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Getting that 'violin tone'

Technique and Practicing: How do you get that violin sound?

From Nate Evans
Posted May 12, 2010 at 06:59 PM

 I've been playing for about a month and a half and am curious as to how people get that violin tone.

An example would be the great video that Shawn how posted of his daughter on the main page of Violinist.com (she's so cute and playing it good!!!)  It has that Keyboard type of sound, and doesn't have a violin sound.  Hard to explain what exactly it is I'm talking about.  But is that sound more a result of bowing technique or strings?  I understand bowing has much to do with the sound, but what is more of a contributing factor to get that sound?

I mean, if you listen to the CD, yes, I can play in tune, but the TONE isn't the same.  Like even if Iplayed the piece perfectly without mistake, vibrato aside, you could tell who was the CD and who I was.  I get that "fake" sound that i can't seem to get rid of.  It doesn't sound like a violin (well it does, but a casio keyboard interpretation), it lacks the overtones and depth that you typically hear when you hear a violin piece, or even just the guy playing on the Suzuki CD.  How do you achieve that?  Is that just time playing and it slowly develops?  

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 12, 2010 at 07:20 PM

Hi, I would humbly say the good sound is a combination of

- good bow direction, always beeing on the good contact point with the string, appropriate bow division for the note lengh or pattern you are playing, appropriate pressure of the bow on the strings for the lengh of notes and pattern + for the dynamic you're playing in

- And as the bowing is an artist "signature" as his/her fingerprints, the left hand and types of vibrato they use is the other element that make the sound of each artist so unique.

All these are skills that we learn to do individually. Most of us will have them well individually but... not so well all together!!! ; )  Just a few are really able... 

Finally the sound is also (I think) a product of the school you attended and the teaching you received, the era you grew up in and your body caracteristics as well as your personnality. Not to mention that the quality of the violin helps...  

Of course, you surely listen to a lot of music to know the difference (this is compulsory if you want a nice sound! ; )

But this is just my opinion based on what I heard from way better players and noticed by myself too as a student. 

Good luck,

Anne-Marie

From Corwin Slack
Posted on May 12, 2010 at 08:16 PM

First: Listen to recordings of old violinists like Kreisler, Ysaye, Quiroga, Maude Powell, Thibaud and others.

Second: when you can draw the bow more or less parallel to the bridge, then place the bow on the string and with no pressure on the stick draw it so very slowly that you here a series of raspy popping sounds. Listen for the ping that emanates from the body of the instrument. This is tone.  As you keep drawing the bow with NO PRESSURE try to see if you can get the pings to be more even. Finally draw the bow faster (still no pressure). This is the beginning of violin tone.  

 

From David Beatty
Posted on May 12, 2010 at 08:47 PM

It may just be the violin itself, the violin I used for my first couple months of lessons was largely incapable of making a full violin sound, which I guess is what you get for a $60 outfit. After upgrading, the difference was instantaneous, suddenly a violin sang along with my playing instead of giving a weak and hollow buzz.

Innumerable improvements to bowing have helped my tone along the way with both violins, but for me, that was what changed it from making 'some sound that's in tune' to 'a Violin sound'.

From Andrew Victor
Posted on May 12, 2010 at 10:31 PM

Nate,

Even the "guy on the Suzuki recordings" was likely Nadian, one of the great violinists of the first half of the 20th century. And Suzuki sounded decent enough, too, when he recorded the first few CDs.

I've only know one violinist got that kind of "violin sound" within 18 or so months of starting lessons - and I consider that very remarkable.

It is a mater of instrument quality and setup, bowing and left-hand technique including intonation and vibrato. If you are recording yourself to see what you sound like, you have to use a decent recording system. A video camera, or cassette tape recorder will not do. Something like an Ederal lor Zoom might do it, or one of those new microphones that clip on an iPod - but be sure to play it back through a decent-enough headset or speaker system. The least bit of "wow" in the playback speed will totally spoil the sound.

Andy

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 12, 2010 at 11:21 PM

What Andrew said! He's right!  The things that he mentioned... in the two years I have been getting reacquainted with the violin my sound gets better and better because all those things keep getting better, my fingering, bowing, better strings, set up, etc.

From John Hartge
Posted on May 12, 2010 at 11:25 PM

First - keep in mind what is going on in the mechanics of the vibrating string: 

  • When you place a rosined bow on the string, the hairs grip the string.  The major force is pressure (mostly from gravity).
  • As you pull or push the bow, you add velocity.  During this movement, the grip of the bowhair doesn't want to let go and as a result, the string flexes sideways. 
  • Pretty soon the string is flexed to its limit, and then it breaks free from the bowhair grip.
  • Now that the grip is broken, the string swings back (not unlike a pendulum). 
  • When the string reaches the farthest point of the "back swing" the bow hair grips again (a small fraction of an inch beyond the first gripping point) and the next cycle begins. 
  • When you play an open A string (in tune) this cycle repeats 440 times a second.

That's an over simplification - search on "helmholtz motion" for specifics.  The point of the mechanics is to introduce the concepts of pressure and velocity.  Both are needed to vibrate the string - but they have to be in balance.  Too much pressure with a slow bow stroke and the string makes a crunchy sound (drag your bow really slowly for good haunted house sound effects).  Too little pressure on a fast stroke and the string doesn't vibrate with good wave and it produces a glassy, whispery sound.  You hear the pitch of the note, but the tone is poor quality. 

If your brain is agreeable to thinking in terms of math, think of good tone as an equation.  T = P / V (Tone = Pressure over Velocity).    That's not everything though.  Anne-Marie mentioned "appropriate bow division" - the bow doesn't travel as far on quick notes.  Other factors are loudness/volume, string thickness (the G string needs more pressure to vibrate than the E string), string length (open string vs. fingered string), distance between where the bow touches the string and the bridge,  etc.

All of these factors are variables that must be in the right relationships to one another to produce a sweet tone.  A rich high quality tone sounds good because you hear not only the fundamental pitch from the vibrating string, but the overtones as well.

A few months ago, I lamented to my teacher that, after several years of lessons, I still could not reliably find that balance point.  I would slip in and out of a nice tone - even within a single bow stroke.  My tone had character, but it was not rich.  I want to be able to pull a sound from the voilin that is thick, sweet, syrupy, lucious, moving, (whatever).  I want to be able to produce such a beautiful tone at will.  

My teacher said that your ears will hear and your body will feel when you are pulling the bow in a way that produces a rich tone.  To him, it feels like the bow is traveling through water - there's just a slight sense of resistance to the stroke.  But, but, but it is so subtle, at least it is to me.  It took a long time to hear and feel where the "pocket" is. 

He made up some exercises - simple notes and patterns and I recorded him playing it.  Then over a few months would play the exercise listening intently and trying to be super aware of my pressure, velocity, contact point, steadiness of pull/push.  I would record myself and compare my sound to his. 

Finally, I can put my bow on the string and produce a good tone - not quite as well as my teacher, but at least it is in the ball park.  I still have to concentrate on it, but it is becoming more natural.  Sorry to go on for so long, but this has been a mystery and a quest of mine for a while.  In short, having an understanding helps, but you then need to develop the perception and feel. 

Be patient.  One image that helps is to think of the bow as releasing the note from the string, it sets the sound free.

John

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on May 12, 2010 at 11:42 PM

I'm not sure "that violin sound" is really anything to do with violin quality at all.  I'm reminded of a masterclasses I sat in on a few years ago, where several of the students had fairly mediocre instruments to say the least, yet when the professor took their violins (and bows, interestingly...) to demonstrate something, he immediately got a totally different "violin sound" out of these instruments not to begin to mention the actual technical aspects he was demonstrating.  I do agree it has a huge amount to do with bowing technique and more precisely being able to adapt that bowing technique to get the best out of whatever instrument one is playing.

When I started at university - and was having violin lessons as a part-time conservatoire student in London, the first couple of terms my violin professor took me right back to basics on the right hand technique, with lots of open string exercises etc.  THAT was when I first started making a really good "violin sound".    Since I got my Cuypers 2 years ago, I've also found that I can go even further in getting the sound out the violin because there are simply more resources available in it to bring out with the bow. 

Fascinating things, violins...!

From Graham Clark
Posted on May 12, 2010 at 11:56 PM

There maybe another thing going on - violins sound very different under the ear from how they sound a distance away.

What most of us think of as a "violin sound" often includes room resonances as well as losing bow noise.

Could just be that what you hear directly under the ear  isn't what you think a violin should sound like

gc

From Carol Pigeon
Posted on May 13, 2010 at 01:06 AM

NATE - A great violinist once said you have to "FEEL" the sound, not just hear it.  Play on!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 13, 2010 at 04:08 AM

Greetings,

I think the neatest and most precise description or`prescription` for getting the sound has been made by Simon Fischer on one of his you tube films.

He tells a stuent there are four things one must be doing.

1)  Imagine the sound.

2)  Listen to the sound.

3) Feel the string through the bow hair and into the fingertips.

4)  Analyse what you are doing.

The last means that one should learn and internalize the ability to decide instantaneously what is wrong with the sound IE too much pressure,  too little speed,  too close to the bridge or whatever and instantly adjust.

To be honest,   of these four absolutely fundamental factors,  at any one time students and even greatly advanced players are acrually scoring only one out of four or less.  What I mean by the latter is they may simply be listening to their playing but not objectively enough which I am inclined to call `half listening.`  not much better than not listening at all.  These factors should written out and put up on a poster in every practice room in the world!

Cheers,

Buri

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on May 13, 2010 at 06:14 AM

Add to what Buri said, Fischer also advised to watch the width of each string vibrates when draw the bow, and last but not least, don't just play the instrument in a hall, but to play the hall! Click here you'll see the video of his masterclass on tone production.

From Lex Carter
Posted on May 13, 2010 at 07:19 AM

 I feel also, that the quality of the violin is probably only a very small part of it. 

 

I used to shoot target pistol, rather well. Pistol isn't quite as scientific as rifle, and as good a device as the Ransom Rest is, there are individuals who could shoot one, offhand in the classic pose, better than a mechanical rest could "group" with the same gun. I was one of those individuals. So, people would do badly with their gun at the range, become convinced that maybe the problem was with the gun, and have me try it. I got to shoot some really good, as well as some really bad, guns. With the really bad ones I had to work harder on fundamentals to get 'em to "group" but "group" they would. It's analogous to a very good violinist picking up one of these $99-on-Ebay fiddles and showing that yes, you ^can^ play music on it. 

 

This is also why I am not so wound up in hoping to get a really good violin someday, a Scott Cao student model will be fine for me for years I'm sure. 

From Constance E Haggard
Posted on December 9, 2012 at 06:29 PM
Study with a good teacher, and keep practicing. Developing a good bow arm and feel for the instrument will take time.

When I was studying viola with Manny Vardi in New York, I attended a recital where he played a viola that some thought had a weak C-string. It didn't sound weak when he played it, let me tell you.

A good violinist/violist can make any instrument sound better. Keep playing.

From Seraphim Protos
Posted on December 10, 2012 at 12:43 AM
Month and a half is still the baby steps portion (I know, I'm pretty much there myself...)

I'm always shocked to hear how great my violin sounds when my instructor gives a few licks on my instrument. Definitely alot of technique involved in getting a nice clear tone. My sound has definitely improved over the past year, and especially the past couple of months with lessons. When my teacher assigns "vitamins" such as scales and arpeggios, I try and pay particular attention to such exercises

From Patrick Tinney
Posted on December 10, 2012 at 02:04 AM
I tried to view the video Yixi Zhang linked but the video is marked private and I am unable to view it.

Does anyone have any idea how one can get permission to see the video.

I love Mr. Fischer’s work (I have at least three of this books) and would love to see one of his master classes.

TIA
Pat T.

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on December 11, 2012 at 08:02 PM
Speaking of Simon Fischer, his DVD "The Secrets of Tone Production" is excellent. My tone improved noticeably after watching it, and I still like to go back to it once in a while.

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