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Do you know how vibrato is actually produced?

I got some really interesting feedback on my vibrato newsletter/blog two weeks ago! In the process of fielding comments on Instagram and Facebook, I learned that the way I’ve been thinking about and teaching vibrato is not at all how vibrato is actually produced. I try to cultivate a lifelong learner mindset, so I was excited to learn about this, and I’ll also discuss whether I’m going to change how I teach vibrato.

The feedback:

@Petersoboe on Instagram said “I do throat, but diaphragm works just as well! What’s the controversy?”

And Joseph Michael on Facebook shared this fascinating (and loooooonggggg) research paper “The Vibrato on the Oboe” by Elena Calderon de Luis which sums up vibrato as originating in the larynx.

The new information:

The abstract says:

“In this research paper I attempt to investigate the great trouble that involves the vibrato production on the oboe. It is often said that there are several ways to do it, but people will never agree about what is the most correct way”

….and that statement makes me feel very vindicated. Through my decades of playing oboe, I have had teachers and mentors (oboists and non oboists alike!) speak about vibrato as originating from the diaphragm or the throat. It seems that many musicians hold dogmatic opinions about which is superior and which they prefer to use themselves.

I haven’t read the whole paper yet, but it goes into historical practice of vibrato, and then an analysis about how oboists have discussed how they produce vibrato. The most fascinating part for me was learning that there was a 1986 study done using laryngoscopes to study vibrato in clarinet, flute, oboe, and bassoonists. Apparently the flute, oboe, and bassoonist vibrato “varied greatly among individuals, but there was no doubt that the vibrato originated in the throat, not the diaphragm.” Please note: I haven’t read the actual study myself, just de Luis’ paper referencing the study.

Further into the paper, de Luis references an article published by Jan Eberle (former Oboe Professor at Michigan State University) in the Double Reed (the magazine of the International Double Reed Society) from 2006 that goes in depth discussing all the different ways that one can manipulate the throat to make vibrato sounds. De Luis goes even further with this information and has created short demonstration videos to show the different kinds of “throat” vibrato which Eberle identified. They haven’t created a playlist, but you can find the links in the Bibliography section of the paper linked above.

How we teach vs. what happens in the body

This is not the first time that I have found out that what I’ve been told is happening in my body when I play is not what’s actually happening. I imagine that many of you reading this will have had similar experiences. I love learning more about the physical systems that are in play together to make music, and I think that understanding them makes us more flexible musicians with greater potential expressive tools.

New information always makes me stop to reflect about how I teach what I teach. When I was taught vibrato, I was taught to use abdominal movement to affect the pitch. Over time, I think the vibrato I use just mysteriously switched to a less-effortful vibrato which Eberle would classify as “Laugh” vibrato. “Laugh vibrato” is explained to originate from where the chest meets the neck and uses a laugh-like motion to affect the air stream.

Am I going to change how I teach?

With this new information about how vibrato actually works in my body, I have been reflecting on whether I should change how I teach vibrato to my students. My conclusion for the time being is: I’m not sure. I don’t think I have a good framework yet about how to teach the “laugh vibrato” method that doesn’t first involve abdominal pulsation and getting comfortable with the idea of allowing pitch to fluctuate. It’s not easy to change how I teach a concept overnight - I need to come up with new exercises that I understand well enough to present clearly to students. If I don’t understand the concept, how can I expect a student to understand?

So for now, I’m planning to continue teaching abdominal-diaphragmatic vibrato, but with the new explanation to students that this is just how we’ll start, and that eventually they won’t have to use their abdominal muscles to influence pitch. My students know that I’m always learning, and always looking for better exercises to use to teach them - and they don’t mind doing experiments with me! I foresee that my vibrato teaching method will change over time as I explore these concepts more on my own and with students.

I love learning new things, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed going on this journey with me. I would love to hear from you about how you teach vibrato, and if this is new information to you, or if there are other resources about vibrato I haven’t referenced! Please comment or email me to let me know.


Study with me this summer!

If your oboe students have benefitted from any of my tips or teaching techniques this year, they can come study with me this summer at La Honda Music Camp! I would love to work with them in the week-long camp from July 15-22nd 2023.

It’s a week-long overnight camp in the Santa Cruz mountains for students in grades 6-12 on all band and orchestra instruments! Just-graduated seniors are welcome at camp. In addition to private lessons and large ensembles, students will be able to participate in chamber music ensembles, as well as musical and non-musical electives.


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