Do you feel like your flute playing lacks that ‘something extra’? That it’s sounding flat and lifeless and no matter how technically well you play a piece, it's just plain uninspiring?
The breathing technique called 'flute vibrato' is one of the main ways in which a flute player can add tone colour, intensity, emotion and life to playing. Using the vibrato technique in the appropriate musical pieces at the appropriate times is a skill expected of players as they advance in their playing ability.
So what is it, how can you practice it and when should you incorporate it into your own playing? I’ll explain it all…
What is Flute Vibrato?
Vibrato is a pulse-like breathing technique used as you blow out into the flute and create sound. Rather than blowing out in one long steady stream, muscles of the throat and diaphragm restrict the air flow into short, even pulses that results in a controlled wave-like sound. Three types of flute vibrato have been described – pitch, intensity and timbre. Pitch vibrato describes the rise and fall in note frequency, the wave-like pulses send the note ever so slightly sharp and then flat than the original starting note. Intensity vibrato describes a change in the dynamic or volume level throughout the pulses. Both of these vibrato aspects combine to describe timbre vibrato – which is essentially the sound that is unique to you.
How a student learns vibrato has been often debated within the flute teaching world and there are essentially two approaches.
- That vibrato is discovered naturally by the student as it flows out of personal artistic expression
- It should be taught because it needs to be appropriately controlled
How vibrato is produced is described in many ways by teachers and in the musical literature but generally falls into one of two ways, as either a diaphragm or a throat-controlled process. In fact it can be both. A study monitoring the activation of muscles of performing flute players has found that what is often referred to as diaphragmatic activation is really a combination of the abdominal and thoracic (larynx) muscles. For those controlling vibrato through the throat - the larynx and the vocal cords play the major role, but of course the diaphragm is also engaged to support the breath as its being exhaled.
Vibrato in SIX easy steps
One of the most common ways to practice and develop a controlled flute vibrato is counting the pulses using a metronome and gradually increasing in speed and smoothness. While its a rather mechanical process to begin with, the end result will be this beautiful silky undulation of sound. So give it a try!
Firstly, it’s a great idea to listen to some examples of vibrato that differ in speed and amplitude, in order to imitate it. (Here’s just one https://musaic.nws.edu/videos/vibrato-on-the-flute )
Set your metronome to 60 bpm and have that ticking in the background
Begin with taking a deep enough breath to sustain a long note. (Visualise filling the lungs from the bottom up and have your rib cage expand outward)
Play one sustained note (try a C2) and as you exhale, add a ‘ha-ha’emphasis from the back of your throat – two to a beat. (Don’t tongue the beats of the note – just blow one continuous stream). You should be able to hear the pitch and dynamic intensity of the note waver up and down as your air is pushed out in these puffs. Try this several times until you have achieved control. This means the pulses are evenly timed and are equal in pitch/ dynamic level, without bias on any pulse.
Then gradually scale up to three, four, five and six pulses per beat. Only add pulses once you’ve achieved control of the previous level. This could be over the period of several weeks, so don’t rush the process.
For something a bit different, try playing some slurred scales at 60 bpm with an increasing number of ha-ha’s
How fast should you go? Well ultimately it depends on the mood of the piece you’ll be playing but being able to achieve four pulses at 90 bpm is a good benchmark and should cover most vibrato needs.
Speed is not the only means that a player should be able to vary vibrato, but also the amplitude or the ‘size of the waves’. This is usually related to the dynamic volume you’re required to play at the time.
Vibrato at quieter dynamic levels requires less variation in pitch and intensity to have effect, than vibrato at fortissimo. Conversely, playing narrow, subtle vibrato at a fortissimo level won’t be perceptible to the audience.
Therefore, the amplitude of the vibrato should increase with dynamic level to sufficiently enhance the tone. However care must be taken that the vibrato doesn’t become out of control – bending the note too sharply or beyond the dynamic level stated on the score.
When should you use vibrato?
The vibrato technique should be carefully applied as an expressive element in playing rather than constantly used for every note. Used too liberally, and it can actually detract from a performance. Importantly, it should be seen as an enhancer of already good flute tone, and not used as a means to ‘cover up’ tone or intonation problems. Being able to play with solid, consistent, non-vibrato sound is just as essential as mastering the vibrato technique for embellishment.
Vibrato originated merely as ornamentation and was not a component of flute tone. It was produced using the fingers over the tone holes of early flutes, termed flattement. Typically it was only used for longer and paused notes. The modern vibrato originated in the late nineteenth century in France and has now became an integral part of flute tone and music. Therefore, music written prior to the 19th century was traditionally played without vibrato.
It’s important to match your vibrato use and style according to the mood and historical style of the piece you’re playing. A fast and wide vibrato sounds the most intense, a slow narrow vibrato can sound sensuous, a slow wide vibrato can sound lethargic. Think of what kind of mood or story you are trying to convey to your audience, and combine the speed and amplitude that provides that effect. One word – experiment!
As a general guide, vibrato is used on longer notes (this of course depends on the tempo of the piece). Vibrato used on fast passages of short notes can mean that some of the notes can fall on the peaks and troughs of the vibrato waves, making them sound unequal. As mentioned earlier, louder notes require vibrato of wider amplitude than quieter notes to have a notable effect on tone which can heard by the audience, and notes in the higher register are typically played with faster vibrato than notes in the lower register. The development of natural sounding vibrato takes time and practice on the part of the player. So have some fun playing around with your pieces and begin to personalise them with your own unique vibrato flair
Kara, Z. E., and S. Bulut. 2015. Approaches and Teaching Methods in Breathing and Vibrato Technique in Flute Education. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 186:126-130.
Watanabe, M. 2013. Flute Master Class. Music for all.
Wilcocks, G. 2006. Improving tone production on the flute with regards to embouchure, lip flexibility, vibrato and tone colour, as seen from a classical music perspective. University of Pretoria.
http://www.standingstones.com/flutevib.html (Accessed 18 August 2018)