There are aspects of the bow -its nature and behavior – that are uniformly important, however you hold the bow. There’s the Russian bow arm, in which the wrist is higher and the hand is slightly slanted, and the Franco-Belgian, with the wrist flatter and the hand generally parallel to the stick. My favorite bow hold is the one that evolves from the player’s predilections and personality. My favorite topic, however, is what we all have in common, the need to produce a sweet, human sound, one that is reliable and free of cracks. Understanding the bow’s properties helps avoid pitfalls and clears the path.
The Bow as a Propellant
Since a common deterrent to smooth bow sound is hesitant and uneven speed, it’s important to start the bow with ease and have it feel like it’s moving on its own. If you’ve ever started a note and was frustrated by the weak response, think of a small preparation to get the bow in motion, before touching down. Every time you see a violinist make a motion in the air before touching the string, he’s “winding up the pitch” like a baseball player.
These exercises help to make your bow ready to enter the string with the right amount of energy, motion, and direction.
1. When the bow starts from the string without any preparatory motion, there is a greater likelihood of scratching and timidity. In this first exercise, let the bow hover slightly over the string a couple of inches from the frog. Count one…two…and engage the string on the count of three. Imagine a slight moment of motion as the bow prepares to skim the string at an angle. In this part of the exercise, there is no need for a big preparation. A small one will do just as well.
2. In this next exercise, hover above the string near the tip and be prepared to hold the tip steady. It’s likely to shake, but a little concentration will keep it steady for the moment before it makes contact with the string. To keep the bow from shaking, count a 1-2-3 rhythm in preparation for touchdown. It’s easier to hold the bow steady when it’s linked to a rhythmic thought.
3. In this final exercise, start either at the tip or the frog and add a larger preparation motion. You can move the violin as well as the bow. What this teaches is the movement necessary to lead others in an ensemble. It takes a little more coordination to get a stable connection when arms and instruments are moving, but violin playing often includes some showy and demonstrative motions.
The Genesis of a Sound
It’s one thing to prepare the bow to move, and another to have confidence that the sound will start with fullness and warmth. To know that the note will speak, remember to not force the connection at the beginning of the stroke. There are two exercises for establishing a clear connection with the string – one with the hair and one with pizzicato.
1. Pick a note on a string, place the bow on the string, then move it horizontally with just enough weight so that the hair absorbs the thickness of the string. If you don’t press too hard and if you are patient during the beginning of the movement, the first thing you’ll hear is the gratifying sound of the string engaging. There will be no scratch or scrape. This moment defines when sound begins on the violin, similar to when a raindrop hits a lake and creates a ripple effect.
Observe the bow’s nature and how it compares to that of the piano. Whereas the piano’s strings are struck head on by the hammer, the bow does that in the form of the spiccato. However, the bow performs an extra job – it produces vast quantities of sound by horizontal movement of the hair. This is why string instruments sound so close to the human voice. There is a special quality of the hair at work when long notes are sustained – the rosin creates something resembling tiny guitar picks protruding from the hair. This is an elegant engineering feat in that the string is plucked continuously.
Spiccato and sostenuto playing have more in common than it might appear. They both start with the engagement of the string, followed by a need to stay in the groove created by the initial contact with the string. The actions that can detract from this are unnecessary finger movements and uneven leverage of the bow. To keep the long, sostenuto notes vibrant and fluid, sustain the dynamic during the bow changes. As the notes gets higher or lower, gently adjust the dynamics accordingly.
2. This exercise was created by Shinichi Suzuki in his Tonalization, (1955). His “Exercises for Natural Tones” utilize pizzicato to demonstrate the first resonant tone you hear when the pizzicato is played in a clear, non-forced manner. The tendency is to overplay the plucking with the result being a raspy, strident sound. Too much speed of the finger plucking will add distortion as well. Suzuki taught that the patience required to play a warm-toned pizzicato will also be helpful in bowing.
He also uses the term ‘elasticity” to describe an even weight of the hair as it absorbs the string. He includes a helpful exercise called “Ship on the Water” which equates a well-balanced bow with a ship that is fully loaded. The bow, like the ship, will remain buoyant. This is an excellent image because it also implies that a vibrating string is very fluid.
Smooth and warm sound depends on finding just the right balance of the bow’s weight and adjusting it from tip to frog. Being mindful when the bow changes direction helps to re-engage the string. Little reminders to yourself serve as reminders to the bow that new conditions are just around the corner. Whether it’s thicker strings or playing softly at the tip, the bow, and the player, are designed to be flexible.
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