Vibrato is an ORNAMENT!

Vibrato is something that I’ve been known to get tetchy about. Only the other day, I leapt out of my comfy chair to pull the plug on a Radio 3 broadcast of Richard Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs), because even though it’s one of my all-time favourites, the (nameless) soprano was warbling so wildly that I was finding it hard to distinguish the individual notes. Of course, this is exactly the sort of piece where the singer can and probably should use lots of vibrato – but, you know, there is a limit. The overdone wibbly-wobbling of this gruesome recording just killed it dead for me. Vibrato is an ornament. Uncontrolled and ill-considered use of vibrato is as crass as squirting tomato ketchup all over your dinner, or peppering your writing with exclamation marks. Less is more.

Now, I mention vibrato because not only does it give me an opportunity for one of my favourite whinges, but in addition to this, I picked up some useful tips at this year’s BIG Double Reed Day, and I thought I’d share. The tips were provided by Deborah Goodyer during a workshop on ‘Improving Sound’: I’ll make this workshop the subject of another post, but for now, the focus is on vibrato.

I’ve already mentioned in another post that the player should try to make sense of the music without vibrato. Vibrato should also be something that you actively practise, odd as that may seem. Deborah Goodyer suggested the following exercise:

  1. Practise long notes without vibrato: play a couple of long notes at mf, one at f, one at p, then cresc. to dim., dim. to cresc., and so on. Basically, vary the dynamics.
  2. Then add some vibrato. Practise vibrato with a metronome, so the pulses come in crotchets, then quavers, then triplets, then semiquavers, and finally in sextuplets (the latter not pictured).

Tonguing exercise screenshot

This is quite tricky: once you get to the semiquavers it becomes increasingly difficult to control, but I think it is something worth working on because you need to be able to master your vibrato, not to have it dictate to you. And you should resist the temptation to use vibrato to cover up various evils such as bad tuning. I freely admit to having done this. I have hit a note and then consciously whacked on a shed-load of vibrato because I knew the note was out of tune and I didn’t know how to correct it. This is very naughty.

There is just one more point to make (for the present, anyway). If you play regularly with an orchestra or wind band or whathaveyou, then you should try to blend in with the other oboists present. This is particularly important if you are playing second oboe: you should aim to match the vibrato of the first player because the idea of playing in an orchestra is that everyone is working together to produce a blended sound. Ideally, the oboes should sound like one player playing two different parts.

I’m going to end with a personal anecdote to support my argument here. I remember once, years and years ago, I was playing in an orchestra with a cor player whose vibrato was so wide that a) it was impossible to match what she was doing, b) it was also impossible to play in tune with her, and c) it sounded horrible. In fact, I think the conductor had to have a kindly word with her in the end. I’ve noticed ever since when players favour a heavy vibrato and I’ve never found it anything other than trying. I always feel like saying ‘Just. Play. The. Note.’ It’s so much better if the player can produce a true, clear note and then embellish with a little bit of vibrato here and there, where it makes musical sense to do so. It may come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, that my favourite kind of singing is that which you hear in early church music – lovely pure notes and no mucking about. Emma Kirkby stuff. The sort of thing that Stile Antico do. I can’t even be bothered with The Sixteen these days, because I think they’ve gone a bit too warbly.

To finish where I started, here’s the peerless Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Strauss’ Four Last Songs on YouTube – and yes, there’s plenty of vibrato here, but it’s a considered use of vibrato and this is much closer to my idea of how the piece should be performed. Much, much better than that monstrosity on Radio 3 the other day.


The BIG Double Reed Day 2014


Snapshot image of the website for The BIG Double Reed Day

The BIG Double Reed Day is an annual event held at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and this year it’s scheduled for 16th November 2014. I’ve been every year since 2010 and I’ve got the T-shirts to prove it:


Registrations for this year are open and you can apply online here.

Participants are divided into those under 10 who have not yet passed their grade 3, those aged 11-18 who are grade 3+, and the last group is for adults. These three groups run on three different timetables, and in addition, the events are staggered for oboists and bassoonists so there are never too many people in one place at one time: this helps avoid a massive bunfight at lunchtime.

Workshops run throughout the day and the choice is substantial:

  • Baroque Instrument Try-outs
  • “Big Brother” Try-out (contrabassoon/cor anglais)
  • Contemporary Techniques Workshop
  • Improve Your Articulation Workshop
  • Improve Your Sound Workshop
  • Reed-adjusting
  • Technique Troubleshooter

Additional Classes offered to students grade 6 – 8:

  • Audition Preparation
  • Baroque Performance
  • Music College Q & A Session

In the past I’ve played a baroque oboe, picked up some tips on how to warm up and practise effectively, attended several extremely useful reedmaking sessions, and participated in the playing workshops. There’s even a photograph of me with Alison Teale on the BDRD website:

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 20.32.10

…but I’m not sure if this was taken before or after I hyperventilated. I hadn’t had much sleep, I’d drunk far too much coffee and I got very nervous about performing – all of which meant I took in far too much oxygen while I was trying to play and had to stop. Everyone was very kind, although several people did point out that I’d gone ‘a really funny colour’. However, the very lovely and talented Alison Teale smoothed the situation over by talking about How To Avoid This Sort Of Thing and, in giving me a few minutes to calm down, she gave me time to get my breath back so I could have another go at playing.

There were others who made a far better job of things than I did: here’s Helen Martin, an absolutely lovely lady who goes to the BDRD every year and she always plays something in the workshops. In fact, Helen is often the brave soul who volunteers to go first.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 20.32.45

This post is just by way of getting the information out there, and I’ll post a complete review after this year’s BDRD. There’s still time to sign up – just go to the website and click on ‘Apply’. See you there!