty, the entrée deluged with a garlic-sauce, the roast too highly peppered with cayenne, the salad-dressing all mustard, and the dessert over-sweet, their palates would not fail to let them know that the entire dinner was overspiced. But their musical taste (or what does service for them in place of it) does not tell them that they can reduce a program of the most dissimilar pieces to the same dead level of monotony by peppering them all with the Tabasco of continuous vibrato. No, the vibrato is an effect, an embellishment; it can lend a touch of divine pathos to the climax of a phrase or the course of a passage, but only if the player has cultivated a delicate sense of proportion in the use of it.

With certain violinists, this undue and painful vibrato is represented by a slow and continuous oscillation of the entire hand, and sometimes by a precipitate oscillation of the hand and all the fingers as well, even those fingers which may be unoccupied for the time being. But this curious habit of oscillating and vibrating on each and every tone amounts to an actual physical defect, whose existence those who are cursed with it do not in most cases even suspect. The source of this physical evil generally may be traced to a group of sick or ailing nerves, hitherto undiscovered. And this belief of mine is based on the fact that I cannot otherwise account for certain pupils of mine, who in spite of their earnest determination to the contrary, and innumerable corrections on my part, have been unable to rid themselves of this vicious habit, and have continued to vibrate on every note, long or short, playing even the driest scale passages and exercises in constant vibrato.

There is only one remedy which may be depended upon to counteract this ailing nervous condition, vicious habit, or lack of good taste – and that is to deny oneself the use of the vibrato altogether. Observe and follow your playing with all the mental concentration at your disposal. As soon as you notice the slightest vibration of hand or finger, stop playing, rest for a few minutes, and then begin once more, continuing to observe yourself. For weeks and months you must continually guard yourself in this fashion until you are confident that you have mastered your vibrato absolutely, that it is entirely within your control. You may then put it to proper artistic, use, as your servant, not your master.

In any case, remember that only the most sparing use of the vibrato is desirable; the too generous employment of the device defeats the purpose for which you use it. The excessive vibrato is a habit for which I have no tolerance, and I always fight against it when I observe it in my pupils – though often, I must admit, without success. As a rule I forbid my students using the vibrato at all on notes which are not sustained and I earnestly advise them not to abuse it even in the case of sustained notes which succeed each other in a phrase.’

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