My first memory of the violin was the beautiful sound I heard on my parents’ record collection and on the radio. There was something captivating about the vibrato and the dynamics reaching an intensity and then calming down. I realize now, when I listen to music, it’s the first thing I notice. The depth of the music resides in the warmth of the sound. While the piano fills my soul with the harmonies and textures of ten fingers, it’s the violin’s strings that rise to a far more expressive level. Multiply that tenfold when vibrato is added. My primary concern is keeping the channel through which the sounds travel open, gushing, and flowing.
Playing With a Full, Warm Tone
There are several moments when violinists need to be sure that they’re playing with warm, vibrating strings. Changing from one string to another and changing bow direction are frequently the cause of weaker sound. Knowing where to be especially diligent will insure a more rounded, beautiful tone.
My technique consists of what to do and what not to do. My own experience has taught me that old mistakes and habits don’t die; they just lie in wait. Starting with the positive approach of what to do to insure success, I’ll begin with “A” followed by the caveats under “B”.
A. Short detaches require a re-engagement of the string each time the bow changes direction. The most reliable way to do that is with a confident sense of the beat, so the bow, the arm, and the left hand are in sync.
How does the hair start the string to vibrate? It has to attach itself in a natural way, not by force, but by patience while the unlikely duo couples. During the learning process, take as much time as necessary to gently engage the string on the upbow and the downbow. If you’re used to grabbing and forcing, your mind is revved up and going too fast. When you’re full of excess speed, patience may take forever, but it only seems that way.
A term popular with woodworkers –“tongue and groove” - thoroughly describes the engagement of the hair and channeling of the bow through the string.
As you can see from the photo, the joint is strong and secure. I like the musical reference in which tongue refers to the tonguing that wind and brass players do to create consonants. It is a striking similarity to violinists’ articulating an accent or consonant. It also refers to engaging the string at the start of each bow stroke.
B. Finding a wide, comfortable groove in the string will create lots of vibrations. However, if the arm is tight, it will be difficult to find where the groove is. The hardest part of this “groove” technique is allowing for enough “give” so that the strings can breathe and not be suffocated. The groove can be as shallow as an infant’s footstep or as deep as the lowest level of a trampoline. If the path and the groove are clamped tight, the sound will be tinny and dry. It’s especially noticeable when the bow changes direction. Don’t overdo the leverage of the bow in the upper half. It should be just enough to maintain a balanced and beautiful sound.
When changing the direction of the bow, let it find its natural path. If you try to perfectly imitate the path of the previous bow, it will make it so narrow that the sound and the motion will feel squeezed. To establish a path that’s not constricted, start with a straight bow, then give it a little bit of free play. There’s a technique for learning a straight bow and a technique for learning a natural bow path. Learn to know the difference. The gravity of the strings lets the bow move out of the straight path, more or less.
Our Strings are Vocal Chords – Let Them Breathe
The unfolding of a phrase is one of man-made nature’s miracles. To make sure the strings expand and contract during the phrase, they should breathe under the weight of the bow. What allows that to happen is the simultaneous bow weight into the string accompanied by keeping the bow light enough to avoid dead weight. The language of the bow is a constant trade-off between vertical and horizontal. Ultimately, horizontal prevails because it will make the string spin.
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