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HOW VIBRATO CAN SHAKE UP YOUR MUSIC
By Jon Chappell
D RU M M O N D : L I S A TA N N ER
ibrato is one of the most expressive techniques a musician can use. Playing notes loudly and softly or varying the tempo may create a sense of drama, but if you really want to make a long note shimmer—and send shivers down the spines of your listeners—just the right bit of vibrato can steal the show. The term vibrato comes from the Italian word for “vibrate,” but in music, it has a more specific meaning. The Harvard Dictionary of Music calls it “a slight fluctuation in pitch produced on sustained notes by an oscillating motion.” (To oscillate means “to move back and forth between two points.”) Sometimes, vibrato gets confused with tremolo, but the latter is a change in loudness, not pitch. While a few instruments (sorry, pianists!) can’t play vibrato at all—at least without the help of electronic aids—the ability to produce and control vibrato adds soul to the performances of vocalists, wind and string players, and even some percussionists. But the techniques used to produce vibrato, and the character of the sound itself, can vary widely from instrument to instrument and from genre to genre. The main variations between different types of vibrato are in the range of pitch change (wide or narrow) and the rate (or speed) at which this range is covered. Vibrato should not be perceived as rhythmic in nature, though sometimes a very slow vibrato (as in the sax playing of jazz great Ben Webster) can actually be counted in eighth notes and quarter notes. In any case, the first step in mastering vibrato is learning how to listen for it, both on your own instrument and in the playing of others. Unlike expressive devices such as dynamics and articulation, vibrato is not typically written into a musical score. Usually, it’s up to the player to decide when and how to use it. However, some arrangers and composers are now adopting symbols to
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indicate where to apply vibrato, and if it should be narrow or wide (Example 1). Example 1: Vibrato Variations a) b) Though vibrato primarily affects pitch, a) b) the technique is often accompanied by changes to other parts of the sound, such as volume and tone quality. We mentioned c) d) that vibrato sometimes gets confused with c) d) tremolo (the rapid change of volume): With voice as well as brass and woodwind instruments, vibrato and tremolo are often combined into one inseparable effect because a) Classical performers normally play tied whole notes with vibrato; b) A score the change in airflow needed to raise and direction (“with vibrato”) tells you to play vibrato, but the interpretation is left lower the pitch also alters the loudness at open; c) A wavy line sometimes acts as a graphic substitute for the score direcabout the same rate. tion; d) The music specifies that vibrato begins on beat 3 in the first bar, becoming wider at beat 2 in the following bar.
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dramatic than vocal vibrato. In fact, this is the effect that many instrumentalists are trying to emulate with their playing. “I like to use the innate vibrato of a singer as a model to learn from,” says flutist and keyboardist Anne Drummond, a rising star on the jazz scene who’s also toured with rock band Bright Eyes. “A vocalist’s vibrato tends to be natural and personal.” Every musician can experiment with vibrato by using his or her voice. Try singing a long note, and then raise and lower the pitch in a regular cycle. Vary the speed of the cycle, but keep the pitch change slight, so that it still sounds like you’re holding one note, not singing a phrase....
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