Dubious pedagogy alert: woodwind vibrato

I think there is a lot of garbage in the way woodwind vibrato—specifically flute and double reed vibrato—is taught.

Flutists, oboists, and bassoonists use the same basic physiological mechanism to produce vibrato. I often read or hear debates over what, exactly, this mechanism is, with some arguing fervently that it is the “diaphragm,” and others insisting that it is the “throat.”

It’s worth pointing out here that a major issue in wind-instrument pedagogy is the fact that so many of the important techniques happen somewhere inside the body where they cannot be easily observed. (Violinists don’t seem to have much disagreement about what part of the body to use for vibrato.)

My belief is that neither the “diaphragm” nor the “throat” can be correctly identified as the organ of vibrato.

I use quotation marks for “diaphragm” and “throat” because both are incorrectly identified to begin with. The “diaphragm” supposedly used in “diaphragm vibrato” must surely actually be the abdominal muscles, external to the thoracic cavity. I covered this ground already in a post on breath support:

The diaphragm is, of course, the star of the show when it comes to inhalation—it is the contraction of this muscle that stretches the lungs, allowing air to rush in. But the diaphragm only flexes in that one direction. Exhalation (in normal breathing) is the result of that muscle relaxing. Of course, for wind playing, the simple relaxation of a muscle can’t provide the kind of air control that we need. Thus, the abdominal (and perhaps intercostal) muscles are also engaged to control exhalation.

And “throat” is simply too vague a location—like saying the embouchure is formed with the “head.”

Flutist Nina Perlove effectively demonstrates in one of her fine videos why “diaphragm” (abdominal) vibrato doesn’t work: it causes a pulsation in the breath support, disrupting phrasing and destabilizing pitch. (I like most of what she has to say in the vibrato video, though I do, of course, disagree with her conclusion that vibrato comes from the throat.) The abdominal muscles cannot produce vibrato because they must maintain constant pressure for good tone production, and the actual diaphragm is incapable of producing a vibrato because it can’t actively participate in exhalation.

Much has been made of the role of the mysterious “throat” in producing vibrato, though the proponents of this theory never seem able to narrow it down to a more specific structure.

Many woodwind players, myself included, have been taught that vibrato is learned first as pulses of the “diaphragm,” which over time migrate from the abdomen into an undisclosed muscle in the throat area. I continue to use this method in my own teaching; I believe it to be effective though ultimately misleading. I have also heard and read that the vibrato comes from some sort of collaboration between throat and diaphragm; I have been unable to find even a reasonably convincing explanation of how such a thing might work.

I believe that the true source of vibrato is the intercostal muscles, the muscles between the ribs. This is by no means a new theory; for example, Edwin Putnik, author of The Art of Flute Playing, embraces the idea of intercostal vibrato, acknowledging that it is often misidentified as “diaphragm” vibrato.

Putnik does also describe a “throat” vibrato in the vague terms characteristic of those who espouse that theory, but finds it inferior to the intercostal vibrato. (The Art of Oboe Playing by Sprenkle and Ledet and The Art of Bassoon Playing by Spencer similarly acknowledge the existence of a “throat” vibrato, but ultimately advocate a diaphragmatic/abdominal vibrato.)

I suspect that most (if not all) fine flute, oboe, and bassoon players do actually produce vibrato in the same way; the disagreement here is not a matter of preferring one muscle movement over another, but simply identifying which muscle it really is. Various studies of questionable scientific merit (carried out mostly by well-meaning music graduate students) have shown by X-ray and other means that various bony and/or cartilaginous structures in the throat do in fact move in a manner corresponding to the vibrato being produced. This seems generally to be taken as evidence that the throat is responsible for vibrato, presumably in the same way that rear-view mirrors are responsible for propelling your car forward (I mean, of course, that the movements observed in the throat are corollary, rather than causative). Even without the aid of medical technology, I can see (in the mirror) and feel movement in my throat, as well as throughout my torso, but none of this tells me from whence the pulsations originate.

Oboist Howard Niblock makes an interesting point in a 1989 Instrumentalist article:

Of course many people have approached the subject directly. Such approaches have usually focused on where the vibrato is produced. Most often this has been the abdominal area or diaphragm, as it is often mistakenly identified, though the throat is also often recommended as the proper location of the vibrato. The anatomical approaches are often quite interesting, but often they are also counterproductive. In the first place, concentrating on making a particular part of the body do a particular thing often produces additional tension in that part of the body… In the second place, the actual sound of the vibrato is secondary in these approaches…

While I do agree that an “anatomical approach” can contribute to tension and distract from music-making, I also believe that it is important for serious musicians and educators to understand the physical realities of vibrato, for the sake of consistent and useful pedagogy.

[See also a paper on saxophone vibrato I wrote a few years back.]


3 responses to “Dubious pedagogy alert: woodwind vibrato”

  1. Your comment about introducing vibrato through use of the “diaphragm” reminds me of the teaching technique, “Lies for Undergraduates”, right along with the debate among theorists about whether there really is a cadential 6-4 chord, or whether it is a double suspension, and so forth.

  2. martin frank Avatar
    martin frank

    Excellent;How could one breathe & use diaphragmatic vibrato?
    I think it’s mostly jaw & lips.

  3. sue macdonald Avatar
    sue macdonald

    This is very well written and I agree 99% with what you say. My one disagreement is that I believe it is possible to produce vibrato in the throat, in the same way as one can make an intermittent vocalisation ( try the sound e e e with a short sharp e as in men ) with the larynx I think because it is possible without exhaling, unlike the syllable aah aah aah , unless it is a very high pinched sound. This e e e is how I believe the nannygoat style of vibrato is made, especially I think on double reeds, as it is so easy to constrict the throat here. Flute players are more likely to have a relaxed throat I feel because of the volume of air moving, and so tend to use the intercostals in exactly the way you describe. I teach vibrato to my oboe pupils by showing them how to start the sound without any tongue at all , and a huh huh sound ( also useful for good tonguing strangely) that is made of separate syllables. Then the next step is to join them up into the single tone, but very slow and gradually increase the speed and decrease the depth until the desired result is achieved, Many talented players will do this completely instinctively, even from the very first lesson. It is very much the same as a singer must do, I think, although I am not a confident exponent, but the pressure of air behind it must be greater for oboists at least, to overcome the resistance of the reed. The type of reed is of course a factor in this , Ledet is very useful on this topic.

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