How to improve tone

August 10, 2007 at 11:11 PM · I've been working on the d-minor partita, and recording myself to note my progress. I've already managed to improve the projection and tone of my detache, especially in string crossings. I noticed that my bow was coming off the string far more than was desirable. My problem now is really improving the tone I produce. Right now, I seem to be producing something of a "squeezed" sound. The instrument just doesn't seem to sing. It's loud, mostly consistent, and in tune, but there is a sweetness of tone missing. It is partially related to sounding point. Advice on improving awareness and control of this aspect, and for improving tone in general?

Replies (29)

August 10, 2007 at 07:18 PM · i know I said I improved my tone, but it was previously horrid and is now only tolerable...I'd like to improve it further

August 11, 2007 at 12:45 AM · Adam, Read the thread on the Auer Method Books (if you haven't already). Level 1 & 2 are very good books to spend time on as a future investment to improve the quality of your sound, tone, etc. I really promise you that if you can have the patience to go through this, it will tremendously help you. I'm a really big proponent of this method and I want to help many people discover and appreciate this wonderful book.

August 11, 2007 at 12:54 AM · Adam,

You are already off to a good start because:

1. You desire a beautiful tone. (The greater the passion for it, the more persistently the violinist will pursue it.)

2. You have identified "squeezing" as something to remove in the advancement of tonal beauty.

3. You have identified string changes as a specific technique which when done in a different way will make an improvement in the tone quality.

Here are some tips:

1. Sometimes string players unintentionally train themselves to use bow pressure as a way of bringing the bow hair to the next string. This causes a choking of the string vibration. Play repeatedly, any 2 consecutive notes, of the d minor Allemanda, which are on 2 different strings. Analyze what you are doing as you repeat the 2 notes many times. Make sure that the bringing of the bow hair from one string to the next is entirely done with the arcing of the bow (and a very subtle counter-arcing of the violin is a nice refinement), but without any bending the first string with bow pressure. Another way of looking at this is what Miss DeLay would call a "sequence of events". The events to be done in the correct sequence are string change and bow change. The sequence is string change first, bow change next. If you play downbow on D string followed by up bow on A string, wait to feel for the bow hair resting on the A string before you change from down to up. If the bow change occurs before the string change is completed, the player instinctively presses so he'll hear the new string....unfortunately, what he will hear is the new string being choked!

2. Listen to hours of recordings and live performances of violinists who produce gorgeous tone. Listen to great singers. The more you hear of the highest quality, the better for you.

3. Do some of your practice without vibrato, so as to encourage the most careful listening to intonation and to freedom of string vibration.

4. See what happens by trying a little shift of concentration from "What is the bow doing?" to "How is the string vibrating."

5. If you ever have the opportunity to have a few singing lessons, take it! It is great for your violin tone, particularly the learning to listen like a singer.

August 11, 2007 at 03:31 AM · I have a question for those of you with extensive experience. To what extent is the ability to produce a beautiful tone affected by the quality of instrument and choice of bow? I had the opportunity to play a really nice violin once with a good pernambuco bow, and with ease I was able to produce a quality of sound I would really struggle to duplicate with my rented instrument of moderate value and my affordable (lesser quality) carbon fiber bow. Of course the musician is always the one to bring out the sound, whatever that may be, however I cannot help but think that certain limits are imposed by the instrument and bow. This is why I have always felt that a student (serious or otherwise) should have as good an instrument as they are able to afford. This is why I rent mine, because I would not be able to afford as good an instrument were I to go out and buy one tomorrow.

August 11, 2007 at 03:50 AM · I also forgot to ask about strings and their effect upon tone. I currently play Helicore strings with a gold-plated E. I have thought of giving Evah Pirazzi, Obligato's or another higher-end string a try. Actually, I would LOVE to give pure gut a try some day, but these are quite expensive, especially considering how long they last. And, summer in Minnesota is perhaps not the best climate for a gut string novice. But, string choice must be a factor in the potential to make the most of your tone as well, right?

August 11, 2007 at 04:01 AM · Very long, slow bows help a lot in gaining tone enhancement. It's the bowing that generates the tone quality, not the left hand. Open string bowing for maybe ten minutes a day really helps a lot.

August 11, 2007 at 04:25 AM · Some good ideas have already been expreesed, but the great tonalist Aaron Rosand offered his secret short cut: smoke cigars! ;-)

August 11, 2007 at 06:40 AM · Mr. Steiner,

Thanks for your advice. Would you please elaborate on your 5th point, re singing?

I took singing lessons and I sing soprano with more ease, I think, than playing the violin, although I have a much greater passion for the latter. I think I see the point you are making, but I’m not sure. For me, singing is all about breathing, balancing oneself, and keeping everything above the diaphragm relaxed. In a sense, my bow-arm is like my breathing mechanism in singing. The most concentrated breathing is like a well-performed son file – a very long, clear and pretty sound. Then there’s the ringing/vibrato that comes so naturally without any pressure of the throat but is achieved with the support of the proper breathing. It's very easy for me to achieve this in singing but not so in violin playing. In fact, when I play the violin, I’m so busy with everything violin that I simply can’t relate much to what I’ve learned in singing. I would really appreciate it if you could discuss a bit more on the relationship between these two forms of performance, especially on how transferable these skills and understanding can be. Thanks in advance.

August 11, 2007 at 12:53 PM · It is generally understood that the more practice the better tonal quality you can produce. However I feel and believe the instrument itself will help or hinder the quailty of tone in several ways.

First the set up of the instument to produce the quality of tone is all important. The bridge carving in relation to what strings are being used and the sound post position and tension can all be changed to produce closer the tone you are looking for. (Tuneing the instrument)

You may want to try other violins that are set up by players with experience in setup and repairs.

Thirdly understand that what you hear under ear is not what the violin projects to the listener, so under ear tone is personal preferance.

Experiment with bridge quailty and string quailty and sound post positions (careful)on your fiddle see the differance these three things make.

After the fiddle is set up properly then you can experiment with the quailty of bow and hear the differance the $$ makes.

Oh and close your eyes when you play as to drop out the distraction of sight.

August 11, 2007 at 01:37 PM · Hi,

There is already some excellent advice. As a teacher (and player) I find that a squeezed tone results usually from incorrect basics (though incredibly small sometimes). Here is advice that I might give to my students (and myself):

1- The bow is actually balanced on the string by the hand. The hand does not hold the bow. On a scale of 0-10, the hold of the right should never be more than 3.5 (excellent advice from my last teacher who has one of the best bow arms in the business).

2- Bow hold: I am a proponent of the FB school, but that said, with any hold, there are two things to watch for: The thumb and middle finger make a ring and should be in line; if the middle finger is ahead or behind the thumb, the lack of balance will create problems in sound. And, your fingers should not be too far apart; beware of the clawing-out of the index which creates tension and will squeeze a sound.

3- There are four strings, so four planes of the bow (plus three others for double-stops). Each plane has one level of elbow. Try to keep the elbow on one plane when on one string. The elbow should really only move for string crossings (or be suspended for slower off-the-string strokes).

4- The sound should be produced by a horizontal motion. Though weight needs to be adjusted according to the instrument, in most cases, contact point and bow speed will be more determing factors than pressure. A good rule to help: The closer to the bridge, the slower the speed, the further away, the faster the speed of the bow.

5- Double-stops are horizontal in motion with a slight roll of the elbow to change strings. They should not be conceived of as a drop of the elbow or anything vertical. That will squeeze the sound.

6- Make sure that you are physically in the right geometry for the stroke. This is actually more important than the part of the bow you are using.

7- The sound comes from the forearm, and though the wrist and fingers should be supple, in most cases they are actually following the forearm, not leading. A good way to remember is to think: The hand follows the arm, the arm does not follow the hand.

8- Think of sound in a physical way, rather than abstract terms. For example, if you want more bow, think more forearm. Think of the means of producing the sound rather than something abstract.

9- This is important: Play with the violin rather than against it. Many violins can sound much better when we play with what the violin tells us rather than imposing something foreign to its nature.

10- Don't work hard, work easy! This ties into #9. Easing-off most often gets you more than the other way around.

Best of luck - Bach is great - and cheers!

August 11, 2007 at 06:43 PM · Yixi Zhang wrote: Would you please elaborate on your 5th point, re singing?

What I find in the study of singing that is especially beneficial to a violinist is the singer-specific ear training.

The ability to distinguish amongst small differences in the sound of a vowel is one important example. Once my voice teacher said to me: "Sing "AH". I sang "AH" (or so I thought). He said: "No, no. Sing "AH"! I said: "I thought that is what I just did!" He said: "You didn't sing "AH"! You sang something halfway between "AH" and "AW"!" I soon caught on that he was making, and wanting me to make, far finer distinctions in vowel listening than I had been. This is so relavent to violin tone. It is especially relavent to the key role that intonation plays in tone production. Whoever increases his ability to hear tiny changes in the vowel sound of the violin as he makes the subtlest change of pitch, has advanced his bow and vibrato tone production.

Another example of voice-specific ear training is in distinguishing between what is heard when excessive throat tension strangles the tone, and what is heard in correct voice production. Would that every violinist were expert in this!

Singers are trained to hear the difference between loud screaming and powerful singing. They are brought up with an aesthetic and a tradition which encourages them to develop a complex and projecting tone. They hear and understand that a tone becomes more powerful and projecting as more overtones are reenforced by chest resonances, nasal resonances, head resonances etc., not by screaming. Violinists are often way behind singers in this. This lack of a cultivated ear all too often leads them to select a violin that irritates and repulses the most, yet is weak and empty. Worse yet, it may lead them to play the violin in a way which is sorely lacking in both beauty and projection.

Milstein said: "The violinist's dream is to imitate the human voice." I believe that the greatest artists, the ones who get right to your heart and move you the most deeply, are those who are best able to use the voice-like qualities and inflections of the violin.

August 11, 2007 at 09:41 PM · This, is wonderful thread. I'm going to dissect it after putting it in Word.

August 11, 2007 at 10:31 PM · Hi,

Do you know of the tone production exercises in the "Basics" section of Dorothy DeLay's practice schedule? They're absolutely amazing for tone production...I will do my best to pass them on here but it's easier to show than tell (you might want to check with a well-known teacher and make sure I'm even doing them right ^^)

Vocabulary to know: "round turn" is the term used for one "repetition" of each exercise. In the sounding point exercise, a round turn is from fingerboard to bridge and back, in the speed exercise it is from fast to slow bow, in the pressure exercise it is from low to high pressure and back to low, and on the hair exercise it is from one hair to full hair.

1. Sounding Point. Place the bow on any FINGERED note on any string (preferably D or A, but you should work the E and G once in awhile too). Begin by moving from the fingerboard sounding point to the bridge sounding point and back again over the course of a full bow (one round turn), making sure that there's lots of vibrato and a clean, pure sound all the way. As you feel more comfortable increase the number of round turns to 64 per bow (as you put more round turns per bow, the distance travelled will be less, and the variation between sounding points will be less--that's OK as long as there is some distinction). Oh, and cut the vibrato at 32 round turns ;)

2. Speed. In a similar manner--choose a sounding point and start your bow very very quickly, making sure to isolate speed only (use very little pressure) and slow it gradually so that at the tip or frog you're moving the bow extremely slowly (one round turn). Work up to about 16 round turns per bow (my max so far!)

3.Pressure. You should probably know exactly what I'm going to say...start off with no pressure, increase gradually to full pressure, and then back off gradually to where you started over the course of one bow. Increase the number of round turns per bow to something that's challenging but comfortable (no cracks, etc, in sound). Remember, always keep that vibrato going.

4.Hair. Start on one hair, and go to full hair gradually, and then back off to where you started over the course of one bow (one round turn). Increase the number of round turns per catch my drift ^^

If you can get your hands on a copy of THE "practice schedule" (that thing seems almost biblical to me!) by all means do it--those exercises along with all the stuff outlined in there are fantastic (they've helped me tremendously) but you really do need to do them in conjunction with all the other stuff.

Also, pick up a copy of Simon Fischer's "Basics" as well as a copy of Isaak Vigdorchik's "Violin Playing:A Physiological Approach". Great books!

Hope this helps!

August 11, 2007 at 11:09 PM · I'm just starting to scan this thread, but last night I posed a question related to this.

Sometimes, I play letting the bow lead the way, and it is a crystal clear beautiful legato experience though not very big, but room filling.... And when I start from the perspective of more foream, it's a bigger sound of course.

I'm guessing I'll get a lot of details in this thread about this--Thank you Adam for creating it.

Anyway, that chamber effect where it literally glides from note to note is powerfully beautiful, and I could play in that context forever. I had the experience last night where it was so light and fluid that I lost my bow for a second and it glided across sounding points--and even that, sounded good.... (insert grin).

So this bigness and smallness of sound. Where does it fit in in tone production?

I remain,

Mr. Legatomeister.

August 12, 2007 at 01:22 AM · Thanks for the clear explanation, Mr. Steiner. Now I see. In terms of ear training, it's so true that in singing we can’t objectively hear our own sound without training and cultivation. So singers immediately have to deal with this problem and from the very beginning learn to discern a correct sound (round, relaxed and well supported) from a bad one (flat, tight throaty one that without the support of the breath). In terms of squeezing, for me anyway, as soon as I pay attention to my throat, my voice is squeezed. Although this is not so obvious with violin bowing, the analogy is a good one. It takes training for one to be able to tell what a big sound really is. It may also be helpful, especially if one is technically matured enough, to listen to great singers (eg, Eliabeth Schwarzkopf’s Richard Strauss, Mozart and Rossini by Von Stade and Cecilia Bartoli)to see how they use their voice and phrase the music -- Milstein’s advice followed.

August 12, 2007 at 03:24 AM · A couple other aspects to keep in mind (apologies if I failed to notice anyone mention this): The four strings of the violin can roughly be thought of the way the four basic voices are laid out- the G string representing the bass; the D string, the tenor; the A string the alto, and the E string, the soprano. So when possible, one might choose to play a melody more on one string than another to get the tone color naturally associated with that string. A well known example is in the slow movement of the Bruch Concerto in G minor in measures 93-94, from the B-flat to the A-flat to the G_flat, which most violinists play first on the E string and then on the A string to create that ravishing color change together with a tasteful glissando to the B-flat the second time around.

Also, in general, vibrato is leaner and faster on the E-string - the pitch variation would be too noticeable and distracting very high up if one used a slow, wide vibrato. Correspondingly, the G string would sound nervous and agitated if the vibrato were too fast and narrow.

An interesting artistic challenge, and one which widens the tonal palette of the violin, is to make the naturally brilliant E-string sound with the thickness and richness of the G string and to make the G string sound with the greater immediacy and brilliance of the E. The combination of bow speed, weight, sounding point, and amount of hair, and vibrato all need to be adjusted to create this wonderful of array of colors.

Mr. Gingold demonstrated this to telling affect in the slow movement of the Prokofiev Violin Sonata No. 2 in the passage beginning at measure 28 which he explained was influenced by Prokofiev's fascination with jazz and his attempt to create the effect of the chalumeau register of the clarinet. In Mr. Gingold's hands, this bluesy chromatic melody played on the violin's D string sounded like the low register of the clarinet playing jazz in a smoke filled dimly lit room.

August 12, 2007 at 01:52 PM · Ronald Mutchnik wrote: "So when possible, one might choose to play a melody more on one string than another to get the tone color naturally associated with that string."

If I'm understanding your above post correctly, the implication of the words "naturally associated" is that among the many kinds of G string tone one could produce, there is a special and natural association with the Basso voice. Among the many E string tones possible on the violin, there is a *natural association* with the Soprano voice. I believe that this natural association is the root and foundation of a tonal aesthetic: Audiences are especially attracted to something that sounds voice-like, and performers give themselves a greater intimacy of communication with the audience when they speak and sing to them with a voice-like variety of tones.

August 12, 2007 at 03:34 PM · Relatedly Oliver, pick a soprano, alto, bass vocalist with a unique voice and immerse one's self in that study. It's very instructional at least to this beginner. It's taken me a long time to start getting it, but many things have.

Two examples I can think off the cuff. One is a pop singer and one is the old-world acapella sound that has distinctive characteristics. I've captured at least a little of each at different times when I can 'really' really focus and get everything popping. I think that's why I respect my violin so much.

When I was a child, I use to play-act that I was writing my own "Peter and the Wolf" or something, reproducing images on piano. So there are a couple levels to this thing.

One level speaks specifically to the human-voice aspect of violin; and, the other speaks to the impressionistic aspect of violin. Well, as an adult beginner, the limiting factor relating to the human voice, I admit I find comforting I guess in a world of parameters that help focus one's efforts.

But how would we put a Monet spin on this? I'll gladly leave that to all the true progressives.

August 12, 2007 at 05:27 PM · Wow! What a masterclass. I just finished compiling this and editing it into a document.

From the subtle elbow aspects, to down and dirty exercises it's all there. And if that weren't enough, Oliver took us to the functional abstract.

I found myself in my mind applying all the exercises in that I (in the past) routinely practice speed and pressure; and, now can go many steps further both directly and indirectly. (Been on summer hiatus, well, garden hiatus).

And the details! Understanding the precedence (string change before bow change). How cool.

August 12, 2007 at 07:44 PM · Ok, I give up. How do you get a copy of Miss. DeLay's "Practice Schedule?"

August 12, 2007 at 08:37 PM · It’s interesting that people would associate violin sound with the bass and the tenor. To me, the range of the violin made me think only the soprano and the mezzo-soprano, or the counter-tenor. This thinking opens up a new world for me, and my favorite baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is going to be on the list as well. Yeah!

And my Carl Flesch's Problems of Tone Production in Violin Playing has just arrived a few minutes ago (yes, they deliver them on weekends in Canada). It looks quite interesting.

August 12, 2007 at 08:54 PM · Ray, I bet it's online SOMEWHERE. I got mine from my teacher, but I've seen people that found them elsewhere. I don't think it's published verbatim anywhere, unfortunately.

August 13, 2007 at 12:30 AM · Yes, you have it as I meant, Mr. Steiner. Thanks for clarifying those points and explaining how important the connection is between the voice , the violin, and what listeners listen for.

Mr. Gingold used to tell us that there is a characteristic sound associated with the G string especially suited, for example, to the opening of the Saint Saens third concerto or the Bloch Nigun or the Ravel Tzigane although he always advised not being too gutsy at first in Tzigane, because it referred to a Gypsy woman and with its seductive, toying qualities one must not be too brash and head strong. In connection with the G string, I remember him expressing surprise when he told us he had seen Itzhak Perlman play the Franck Sonata on one occasion and noted that he did not play the chromatic melody near the beginning of the second movement all on the G string. There was something about the chromatic tension and playing in the high register of the G-string that was essential to the character for him and when Perlman played it on the D string he felt something missing. A good sense of the changing voices of the violin is found at the beginning of the solo violin part in the Lalo Symphonie espagnole. The same thematic material with the upward leap of fifths and fourths sounds decidedly brilliant and extroverted on the E string but when that material is played on the G string it takes on a beefier, heavier quality. This is the general idea- of course a great artist will find myriad colors and shadings on every note of every string.

August 13, 2007 at 01:07 AM · With regard to basic tone production, one could observe several other features of the bow moving across the string. If too much pressure is used, or the relationship between elbow/forearm, shoulder, wrist, and fingers is not ideal, one will notice a more restricted sideways vibration of the string than when these factors are in proper balance. The wider the vibration, the clearer indication that the tone is being produced in a physically more correct way and that does not work against the physics of the vibrating string. The idea is to push and pull the tone and not apply brute vertical pressure that limits the strings' vibrations choking the tone in addition to being physically very tiring and possibly leading to debilitating tension in the hand and elsewhere .

The basics as I understand them are:

1.The closer to the bridge one plays the slower the bow speed, and the heavier the weight released to produce a richer sound;

2. The closer to the fingerboard one plays, the faster the bow speed and the less weight released to produce a rich sound.

3.The tone in the lower "half" of the bow depends on the swinging in the upper arm/shoulder blade muscles (not the shoulder per se which should never be raised- a famous demonstration of this is with the pantomimist, Marcel Marceau, who, imitating a violinist in the throes of a very difficult passage that he had survived playing, turns sideways to walk off the stage uncomfortably with his right shoulder rigid and excessively high in relation to his left shoulder- a comedic statement but founded on his keen observation in watching violinists with the bad habit of raising their right shoulder) to move the bow approximately from frog to the middle.

4. The tone in the upper half of the bow depends on the extension of the forearm and ,usually, for people of average arm length, the swinging out of the elbow on down bow strokes. Therefore the first thing that happens on the up bow is the elbow travelling back before the forearm moves again until the mid way point when the upper arm takes over the bow stroke.

5. As the bow stroke unfolds to produce an even tone, the hand is higher than the forearm at the frog,on the same plane with the forearm in the middle and below the forearm at the tip. Depending on the angle one is holding the violin, this rule may not seem as obvious when on the G string.

August 13, 2007 at 01:31 AM · Just want to add something based on my own recording experience. What you use to record yourself and how you record yourself can dramatically skew the sound. No matter how hard you try to improve your tone, if you record using sub-optimal equipment with sub-optimal placement, your sound will never sound anything like that on a CD. If you want to set a baseline for comparison, try playing some Bach Unaccompanied of your favorite artist through a hi-fi and then record what's coming out with the same equipment you record yourself with. Then listen to it and see if the recorded sound has been drastically changed.

August 13, 2007 at 03:29 AM ·

August 13, 2007 at 06:22 AM · Other excercises in tone control are playing scales using different combinations of fingers on the bow in different prts of the bow.Just as a singer needs to explore the potential of his or her voice a violinist needs to expore the potential of the bow arm.Try using only thumb and middle finger then the ring finger then a combination and so forth.Try these with detache in the upper half at the middle and in the lower half.These excercises will give a good idea of balance and weight which then can be tried out at various sound points.Excercises are one thing applying them another.Always work from the speaking voice and its inflections.Imagine the sound you want to make then imagine how you will use your bow to reproduce it.Do the head work first you will already set in motion a mini programme in your brain.Bow the phrase using open strings only until you match the tone quality you desire then you can add the left hand.

August 13, 2007 at 08:35 AM · What a thread.... Time to revise my notes. I applied some of the earlier comments this afternoon, and it was awesome.

I focused on the bow vibrating the string, waiting for contact in string crossings, staying in the same plane, and became more aware in a very small way of the other three planes.

Anyway, earlier it was legato-fest with above as a study; and, later it was same fest, with much etudes, S3 review,refinement of S3-5; and trouble spot review (too many to list) ;).

But these discussions are magnifying some type of layering of improvement I can't put my finger on. When I started bringing posture into this, further playing my forward and relax things, adding another tonight (moving my head lightly as a posture reminder), and applied some of tone production things, it was kick-butt.

I'm getting to where I can consistently just pick up and legato-out at leisure now, without warm-up. I use to have to work very very hard to get to that 'zone'. And my wild bow arm is settling in, again as result directly of this and other discussions. And other things, it came to mind.

I wouldn't want to choose, but I think this qualifies maybe in the top 10 really basic good truly useful threads of the year--in my mind maybe top 3 even. Wow.

August 15, 2007 at 02:01 AM · I took the first six pages of notes--there are nine, and started dissecting them formally last night. I was having a low energy day and just played for an hour. And I'm glad I did.

I'm going to compile these into a basic tone production document, organizing them into physical (hold, posture), technical(basic elements-SP, weight, speed, string crossings, bow changes), and finally aesthetic (qualified and keeping things within the context of detache and detached notes, jumping out of the box talking about singing). And I'm glad it's basic.

I hope to further add material from violin masterclasses on seamless bow changes, and underwrite the wonderful wonderful Delay advice shared on four specific exercises with Sassmanhaus' 'very basic' bow pressure speed foundations.

This has been very rewarding for me. I advanced the string crossing before bow changes beyond my expectations last night. And I was pleased to discover that my thumb and middle finger were ok of their own in my bow hold, but started bringing it into better focus.

And as noted from the night before, waiting for contact in string crossings has been very helpful as well. My Emil inspired Witch's Dance benefited immediately even at that intensity.

So when I went to parsing all these notes, I found the discussion coming from several directions as mentioned in the beginning here, and hope to use everyone's words to make something more lasting.

The wonderful notes on singing, and furthered towards the qualities of individual strings actually stand on their own I think, and would be justified in a masterclass spirit that could integrate the many advanced bowing techniques that are actually part of all this. So I'll try and comment that in somehow as well.

And here I think, is the abstract of the abstract.

P.S. If anyone would like to tackle detached notes in string crossings, as well as on a single string, that would be cool--in a very basic way.

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