Getting a beautiful tone is one of the great goals of playing the violin, but unfortunately it can be an elusive. One culprit is the slippage that can happen between bow hairs and the violin strings with which they are trying to connect. When that connection results in a beautiful ringing tone, it brings comfort and confidence to the violinist. However, when a student experiences the connection unraveling, he or she may lose interest in playing if the sound just isn’t there.
Encouraging him or her to let the open strings ring from start to finish is a good place to begin, but making that happen may require extra attention to certain elements. The two main elements of stabilizing the connection are absorption and direction. With a few well-focused instructions, a student can discover the amazing world of the solid bow connection.
The Emergency Kit for a Strong Hair-String Connection
To sustain a sound, three components are necessary to keep it breathing, sustaining, and alive:
1. Direction: Start with a clear, uncluttered path as the bow moves in different directions. Even more important than bowing parallel to the bridge is keeping the bow on the course it started out on. Some of the finest violinists even exhibit a zig-zag motion, especially if they have short arms. Plot the course in advance: Being aware in advance of slight detours creates seamless sounds. In the moment when a 90-degree angle becomes 85, the violinist should be ready for it. The bow is designed for quick changes of direction; the mind just needs to be one step ahead of it.
2. Absorption: The warm sound of a violin is accompanied by a certain fluffiness that you feel in the articulation, much as the way that the felt on the piano hammer contributes to a mellow, finessed timbre. To achieve a caressive sound and deep absorption, the initial contact with the hair should produce an instantaneous full-bodied vibration. This technique, a very specific part of the bow arm, is simply called the engagement. Since the string essentially stops every time the bow changes direction, there should be a subtle awareness that you’re re-engaging the string numerous times within each phrase.
3. Combining Direction and Absorption: start the engagement, and essentially move the bow horizontally. (Inadvertent vertical manipulations cause scratching and annoying interruptions). This marriage of absorption and direction opens up a channel in which the sound of the vibrating string flows and gushes from one end to another. The rosin creates a field of tiny guitar picks protruding from the hair, and the energy of hundreds of those little things plucking away can't be denied. There is a similarity between bowed strings on the violin and struck strings on the piano. The guitar picks follow the model used by the piano. The sound of scraped strings leaves a lot to be desired. The mechanics of plucking the strings hundreds of times produces organic, ringing, and sustained tones.
Jugglers and Violinists
I’ve seen Circus Vargas twice and loved their jugglers. Watching them smile while performing made it even more enjoyable. The shapes they conjured with the objects circling in front of them was a perfect illustration of massive movement within a confined space. Sound familiar? It’s similar to how the string, while vibrating in all the right directions, produces the most beautiful sound.
In fact, a violinist’s technique comes closer to that of a juggler than that of a pianist. Everything a pianist deals with is static and fortified by lots of hardware. In contrast, just holding the bow with a steady hand needs an imaginative technique. A violinist who balances the bow from the tip to the frog, or a juggler who varies the heights of his objects requires a very steady sense of gravity. Balls and bows have zero stability factors and depend on a well-thought-out aeronautic design, all in the mind of the performer.
The Evolution of Your Bow Arm Technique
The first time you held the bow it probably felt like nothing seemed right. Yet certain inner forces were at play, and your ear may have started working in tandem with your arm to make the job just a little easier. Then your teacher added a few words to the explanations, and you had enough material to do several bow exercises. Muscle memory was awakened, supplementing the ear and the verbal information. Such is the birth of the bow arm. What follows this beginning is the work of the imagination and the need to fill in whatever is missing.
The raw ingredients may vary from player to player; one will have a higher wrist or lower elbow than another. What doesn’t vary is the need for cohesion between the hairs of the bow and the strings of the violin, and the desire for as much stability as is needed.
Now come the details that each player applies one at a time. It might be extra pressure during a shift to keep the bow from bouncing. Or making the detaché long enough to give the right sound and substance instead of hearing only the beginning of each stroke. Or finessing the stroke to add beauty to the string’s vibration, like brushing your own hair with a caressing touch.
Your bow arm is born in an environment in which you have no control, but is developed with personal and momentary insights. It will never stay the same because your self-awareness changes and you’ll be too busy applying your new knowledge. The best bow arm is the one that can accept and integrate the changes.
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"the string essentially stops every time the bow changes direction",-Yes, and the sound must also stop for an infinitesimal moment. Advanced players try to finesse the change with contrary finger motions, but there is no way to violate the laws of physics and math.
Many players unconsciously try to dodge that little white noise that happens at the change of direction by naturally releasing the leverage, pressure, weight, whatever it is called, but instead they get an unintentional diminuendo, the bow hair looses traction, especially at the tip, changing from down- to up-bow. Instead, plow through the change. That little bit of noise will sound like a clean attack to the audience in a hall with any reverb. It is like the "chif" sound on a real pipe organ. Another trick is to start the vibrato before the note and follow through with the vibrato after a note ends.
Joel, I like you”plow through” image. I think sometimes “barrel through”. It’s interesting that it takes a very straight-forward concept to eliminate an old habit such as hesitating and over-thinking during a bow change. Also, keeping a strong rhythm inside your head and body helps keep the bow strong during a change of string or direction. Knowing when to do something is as important as knowing how to do something.
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November 19, 2021 at 03:18 PM · Paul, thanks for another great article. The notion of "inadvertent vertical manipulations" was key for me. I'm going to focus on the horizontal! Semi-unrelated, I just sang a G&S piece and during the performance, I noticed my tenor was juggling backstage prior to his entrances. (And he was very good!) When I asked him why, he said juggling keeps his mind and body loosened up. (If I were at all coordinated, I might give it a try.) Couldn't help mentioning this when I saw your reference to the circus jugglers.