How do you feel about your sound? Not your pitch or your projection or your vibrato. Your SOUND.
If we all agree that the violin is the closest instrument to the human voice, then it doesn’t seem a far leap to suggest that your sound should be your very highest priority.
So often, we are distracted by pitch, bow technique, left hand pyrotechnics, and everything that makes the violin sound virtuosic. There are so many tremendous things that the violin can do, it is easy to be seduced away from what the ear and the heart truly want: beautiful sound. Neglected, it can detract from your performances, interpretations, and the compositions themselves. Without a fully developed tone, your connection with the audience is hindered. Like a bad radio signal, the message you are trying to deliver is marred, distorted.
The tone you produce as a violinist is like your signature. If you hone your craft enough, it can be recognizable anywhere on any piece. It can tell a story, project an emotion, take our breath away, and even develop a following! Love them or leave them, the most revered players in the world have a sound which is iconic and totally their own.
Beginning methods of violin place great importance on the sound and beauty of tone. This is clearly the highest priority and rightly so. So much of basic technique centers around the ability to create beautiful, clear sound. But then, virtuosic technique starts to take off and fancier literature catches our ears. If a student isn’t careful, their journey to their signature sound gets off track. Getting a young student to practice a lyrical piece and focus on drawing a beautiful spiraled tone is a hard sell when they have Sarasate showpieces to explore!
But here’s the thing. There comes a point in a young violinist’s life where I believe it is imperative that they take the time to explore their voice on the violin. They need to take the time away from the virtuosic literature and fall completely head over heels in love with their own sound. It is what makes them unique and is the conduit for everything they are trying to communicate. All of the bells and whistles of violin aside, think of how you feel when you shut out the busy parts of the life and quiet the voices in your head. Gorgeous sound isn’t about being impressive or flashy or loud. It is about being understood, centered, and clear. After all, we were human before we were violinists. Is there anything more satisfying than playing a perfectly written lyrical piece and having the audience quietly hanging on your every bow stroke? We need that connection in our lives and so does the audience.
I remember playing single phrases for hours in a room in my tiny house growing up. I would bend sound this way and that way, adjusting pressure, speed, and sounding point in small increments. We were way past playing in tune or clean in my studies – I wanted to express something more personal, subtle. It was at this point in my training that I grew the most. I looked forward to my practice. It became my personal haven with no end point. I was in love.
So on Valentines Day, it seems fitting to share this blog with my fellow violinists and students. Take some time today to explore your unique voice. It’s our musical superpower as violinists and everything else can wait. Go ahead – fall in love!Tweet
This article is wonderful. You can work with your sound no matter on what level you are, amateur, professional or whatever. When you can play a piece with a gorgeous sound then you can certainly play the violin.
I can remember, as a child, changing to a better violin. It rewarded me much more for my efforts, allowing me to discover ringing tones and to gain a new understanding of why vibrato made a note sound better.
Last week I was trying to get a beginner (pre-Twinkle!) to listen to tone, but had to start with the bow stroke. I asked her to pretend she was petting a cat very gently, and this resulted in a much better tone, right away. Pretty soon we had a new language, "Pet-the-cat sound"!
Excellent blog! I'm struggling with this one. I tried changing my strings on my student violin. It's not a severely inexpensive instrument. I merely wanted to see what a set of Larsen strings would do. I can't decide if the problem is strings or more likely my bowing technique. How can you develop YOUR sound while working your way through the basics? I appreciate the blog. I suppose working on your own sound comes after mastering the basics.
Don Sullivan, I think working on your own sound IS one of the basics that you master. I work on sound/tone from the beginning with my students. They can start as soon as they start using the bow on open strings. Simple exercises are slow whole bowstrokes on long notes (whole notes if you want to count, but it's not necessary, since what you're doing for now is listening to the sound - later you may want to incorporate counting and having a tempo, just to see if you can increase the length of your beautiful long tones). You can experiment with these beautiful tone notes by varying the dynamics. Start out by just trying to get a beautiful tone. When you can do that, try it only louder (throughout the entire stroke); then try it softer. Do many of them - just always going for the tone - the beautiful sound. No rush - just really getting into it, drawing the tone out of the violin - learning what the best possible tone you can get from your instrument sounds like and how to get it-losing (and finding) yourself in the sound. It will be a balance between bow speed and pressure, but to me, it is more a feeling than a scientific analysis. You can also change the dynamics within one long bowstroke - either starting loud and diminuendoing to soft or vice versa -- or doing a hairpin going from p->f->p in one stroke. When you've mastered that, extend the dynamic range from pp to ff, etc. etc. etc. Something else that really helps tone and helps develop the feel for the string that you must have to get a good tone is playing double stops. You can do all of the above tone exercises as double stops on two open strings. First it may be a struggle just to be consistently sounding both strings simultaneously, but when you can do that, then you work on making them both sound with an equal dynamic (i.e. both mf or both pp). In addition to the dynamic exercises you did on a single string described above, after you are sure that you can sound both strings consistently with a smooth sound, you can try making the upper string louder than the lower, but still not having the sound of either drop out. Then the opposite - having the lower string sound louder than the upper. Those are a few ways in which you can develop your sound "while working your way through the basics" - even if only on open strings (although you CAN do it on fingered notes, too, and slow scales, and with slurs, learning how to produce the tone you want anywhere on any string in any position, and while connecting the pitches when slurring). As you do this, you are always listening - always training your ear to demand a more beautiful sound from your body. Then you apply that same sort of ear training to the tone as you are working on other things - incorporating what you are learning about producing your sound into everything you play.
Amy, isn't vibrato pretty intimately tied into your sound, though? Sometimes it can be hard to know if something doesn't sound right because of the left or right hand. How do you go about tackling that?
I love Laurie's pet the cat instruction! it accomplishes so much to ask them to do that - I mean, we don't pet a cat absentmindedly. We do it with a certain touch and intention and for a result.
I have used fabric swatches across a cheek and paint swatches with kids with great success too. They love exploring. For some students, creating sound is so entirely tactile that these analogies paired with the specifics can be life changing I think....
Hi Christian. I just wrote a response and it disappeared on me! I am going to try again!
We work a lot with students on separating the hands. I have developed exercises for them to gain independent hands and in some ways you can use their influence on one another to work for you eventually. They can work together organically at times but sometimes in intermediate and advanced literature, one hand follows the other and it can lead to poor sound and unbalanced technique.
When I am focusing on the sheer beauty of sound I sometimes strip it down to senza vibrato. I focus on the supple nature of my right hand fingers (especially the rind finger) and the roundness of my pinky and thumb working together to create cushioning. I then choose a sounding point to place the bow correctly between the fingerboard and bridge based on position and string being played. From there I decide on pressure and speed of bow. All of these factors combined add up to a personalized beautiful sound before vibrato is even there. I might add vibrato then but it depends on the piece. Frequently with my students as they add vibrato, it either waters down the sound or it tenses it up. This is all a response from one hand to the other. The trick is to be aware of the hands separately and how to combine them for desired effect.
To me, the vibrato is more like frosting on the cake. And we all like frosting here....but you get my point. :)
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February 14, 2017 at 08:16 PM · Beautiful post.