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Thomas Bacon

Getting horn players to agree on any one thing is a bit like getting cooks all to agree on a recipe. Some insist that a good gumbo always includes okra. Others say it should never contain okra. There are chili cooks who look down their noses at chili with beans, while others maintain that chili is based on beans. So it is with horn players and the topic of vibrato.

There was a survey taken a few years back, of some prominent horn players and teachers in the United States, on the subject of vibrato. The diversity of views was very interesting. If the survey had been broader, including players of other nationalities, the diversity of opinions would have been greater still. Most of the responses to that survey acknowledged the possibility of using vibrato under certain (sometimes very limited) circumstances, but I have heard at least one horn player say "the horn should never be played with vibrato." Tell that to some of the great European or Russian horn players, who use vibrato virtually all of the time, and see the response you get!

My first encounter with vibrato on the horn was when I heard one of those great players, Valerie Polekh, in a recording of the Gliere Concerto. I was in high school, and had only been playing horn for about a year. I had Alan Civil's Mozart recording, and Dennis Brain's Strauss, a couple of Chicago Symphony recordings, and my parents' Montovani collection. That was my record library! I knew what vibrato was, but had never heard it used in horn playing.

The friend who introduced the recording to me didn't say at first what we were listening too, she just said: "Listen to this, see if you can tell what it is."

Well, I had never heard the piece before, and couldn't even guess what it was. It sure didn't sound like Mozart, and I didn't think it was Strauss. But I was pretty sure I knew what instrument it was. With that big, deep, dark sound, and the warm and very wide and constant vibrato, I was sure it was a euphonium. With a chuckle and a smirk she assured me it wasn't.

"Well," I said, "it does sound sort of husky and reedy, it must be a tenor sax.!"

Again the chuckle and she promised it was not a tenor sax, or a woodwind of any kind. Though the music was very enjoyable, I was becoming annoyed with her because I could not even guess what instrument it was playing the solo. I had never heard a horn sound like that, so I didn't think it could be one. Of course, at that point in my life, nobody had ever told me that a horn could or couldn't play with vibrato, it had just never occured to me as a possibility.

Finally, when I couldn't guess what it was, she told me it was a horn. I was amazed. I went out and bought the record and the music immediately, and started to work on it. Hard as I tried, though, I couldn't make it sound like the record. In fact, even though I loved the recording (still do, in fact) I was beginning to realize that I didn't really want to sound like that myself.

That was the beginning of my fascination with the use of vibrato, and the different colors that one can produce with it. Since that time, I have discovered that there are at least eight different ways to produce it on the horn.

Following is a copy of the questions from that survey a few years ago, and my responses to it. I have changed one of my responses since The Horn Call published it - since then I realized there is at least one more way to produce vibrato, and have included it below. If you are interested in all of the other responses, look at The Horn Call, Vol XXII, No. 2; April 1992; pp. 69-71.

Q. Do you ever use vibrato?

A.  Yes.

Q. If yes, please list a few examples in the solo, orchestral, and chamber literature in which you feel vibrato is appropriate.

A.  I selectively use vibrato in virtually all styles of music, depending on the particular piece and the nature of the passage in question. For example: in the chamber music and concertos of Mozart, a tasteful and subtle use of vibrato greatly enhances my music making in lyrical passages (i.e. first and second movements), but is not something that I use much in the more robust hunting horn passages (i.e. third movements). In the opera and orchestral works of Mozart, I use vibrato less frequently, usually only on the occasional exposed lyrical passages.

Other examples: Romantic works sometimes call for a more voluptuous vibrato than what I use in Classical works. However, as in Classical, it is usually limited to the lyrical passages (i.e. Tchaik. 5 or Brahms 2 solos), and not employed on the more robust passages (i.e. opening of Tchaik. 4 or Siegfried's call).

Further, my use of vibrato is not always limited to solo passages, but is occasionally employed in ensemble passages to provide a shimmering background for whatever solo is going on at the time.

Q. Will you briefly tell me about the influences that cause you to use vibrato such as teachers, recordings, instinct, other musicians, etc.; and at what point in your career did this begin evolving?

A.  My use of vibrato began in 1963 in my last year of high school, when I was studying horn with Frank Brouk, then principal in the Chicago Symphony. I liked his sound and tried to emulate it. I am still trying. Further inspiration for the use of vibrato came during a concert of the Chicago Symphony (in 1964) with Rostropovich playing a cello concerto. Watching his left hand and relating it to the sound that I heard, I realized that vibrato, or the absence of it, has a profound impact on the quality of the sound being produced. Along with dynamics, phrasing, tone quality, pitch, articulations, etc., vibrato is one of the many techniques that can be used to shape the sound and produce the desired musical results.

Q. Will you briefly describe how you physically produce vibrato?

A.  The method I use most often was taught to me by Frank Brouk. It is produced by the fingers of the right hand gently caressing the sound in the bell of the horn.

I am aware of a total of eight different methods of producing vibrato, all of which I have used, or heard used to good effect in certain circumstances. They are:

1. Fingers of right hand in bell --- mentioned above.

2. Palm of right hand in bell --- very pronounced "wah-wah" sound used most frequently in jazz inflections.

3. Left hand --- sort of like what some trumpet players do with the right hand, it moves the whole horn.

4. Lip --- a kind of puckering and unpuckering.

5. Jaw --- sort of chewing.

6. Head --- sort of like giving little nods of approval.

7. Diaphragm --- the traditional one that is used by many wind players, like saying ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. I have also heard this method referred to as throat vibrato, because that is where you feel the ha-ha, but it actually comes from the diaphragm.

8. Tongue --- tongue in the mouth forming the sound yew-yew-yew over and over, an effect used by Mark Schultz in a lot of his horn writing.

Q. Any thoughts or comments you have which I have not covered would be helpful.

A.  I could go on for days about all the various methods, use or non-use, intensity, styles, etc. The short comments that I have made could even raise more questions than they answer, and every statement made could be expanded into a chapter. But the bottom line is this: Vibrato, for me, is not something that I simply "use" when I play the horn. It is rather one of the many aspects of my technique that I employ with (I hope) tasteful discretion to produce a desired musical result, and when I am successful at employing the technique of vibrato, it is not something that one really notices. Rather, what is noticed is the "sweet sound" or the "beautiful phrasing" or the "great style." Vibrato is but one small aspect involved in the creation of this.


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