Music is one of the wonders of the world that make writers create poetic and visual images. It’s right up there with the Grand Canyon and the concept of love. The bow and the violin are often described as an extension of the arm, and the sound they create is as close to the human voice as possible.
Singers often strive for a style known as “bel canto” that prevailed in Europe in the 18th and 19th century. The legato and phrasing are delivered with silken elegance, purity, and nobility, and they are featured in operas by Bellini and Donizetti. The more dramatic style of singing, one with a speech-inflected style, is more likely to be heard in Puccini and Verdi.
Beauty of sound may be the most coveted quality for violinists, but its success can’t be dependent on a simple explanation. Words of description, such as “play near the bridge”, “get into the string”, “don’t press” are good for basic training, but they end up being helpful in some situations, and barriers in others. To get the right ingredients with the right balance, the music and the musician set the parameters one measure at a time.
The clearest picture I can come up with is that beautiful sound and cascading phrasing are a product of many small parts: seamless bow changes, strings that vibrate fully, phrases that thrive on subtle dynamic changes, and string crossings that enhance new registers of the sound.
The Bow’s Never-Ending Movement
Improving your ability to change the bow’s direction starts with being able to look forward to it with confidence and certainty. One of the most demoralizing things is fearing the bow change because with it comes scratching and bouncing. If the technique is based on something the player understands, he’ll be more likely to keep the sound flowing and feel sure about his method.
The art of bow changing is more physics than art and requires a lot of concentration. You make sure the sound is pure and consistent up until the moment of changing. Counting carefully up to that moment insures that the bow will change exactly when you intend it to. Then the following stroke will need to engage with the string so a perfect vibration is created, exactly at the beginning of the stroke. Also, concentrate on keeping the speed of the bow consistent, which will keep it from bouncing. A surprise and unexpected speed is the hiccup of violin playing.
What I find magical about the bow change is the fact that the string stops at the moment it changes direction. The audience doesn’t hear the gap because it happens so quickly and the sounds before and after it are designed to belong to each other. There is a sleight of hand quality and aural illusion that is attached to this technique, and the final result is endless phrasing.
The Bow’s Dilemma - Fighting Gravity AND Going with It
If the bow could be designed with a support system like the Monorail at Disneyland, I would have paid anything for it. The tube that a trombone slide travels in would also be a welcome tool. Anything that would support the bow would more likely insure a smooth ride and sound.
Of course, making the bow mechanical would have plenty of downsides, including a lack of expression and nuance. There are really two jobs that the bow must do to get a strong, lyrical, and velvety sound:
Grumiaux’s Elegant Beauty
There are two camps of sound production in which strong philosophies are associated. There’s the violinist who has such a strong personality that every nuance and glissando serves to display his character, and then there’s the violinist who seeks the music’s meaning and prevents any personal affectation from interfering. In a class by himself was Arthur Grumiaux, born to a working-class family, who debuted in the U.S. in Boston at the age of thirty. His phrasing would allow a melody to unfold with gentleness and innocence.
The Strings of Nat King Cole
One of the pleasures of being a classical musician is the huge encyclopedia of sounds at your disposal. Some of the greatest musicians around the world play for movie scores and fill the orchestras backing the finest popular singers such as Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra. Listening to the beautiful arrangements and state-of-the-art recording techniques teaches tonal beauty and phrasing. If you tend to phrase by playing the first thought that comes to your mind, a few moments with Nat King Cole will inspire you to set the mood before the fingers go down.
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