Vibrato on the Oboe
What is vibrato?
Vibrato is a regular pulsation or undulation of pitch added to our sound for expressive purposes. Both the speed and depth of pulsation/change of pitch can and should be varied as the music necessitates.
Why is it used?
Vibrato adds a human touch to our sound, replicating the human voice. The depth and speed of undulations can add power/confidence or a sense of vulnerability or frailty/intimacy to a musical line, depending on how it is used. A very rapid vibrato can also add a shimmering quality to your sound (My teacher Marc Lifschey was a master with this expressive capability!) Please note that vibrato should be used to enhance an already beautiful sound, never to mask and poor one. One should be able to turn it on and off/start and stop it at will; it is not an uncontrolled, constant bleating to an oboe sound.
When should vibrato be introduced to a budding oboist?
I find that many oboe students naturally develop vibrato during their high school studies as their tone quality and pitch mature from proper air use and support. There is no “magic” age at which vibrato should be taught, as each student is on their own path of musical awakening and development. One of the comments that MOST irritates me from seemingly well-intentioned (but non-oboist!) judges at solo/ensemble contests and festivals is when they write that a young student should be using vibrato already. The 5 minutes they spend listening to a student often isn't enough to make this judgement!
However, if a student is interested in studying oboe at the college level with the hopes of professional studies, then the concept of vibrato should definitely be introduced and hopefully mastered before they begin college work. On occasion I have had entering college freshman in my studio who did not use vibrato. This is either because they didn’t have a pre-college teacher help them develop this skill or because they still needed work developing proper air use/support that can facilitate a successful vibrato. Most often the student is using far too much tension in their back/chest area to ALLOW vibrato to sound. If this is the case for your or your student, first take some time to stretch, release all unnecessary tension, and learn how to permanently remove this tension from your body for greater ease of playing that will be receptive to playing with vibrato.
How to learn it/teach oboe vibrato
First, if you are learning vibrato for the first time, listen to great violinists, cellists, and classical music singers to hear how it is produced and used by other musicians. Don't skip this most important step! Notice how the vibrato speed and depth these artists produce can both be changed. The speed of vibrato can speed up or slow down and the undulation can be deepened or narrowed.
The way that I first teach vibrato is actually different than how I use it in actual practice. I’ve found that the best way to teach vibrato is to have a student learn how to create an undulation in their sound with their abdominal wall (this is often incorrectly called “diaphragmatic” vibrato), then move that undulation higher up in the body.
First, place your hand on your lower abdominal wall, just under your navel and say “hah.” “Hah-hah-hah.” Now say “ho-ho-ho” with a really robust voice like you’re Santa Claus. Really “punch” out those sounds with your abdominal wall and notice how your abdominal wall is engaged to create these sounds.
Next, place a reed in your mouth and blow a constant air stream through the reed then begin to engage your abdominal wall as if you are saying “hah-hah-hah” or “ho-ho-ho” slowly through your reed, without your tongue. Maintain a steady air stream through the reed at all times. You never want to hear “ha-(silence)-ha-(silence), etc” but instead a steady sounding “haaaa-haaaa-haaaa” with no silence in-between undulations. Make sure that your embouchure is not changing, nor is the reed moving in and out of your mouth. Try your best to make the undulation of pitch as large as possible; really exaggerate the sounds you are creating---this will help your work in the forthcoming exercises.
Once you feel comfortable with this, turn on a metronome to 60 beats per minute. Using the reed only still, create a clear, even “ha” every beat. Next create “ha-ha” every beat (eighth notes). Once that feels comfortable and sounds clear, progress to “ha-ha-ha” every beat (triplet division of the beat), then “ha-ha-ha-ha” every beat (16th notes). Honing this assignment may take up to a week of methodical practice to acquire ease with this endeavor. Be patient with yourself!
The next assignment is to slowly move the metronome speed up a few notches until the above exercises can be performed at 70 bpm. Once you can comfortably and clearly produce a regular “ha-ha-ha-ha” 16th note division at 70 bpm on the reed, you’re ready for your oboe. But be patient enough to not move to the oboe until you can produce deep undulations on the reed alone! Move the metronome speed back down to 60 bpm, then play a half-hole D on the oboe and produce the quarter note “ha” sounds again. With the reed in the oboe, the sound you produce will likely be shallower that what you produced on the reed alone. If this is the case, then use more lower abdominal force with each “ha” sound. Maintain a steady embouchure at all times and don’t “wind” each note, The air should always be moving through the reed like an electric fan, but the abdominal wall punctuates the sound.Progress on to producing eighth notes, triplets, and sixteenth notes on a single note at 60 bpm.
At this stage we take a leap.
Without the oboe or reed, place one hand on your abdominal wall and one hand on your throat. Put on a metronome at 80bpm and produce quarter note “ha” sounds. Then move to eighth notes, then move to triplets and sixteenth notes. At this stage, you’ll likely notice that you’re shifting the “ha” sounds from your lower abdominal wall up to undulations in your throat (otherwise, after some time your abs will become quite exhausted!). Move the metronome up to 90bpms and progress from quarter notes, to eighth notes, then triplets, and sixteenth notes. (refer back to previous musical examples), but with the voice only. The undulation sound created will not be as deep as when you used a forceful lower abdominal wall vibrato, and that’s OK.
Now go back and use your throat vibrato on the reed only at 60, 70, 80, then 90 bpm. Try to make the undulation as deep as possible. Record yourself and listen to your vibrato to make sure that the undulation in pitch is discernable. If not, go back to the lower abdominal wall exercises then shift back to the throat vibrato.
Next, work on the same exercises with your reed in your oboe. Practice on a variety of pitches—you’ll likely find that lower notes are slightly more difficult to produce vibrato than middle and higher range notes.
A good "all-purpose" vibrato speed to aim for is to create 16th notes at a quarter note tempo of 90 bpm.
Now we take another leap—using vibrato in music!
First add vibrato sparingly to long notes in slow passages in your solo music and during rehearsals of large ensemble music. You’ve got nothing to lose! Just TRY it. Slowly add vibrato to your music until it becomes a regular feature of your melodic line, enhancing your already lovely tone. Maintain an even vibrato as you change notes, never starting and stopping the vibrato through big leaps, etc. Realize that vibrato is not needed in rapid passages. It wouldn’t be noticed there anyway, so in those instances spend your energy on perfecting the technique, pitch and sound needed to execute the line instead.
Develop the ability to change vibrato speed and depth of undulation over time.
Add vibrato into your long tone exercises. As you create dynamic sound shapes (see post on long tones/dynamic sound shapes) speed up your vibrato as you crescendo, creating faster and shallower undulations. As you dimenuendo, slow the vibrato as you get softer. Be careful that your vibrato pulsation is not overly wide, as this can give a flatness and dullness to your sound.
Once you can comfortably vary your vibrato speed and depth of pulsation, use these skills to enhance your musical line. Here’s seemingly "magical" bit of oboe expression, a gem I honed from careful listening to great artists: increase the vibrato speed and frequency just as you are going up and over the highpoint of a phrase—really “step on the gas” to produce a shimmering-like sound.
Hope that helps.
Oboe and out,