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Laurie Niles interview with Simon Fischer: The Secrets of Tone Production

December 6, 2010 at 7:58 PM

You can do anything on the violin, if you just break it down, step-by-step.

This seems to be London-based violinist Simon Fischer's operating philosophy, and he's given us quite a lot of instruction about exactly how to break things down, with his well-loved pedagogy books Basics and Practice, and The Violin Lesson coming out in the spring. Simon is a professor at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Guildhall School of Music, and he writes a monthly column on violin technique which appears in The Strad magazine.


Now he gives us a more: the visuals to go with the theory. His new DVD, The Secrets of Tone Production includes detailed descriptions of specific exercises for improving tone, as well as footage demonstrating how to do them, working with students of various levels. Also, the introduction, called "Knowing Your Instrument," has some of the best explanations I've seen of how the violin works: the physics of sound, the way the tension works with strings, soundpoints for different strings, exactly the way the bow hair sets a string vibrating, even the difference between a high-frequency and a low-frequency scratch.

Here Simon answers some questions about his DVD, about his approach to tone, and about some of the common issues that violinists face on the road toward creating a beautiful tone.

Laurie Niles: You've written three books now on violin technique, what made you decide to do a DVD?

Simon Fischer: I’ve wanted to make this film for about fifteen years. The exercises are the purest, simplest and most immediate way to work on sound production, and they are simple to demonstrate. So they are perfect material for a teaching video. Everybody should know these simple exercises, and the question has been how to get them out there.

The film has basically arisen out of a workshop I have given many times over the last twenty years called ‘The Tone Production Class.’ It has usually taken about two and a half hours, and with just one violin student acting as the guinea pig. It starts off with them playing something for thirty seconds or so – anything, even just a slowish two-octave scale in first position. Then we go through all the principles and facets of tone, and I guide them through practicing four or five of the exercises.

To finish, the student plays the same two-octave scale, or whatever it was they played at the beginning. The difference in the tone is always quite extraordinary. In most cases, it is like witnessing five years’ worth of improvement in two straight hours. Everyone can tell the difference. It’s not just a question of the student perhaps being unsettled at the beginning of the session and more comfortable at the end after being in front of the audience for all that time. There is a certain extraordinary sort of culture that immediately enters the tone quality after just a short time of doing these exercises. They truly are magical, and the effects are noticeable so quickly and easily.

Every time I have ever given the class, I have thought how it should be filmed and made available for far more people to see than are ever at any of these events, even though sometimes there have been audiences of over a hundred at a time.

In fact, years ago I used to occasionally think about training up a group of teachers in these exercises and sending them out on tours of every school and music department in the UK, so that every single string player and teacher could get to use them. But of course the logistics of such a huge, nationwide operation were always enough to stop me in my tracks immediately. And what about all the other countries? Slightly more practical to put it all on a DVD and send that out instead!

Laurie: How is this DVD different from "Basics"?

Simon: Well, all of the exercises on the DVD are in Basics, but there are all kinds of other stuff in the Tone section of Basics as well. If anything, the content of the DVD follows the Tone Production chapter of my new book, The Violin Lesson (scheduled to be released in the spring). When it came to that book, the question was: what to offer that was not already covered in Basics and Practice? The answer quickly was clear: the content of the Tone Production Class.

So by the time it came to deciding to make the film, I was able to use the Tone Production chapter out of The Violin Lesson as the basis for a script. Of course, written text and the natural spoken word are necessarily different, so this was only a start, but it fulfilled the original idea of making the Tone Production Class into a film.

However, on film I could coach students on other instruments, so the DVD has ended up as a sort of super-deluxe version of the original class. That is also why it has ended up at over four hours.

Laurie: Do beginning violinists tend to have different tone problems from advanced players?

Simon: I love the story about the great cellist Pablo Casals. He had a not-very-advanced amateur student, and one day a friend of Casals asked him, ‘Pablo, you can teach anyone in the world, why do you teach this man?’ Casals answered, ‘Because from him I learn how to teach the advanced ones!’ In other words, the problems are all the same as you go up level-by-level, but they get smaller and smaller – until they are so slight they are even hard to spot. When we see it in a beginning student, we see an enlarged version that is easy to understand. When it comes to tone production, all we have are three variables: control of speed, pressure, and soundpoint. We are all in the same boat when it comes to the challenge of being able to control these three factors so that they remain even.

By the way, Casals is an interesting subject in this whole realm of tone exercises. He is often held up as the definitive musician who did not ever merely play his instrument, but always made music. It is true that when he played the cello, it was as if the instrument was in parentheses, and he was in a musical world beyond the instrument. He is the hero of those who decry technical practice, and who maintain that such work, divorced from music, is unmusical practice which will make you play unmusically in the end.

But the joke is that Casals himself practiced the Pressure exercise that is featured on this DVD (Exercise 3)! There is a whole chapter of Casals in the book, String Mastery: Talks with Master Violinists, Viola Players and Violoncellists by Frederick H. Martens (New York, 1923). In it, Casals says: “I believe in daily technical exercise. I practice scales, repeated notes, trills in different rhythms; and as to the bow I use special exercises for the point, frog and middle, as well as exercises in strength-inflection, to accustom the bow-hand to finely marked differences of strength and pressure.” Exercises in strength inflection? That’s the pressure exercise, which is known amongst cellists who studied with Casals as ‘the Casals exercise’. Of course Casals practiced bare technique!

Laurie: How can you tell the difference between tone problems that come from the player, and tone problems that come from the violin? At what point would you tell a student he or she needs a better violin, or would you?

Simon: I certainly do often suggest to students that they get a better violin. This does not always mean a more expensive one, but a different one. What is important is to have enough ‘room’ in which to make all the different colors you want, from light to dark and from light to heavy, and for the instrument to have enough responsiveness and enough sound. It is no good if there is too low a ceiling in any of these things and there is just no further you can go.

If an instrument is boxy, in the sense of weak bass and dull treble, or if it just doesn’t have enough sound or resonance, there comes a point where you just have to concede that the player is doing everything he or she can. One of the most unfortunate things is when someone is working ten times harder than they should need to, and if they had a more responsive instrument they could get the same result with half the effort and in half the practice time.

But responsiveness is not only or always a matter of price. There are plenty of expensive instruments that are harder to play than cheaper ones, or that seem to have less ring. One of my students has a not-terribly-expensive violin, and if you play a short third-finger D on the A string, exactly in tune with the open D, the note rings on afterwards for so long, it is quite astonishing. I am almost jealous. In fact, what is really astonishing is the extent to which expensive or cheaper violins can end up sounding exactly the same when heard from a distance. Often violins become ‘neurotic’ for one reason or another. Of course I am joking, but one definition of 'neurosis' is when one part of the organism is at war with another part of the same organism. In other words, there is an internal conflict going on. And when a violin – whatever the value – is properly set up, it responds to the lightest touch, it is resonant and free, it really rings and sings. But when the bridge or soundpost is not in the right place, or the tail gut is too long or short, or if the nut (the ridge at the end of the fingerboard at the scroll end) is too high or low, there is a feeling of ‘conflict’ in the sound. You can sense the violin fighting against itself. Fortunately, violins are easier to adjust than people are!

By the way, the length of the tail gut seems to be one of the great secrets of setting up a violin that even violin repairers sometimes do not take into account sufficiently – i.e. a fraction longer or shorter completely affects the responsiveness of the string to the bow, all other things being equal.

Laurie: Did you struggle with tone, as a student? When did you first realize the importance of this aspect of playing the violin? When did you first realize the importance of teaching this aspect of violin playing, and the best way to do so?

Simon: No, I didn’t struggle with tone at all. I thought that that area of my playing was all naturally fine, and that what I had to build was a reliable and virtuosic left hand. But I didn’t know what I was missing.

Some of these exercises are mine – in the sense that I am sure someone else must have done such things sometime somewhere, but I have not come across them. But the main ones, and the speed/pressure/soundpoint basis of them, were what I learned from Dorothy DeLay, with whom I studied, starting when I was 23. The assistant I worked with in my first year with Miss DeLay was Masau Kawasaki, now for many years on the faculty of Juilliard himself. He was extremely good at explaining and demonstrating these exercises, too. And his excellent tone on both the violin and viola was evidence of their good effect.

My initial reaction to the way my sound improved after the first couple of weeks in New York was one of feeling very cross, to put it mildly, that nobody had shown me these exercises before. I was very grateful to Yfrah Neaman, who I had just studied with for five years, for his musical influence and much else besides; but it was almost upsetting, when I thought about how hard I had worked, and imagined how things might have been, had I known this approach to sound production. 

A couple of days ago I received an email which said, ‘I have received "The Secrets of Tone Production" DVD and am very pleased with it. The exercises are so simple it makes me wonder why the various violin teachers I have had over the years never thought to mention them.’ Exactly. How many times have I heard that same comment over the years, either when I have taught these exercises to individuals or in classes. And it was my reaction as well!

To me the tone exercises are a perfect example of the ‘Acres of Diamonds’ story. There are many versions of it, but basically the point is that diamonds in their natural state do not look like the glittering, cut and polished jewels that you see in the jewelry shop. In life we so often do not see something of value because it does not look the way we expect it to look. String players have this unfortunate tendency to want to play music all the time and can easily miss the benefits that work like this can bring. I call these exercises ‘million-dollar tone exercises’ because they truly are worth a million dollars.

As to teaching them, since I first came back from America they have been my not-so-secret weapon that I have shown to, and used with, every student I have ever worked with. And I always return to them many times with the same students. There is no easier or quicker way to help them.

In the early days, when I was teaching at Wells Cathedral School in the 1980s, I sometimes used to teach the exercises all day long. I had eight students, and each got one hour. Each lesson was like embarking on an entirely new journey. For me it was simply endless fun, the way each student got more and more un-forced, glowing resonance out of their instrument. However, it is not necessarily quite as much fun for someone else who happens to be in the vicinity. At Wells, the room I taught in was directly above the secretary’s office. I remember that at least twice, probably in the summer when the windows were open, she came upstairs and begged me to do something else because the one note was driving her crazy.

I often give long lessons that are actually the complete Tone Production Class but given to one student. After 30 years, I could give one of these lessons in my sleep, but for some reason they remain forever new. However many times you experience them you look forward to the next one. Every time there is always something that comes up, some new way of expressing or doing something, that feels like a great discovery, and then you look forward to the next session, just so that you can do or say this new thing again.

The way I teach the exercises that Miss DeLay taught me (numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 on the DVD) has always remained the same, i.e. exactly as she taught them, and herself was taught by Galamian, and he by Capet. I haven’t changed a thing. In fact, sometimes I have said to students when we have been working on these exercises, ‘You want to know what it would be like if you were a student at the Juilliard School having a lesson from Miss DeLay? Like this!’

Actually, I have changed one thing. In recent years I stress far more – in fact, all the time – to imagine that the one note of the exercise is in a piece of music – in a solo piece, or a quartet, or whatever. Then the playing always becomes completely different, and infinitely more sensitive. You shouldn’t do these exercises in a detached, unmusical, intellectual, mechanical sort of way, but always expressively. One of the sections of the film is called ‘Playing musically’.

As to the note, in the film I stick to just one, for reasons of consistency and comparison as the film progresses. But of course in the end you need to do the exercises in each of the twelve areas of the fingerboard, i.e. low, middle and high positions on each string.

Laurie: Once a violinist or string player has mastered the correct way to practice these exercises, how often should he/she do them, and for how long? Every day, forever?

Simon: They are the best warm-up exercises, so looked at from that point of view they could be done many times each week, forever. It is worth occasionally spending a whole day’s practice on them. You feel the benefits for weeks afterwards.

Coming back to Casals, he once said ‘Intonation is a question of conscience’. In other words, if you have a strong conscience and a shop-keeper gives you one penny too much in change, you give it back because to ‘steal’ one penny feels the same as taking much more; and if your musical conscience is really strong, if you play a note only a fraction out of tune you cannot accept it.

Very good, but why did he say this only in relation to intonation? Surely quality of tone is also a matter of conscience, as is phrasing and expression and all the rest! So for how long should you practice these exercises? Who can say? How beautiful a voice do you want to have?

Again, the key is the attainment of evenness. There is no such thing as perfection, when it comes to performing a piece of music. There is always further to go. But when it comes to sustaining one note on a stringed instrument with a bow, or going heavy-light, heavy-light etc., there is such a thing as perfection. I’ve always liked to say that these exercises are like an endless well of the purest spring water: however much water you take out, there is always more to take, whenever you want.

Laurie: Once a person has practiced these exercises and is feeling more confident about their tone, do you have any pieces that you recommend to practice the application of tone production principles? (Big-tone pieces? Change-the-lane-on-theing pieces? Fill the hall even though you are playing piano? )

Simon: No, not at all. There are four categories of practice: exercises, scales, studies and pieces, so the tone exercises are basically in the first group. However, you can apply them to notes, phrases or even whole passages in the repertoire, and then they become an essential practice method throughout all of your practice. This area, applying the exercises to regular practice, is what the Tone Production section of the Practice book is all about.

Laurie: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Simon: My hope is that over time this DVD will help to make these exercises truly become an ordinary part of everyday string teaching. Ever since my student days in New York, it has been a strange thought to me, that there are literally millions of violinists and other string players all over the world who are all only a couple of hours away – i.e. 20 minutes each day for a week – from an entirely different experience and level of playing their instrument. It all consists of such simple steps.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on December 6, 2010 at 9:35 PM

Thanks!!!! This really gives me ideas...   Perhaps an auto Christmas present? ; )


Very very instructive interview!!!


From bill platt
Posted on December 7, 2010 at 4:02 AM

Oh No! the Secret is Out!

From Anthony Barletta
Posted on December 8, 2010 at 3:08 AM


If you don't gift yourself this DVD I'll buy it for you.  No one who posts here as much as you do should be without this DVD.  During my lesson last week (playing the Preludio from Bach's Partita #3) my teacher said I sounded like a completely different player, meant in a good way. 


From jean dubuisson
Posted on December 8, 2010 at 5:56 PM

 Would anyone care to describe the essence of these very simple exercises? I know, one video is worth a thousand words, but still if the exercises are so basic then perhaps a kind soul could at least give a sense of what they involve.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 8, 2010 at 11:01 PM

 He talks about them a little bit here:

From Karis Crawford
Posted on December 9, 2010 at 7:20 AM

I'd love to get a copy of that DVD.  Sounds great!

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on December 9, 2010 at 7:14 PM

You won't regret it.  And delivery is fast!  I ordered it through Simon Fischer's web site and it was on my doorstep in less than a week.  Not bad for a trip from the U.K. to the Canadian west coast.

Best of all, it works.  Not only did I immediately notice a difference in my tone, others have commented on it too.  I know I'll be able to return to it from time to time for further improvement.

From Trevor Kilbey
Posted on December 12, 2010 at 5:38 PM

Ths disc sound impressive, pity his web site is not running or the connection to Papal has been corrupted by You Know Who. Maybe I win a copy anyway.

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