I often have to remind students to use vibrato sparingly and intentionally. Depending on their age I have various ways of communicating this. Recently I saw the following on Facebook:
Vibrato on every note is like putting ketchup all over the music.
I tried that on a young student yesterday but then his dad informed me that the student puts ketchup on EVERYthing.
But then someone pointed me to these excerpts from Leopold Auer’s classic book on violin teaching:
The purpose of the vibrato, the wavering effect of tone secured by rapid oscillation of a finger on the string which it stops, is to lend more expressive quality to a musical phrase, and even to a single note of a phrase. Like the portamento, the vibrato is primarily a means used to heighten effect, to embellish and beautify a singing passageor tone. Unfortunately, both singers and players of string instruments frequently abuse this effect just as they do the portamento, and by doing so they have called into being a plague of the most inartistic nature, one to which ninety out of every hundred vocal and instrumental soloists fall victim.
Some of the performers who habitually make use of the vibrato are under the impression that they are making their playing more effective, and some of them find the vibrato a very convenient device for hiding bad intonation or bad tone production. But such an artifice is worse than useless. That student is wise who listens intelligently to his own playing, admits to himself that his intonation or tone production is bad, and then undertakes to improve it. Resorting to the vibrato in an ostrich-like endeavour to conceal bad tone production and intonation from oneself and from others not only halts progress in the improvement of one’s fault, but is out and out dishonest artistically.
But the other class of violinists who habitually make use of the device—those who are convinced that an eternal vibrato is the secret of soulful playing, of piquancy in performance—are pitifully misguided in their belief. In some cases, no doubt, they are, perhaps against their own better instincts, conscientiously carrying out the instructions of unmusical teachers. But their own musical values ought to tell them how false is the notion that vibration, whether in good or bad taste, adds spice and piquancy to their playing …
With certain violinists, this undue and painful vibrato is represented by a slow and continuous oscillation of the hand and all the fingers as well, even those fingers which may be unoccupied for the time being. But this curious habit of oscillating and vibrating on each and every tone amounts to an actual physical defect, whose existence those who are cursed with it do not in most cases even suspect. The source of this physical evil generally may be traced to a group of sick or ailing nerves, hitherto undiscovered. And this belief of mine is based on the fact that I cannot otherwise account for certain pupils of mine, who in spiteof their earnest determination to the contrary, have been unable to rid themselves of this vicious habit, and have even continued to vibrate on every note, long or short, playing even the the driest scale passages and exercises in constant vibrato.
There is only one remedy which may be depended upon to counteract this ailing nervous condition, vicious habit, or lack of good taste—and that is to deny oneself the use of the vibrato altogether. Observe and follow your playing with all the mental concentration at your disposal. As soon as you notice the slightest vibration of hand or finger, stop playing, rest for a few minutes, and then begin once more, continuing to observe yourself. For weeks and months you must continually guard yourself in this fashion until you are confident that you have mastered your vibrato absolutely, that it is entirely within your control.
… As a rule I forbid my students using the vibrato at all on notes which are not sustained, and I earnestly advise them not to abuse it even in the case of sustained notes which succeed each other in a phrase.
Violin Playing as I Teach It
Lippincott, New York, 1960
One day, while on tour in Styria, we reached Gratz, the capital. And there my father saw an announcement posted that Henri Viextemps was giving a concert at the Municipal Theater…
My father at once seized upon the opportunity offered by our accidentally finding the great violinist in Gratz and endeavored to have me introduced to the master. His secret hope was that Vieuxtemps, when I had played for him, would declare that I was a great genius, something which would have served to a nicety my father’s advertising plans for our tournées…
On the day and hour set we drew near the hotel in which the Vieuxtemps were occupying a fine apartment. Entering, we were received very cordially by Vieuxtemps himself, and very coldly by his wife, who played the accompaniments at his concerts. After a few polite words regarding my studies had been exchanged, I was permitted to take out my violin—a poor enough instrument—and play. Mme. Vieuxtemps sat down at the piano looking decidely bored. I myself, nervous by nature, trembling with emotion, began to play the “Fantasie Caprice.” I do not recall how I played it, but it seems to me that I put my whole soul into every tone, though poorly supported by an insufficiently developed technique. Vieuxtemps encouraged me with an amiable smile. Then, at the very moment when I was in the midst of a cantabile phrase which I was playing all too sentimentally, Mme. Vieuxtemps leaped from the piano stool, and began to walk precipitately around the room. She bent down to the ground, looked here, looked there, beneath the furniture, under the bureau and the piano, as though she were hunting for something she had lost and could not find in spite of all the trouble she took. Brusquely interrupted by her strange action, I stood with wide-open mouth, with no suspicion of what all this might mean. I felt as though I had been cast down from illuminated heights by a fiery explosion rising from the abyss. Vieuxtemps, himself astonished, followed his wife’s progress about the room with a surprised air, and asked her what she was looking for so nervously under the furniture. “One or more cats must be hidden in this room,” said she, “miaowing in every key!” She was alluding to my over-sentimental glissando in the cantabile phrase. I was so overcome by the shock that I lost consciousness, and my father was obliged to hold me in his arms lest I fall. Vieuxtemps turned the whole affair into a joke, patted me on the cheek, and consoled me by saying that later on everything would go better. I was then no more than fourteen.
The interview was at an end, and my father and I left the hotel with tears in our eyes, discouraged, unhappy, and crushed to earth. From that day on I hated all glissandos and vibratos, and to this very minute I can recall the anguish of my interview with Vieuxtemps.
My Long Life in Music
Frederick A. Stokes Co., New York, 1923