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Where is that true sound?

March 5, 2008 at 10:52 PM

I seem to remember my sound at college fluctuated between average and miserable and it is only now in my dotage that I am beginning to sense what the core of a true violin sound is.
For what little it`s worth, this is my current line of thinking on sound production that I wish to explore. A word of warning to those just starting out: the following comments may be of interest (or not) but they could be in direct conflict with what you have been taught and I do not advise anyone to follow them. Prunes remain a safe alternative in all situations.
I think there is now a fairly standard, thoroughly reliable description of how to produce a solid and deep tone using the bow that is taught by many great teachers and can be found in much of the canonic literature of the violin. This is roughly, the bow gets lighter as one approaches the point and one therefore has to compensate for this by using the thumb as a fulcrum and feeding more weight into the stick/string by pronating the forearm(turning it inwards). This is described in great detail and with excellent clarity by Robert Gerle in his masterwork `The Art of Bowing` which should be on every violinists music stand to be read and reread.
The trouble is I have recently begun to feel that this idea is either slightly wrong, incomplete or misleading. I began to feel this after practicing more and more son file bowing first thing every morning. That is, after the first desperate cup of coffee at 5 am I practice bow strokes of more than 1 minute for on average about twenty minutes. After this work I practice rapid strokes using whole bows and half bows with string crossings. What I have noticed is that after the son file work the bow is adhering to the string and creating a kind of gluey but vibrant sound that to my ear is quite delightful and dare I say, moving. So I began to wonder where it was coming from because one thing is for sure, I don’t use pronation in son file. That is not a big deal, but then I checked out the rapid bow WbS (mm120-130) and I sure wasn’t using pronation their either. In fact, in this kind of playing any adjustment of the hand or arm in this respect tends to cause the bow to judder or get out of control. It can only be done for me (I am not speaking for anyone else) by using a flat hair and letting the bow do the work of adhering to the string and creating this gluey vibration. Attention is paid to the string itself and if the friction between the hair and string is not adequate to get the string vibrating fully using only the weight of the bow a little weight feeds into it from the upper arm , without pronation. It’s actually going through the whole of the hand evenly distributed. But in general there is no need to consciously add more weight.
It actually slightly contradicts what I would expect in that faster bow stroke usually implies an increase in weight to compensate. It might not be completely clear what I am trying to describe here, but it basically seems that if one stops trying to `make a big sound` using the conventional theory of pronating and adding weight, instead learning to let the bow really grip the string while being moved rapidly and lightly (although I suspect this is not lightness- more that non interference is allowing weight to be more present) coaxes a truly deep and vibrant sound form the instrument. W hat is strange to me is that there is no actual decrescendo on the down bow as though weight itself is not a factor in sustaining tone for the length of the bow. It is as though there is a more elusive factor in creating tone at the point where the hair touches the string and as long as this factor is kept at work one doesn’t actually have to work so hard to `equalize the tone in all parts of the bow.` It seems to happen naturally as long as one is listening carefully. Neither of the instructions `use more weight` or `use more bow` seem to cover this type of sound production adequately.

From Lawrence Price
Posted on March 5, 2008 at 11:38 PM
I have been grappling with exactly the same issue. The feeling of the bow being almost glued to the string with constant contact that seems mostly related to the weight of the bow is something that I have occasionally experienced to the great benefit of my tone production. I don't really know if how this relates if at all to the conventional theory of weight and pronation. It is a mystery to me why or how it works. When I look in the mirror I cannot see what is happening because it looks wrong. It is clearly something different. I notice that it requires a lot of relaxation. If you go further with your analysis I would be very interested in your thoughts.
From Maria L
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 2:07 AM
The secret is in the rosin :-P
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 2:23 AM
never heard of it.
From William Wolcott
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 6:07 AM
Little pronation:

Lots of pronation:

Not necessarily that one is better than the other, but perhaps what one hears in Oistrakh and his protege Kremer; and their sound is unique, at least to my ear.

Sound is vibration, and vibration is not dictated necessarily by weight. It is what it is...vibration....

Perhaps your just getting better (or more, or more 'pure') vibration, which equals (to your ear-and maybe many more) better (more pure, for lack of a better word) sound.

You have such a vast knowledge of many things I only learned in a public library from reading certain books on Zen.....your ear knows. I don't think you're puzzled at all....I think you just discovered a way to produce more vibration.

prune du jour,


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 6:52 AM
I think I may stick my finger in an electric socket tomoorw to see whta happens...
From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 3:16 PM
Buri-sensei. You describe my experience and then some.
From Ray Randall
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 4:01 PM
Highly interesting and prophetic. Just yesterday, after long bows 1/4 inch ABOVE the string the tone quality increased dramatically. I found I was actually supporting the bow up just a bit with my thumb and fingers. The result was a much more sonorous and clear tone that sounded softer to my ear, but my wife downstairs with the TV blaring and while making dinner preparation noises heard clearly.
I also found that my quite decent vibrato was covering up so so tone production. Practicing without vibrato exposed the problem, bowing above the string exercise fixed it.
From T Netz
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 4:11 PM
Buri, as a beginner I can read and read and read on the subject of how to produce good tone, but I don't absorb it all because I can't right now understand it all. I appreciate your thoughts on this and everyones comments/contributions.

I look forward to the day it all falls into place in my playing and then I can begin to grow from there.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 6, 2008 at 11:17 PM
there is a very interesting aspect of tone production which seldon seems to get a public airing these days. I reclal many years ago sitting in Sandor Vegh master classes and ghearing him talk about the `third` finger as the tone finger. Now that seemd really weird ot me at te time. But if you experiment with a slight increase of contact with the third finger pad in the upper half (which does reuqire a slight counter pressure form the thumb) there is a disticnt increase in the quality asnd power of the note being played.
From William Wolcott
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 3:22 AM
David Updegraff mentions that quite a bit.
From Maria L
Posted on March 7, 2008 at 5:54 AM
Buri, then the third finger will not be the one going into the socket! Sorry, just sticking to my level of expertise :-) What you say about the third finger though... would that apply also when you want the bow to bounce lightly and rapidly? When I do that it sounds awful, I need to do something to still hear the violin if possible... How about the index finger (is it there just to keep the bow from going sideways or does it do more)? Thanks!
From William Wolcott
Posted on March 8, 2008 at 3:21 PM
Something else that is not often mentioned is that weight of the bow (from pronation or whatever) can be added diagonally (as opposed to straight down/vertically) which also influences the kind of sound one can get.
From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on March 8, 2008 at 6:38 PM
If any of you have ever observed Nicolaj Znaider in concert it appears he also does not pronate to any appreciable degree that I can see. Given that he is very tall and long limbed he may feel everything within such easy reach that he never considered pronating. However, his sound is very pure and strong and never seems forced. Gil Shaham similarly does not seem to pronate either as he heads to the tip and is of average stature and arm length as near as I can tell and he also produces a beautiful rich burnished tone. I think it is a question of allowing weight to relax through the whole arm via the supporting muscles in the back. Lately I have been asking students to listen for their naturally heavy deep sound at the frog and observing how their arm feels and asking them to continue feeling this natural weight as they creep in increments up the bow towards the tip. Slow broad detache in all areas of the bow especially in the scale like runs of the Mendelssohn concerto in the last movement with a gradual increase of speed but with constant attention to seeking the optimum arm level for deepest tone has proven extremely helpful for getting a really solid healthy sound even from some students' instruments which have very modest projecting abilities. These exercises have also helped students clean up their string crossings and kept their tone more even throughout the range of the different strings. I credit Buri with citing an article from the Westbury Strings website that got me examining tone production again. I'm still not sure that a certain amount of pronation and supination doesn't play an important role but it may very well be that other factors, heretofore not noticed or given their due, are just as valid and equally significant.
From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on March 8, 2008 at 7:51 PM
Regarding mention of the third finger (I assume you mean the ring finger), Isidor Saslav taught that at the tip, pulling in with the ring finger helps encourage the knuckles of the wrist to flatten and create a more level hand and this position assists in creating a tone as strong at the tip as at the frog. Isaac Stern also advocated the use of the third finger and middle finger as the center through which tone passes using arm weight.
From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on March 8, 2008 at 7:58 PM
By the way, Oistrakh, who is a model of beautiful deep resonant tone, appears to pronate and supinate, noticably at 1:39 in the following excerpt from the Tchaikowsky Violin Concerto
From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on March 8, 2008 at 8:08 PM
I meant knuckles of the hand, not wrist.

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