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Corwin Slack

Tone II

March 7, 2007 at 6:02 PM

I wrote earlier on Tone.

When I was 16 my teacher got frustrated with me and insisted that I started playing with a tone. He wanted a big sound. Something happened and within one lesson my sound changed dramatically. I subsequently remember playing the old chestnut Adoration by Felix Borowski and getting many compliments on my sound.

I incorporated it into all my playing. I thought I had a good sound and continued to feel some reinforcement for that over the years.

There was some nagging doubt. I remember trying to play some lyrical music like the Faure Berceuse or the Kreisler-Gluck Melodie and feeling like it took every ounce of strength I had to make a beautiful sound. I was exhausted after playing these.

But it didn’t really click with me what the problem was. I resumed study about eight years ago and Teacher very early on announced that I didn’t have a tone.

I was taken aback. I had always been complimented on my sound. It wasn’t anything scratchy or wispy. I had been the violin soloist in Bach’s Wachet Auf for a pre-midnight mass concert in a huge church with over a thousand worshippers in attendance. My wife said that it carried beautifully. What did Teacher mean when he said I had no tone?

He told me not to be alarmed. Hardly anyone else had a tone either. Small comfort.

We started out with the 5 minute bow. I placed the bow on the string with absolutely no pressure and pulled it as slowly and lightly on the string as I could. There was only a raspy pinging sound. Teacher wanted me to get the feel of the hair contact on the string. He also wanted me to hear the slip and stick affect of the string. It was clear that each slip-stick cycle resulted in a ping that could be heard at a definite pitch. I could hear it resonate in the violin. In time we drew the bow faster but with the same pressure (none) over the string until a real tone started to happen.

Then voila` -- tone. Overnight there was a substance in my sound that I had never heard before. It reminds me (now) of the old recordings of the strings in backup bands for forties era singers. It is kind of like Kreisler’s sound (although heaven forbid that anyone think that I sound like him).

Suddenly Melodie and Berceuse were fairly easy to play. I am continually making refinements. Originally I played with a very slow bow. This sound was pleasing but somewhat dense. I have gradually learned to speed up the bow for a more focused and penetrating sound. Other improvements came as I studied double stops particularly passages in thirds. I had to learn to relax the right arm so that the tone would ring out. This has had big side benefits for all cantabile playing. My intonation also improved a lot when I started playing this way. There is nothing like better intonation to help one develop a left hand technique.

The downside is that I enjoy modern playing less and less. There is just too much pressure in the sound. To use a phrase of Teacher, the sound (at its best) seems squeezed or extruded. Another major irritation is the toneless unfocused orchestral pianississiimo. Conductors seem to like this gimmick but it drives me crazy. It makes me want to cough loudly.

Not to get too excited. I am still an amateur player, just a better one than I had been.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 7, 2007 at 7:17 PM
Interesting observations here - thanks for sharing.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 7, 2007 at 9:27 PM
There's a member here named Christian who conveys what to do with the bow pretty well too, similar to what you're doing. I don't know if it's gone with new soloists though, because I haven't heard any new soloists live. I might hear Lara St. John later in the month, but I don't know if she counts and new or old or in between:) I know good young orchestra players and students who give the impression you describe, though.
From William Yap
Posted on March 7, 2007 at 10:03 PM
My teacher taught me exactly the same thing 2 lessons ago! Wasn't it wonderful to discover that you don't need to put heaps of pressure on the bow to get the violin to ring, but play with no pressure and the violin will do its job for you?
From Natasha Marsalli
Posted on March 8, 2007 at 1:20 PM
Tone is so to play without crunch and without air in the sound...thank you for sharing your insight.
From kimberlee dray
Posted on March 8, 2007 at 3:30 PM
AMEN!!! Modern violinists . . . cough cough . . .

Myself and another teacher in town set our students up this way. Using only my thumb on the bow grip (takes some good balance), I play one long A with my bow (frog to tip) and if I'm doing really well, I can get a bow change in there. I play with ringing, consistent, easy sound. The concept? The bow is heavy already--use gravity. The body must be in concert with gravity.

I'm in full agreement with everything you've learned. Fantastic discoveries.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 8, 2007 at 5:17 PM

I don't do it with the thumb alone but I'll hold the bow just by the screw to demonstrate that you can get a tone without pressure.

I think that the modern bow grip so frequently identified with Galamian induces students to press on the stick with the index finger.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 8, 2007 at 5:52 PM
I'd bet your teacher is very good and that you're really fortunate to have him. I only rarely hear a description that really comes near to describing what a really fine violin tone sounds like, and here that is coupled into a teaching method. Great!

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