One of my blog readers asked me to talk about vibrato in orchestral instruments. Basically, in the woodwind section, flutes and oboes always use vibrato, clarinets never do, and bassoons go both ways. But within that broad generalization are an awful lot of shadings and subtleties.
There are a million variables affecting the use of vibrato. Things I take into account include: the era of the piece, the composer’s country of origin, the tempo and emotional affect of the line, its tessitura and shape, the instrumentation, the dynamic, my own role in the ensemble, the acoustic of the hall, the capability of the reed du jour, and my own mood.
Vibrato is primarily an expressive tool for solo instruments. (String sections use it heavily, but that’s a different animal.) We winds use it as an additional color to the sound, and as an intensifier. We use it to draw attention to our (often invisible) selves when our line needs to come to the fore. And we use it very consciously and supportively with each other.
For example, if I have a solo I will certainly use vibrato. The slower and more romantic the solo, the more vibrato. Sometimes the vibration is merely a color choice, a quality of the sound, and at other times it is an active part of the phrase, used to develop a long note or a line in place of or alongside dynamics.
When I am playing a duo with clarinet, I will still use vibrato if it feels appropriate in my line, but I am careful to keep it well contained. I really don’t want to wobble the pitch around, so I keep the amplitude of the vibrato low and the frequency high. Just enough to make my note sound alive but not so much that it sounds weird or forced against the straight tone of the clarinet. If I’m playing with a flute, I tend to temper my vibrato also, but for the opposite reason. I don’t want to compete with the highest voice, especially if we are playing a unison or octave line. In that case I’ll match my frequency to hers, and keep the amplitude a little less.
When we have chords or supportive woodwind lines which are NOT melodic, in general we tame the vibrato. Sometimes flutes have to be reminded. I’m not averse to a straight tone when no one really wants to hear the oboe anyway.
In my own orchestras, where I am there regularly and in which it IS my job to lead the wind section and to be responsible for the overall sound, I will sometimes press my interpretation, and insist a little bit on the quantity and quality of vibrato that I use. Not by overtly asking anyone to change, but by playing my lines the way I want them and expecting my colleagues to join me. In contrast, when I am subbing in a group I will pay respect to the other principals by matching them unquestioningly.
And it should go without saying that when I play second oboe I always defer the vibrato choices to the principal. It’s my job to play with a similar approach and less intensity.
With all these factors in play all the time, it is imperative that I have full control over my own vibrato. I practice it every day – finding different speeds and intensities on different notes all over the range of the instrument. It’s an integral part of my warmup and of my playing.