How many years did each of us put up with whistling E strings before our technique grew out of it? I was never one of the fortunate people who matured out of a technical problem by simply getting older. My method of solving such a problem seems tedious, treating the issue as a physics student would contemplate the universe. I never took physics, but enjoy the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Relativity, at least the preface.
I put up with squeaky E’s and fuzzy G’s through my 40’s. I think some people have quit over those nasty sounds, because how can perfectionists who play the violin not get totally aggravated by them? Fortunately, I stuck with it. (I was already making a living at it, and it was too late to fulfill my mother’s dream of me becoming a dentist.)
I like applying physics to problems of sound, vibrations, rubato, vibrato, etc. Physics gets to the heart of something, and once something is true, like a string needing to vibrate, subjectivity is no longer an issue. The squeak happens because, not only is the string not vibrating, but it doesn’t even get engaged. (The actual whistle doesn’t happen on other strings; can any physicists please explain why?) Teachers get subjective when describing how to get into the string, but a little more objectivity would be welcome to focus the mind and the bow.
Why, Part One
The E string whistles because, at the moment of contact, the musician’s rhythm is vague. Since most whistles happen when the open E is approached by a slur, there’s less conscious awareness that the string has been touched. This is the only string that is vulnerable to such an obvious whistle, so being careful about engaging the string is often taken for granted. The E string reminds us of the art of engagement, and getting better at it will help the other strings sound better. The whistle is the canary in the coal mine.
Why, Part Two
If only the violin worked as efficiently as the piano, I would gladly give up the benefit of the violin legato supposedly being more beautiful. We don’t get to play a note and assume it will have a perfect sound as on a piano. The squeaky E rings belts out like a disco ring tone during a Mozart aria, because the vibration of the string has not been engaged. Engagement is the moment when the string starts vibrating. When the string is struck without engaging, what you get is fuzzy, scratchy and raspy.
Strings stop vibrating the moment the bow changes, and thus need to be re-engaged all the time. The engagement process is fascinating because it’s so easy, but at the same time, it requires the conscious attention of the performer. This process is not talked about as much as getting into the string, and the two things don’t go hand in hand.
How, Part One
To make sure the bow is engaging the E string at the right moment, first of all assume that, if you hear the whistle, the right moment has already passed you by. Like everything else in music, and in tennis, the note and the ball are coming at you faster than you anticipated. When the bow is changing to the E string, you’ll need to isolate that moment if indeed it has slipped by you in the past. Downshift your thinking into slow motion mode, even while playing at the correct tempo. If you’ve never tried that, it really works. The mind is capable of full throttle speed while thinking in an observational, slow motion, and “big picture” way.
You can frame one moment in time, while everything else is moving normally. To make sure the bow engages the E string at just the right moment, time it so that the bow is fully square on the string, not halfway between the A and E strings. Rhythm is a very angular process. Shortcuts in rhythm only produce too much variety of results. We musicians depend on each other for learning the unwritten rules.
How, Part Two
To get to the heart of the “engagement” is to figure out how to tame this “mistake machine” known as the violin. The whistling E string is the ultimate laugh that the instrument has on us. At the moment the bow touches the E, the moment of the engagement must take place. It is the gentlest part of the bow technique, the part that wakens the string. Just as the collè stroke suddenly spikes the sound, like a spontaneous staccato, the engagement gives the string its reminder that nothing is more important than the organic vibration of the string. Without the engagement, the string may still vibrate, but half-heartedly and with no recognizable oscillation.
Depending on the thickness of the string, the engagement will feel slightly different. We consciously allow the string to be fully “gathered in” by the hair. (I can’t summon up a better term for the string’s relationship to the hair. Where do you find a physicist who might have thought of this? I’ll bet Einstein’s E string whistled.) The G string takes “longer” to engage; in the conscious mind of the violinist, longer is still momentary.
The E string is so thin, that engagement would seem very simple. But nothing in the violin can be taken for granted. Wait for that moment, isolate it, and let the engagement work its miracle. The collè is now a gentle kiss, and the string will vibrate perfectly. Every time.
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