Pedagogy Class with Brian Lewis: Information Through Sound

June 5, 2015, 4:55 PM · Listen to the sound you are making on the violin.

That sounds simple enough, but sometimes students are so busy thinking about all the difficult logistics of playing that they make decisions that are not informed by their actual sound. "One of the most important things is to listen to the sound of the violin," said Brian Lewis in a pedagogy class called, "Tone Production: Information Through Sound" at the 2015 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at Juilliard. Lewis, whose mentors included both Shinichi Suzuki and Dorothy DeLay, is Professor of Violin at the University of Texas, Austin, and Artistic Director and faculty member of the Brian Lewis Young Artist Program in Ottawa, Kansas. He is also Artistic Director of the Symposium.

Lewis talked about tone production and sound awareness from many different angles: from starting with a relaxed body, to honing technique, to listening and knowing the sound you want.

Approach sound from a point of relaxation

First, it's important to keep the body fit and relaxed for playing the violin, an activity which involves a great deal of athletic skill.

Lewis showed us a series of stretches that he had gathered from many different sources: Brain Gym, Paul Rolland, a book on injury prevention, Alexander Technique, physical therapy and more. He took the ones that seem to work best for injury prevention, toning and relaxation for violinists, and he came up with this routine that he does every morning, on his porch, before practicing. (Lewis had shared his warm-up routine at a master class at the Menuhin Competition last year, but I captured only part of it on video. This time, we have the whole thing!) If you want to actually do the exercises, just clear yourself a little space and stand in front of the computer!:

Keeping the body fit and relaxed also means not over-doing it. The great 19th c. violin pedagogue, Leopold Auer was once asked how much an advanced student should practice, and Auer said that "the right kind of practice is not a matter of hours. Practice should represent the utmost concentration of brain. It is better to play with concentration for two hours than to practice eight without. I should say that four hours would be a good maximum practice time — I never ask more of my pupils — and that during each minute of the time the brain be as active as the fingers.

(By the way, that Auer quote comes from a wonderful book that Lewis recommended, Violin Mastery (1919): Talks with Master Violinists and Teachers, by Frederick H. Martins, featuring interviews with Ysaÿe, Kreisler, Elman, Auer, Thibaud, Heifetz, Hartmann, Maud Powell and more. (Click on that link, the book is available in its entirety, on the Internet. What a treasure!)

Technical aspects of tone production

Lewis also spoke about the technical aspects of tone production, which are outlined efficiently in Ivan Galamian's seminal book, Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching. Galamian reduced violin tone production to three elements: speed, pressure and sounding point.

Dorothy DeLay, once Galamian's assistant, "took this information and made it simple," Lewis said. "The more simple the concept, the easier it is for our students to understand. She would always start with a simple concept before getting more complicated."

DeLay said that all bow strokes fall into three basic categories: long, stopped and bouncy.

She also sometimes labeled the sounding points -- where the bow contacts the string -- in terms of dynamics. The closer the bow is to the bridge, the bigger the sound. So starting close the the bridge and moving out toward the fingerboard, the "lanes" in which the bow moves across the string would be labeled: ff, f, mf, mp and p.

Posture affects the sounding point -- it allows you to keep the contact point the same, and that means that "there's a real reason to keep your violin up."

Lewis admitted that he did not like to play scales when he was a young student, then a Galamian-trained teacher put him on a cycle of scales, which he still does today.

Here is a demonstration of a G major Galamian acceleration scales, which we did as a class:

Something one learns through doing scales is the importance of being able to divide the bow easily; "having even bow divisions, or irregular ones, affects the sound." Teachers of very young students often put tapes on their bow sticks to mark the middle, one-quarter and three-quarter divisions of the bow hair. But more advanced students also can benefit, so Lewis has older students mark their own bows with chalk, so they can see the bow divisions but then wipe off the chalk, so as not to be embarrassed at school or youth orchestra practice. Lewis said that once after marking his own bow when teaching a class, he forgot to wipe of the chalk and found himself onstage, playing the Tchaikovsky Concerto, with a marked bow!

Another measure for scales is that of time: the metronome. "All your students have cell phones, so have them get a metronome app," he said.

Lewis gave several exercises for relaxation and flexibility in the bow hand:

He also suggested trying the following exercises, using scales where applicable:

Brian Lewis
Brian Lewis.

To practice speed, try doing karate chops -- a fast motion with the right arm. Also try scales like this (from an older video):

Focused listening: Listen to favorite violinists

Part of getting information through sounds involves listening: finding a favorite violinist whose sound motivates you. Who is your favorite violinist? Lewis said he was always motivated by Gidon Kremer. Listen to a variety of violinists.

And when listening students should take the opportunity to explore the full score of whatever they are playing.

"Get a good score," Lewis said. "Dover scores are exceptionally cheap." He said he has students begin score study once they start playing the Mozart Concertos.

Here are Lewis's five ways violin students can begin to familiarize themselves with a score. Listen through for each part:

"These are all treble clef," Lewis said. "If your kids study those five parts, they'll know a lot."


In sum: pay attention to sound, and teach it from many different angles.

"It's not rocket science; teach your students the principles of sound, and their sound improves instantly," Lewis said. "You can see that moment in your students, when they fall in love with their sound."

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