Wrist vs Arm Vibrato: Which is better?

Rozannaby Rozanna Weinberger

Throughout my studies it was typical that various teachers would espouse preferences in vibrato,between arm or wrist. D.C. Dounis has an interesting perspective where he goes so far as to say one is inferior to the other. Continuing from the material covered from the interview between Samuel Applebaum and Dounis, this entry will examine more points made regarding optimal vibrato.

*I asked Dr. Dounis if he preferred a wrist vibrato, and his reply was, “Only with the wrist, never with the arm. The forearm moves, but the impulse is at the fingertips, which activates the wrist. The arm follows sympathetically.” 

Ordinarily I wouldn’t go so far as to weigh in on one type of vibrato is better than another however, from a functionality standpoint, I totally agree with Dounis.

The joints are a key aspect to understand why wrist vibrato is preferred and considered a more natural and less strained approach. Yes the arm should move, but the wrist has the ability to react. It can react to the momentum of the forearm and it can react to oscillations of the fingers.  It should not be trained to remain stiff without utilizing the more subtle back and forth movements that are possible.

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These lovely bones.

  1. Start by bringing up the left arm to play  without the instrument.  Allow the forearm to move back  and forth. Notice how the hand reacts, bending forwards and backwards from the wrist in reaction to the arm. This movement can be exaggerated to extend the arm back down to the side then up to playing position.  Regardless, the wrist and hand can respond to the forearm.
  2. Repeat the above but this time make a point of not moving the hand and not allowing it to react. Notice how the wrist and hand become more stiff as tension is required to maintain this position in the hand, wrist and arm. Why would anyone want to play with this kind of feeling in the left hand, when playing in front of people is challenging enough without doing things the hard way. Go back to step 1 and allow the hand and wrist to react to the forearm. Notice the difference.
  3. This time move the wrist back and forth but without the forearm movement. Notice the amount of effort required to ‘move’ the wrist back and forth rather than allowing it to react to a chain reaction of movements in the arm.

(Be sure to relax the arm down to your side between these actions. The point of the movements above are to observe kinesthetically the different sensations during their execution.  If the muscles become overly tired, its more difficult to notice subtle differences – instead the muscles will become overly tense to compensate for fatigue.)

The following is a simple study frequently taught by teachers when introducing vibrato. Sliding the finger back and forth by 1/2 step is shown as a way of feeling the backwards movement of the vibrato. But the key component in developing a more natural and effortless approach is learning to allow the hand to ‘fall back’ with a feeling of release, in much the same way that the back and forth movement of the hand is a reaction to the movement in the arm, as in the above motion study.

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While the above study is done slowly, one should aim to cultivate quick oscillations in the fingers. It is important to note Dounis emphasis on movement being initiated by impulse in fingers. This process will become easier because the wrist is able to react to these quick oscillations of the fingers.

In the following section Dounis talks about a simple study to develop sense of balance transferred from finger to finger of the left hand. *“The hand should feel it is poised or balanced on the playing finger.  The transfer of this feelingIn the following section Dounis talks about a simple study to develop sense of balance transferred from finger to finger of the left hand. or balance from one finger to another constitutes the basis for a correctly produced vibrato. This results in a feeling of lightness and freedom in the left hand at all times. 

“Allow me to offer the following suggestions,” he said. “Vibrate on one string with the first and second fingers, both remaining down, on long notes. Then place the second and third fingers down on the string, vibrating with both of them together. Then vibrate with the third and fourth fingers together. Then play various skips, skipping from the first and second fingers to the third and fourth. 

“It is understood from the foregoing,” he added, “that it is an exercise to acquire the ability to be able to transfer the balance of the hand from one finger to another.”

  • Courtesy Byron Duckwell. Based on transcripts of interview with D. C. Dounis while in NYC.  According to sources, this is the only interview in which he spoke about his understanding of technique and proper functionality in string technique. Believed to have been given with Samuel Applebaum for a book.


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