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 steadying influence of the B and B-flat keys


Unless you have one of those Model M2 Marigaux instruments with the tiny top joint, middle G is just an awful note because of how the oboe is put together and where the join lies. My middle G is almost always flat and dull-sounding, which makes this moment in the 2nd Oboe part from Strauss’ Don Juan absolute torture to play:


You have three bars’ rest before you come in, and the sf on the F makes it a little easier, but then you have to dim. down to pp while moving up to a G, and this is gruesome. If you do manage to hit the G in the middle, chances are it will sag as you try to maintain the pp. I only managed to play the G in tune once during rehearsals and it came out resoundingly flat in the concert – happy times! But my teacher has since told me that if you put the F key down when playing a G, it sharpens the note a little and gives it a slightly more steady and pleasing tone:


This does work on my oboe, but the difference is very slight and it’s fiddly trying to get to the F key without depressing another key by mistake. Even so, I wish I’d known this before playing the Strauss, because it would have been easy given that I was already playing an F – all I had to do was leave my third finger down! – but in trickier passages, this fingering is possibly just too fiddly to be feasible.

There is an alternative, however. If you don’t have a B to C link on your instrument, the B/Bb keys are marvellous for this sort of thing. Playing a G with the B/Bb keys depressed means that, on my oboe at least, the middle G will almost be in tune – hooray! – and with a little bit of lipping up, that’s job done. I’m not suggesting you use this fingering every time, of course, but it’s a useful tip if you’ve got something like the Strauss on your hands, or the infamous Ds to Gs in the first of Nielsen’s Fantasy Pieces for Oboe and Piano:


Nasty. But not as nasty as…


But that D-G leap is easier if you put the B/Bb keys down.

And in fact, when playing a bottom Bb, always put the B key down as well if you can. It increases your chances of actually getting the note to sound.


The B key can help on the cor too, in steadying the bottom D. The bottom D on my cor is a bit sharp, but if I put the B key down, D comes out in tune every time. And that’s what you want, really.