Bowing With a Lot of Pluck

June 30, 2017, 8:49 AM · A violin string can be rubbed, twisted, yanked and scraped. Take a moment and imagine the sound that each of these would elicit. On the other hand, it would be a musical miracle if a child made the string vibrate fully in his first attempt. For that to happen, the thickness of the string would have to be perfectly integrated with the hair, and the usual hydraulic leverage that happens when the bow travels a couple of inches would be replaced by perfectly balanced, neutral bow weight. Leverage is best applied in moderation; tread lightly.

Music is full of conundrums. Bow arms are taught to move the bow in a straight line, but the most productive and organic violinists have the grace of a fly fisherman; their bows follow a predictable, yet elliptical path. Some even look wrong by pedagogical standards. (Remember though, not all pedagogues are created equal.) When you see a brilliant violinist with a crooked bow, ask yourself why. One of the answers is that, for a string to vibrate fully and warmly, the connection between the hair and the string shouldn’t be rigid. The other answer is that violinists who share a symbiosis with their instruments only half listen to pedagogues. Such musicians leave space in their brain for free associating, where true answers lie.

Pianists and Violinists

An aha moment (or if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, the eureka moment) never comes during a planned, scheduled event. Thanks to Carl Flesch, I “saw the light”, at the age of mid-career, about how the hair and string interact to create vibration. And in the true manner of a writer who is about to tell you a simple truth, he wrote, “The string is made to vibrate in the following manner.” No purple prose here, just a simple, short fanfare.

I will paraphrase Flesch’s explanation, to show how I interpreted what he said in a way that would meet my needs. (You can read his own words on page 81 of The Art of Violin Playing, Book One, Technique in General, at the beginning of the Tone Production section.) Rosin makes tiny particles protrude from the hair. Imagine tiny guitar picks. As the bow travels along the string, the picks pluck. Imagine thousands of these. No longer did the image of the hair scraping and rubbing take up space in my subconscious. My aha moment replaced such useless information with the idea that strings are meant to be plucked, even when they’re bowed. This is indeed an elegant explanation, because it completely upends what the eye sees: hair scraping against a string.

bow plucks

That talented players understand the hair-string relationship, without even an explanation, is one of the mysteries of music. That anyone can incorporate it into his playing after an explanation demonstrates the most important thing that music teaches us: change and improvement can happen, even when you thought otherwise.

For the first time, I felt the security that pianists must feel, that the sound wouldn’t scratch. As long as I kept a steady pressure, and didn’t go haphazardly in and out of the string, the sound would be clear and reliable. When the bow predominately moves horizontally, no matter how much vertical pressure is applied, the sound will be warm and musical. Common sense and reliability accompany this timbre.

The Physics of Wind Chimes…and Violinists

Musicians love to say that certain pieces play themselves. Sure. But really, wind chimes do play themselves. Not surprisingly, they operate like the hammers on the piano. Each strike is a perfect 90 degrees and delivered with perfect spontaneity. What can a violinist learn from this?

As I mentioned before, the bow doesn’t need to be straight all the time. However, the bow is most efficient and tonally pure if each individual action is at a 90-degree angle. By individual action, I mean the incremental lengths that make up each stroke. Broadus Erle recommended an exercise called parlando, which highlighted all the little short lengths of a bow stroke. As each part is engaged and played warmly, the player learns the importance of not taking any part for granted. The concentration necessary for a violinist is about 2-10 seconds longer than for a pianist. Each stroke lasts from beginning to end. A pianist can start arranging the music for the next piece on the program, and check his emails, while he and the violinist are still playing the last whole note of a sonata. If you add a fermata and a diminuendo, he can even look at his watch.

This 90-degree execution while the bow is slanted at 87 degrees is doable. The trick is to understand the importance of the part of the bow which is actually touching the string, what I call the “playing point.” This shouldn’t be confused with the “sounding point”, which is the part between the fingerboard and bridge on which the bow is touching. The playing point changes constantly, and the mind focuses on the pressure of a constantly moving bow. The brain either merely stays in the hand, or if it wants to be most effective, it resides in the playing point, where it actually needs to be.

A Little Knowledge

Books tell us how to play a straight bow. They may even talk about the slightly slanted stroke. You can even tell a person how to walk. But you can’t teach them. When I learned how to draw a straight bow, I had to spend years un-learning the tightness that comes with unbudging. The hair and the string are made for each other, but only when the recipe is delicious and leaves out any exotic ingredients. Physics is elegant in its simplicity. A down-bow and an up-bow do not inhabit the exact same area. As someone once said, two things cannot inhabit the same place at the same time.


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