A Violinist's Metaphor for the Bow's Journey: a Magic Carpet Ride

August 30, 2020, 10:02 PM · In order to visualize how the bow rides the string, I have found a helpful metaphor: My name for the optimum blend between the hair and the string, combined with the movable platform on which the bow seems self-propelled, is the "magic carpet."

Magic Carpet

Why? First, there is an element of "flying." Except for the hair, the bow is airborne. And the plushness of sound that the violin produces reminds me of the soft, fluffy fabric of a rug. The magic carpet rides on air currents, and that reminds me of the idea of the bow moving "by itself," with the arm going for the ride.

Smooth flying, plush sound, easy movement -- this is the ideal vehicle for the bow. When it bumps along, scrapes, and scratches, I have to find my way back to the magic carpet.

The Journey Begins With Good Rhythm and the Ripple Effect

  1. The beginning of the stroke sets everything that follows in motion. It opens up the string to a balanced vibration, whether it’s soft or loud. It immediately leads to the groove. I’m reminded of the beautiful ripple in the water caused by throwing a rock. The spacing and timing caused by the string’s vibrations unfold in a moment of complete concentration. The process is both poetic and organic.
  2. Shinichi Suzuki describes the start of the stroke as "the initial tone of the natural tone." He explains in his excellent book Tonalization (Alfred Music, 1994) that, to achieve a natural tone, you play pizzicato in order to hear the roundness and natural vibration of a plucked sound. He said, "Set the bow on the string, keeping in mind the purity of the initial tone and try to produce a similar tone with the bow."

    I describe it as the "engagement." It’s a gentle touch or kiss, a momentary start which neither pulls nor pushes. It works best if the weight of the bow is neutral, that is, evenly balanced on both sides of the playing point.

    Here’s an exercise to develop the engagement and the ensuing bow stroke:

    • Let the hair rest lightly on the string in the middle of the bow. Until you’re ready to move the bow, be perfectly still (as if the bow is hovering), then count 1-2, and on 3, move the bow. Taking a breath before you start improves your sense of timing. The moment of contact should feel like a "long" moment, one that takes into consideration the thickness of the string and the dynamic. This moment, above all, takes great patience to let the thickness of the string be fully engaged.
    • Move the bow after the engagement about one inch, enough space to insure a perfectly rounded detaché stroke. Play downbow, wait one beat, then play upbow. The engagement and the detaché are blended and seamless, yet each takes its own concentration.
    • Try the same part of the bow, but this time with different dynamics, bow pressure, and bow speed. The same pure vibrations that started with the engagement should continue through the end of the stroke. Play with even weight. Leverage has to be managed so that it doesn’t cause scratching. Strive for neutral leverage, so that, even when you dig into the string for expression or volume, the weight is always balanced.

  3. The magic carpet implies swift and light movement, with no resistance encountered in either direction.

    To achieve the sensation of a gliding bow that produces full vibration of the string, it helps to note what Carl Flesch said in The Art of Violin Playing, Book One, Technique in General: "The string is made to vibrate in the following manner: the bow-hairs are provide with tiny hooklets which, originally smooth, are rendered sharp and uneven by means of rosin-dust. When carried over the strings in this condition, they in a manner of speech 'tear' at the strings and set them vibrating."

    Flesch’s words were like a magic potion for me 20 years ago. I needed to translate them for my personal use, but it still unlocked my distorted view of how the hairs and strings interacted. My old view included friction, pressure, and unexplained physics that didn’t make sense.

    With a little bit of personal interpretation of what Flesch had said, I found what I needed. It was one of the great "aha" moments in my life.

    • The bow moves horizontally, no matter how much vertical pressure is applied.
    • The rosin makes tiny particles that stick out from the hair, resembling guitar picks.
    • The guitar picks do their job, plucking the string hundreds of times. If I kept the bow moving smoothly, without forced leverage, the string would vibrate as a gong or as a piano string does.
    • Flesch’s use of the word "tear" doesn’t’ convey to me the extreme efficiency of how the hair keeps the string vibrating. I prefer plucking, which is reminiscent of Suzuki’s explanation of the string’s engagement.

The pursuit of fully vibrating sounds is one of the most rewarding by-products of studying a string instrument. When it works, it brings me great joy to create colors and dynamics without diminishing the purity of the sound. There is the feeling of a recipe forging lush sound out of flat hair and thin strings – with no interference. It is an experience many basketball players know when they score a basket - nothing but net!


September 2, 2020 at 05:54 PM · Another fine article from Paul S. Your combined essays could be a book; you probably have thought of that.

I will have to disagree with Flesch; without the benefit of more recent technology and research, I think he got it backwards. The hair does not have "hooks", but rather scales that look like shingles. Those pockets hold the rosin dust. The bow hair is a carrier for the rosin which does the real work. If it were not so we would expect to get sound from new bow-hair without any rosin. The rosin has a very low melting point, less than 100 o C. High pressure on a solid will change (lower?) its' melting point, which can be demonstrated by pushing your fingernail on to an ice cube. The blade edge of an ice skate rides on a thin line of water produced by the weight of the skater. What I read somewhere, sorry I can't quote a reference, is that the bow force melts the rosin, then immediately solidifies as "glue" connecting the string to the bow hair. The string then snaps back, that kink or groove in the string travels between the bridge and the nut.

Recently I have been doing this warm-up exercise for bow control and tone quality; with a slow scale, start at the tip with an up-bow. Take the fourth, third, and first fingers (!) off of the stick, so that you are holding it only with the string, thumb and second finger. This prevents adding any weight to the bow and the only way to control the point of contact and bow angle is with the lateral position of the right elbow. Up-bow to the middle, where it will start to be unstable, then down-bow. After that, add the other fingers, but without adding any weight. This gives the player a good quality, "spun-tone" well-centered mp tone with bow-speed alone. Sometimes I am tempted to think that the violin will play itself if we get our body out of the way. jq

September 2, 2020 at 06:18 PM · Joel, thanks for your very informed thinking. I like the idea of getting the body out of the way. I would just add that, what matters most, is getting the right parts to work, and in the right sequence. (The unnecessary parts just need to be happy not doing anything.)I think the least important part of the bow arm are the fingers. Like if you were teaching someone to walk, you wouldn’t dwell on what to do with the the toes. This relates to your exercise. I appreciate your example.

September 5, 2020 at 04:06 PM · continued,-- These subjective mental-imaging techniques should not be rejected because they might be illogical or mechanically irrelevant. What matters is if they work or not, which can be different for each person. The musicians that do a lot of weird imaging are the singers. Because the key elements of the vocal apparatus, diaphragm,vocal chord frequency, soft palette, etc. are outside of direct conscious control, they do odd mental tricks, like "placing" a note at different spots in the head. And they don't hear themselves as the audience hears them until they listen to a recording, and then they don't recognize and dislike their own voice.

September 5, 2020 at 05:28 PM · Images often work for the individual who creates them for himself, but may be lost on someone who needs to discover their own image. To discover one for yourself, it comes after hearing or observing something deficient.

For instance, the magic carpet image evolved from the excessive weight I was placing straight down on the stick. Images only work, though, if they’re accompanied by getting rid of an old habit. That’s where the hard work begins. Old habits are calcified reflexes. They can be gotten rid off, and they must be gotten rid off, but they’re not going anywhere without a fight.

String players are like singers in that the ear is not always attuned to the immediate result. We also deal in games, images, tricks, gimmicks,etc. like singers because it would get too boring to just say louder, softer, faster, slower.

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