For most adult learners, vibrato is going to be one of the hardest aspects, if not the hardest, to learn on the cello.

It certainly was for me. As someone who began learning the cello from scratch at age 25, it took me years and years of struggle to figure out that adult learners cannot simply rely on traditional vibrato exercises and call it a day.

You also need to address the 800 pound gorilla in the room: excess physical tension.

Did I just catch you rolling your eyes?

I would have too, and that’s why it took me so long to develop my vibrato to where it is now.

You see, there are many other aspects of playing that one can do despite having excess physical tension. It is possible (though not advisable) to play in tune with a tense left hand, or play difficult passagework with excess tension lurking in one’s neck and arms.

But when it comes to developing a good vibrato while holding onto extra physical tension, success in the former relies in eliminating the latter.

In my experience, the process of achieving a wide, beautiful oscillation felt like a searchlight pinpointing (and then eliminating) any areas of habitual tension or tension being created from a lack of coordination.

And that’s the main point I want to get across today, speaking specifically to adult learners: if you are thinking about learning/relearning/improving your vibrato, you need to implement 2 types of exercises.

Yes, you should work on vibrato-specific exercises to help develop finger flexibility, a controlled pumping motion in the forearm, the necessary coordination between left hand motion and the right hand pulling bow strokes, and even more advanced aspects like seamless transfer from finger to finger as well as before and after shifting.

But for adult learners, you should absolutely also work on another set of exercises that will help you diagnose and eliminate as much excess physical tension as possible. Unfortunately,  eliminating tension can be a tough task because often we don’t even realize how tense we actually are.

Working on reducing your excess physical tension is a giant piece of the puzzle that often gets ignored for a number of reasons. First, it’s just not very glamorous or exciting to think about sitting down and spending your practice time trying to untangle the Gordian knot of excess tension inside your body.

Second, as I just mentioned, it’s also often difficult to know how much extra tension you actually have since your sensations are already calibrated to your usual experience of playing.

And third, most adult learners approach this topic, like I did initially, with the wrong mindset. I grew up playing sports like baseball, ice hockey, and football, which taught me to push through difficulties with grit and extra effort. When it comes to eliminating tension, however, I like to use the analogy of peeling an onion. You’re going to be removing an outer layer that is enveloping a clean, undisturbed core. So instead of thinking of working harder to play without tension, the mindset required is that the work will have be done diligently and maybe persistently if you have heavily ingrained habits, but the solution is actually found via careful, patient exploration rather than a more driven, goal oriented mindset.

Here’s my greatest hits list of body parts that – if too tense – will cripple your efforts to produce a rich, open vibrato.

  1. Left hand fingers – This tension is often a result of clamping the fingerboard with both the finger(s) in question and the left thumb pressing into the back of the neck, and for adult learners I think the reason we clamp down is partially a fear of playing out of tune, partially not understanding how little weight is actually needed to produce a solid tone, and partially a lack of comfort and coordination between the two hands.
  2. The left thumb – Again, part of the clamping mechanism. In my experience, a lot of this tension comes from a fear of losing one’s hand shape and playing out of tune, as well as a lack of understanding of how to sink weight effectively into the string with only the fingers.
  3. The palm of the left hand – This can be a sneaky area where excess tension can lurk because it’s not always visually obvious. On top of limiting one’s ability to create a beautiful vibrato, excess tension held here is also a great way to restrict your hand’s ability to open up for left hand extensions or to comfortably play in hand positions with larger finger spacing like 1st position, whole steps in 5th-7th position, and certain intervals in thumb position.
  4. The left elbow – the tension I’m referring to is actually created from the biceps, triceps, deltoids, and back muscles, but the sensation it created for me was that I was playing with a stiff or heavy elbow. Again, this is another area that can be tricky to identify because one can have a good looking left arm setup and yet be holding that position with too much rigidity instead of simply allowing the arm to assume that position while remaining free and easy.
  5. Neck – Listing this final body part feels a bit like a cheat, since it’s almost impossible to hold tension anywhere in your body without also holding tension in your neck. During my time studying Alexander Technique, I learned that we tend to over involve our necks even when reaching for a glass of water….so imagine the state it’s in when we are trying to coerce our arms into creating vibrato!

If I had known that excess tension was the true culprit behind all those years of lackluster vibrato or ‘vibrato with a hitch,’ I would have made tension elimination a primary goal and not simply a temporary focus whenever I was actually feeling physical discomfort.

Later this year, in December, I’ll be doing a CelloChat for CelloBello in which I share some more concepts and exercises that I think every adult learner should utilize in their quest for a beautiful vibrato. I hope to see you there!