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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000705.txt from 2003/06

From: (Tony Pay)
Subj: [kl] Cohler's vibrato article
Date: Sat, 21 Jun 2003 14:29:50 -0400

On Thu, 19 Jun 2003 11:33:10 -0400, said:

> Alexander Brash wrote,
> > For justifications on why TO use vibrato, and how to do it, please
> > read this wonderful article by my teacher, Jonathan Cohler:
> >
> Terrific article--one of the best and most common-sensical arguments
> I've seen on the subject. Cohler's recordings of the Brahms sonatas
> with Judith Gordon (on No. 1) and Randall Hodgkinson (on No. 2)
> thoroughly validate his opinions, too.

Well, contra Lelia, the problem I have with this article is that it
doesn't remotely do justice to the subtlety of vibrato, even though it's
obviously promoting its use.

So for me, at any rate, the effect is off-putting -- especially since
Cohler argues for vibrato in large part by seeming to deny the
possibility of adequate vibrato-less performance: "I believe that
vibrato, in all its forms, used both subtly and overtly, big and small,
wide and narrow, fast and slow, is an essential tool in playing the
clarinet, without which one can achieve only a small fraction of the
expressive capabilities of the clarinet....with a given reed,
mouthpiece, clarinet and dynamic level, the range of tone colors
(leaving out special effects such as flutter tonguing) that are
achievable without vibrato are VERY limited."

So much for quite a few performances that have justifiably made their
mark, quite apart from the dismissal of much of the work of myself and
several of my colleagues. (I do on occasion use vibrato myself.)

A further difficulty is that Cohler takes the position of characterising
vibrato as a sort of audience feel-good-factor that you can, as it were,
'spray onto' a performance without altering anything else.

For example, he has reported on this List the results of informal
experiments, where he plays a passage both with and without vibrato to
an audience, and asks which they prefer. "In my demonstrations, I play
a passage twice. Once with straight tone and once with vibrato (not
necessarily in that order). Both times I try to play it well, with all
dynamics, articulation and other markings observed. I believe that my
vibrato is of a nice quality and used only to enhance and bring forth
the musical intentions of the composer while making the music
interesting for the audience to listen to...I have done this experiment
hundreds of times in masterclasses (where I ask the entire audience), in
lessons, and in casual demonstrations. In EVERY case, people have
preferred the vibrato version. Without exception. I do not remember a
single instance in which someone said they preferred the vibrato-less
version...I do not tell them what is different up front. And in many
cases, as you point out, they do not recognize that it is, in fact, the
use of vibrato that makes the passage come alive."

In the article in question, he summarises this, saying, "Audiences of
non-musicians, and non-clarinetist musicians overwhelmingly prefer and
enjoy the sound of vibrato on the clarinet."

But this sort of experiment is a gross simplification of what occurs in
a real performance, and so its outcome cannot be taken as serious
evidence. Because, an excellent player who chooses not to use vibrato
does not simply 'not vibrate', and play otherwise the same. They do
something else, because they are operating in another, different
expressive world. And what is more, they are expecting to have the
value of that expressive world be judged by their audience as applying
to the entire piece, not just to one passage.

I should perhaps make it clear at this point that I have no doubt that
Cohler is himself an excellent player, as Lelia testifies. In fact,
though I haven't heard the performances in their entirety, I did once
hear his opening of the F minor sonata. As I recall, there was little
or no vibrato in the opening clarinet theme. So Cohler himself does not
use vibrato unremittingly, even though it is by his own testimony an
integral part of his clarinet playing.

So if, as I maintain, the nature of vibrato is not captured by the
'feel-good factor' approach, then what *is* the nature of vibrato?

My answer is that vibrato in playing is an expressive tool, and can be
used both well and badly. That's because like all tools, it looks
beyond itself -- in other words, it is *for* something -- in this case,
it looks to musical expression. So it can be argued to be appropriate
or inappropriate in a particular case.

Consider: a knife cannot be said to be 'good' or 'bad' in itself; but it
can perfectly respectably be said to be a 'bad' tool for extracting a
screw, and to be a 'good' tool for cutting a steak.

That gets us round this dreary banging on about subjective/objective
that we get at the beginning of Cohler's article, and far too often
elsewhere on this list, I submit. *This* assessment of 'good' and 'bad'
has an objective correlate.

The 'knife' example suggests something further, as well. If you have to
get a screw out, and only have a knife at your disposal, then the knife
looks....pretty good. But if you also happen to have the right size
screwdriver....then there's no contest.

It seems to me that, using this analogy, and taking 'vibrato' to be the
knife, then what Cohler is essentially saying is, "There's nothing as
good as a knife!"

Whereas, I and others want to say, "No, there are some things for which
*screwdrivers* are better. Moreover, screwdrivers exist!"

I tried to call attention to the screwdrivers, without denigrating the
knives, in my post entitled, "What you *can* say about vibrato." I
didn't have much success in doing so, perhaps because I used the device
of referring to the archive URL of a previous post. All that happened
was that someone read it as, "What can YOU say about vibrato?" -- and
then just went on and said the stuff they wanted to say, not much
different from what they'd been saying in all the other threads.

So I'll do it directly....well, no I'll just post the link again, and
chance not being read:

(This is the main thrust of what I want to say, and I'll go into it with
anyone who wants to discuss the matter in detail.)

That other players than clarinettists are interested in 'screwdrivers'
is not in question. Even though Cohler writes:

"I see statements such as: 'I enjoy some vibrato when it is subtle, but
I personally do not use it unless it is specifically asked for in the
score,' or 'I find the most pleasing is a very subtle, almost
undetectable, slow vibrato on the key note in a phrase.'

"Have you ever heard a violinist, cellist, soprano, oboist, flutist or
the like saying anything like this? Probably not."

...the fact is that many violinists, 'cellists, sopranos, oboists,
flutists and the like do say such things. And even in the US of A
nowadays they say them.

They say them not only because they have their own screwdrivers
available, but because they appreciate the value of having a register
that is more 'still' than the register of constant movement. They
appreciate the clarity of texture, the transparency of sound....and so
on. The only real justification is in the result.

But of course, none of that means that you have to agree. It's just
that there's no knockdown argument that vibrato is essential, and some
good arguments about why it's not desirable, in classical music.

As for the rest of Cohler's article:

The stuff about Muehlfeld, via Brymer, has never been substantiated.
There's no mention of Muehlfeld's vibrato in any other source. (And
we're still waiting on Charlie Neidich's authoritative pronouncement on

On the other hand, I'm impressed by Cohler's description of the details
of how to do vibrato. Probably that should be more available.

What Cohler labels PHYSICS, though not very pertinent to the thrust of
his article, is dead wrong on a number of counts. I don't want to go
into the details here, but I had an exchange with Martin Pergler on the
list, of which probably the most relevant post is:

...and which at any rate makes clear that the overtones of a clarinet
are always harmonic, even if the normal modes of the clarinet tube
aren't. It seems to me that dogmatic pronouncements of fact, enshrined
in persisting articles on the web, ought to be accurate. (Mark?)

So, in all, I don't agree with Lelia that it's a good article. Its
argument is essentially that vibrato is *essential* for excellent
playing, and that people who don't use vibrato, or who use it sparingly,
are going against their true natures, and against the historical

"I think the nature of man itself draws people of all cultures in all
parts of the world throughout most of musical history to use vibrato on
all continuously driven instruments (i.e. not percussive
instruments--although the modern day vibraphone is an exception to that)
in all kinds of music." [post on Klarinet]

And, in order to make any case at all, it splits the world into those
who 'like' vibrato, and those who 'don't like' vibrato.

That's far too simplistic. I know for myself that whether someone uses
vibrato is a very small part of how I judge them.

On the other hand, if they're more interested in their 'pretty' vibrato
than in how effective they're communicating the music, I can hear that.

Particularly (but not only) in students.

_________ Tony Pay
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| |ay Oxford OX2 6RE
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