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Late twentieth century psychologists described a "split" between the look and the gaze, describing how looking at a person or object equips you with factual, empirical data about what you see, but gazing involves studying the object with "the eyes of the heart," learning to read the soul of all you behold. All fine artists must perfect their gaze. Their art demands no less. Similarly, psychologists describe radical differences between listening and hearing, valorizing hearing. When you can detect a stone's heartbeat, you have mastered the fine art of hearing. Follow your imagination to the nucleus of your most cherished possession and hear the sub-molecular music the atoms play as they draw their orbits around their common center-little different from drawing your bow across your strings, and certainly rich with vibrato.
In order to master any musical instrument, and especially in order to master the violin, you must learn to hear. And your ability to hear the world all around you will have the most profound effect on your violin vibrato-the sounds of nature and feeling represented on your four strings.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Romantic composers used their music to recreate and intensify Nature's sublimity-Her overwhelming power and her breathtaking beauty. The greater the sublimity, the most intense the vibrato, because nothing in nature sustains one single and pitch-perfect note. Nature tends to warble, babble, trill, and sigh, all of which require vibrato. How would you ever set the music to the butterfly's wings without vibrato? How would you ever score the sunbeams glancing from the rippling brook without this technique? Lightning's flash demands staccato, and then thunder's gathering roar absolutely requires rolling vibrato from the furthest reaches of the bass clef. No vibrato, no romance.
Fast forward to the early twentieth century and the birth of the "modern" era. In all of the fine arts, "modern" works intend to represent man's domination of his environment and the rise of automation. In music, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue sets the paradigm, because it lives and thrives at the intersection of the urban landscape and human emotion-both of which demand vibrato. A "rhapsody," by definition, recreates a mood or series of emotions. As Rhapsody in Blue moves from serene-little vibrato-to reflective and vaguely melancholy-slow -to manic as traffic around the Eiffel Tower-speedy, the notes and harmonies recreate feelings and sensations, but the changes in vibrato subliminally determine the audience's different moods. Even in its disciplined, precisely noted triumphal passages, Gershwin's masterpiece includes violin and oboe descants that quiver like a nervous lover's "Will you...?" The counterpoint captures the contrast between industrial mechanism and human need. No vibrato, no mood. And the vibrato's speed determines the mood.
Just about everything in the modern world vibrates, and few things perfectly sustain a single note. The water pump in your Land Rover, for example, spins against its belt playing approximately a "high-C" accentuated with an incredibly fast vibrato. With a little practice, you can match your own to your water pump's speed, recreating post-modern nature, matching the mood of your play to the frenzy that drives your life. But make sure you include the tremulous descant set in a minor key and calling for slow, mellifluous vibrato, so that you leave ample room for post-modern human nature, too.