Vibrato: An Overview for Trombonists
Vibrato is a musical embellishment produced by varying a notes pitch, amplitude, or both, going slightly above and below the note in a regular, repeated fashion. Not many texts or method books deal extensively with vibrato, perhaps a paragraph or two, or as much as a page or two. The reason for this lack of material is that it doesn't take much to learn the mechanics of producing vibrato. However, the trombonist can spend a LIFETIME figuring out new ways to incorporate vibrato into his/her own musical style.
Types of Vibrato
My first trombone teacher, Wayne Andre, taught me that there are five ways to produce vibrato on the trombone. The first, and most unique to the trombone, is Slide Vibrato. In slide vibrato, the slide is moved above and below the desired slide position while playing the note. Of course, your slide needs to be in tiptop shape to do this well. In addition, if you want to do slide vibrato in first position, you must either settle for just bending the note down (flat), or, alternatively, tuning your trombone a little sharp and playing all your positions (especially first) a little bit out on the slide. Many jazz players, especially from the 1930s and 1940s used slide vibrato extensively, but it is also used in classical music.
Jaw Vibrato is produced by moving the lower jaw up and down while playing, keeping the mouthpiece still. Try saying the syllables "yah-yah-yah-yah" without the horn to visualize the motion, then try it on the instrument. For a wider, more intense vibrato, make a bigger motion, as if saying "yah-eee-yah-eee." Many players of all styles use this, but be aware that it can make notes in the high register very unstable. (Conversely, this same instability is useful to help produce a "lip trill!")
Combination Vibrato is simultaneous use of jaw and slide vibrato. Wayne described this to me as a real "sexy" sound, used often by Bill Watrous in ballad playing.
Diaphragm Vibrato is used mostly by flute players, who have no other way to produce vibrato. It is a pulsation of the air flow, similar to saying "huh-huh-huh" while playing. It is difficult to control, and may contribute to problems with breath support and tone production. While not used very often, it can be a fine addition to ones' interpretive skills, as long as it can be controlled.
The fifth type of vibrato that Wayne described to me is Fear Vibrato, where you are so nervous that everything shakes in fear! As this has more to do with "performance anxiety," it is to be avoided.
There is a sixth type of vibrato, not so practical on the trombone, but useful on valved brasses, called a Hand Vibrato. Here the hand used to work the valves is rocked gently back and forth, thus changing how firmly the mouthpiece is held against the lips.
The first thing the trombonist should do is learn HOW to produce the different types of vibrato, and HOW to control them. Long tone exercises are excellent for this. I like to hold a note for at least eight slow counts, starting without vibrato for two beats, then adding vibrato gradually and tapering back down for four beats (or more), then back to a straight tone for two beats. This should be done in all registers, and at any dynamic. Work with your private teacher on this, so that he or she can help you avoid developing any bad habits. If you buzz on the mouthpiece, try it with some jaw vibrato. This is not only good for playing musically while buzzing, it can help you develop a big, centered tone.
Learning HOW To Use Vibrato
Well, now we are about to find out why the subject of vibrato isn't mentioned much in books! That's because HOW you use vibrato (or not) is entirely up to you, and is so personal that it is a major part of your unique approach to the trombone. To get started, the first and last thing to do is LISTEN! Listen to recordings, go to concerts, and not just trombonists. String players, vocalists, other wind players are all good to listen to. As always, listen to yourself, either live or on tape. While listening, notice things like:
- Speed: How fast is the vibrato? Does it change during the note? Is it different for low or high notes?
- Intensity: (Sometimes called width), is it a lot, or barely noticeable? Does it change during the note? Is it different for low or high notes? Is it constant throughout the note, or just in the beginning, middle, or end?
- Type: What kind of vibrato is it; each has a characteristic sound.
Listen to players like Tommy Dorsey, Bill Harris, Tricky Sam Nanton, Lawrence Brown, JJ Johnson, Bill Watrous, Steve Turre, Ray Anderson. These are just a few jazz players with very different styles of using vibrato. Notice the similarities, and the differences.
Go to the library and take out every recording of Ravel's "Bolero" that they have. Listen to the trombone solo. Notice how fast the French orchestra player's vibrato speed is, then listen to an American or German orchestra. Compare old recordings with more recent ones.
These are some general suggestions for using vibrato:
- Don't use vibrato in unison passages. It only makes the section sound out of tune with each other and gives the passage a wobbly kind of sound.
- Be able to turn it on or off, or use a different style. As with any musical effect, or technique, the performer should be in complete control of it at all times, in order to fit into the demands of the music being played.
- In general, orchestral players use less pronounced vibrato, if at all. Vibrato can help the sound project, without playing louder, and it can help center the tone and pitch in a section, but current taste says that it should be barely noticeable. Older recordings of French orchestras have quite a bit of vibrato, but tastes are changing as orchestra styles become more uniform.
- In a section, follow the lead's example. As always, LISTEN to the lead, and do it the way he or she does, only a little bit less! As a section player, your role is to SUPPORT, not overshadow.
- Don't use vibrato to cover up bad intonation. Remember that vibrato is going slightly above and below the correct pitch. If you are out of tune, it can magnify the error.
- The lower you go, the slower you go. Most players use a slower, narrower vibrato on low notes, and faster and wider on high notes. More rapid passages are often played with a faster vibrato than a slow passage.
Listen, and expand your vibrato vocabulary. Many players can be identified by hearing them play one note, and paying attention to how they shape it. Learn what you can from their example, then take it and use it in your own, unique, way.