Teaching your Students to Play with Vibrato

Dr. Cate’s Flute Tips
~ Flute pedagogy for school music directors

Jupiter/Azumi Performing Artist & Clinician

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Learning to play the flute with vibrato adds warmth and depth to the sound that without it can be thin and dull. How do you know the best time for students to begin learning to play with vibrato? A broad generalization is that most students can learn vibrato fairly easily after playing one or two years. Here are some issues you want to evaluate in your students before teaching vibrato:

  • Most importantly is that students have a strong, supported air stream.
  • They know how to play with a focused sound (means they know how to direct the air properly) through the range of the instrument
  • Make sure the students have the flute placed properly on their lower lip, usually lower rather than higher
  • Make sure they have developed an efficient aperture that generates some air pressure behind the lips. If the aperture is too open, the lips too loose, the player won’t be able to generate a strong sound.

Be sure your students have these skills in place before teaching them to play vibrato and you will find they learn it very easily. Otherwise it can be a bit like the old metaphor of putting lipstick on a pig. And you can even harm their playing because students can easily get into pinching their embouchure and/or closing their throat in order to try to create the vibrato without sufficient air speed.

Many non-flutists imagine that playing with vibrato is about adding something to the sound. Surprisingly, in order to add vibrato, you need to take something out of the sound! In other words, you have to let up slightly on the blowing to create the undulation. You will find that a few students will develop vibrato naturally, without any prompting or instruction. As long as they are not closing their throats making a nanny-goat vibrato, I say let it develop and let them use it. Other students will need some guidance and exercises to develop the ability to play with vibrato. In the beginning, I like this exercise:


Here’s how the exercise works. Measures 1-12 are the outline. Measures 13-16 show pulsing in eighth notes to be continued through the entire outline of m. 1-12, m. 17-20 show pulsing in triplets, m. 21-24 sixteenth notes and m. 25-28 quintuplets. You could carry this out to sextuplets and septuplets if you like.  Here is a short video of me demonstrating the different speeds.

Finally, a huge caveat about this exercise and using vibrato in general. This is an exercise to learn how to generate vibrato and learn to control the speed. You will find that if you have your flute students practice this exercise daily either on their own or in a group class for one to two months, all your students will naturally start to add vibrato to their playing. Once the students start using vibrato as a matter of course, drop this exercise. What this exercise absolutely is not is a model of how to use vibrato for expressive purposes. For instance, I would never think of playing a long note and putting in seven pulses per beat. It is much too mechanical to apply vibrato in this way. I’ll explore vibrato types and expression in another post.

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