A couple of students have recently come to have lessons with a bit of a wobbly tone. This isn’t uncommon and can creep up without much notice, so I would like to discuss this further and give some tips.
Wobble vs vibrato
The main difference between a wobble and vibrato is that the former is something that is quite uncontrolled and automatic, often disrupting the phrase and disguising the core of one’s sound, usually quite slow and wide. Vibrato is something that adds an expressive quality to the sound and can help build phrases and changing the expression or character. I like to think of vibrato as “spinning the sound”, which implies that it doesn’t get in the way, but makes the sound come alive.
One of my teachers would often say “vibrato is like ketchup” i.e – one shouldn’t smother your food in it, but rather add a tasteful amount to enhance the dish. If one can get a lively and expressive sound without vibrato (i.e. a sound with a healthy air speed, core and resonance), it is then possible to add some vibrato tastefully.
Getting back to wobble, one of my students played a melody from Moyse’s Tone Development Through Interpretation and the sound was shaky and the wobble was automatic and disrupted the tone. Observing more closely, I noticed it was more about an instability of tone and a lack of form in the embouchure. So the air was not being directed as it should. There was also tension due to over-breathing (trying to take in too much air). So, I gave the following exercises:
For keeping embouchure shape
Observe the shape of your lips when you say “pooh”. Also notice how your lips are closed on “p” and then how the air makes an opening in the lips on the “ooh”. Try elongating the vowel sound: oooooo and notice how your lips stay in place.
Now without vocalising the word, almost whisper the word “pooh”, so it’s purely blowing air through the lips.
Next take the flute and try a short “pooh” on one note. Play each note of a melody (e.g The Swan by Saint-Saëns) like this. No force from muscles, just a simple exhalation, like gently blowing out a candle. I suggest breathing in through the nose for this to avoid opening the lips each time.
Next, make the poohs gradually longer – think of the elongated vowel you did earlier. So, start with very short notes and gradually get longer and longer, making sure the airstream is steady.
Then join all the “pooh”s together to form a slurred melodic line. This is muscle memory, starting simple.
This is also great for soft playing. Try it with the slow movement of the Poulenc sonata.
Paper on the wall
Blow a small square of paper against a wall- only using your air to keep the paper up. This requires the air to be steady and fast, directed right in the middle.
Breathing out of time to avoid tension
We often over-breathe in order to sustain a long phrase, creating tension in the body.
When practising, instead of rushing a breath, take time so you don’t force a breath in, but rather allow the air in by itself. The in breath, when done like this, should be silent.
Start with a 4 second breath for each breath you take in the melody. If that goes well and every breath is silent, move on to three seconds, then two seconds, one second and then in time making sure that each breath is not forced in. Breathing in is passive; blowing out is active.
Try sustaining a steady whistle tone – explained here:
There are several theories about vibrato and I don’t want to go into too much of that, but if we think of vibrato as a fluctuation in pitch, then we can practice several things to help that along. One doesn’t want to create a pulsed vibrato or something that sounds manufactured but something that is spinning and within the tone that creates expression. One wants to aim for a vibrato that is flexible so you can play with a slow and wide vibrato but also a fast and shallow one, depending on the phrase or the character of the music. The depth of vibrato is determined by the degree of pitch change. Allow the pitch to change as you play louder and softer, without adjusting with the lips.
In my lessons with William Bennett I worked on vibrato to help find depth in the sound and reaction in the tone. We practised different numbers of pulses such as going from one pulse per bar to 8. This exercise is detailed in my book Mastering the flute with William Bennett. Wibb would often get me to think of vibrating in 5s or 7s so it was difficult for the listener to count my vibrato. Once you practice this a lot, you can then allow a natural vibrato through where the air moves freely. By doing the vibrato exercise, you are releasing muscles around the diaphragm so the airstream is flexible and not restricted.
One should remember that “no vibrato” is a type of vibrato, so we have a whole palette of vibratos to choose from according to what the music dictates. For example, a haunting solo in a Shostakovich Symphony might call for no vibrato to create an atmosphere representing a cold winter’s day in Russia. Whereas, the climax of the solo from Daphnis and Chloe might require more vibrato to show the intensity of expression. When playing the Brahms 4 solo, a tasteful use of vibrato, increasing toward the peak of the solo. So, there should never be an ON/OFF switch for vibrato, but more of a spectrum of possibilities.
So, first master your airstream and let that be your primary expression. Then practise all variations of vibrato so you can paint a wonderful picture with or without vibrato, but never wobbly!
Thanks for reading and Happy Fluting!