Vibrato and Billie Holiday

In previous posts, I have written about encouraging my violin students to listen to the diversity of violin playing in recordings from earlier in the 20th century. Because recordings were not easily made or accessed at that time, violinists didn’t have the opportunity to hear each other on a regular basis and certainly not nearly as prolificly as today. The recordings I grew up with were David Oistrakh’s Brahms violin concerto, Isaac Stern’s Beethoven violin concerto, Nathan Milstein’s Tchaikovsky violin concerto, and Jascha Heifetz’s Glazunov violin concerto with Heifetz and Primrose’s Sinfonia Concertante on the flip side. Each violinist’s vibrato is unique like a fingerprint which is especially evident in early recordings.

I give listening assignments to my students in which they write descriptions of different styles of vibrato. We discuss the speed, shape and depth of their own vibrato as well as the vibrato heard in the recordings. Additionally, students describe what they like about each vibrato and how it works with the repertoire. Of course, I include on their listening lists contemporary stars such as Hilary Hahn and lesser known violinists on Youtube. I also encourage my students to listen to the way in which non-classical violinists use vibrato or, in some cases, don’t use it at all. I feel it’s time to open the door for more flexibility about the use of vibrato even in “classical” music.

On this card, I ask whether your style is more like Billie Holiday’s. I first discovered her recordings when I was studying jazz piano in college. At the time I was inspired by how she used her voice to emphasize and enhance the lyrics and the contour of the melody. Her vibrato is more like a special spice added with love at a particular time in a phrase. I love the intentionality of it. As a young violinist, I learned that vibrato is another part of a musician’s color palette. It doesn’t have to be “Here. This is what I can do,” as it runs as a constant presence in the music. It can be another medium that a musician uses to express his or her interpretation of the music. I love classical violin vibrato but I do feel it should be choice rather than necessity. This is somewhat taboo since according to classical music industry standards, vibrato should be uniform and happening all of the time.

Billie Holiday was a strong women who stood up to the American government’s endless pursuit to convict her of drug possession so as to prevent her from singing “Strange Fruit,”a song about lynchings in the South. Even with this ongoing abuse by the FBI and her very real drug addiction, her music and her art survived and lives on. To this day, people still listen to her music. I just finished watching The United States vs. Billie Holiday on Hulu directed by Lee Daniels with Andra Day playing Billie Holiday. The music is outstanding in this intensely emotional story. Even from a classical musician’s point of view, this movie accurately portrays the not-so-glamorous life of a musician, touring to unknown parts of the country, living hand to mouth, feeling exploited by music promoters, and spending hours and days on end in very close proximity to other musicians who may have serious life problems such as addiction and mental illness. 

I highly recommend this movie. The story line is about the history of Congress’s creation of drug possession laws and law enforcement’s use of these laws as a way to incarcerate people of color. We see Billie Holiday as a pioneer in the civil rights movement. Andra Day, who is known for singing the pandemic anthem “Rise Up,” amazingly channels Billie Holiday’s spirit. Watch this movie, learn all you can about structural racism, and be sure to listen to Billie Holiday. I know you will fall in love with her music, her integrity and her spirit.

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