Ketchup Talk

This blog entry isn’t really about ketchup… it’s about vibrato, the intentionally produced pitch pulsation in a musical sound.  Why ketchup then?  Here’s the story.  Recently I saw an image post on facebook by a musician from Germany.  It was a picture of a page from a magazine or something, and the page had a quote in large font sizes that read:

Vibrato on every note is like putting ketchup all over the music.”

I thought this is a quite good analogy— one that’s as good as it could get.

I don’t mind ketchup at all— I just don’t use it as much, but once in a while I feel that I should have a bottle in my refrigerator (I’m out of ketchup at the moment).  I know that several of my friends can’t live without ketchup.  A friend of mine used to say: “I’m not a ketchup-on-everything kind of girl but I LOVE ketchup!”  That made me also realize that there might be many ketchup-on-everything kind of people out there.

When do you feel like using ketchup?  I usually want to use ketchup when the food could use some extra kick.  Or sometimes I use it when the food tastes too greasy.  Many of you would also use ketchup when the taste gets stale after several bites.  But when the food is so nicely prepared, when it can stand on its own, I would not want to ruin the taste of it with ketchup.  When the fries are so good, I would totally go ketchup-less!

Vibrato is really like ketchup.  Some people just love it.  And some would use it sparingly, and use it only when it is effective.  It is interesting to point out that the increasing demand of continuous left-hand vibrato in string playing goes hand in hand with the use of steel strings to replace gut strings.  Oftentimes we avoid playing the open strings on modern instruments but why?  Because open strings sound too plain and character-less.  On the other hand, open or not open, gut strings, with some help from the bow hand, can produce very tasty sound.  You don’t need ketchup to spice it up, really.  Tully Potter, Adolf Busch’s biographer, also points out that the adoption of continuous vibrato became necessity for singers to be heard, especially in operas and oratorios, as the orchestra scoring grew denser and thicker; some renowned singers from the early 1900s, who had no need to compete with the orchestras, never even bothered to adopt it.

We want ketchup, because sometimes we need it.  The focus of the first half of the previous century had gone towards volume/standing-out, and we learned to put ketchup onto everything to satisfy the need.  And today we still use the cooking devices that are designed to produce the volume when the focus is shifting (somewhat) back to subtlety and nuance…  Poor modern instrumentalists.  You shouldn’t have to go ketchup-less when your food is plentiful yet boring.  Singers, you lucky you…  You might already be a ketchup-on-everything kind of person, because you were taught to be one and told that ketchup was very healthy for you.  It might be very difficult for you to go without it.. but you still can taste what’s there without ketchup and learn when and how to use it.  You might have the ingredient that’s too good to season with a lot of ketchup.  Varying the amount of ketchup and relying more on different seasonings can be super effective!  Just please try not to dump it on top of every part of a nicely prepared food unless you have to.  But when you have to, perhaps in an opera theater, go knock yourself out!  : )

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