Over the years I have dissected what I do with the bow to achieve the best sound - without scratching. I remember the wording in the primer that our school district used – "Play with a full, uninterrupted sound. Use a light touch." That had limited value for me. I wish it would have just said "Don’t scratch." I’ve always gotten better results when I eliminate the parts of my playing that stick out. Give me all the negatives to look out for, and I stand a better chance of improving.
Here, though, are is a list of positives, to help achieve a full-sounding detaché bow stroke:
Detaché and the Three-Item Checklist
1. Strike the string with conviction: A Fresh Start with Every Bow Stroke
The most useful detail is knowing how to strike the string with the hair and be guaranteed a good sound without a scratch. I love the efficiency of the hairs striking the strings, and when it’s done well, it’s amazing in its simplicity. The unleashing of sound without scratch is a result of giving the string room to breathe and vibrate.
When a diver displaces water on entry, the body of water and the body of the diver accommodate and displace each other. That’s what’s supposed to happen, and the resulting splash of the water is equivalent to the sound waves emanating from the violin. The only problem is that the mistakes I made were so common and rampant, that the ease with which I made them rivaled the ease of doing it right in the first place. I had fast reflexes, but they were the wrong ones. As I waged a war on each one, miraculously I discovered some good reflexes, encased inside the bad ones.
The most important thing, I discovered, is to start without any trepidation. Trepidation is not a word you ever see in a violin primer. If it were there, it would say to avoid trepidation at all costs. Honestly though, I had plenty of fear and agitation about the many things that could go wrong, so when I played in an orchestra for the first time, I didn’t come in wrong with a huge scratch. I did the exact opposite and waited until my stand partner came in. I was very good at that kind of trepidating.
Here’s where my trepidation would cut by half the result I wanted. Just as a pianist creates a different character with a tiny variation in pressure, so a violinist changes the narrative with a slight change in energy. It all happens in less than a split-second, so there’s literally no time to dawdle. Any hesitation causes:
Nothing beats the efficiency of a well-struck string. Broadus Erle of the Yale Quartet demonstrated in a master class the sound of an open string growing in volume, pure and focused from pp to fff. Why? To show how easy it is, with the energy coming from minute changes of impetus. What he didn’t demonstrate was his knowledge of how all the compartments work, such as the string’s engagement and the organic path of the bow. Those elements are more likely to be discovered by the individual because it’s difficult to find the right words to describe them, and the words may vary from individual to individual.
2. Engage the String
The piano is the violinist’s inspiration for what a clear inception of a struck string sounds like. Scratchy, muddy, scraped, and twangy are four adjectives you want to avoid when you strike the strings of the violin. The inception point, whether it’s a down or up bow, takes full concentration to make sure it’s not rushed or taken for granted. This is an example in which patience is a technique.
One bit of advice has never rung true for me, the idea of "getting into the string." Since the string is what needs to vibrate fully and unencumbered, I prefer to think of the hair absorbing the string. While the physics of how flat hair can do that to a string is not clear to me, the concept has helped me let the string breathe while it’s rollicking around in all that hair. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a common-sense idea is worth its weight in gold. Imagine a string vibrating fully inside a swath of hair. I can buy the concept of a string absorbed by the hair.
3. Follow the Movement of the Bow: "Bowing in Its Own Wake"
The perfectly straight bow may or may not cause the string to vibrate in a uniform, healthy way. If you’re bowing in such a way that the string is getting a mixed message, twisting the vibrations into some sort of quagmire, do something different. The best country fiddler with a slanted bow path can get the sweetest, most soulful sound because each stroke finds an organic path. While a boat marks its trail in the ocean, it makes me wish that a bow could do the same. Every wake is different, and every bow movement is individually conceived. There are exercises to learn a straight bow, but to discover a path that feels right for the moment, listen to your body.
You might also like:
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.