Huge sound without breaking hairs

April 5, 2008 at 07:42 PM · Couple years ago we played Sibelius with ... um... a very well-known soloist. Her sound was smaller & more concentrated than I expected, but whatever. The thing that surprised me was that she broke a LOT of bow hairs at both rehearsals and at the performance. I wondered if she was even going to be able to use the same bow at her next concert.

This week (tonight, actually) we are playing Prokofiev #1 with Anne Akiko Meyers. This woman gets a HUGE HUGE sound, and has not broken a bow hair yet, even though we went through the Scherzo twice with her playing at full throttle. Did I mention she gets a huge sound?

Since I'm not a violinist, can anyone explain how & why this happens? The only real difference I could see is that Violinist #1 played with a very slanted bow, and AAM keeps it pretty flat.

Replies (42)

April 5, 2008 at 07:46 PM · Maybe the first soloist you talked about was overdue for a re-hairing and just happened to be at a bad spot in the hair's life cycle?

April 5, 2008 at 07:50 PM · The first soloist most likely pressed too much with the bow. The way to get a big sound is to NOT use pressure. You should use some arm weight and a good amount of bow.

April 5, 2008 at 08:21 PM · Bad-quality bow hair, for sure.

April 5, 2008 at 08:21 PM · It helps to have quality hair, changed often. Why don't you ask her?

I am a side hair player, and I never break bow hairs. But, I don't have a sound like AAM!!!

I bet she sounds great on this piece. I hope you are having fun!

April 5, 2008 at 09:27 PM · I always tend to break hairs with a slanted bow..every time it happens, I feel a little bit ashamed for trying to play loudly with a tilted bow. Very rarely does it happen with flat(ter) hair.

April 5, 2008 at 10:40 PM · Technique--Speed over pressure.

April 5, 2008 at 11:25 PM · Flat hair is a start. When I'm tooling around with notes at home, I like to see how loud of a sound I can produce, and it has something to do with the perfect amount of friction, made with a good deal of speed, a perfect amount of weight, and just the right contact point. And, of course, glossy intonation. I focus on the heaviness of my arm, which feels a bit like it's hanging from the bow. At bow changes, I think about catching the sound and spinning it. If I get it right, everything's very relaxed, and this is when the sound begins to billow out. It's loud enough to set my ears ringing for a good while after I'm finished practicing, so I don't do this exercise every day.

It's like traveling weightlessly over asphalt at 80mph.

I can't even remember the last time I broke a bow hair. But then again, I'm not trying to play over an entire orchestra, either. I'd probably get all stressed out and start trying too hard, and my sound would swallow itself up with stage fright.

April 5, 2008 at 11:13 PM · Small sound while breaking hairs?

To add to other theories already mentioned;

Maybe the performer has a crappy violin (regardless of who made it) and is extra aggressive trying to compensate.

Could also have a noodle bow that collapses against the hair. A bow which is friendly to technique is not necessarily the same one that pulls the biggest sound.

A few bows do it all.

April 5, 2008 at 11:26 PM · I'd vote for bad bow hair, bow needing rehaired, maybe using one of those rosins with metal flecks on old hair? The kind of digging that would lead to many broken hairs should have sounded horrible, not just loud.

April 6, 2008 at 07:37 PM · so,is it the general consensus to

always play on flat hair--no matter the piece or part of the piece ?

April 6, 2008 at 09:07 PM · I would say that it was her technique. Like people have already mentioned, pressing a lot does not cause bigger sound. It also helps in breaking hairs. If she's a well known soloist, I doubt she would be using crappy bow hair. Projection comes from overtones and pressing a lot chokes them, whereas pressing less and using a lot of bow and with flat hair helps them ring.

April 6, 2008 at 09:45 PM · From Enosh Kofler;

"I would say that it was her technique. Like people have already mentioned, pressing a lot does not cause bigger sound. It also helps in breaking hairs. If she's a well known soloist, I doubt she would be using crappy bow hair. Projection comes from overtones and pressing a lot chokes them, whereas pressing less and using a lot of bow and with flat hair helps them ring."


Depends on your fiddle. The really great ones produce their biggest sound with a fair amount of pressure and a slow bow close to the bridge. Not all fiddles will tolerate this. It's one of the benchmarks I use to identify a good violin or a good adjustment.

April 6, 2008 at 10:26 PM · David, that’s very helpful tip and I’m taking notes. Sometimes I wonder how do I ven know that I’m not producing a big sound? The sound we hear under our own ears is really not the same as other can hear, and my teacher often tells me that I played too loud while I felt wasn't enough.

As for breaking the bow hairs, I try to avoid that as I think it indicates my misuse of the bow, but I’ve seen videos of some great violinists (Zukerman and Sarah Chang) broke hairs like crazy during some of their performance which makes me think hair-breaking may not be just simple technical problem or the quality of hair. Any thoughts?

April 6, 2008 at 11:21 PM · most every set of new hair will entertain a slightly different tonality.

bow hairs are not created equal.

there are noticable differences and grades of bow hair.

some wear out faster,some seem to last for elongated periods.

some break easily,some do not.

when the bow hair does break easily,then its time for a new wig.

April 7, 2008 at 04:14 AM · Along these lines....anyone use black hair on their bows? I used to break tons of hairs, and then I switched to a mixture of Canadian white and black hair. It allows you to use your bow speed more effectively, and I've been able to get away with rehairs maybe three times a year (I used to go almost every month!) The beauty of this too is that the black hair is a LOT stronger, and I've found that it doesn't break very easily at all.

April 7, 2008 at 09:50 AM · From Yixi Zhang;

"David, that’s very helpful tip and I’m taking notes. Sometimes I wonder how do I ven know that I’m not producing a big sound? The sound we hear under our own ears is really not the same as other can hear, and my teacher often tells me that I played too loud while I felt wasn't enough."


You're right. Sound under the ear can be very deceiving. What I often do to get a better idea of the sound at a distance is to record, with the microphone at least 15 feet from the violin. It's not as good as getting feedback from experienced listeners in a hall, but seems to come pretty close with a reasonable recording setup, even a Zoom recorder.

April 7, 2008 at 06:01 PM · David, I'm not sure I agree with you. Good examples of what I mentioned are Heifetz and Oistrakh. It's clear that they do not press a whole lot and use lots of bow, and they had good violins. A good violin would probably sound good DESPITE being played the way you described, but probably wouldn't be its BEST sound, unless you just prefer that type of sound (but I'm talking about projection).

I saw Znaider live, sitting in the fourth row, center. He has a great violin and played with a lot of pressure and slow bow like you described, and his sound seemed quite choked and I even had trouble hearing some parts from where I was sitting. On the other hand, recently I saw Vadim Gluzman, a very good Israeli-Russian violinist and I was sitting far away. He played with not much pressure and lots of bow and his sound projected wonderfully.

April 7, 2008 at 11:15 PM · In my most humble opinion, great bow technique is the leveler of all bow issues. Play flat hair, play side hair, but make the sound come out whatever you have to do and don't be a hack about it either. :-) (An example of loving teacher tactics--Imagine that phrase in a whiny, raspy, agitated voice "Just give me some SOUND and don't be a hack about it either!" ha ha--kind of reminds me of "I'll get you my pretty and your little dog too!" Or, in this case, "I'll get you my pretty and your little bow hairs too!").

April 7, 2008 at 08:48 PM · Enosh, it's ironic that you mention Heifetz. His style changed some during his career, but I think of him during his time in the US as one of the originators of "beating up the fiddle", despite using strings which were less friendly to this style of playing than modern strings.

When it comes to "power" or "projection", some definitions might help. There is a difference between measured loudness and perceived loudness. Perceived loudness will be highly influenced by the harmonic content. A "pure" note without any harmonics (sine wave) will be perceived by most people to be much softer than the same note, at the same volume, with a rich overtone structure.

The way this applies to the violin is that a violin played with a fast bow away from the bridge won't be lacking in measured loudness, but it will contain less reinforcing upper partials than the same one played close to the bridge, (with the necessary compensation in bow speed and pressure). The sound recipe which has the right upper partials added will be perceived as being louder (partly because that's how our brains are trained) and will be more successful at cutting through an ensemble. Another way of looking at it is that the violin played close to the bridge has a broader and more complex spectrum of sound. This isn't necessarily more pleasant under the ear, but comes across well in a hall.

An example can be had by tapping a pencil on the table. Tapping the eraser end is illustrative of sound lacking the strong upper partials. Tapping the solid end gives a sound with much more high harmonic content, and could be heard more easily in a noisy environment.

It's interesting to compare the projection of different players, but I think it's hard to draw any conclusions unless you hear them using their different styles on the same violin, a violin which will tolerate both styles of playing.

April 7, 2008 at 09:00 PM · "Annie Meyers," that's what we called her than, some 30 years ago, when she was studying with a Suzuki teacher, Shirley Helmick, in Ridgecrest California. I was CM of the local community orchestra by then, and little Annie performed the Vivaldi A-minor Concerto with us when she was 6. She had a wonderful big tone then, and again a year or so later when she (and young Sharon Towner) performed the Bach Double. After leaving Suzuki for more standard pedagody in Los Angeles, Anne Meyers, performed the Mendelssohn with our orchestra at age 12, as a gift to our community (this was after she had done so with the LA Phil) and she had an amazing, big sound on her 3/4 fiddle. This was about the same time she also appeared on the tonight show. SHortly after that she headed to New York to study with Dorothy Delay at Julliard and hang out with all the other famous "girl violinists" who were there at that time.

I think her big tone comes from bow speed and optimum soundiing point and bow pressure. I think that is how it is usually done, allowing everyting in the instrument to come out and matching the artist's envisioned sound. A vibrato that engages the instrument' ideal overtones for each pitch and really knowing the instrument - all helps.


April 7, 2008 at 11:05 PM · former Minneapolis CM and concert violinist Adam Han-Gorsky told me last year that he demonstrates to students that he, and you, can get a big sound even from holding the bow with just two fingers on the screw behind the frog.

As he demonstrates, alot of downward pressure is so unnecessary for a big sound that carries.

April 8, 2008 at 10:09 AM · The link below is a spectral graph of a violin played two different ways. The note is a 440-ish A played on the D string.

The blue peaks are with a fast bow played away from the bridge.

The yellow peaks are with a slow bow with more arm weight played close to the bridge.

The spike on the far left is the fundamental, and all the other spikes are overtones.

The height of the peaks represents loudness.

What do you think?


April 7, 2008 at 11:43 PM · ^

as per the norm,playing closer to the bridge

will produce a 'louder' note.

April 8, 2008 at 12:21 AM · David, Are the little jagged yellow peaks just before the large peaks "the uglies"?

April 8, 2008 at 12:44 AM · I think it's because I used a couple of cycles of vibrato before I caught myself and stopped. :)

April 8, 2008 at 09:05 AM · Um, too many variables? I want specifics.

April 8, 2008 at 10:07 AM · Note that in the "blue" series of spikes (fast light bow), the fundamental on the left is about the same strength as with a heavy slow bow, but all the harmonics are weaker. The second harmonic, at 1 octave + a fifth is almost entirely missing.

The notes of the harmonics are all components of an A Major chord (A, E, A, C#, E) until you get up to the seventh spike, which is a G.

April 8, 2008 at 10:39 AM · Ah! but which was louder? More harmonics up yonder means a brighter timbre. I would make sure they were normalized for rms value or something then compare the frequencies after that was the same. Interesting thing is there's more second and third harmonic than there is fundamental, but we still hear it as the fundamental.

April 8, 2008 at 11:21 AM · Yes Jim, we can entirely remove the fundamental, and our brains will still synthesize it from the harmonics above.

Below is a short electronically generated sound clip. The first portion is a pure A without any harmonics, then the harmonics are added in the second half.


(Jim, these are normalized to be very close in RMS value. Which do you perceive as louder?)

April 8, 2008 at 11:23 AM · Hi,

I have been trying to stay out of this one. However, I feel compelled to add something here. Drawing a slow bow near the bridge does not mean that one has to press, quite the contrary. Most people with pressed sounds play at a distance from the bridge. In fact, to play well near the bridge, one has to be very relaxed. In my experience, the bow naturally gravitates towards the path of correct resistance for a good sound if you don't interfere with it. So, yes - a slow bow will sound best near the bridge and a faster bow further away. A great violin should sound great and clear at various bow speeds and as a result all contact points.


April 8, 2008 at 11:38 AM · David, actually I measured them :) The second one is higher in peak value but lower in rms. Second sound louder so maybe it's peak that matters (but only about 1 dB louder so it shouldn't matter...). Another consideration, the ear's response is nowhere near flat, so a good harmonic hit at a sensitive place might sound louder. Also - I took your second half and removed the fundamental. It sounds exactly the same :) I had to check it again to make sure I hadn't messed up.

April 8, 2008 at 11:35 AM · Ahhh Jim, I'm learning a lot about your capabilities! In order to get the RMS similar, the peak values had to be different.

The human ear is most sensitive around 2-4 thousand cycles per second. That's one reason the harmonics are so important to perceived loudness.

April 8, 2008 at 11:45 AM · Bow hairs usually break because they catch on the corners of the upper bouts.

Someone who bows further away from the bridge feels they don't get a big enough sound, bows harder and faster, less controlled, catches the corners, result: broken hair.

Playing at a lower speed with more weight nearer the bridge doesn't break hairs. There is nothing there to break them. It also gives the most intense sound. I once read that it was called playing at the "golden point".


April 8, 2008 at 01:11 PM · Here's the 2nd half without the fundamental if you want to hear. A little brighter, on second listen, but definitely recognizable as the same pitch.

April 8, 2008 at 12:34 PM · Hah, Jim, I'd already uploaded my own version without the fundamental, certain that someone would "call me out". ;)

In other words, Jim has entirely removed the actual note, but we still hear it!

One reason that this ability to synthesize (or imagine) this fundamental is important with the violin is that the violin emits almost no sound below a middle C. We "make up" the notes below that from the higher harmonics.


I've put my link in because Jim's has momentarily disappeard. The 440 A frequency in this sound clip has been completely removed. Can you still hear it, even though it's not there?


April 8, 2008 at 12:30 PM · What you get when you add the fundamental is warmth I would say, judging by our two files.

One time I saw a chart of ear response on wiki or something so watched it as I listened to an oscillator as it swept through, and sure enough. Pretty strange. All taken into account unconsciously when you play, to keep the loudness the same.



I've put my link in because Jim's has momentarily disappeard."

Must be the heavy traffic crashing my website :)

April 8, 2008 at 12:39 PM · Probably from all the women checking out your "personal" ad. ;)

April 8, 2008 at 01:31 PM · I took mine down altogether. Don't want to keep you off the charts.

April 8, 2008 at 01:32 PM · :0

April 8, 2008 at 01:48 PM · From Jim W. Miller;

"I took mine down altogether. Don't want to keep you off the charts."


Thanks. I'm hoping that my electronic fake monotone composition will be noticed by some major record label and bring me riches and fame. ;)

The pop market has always appreciated the more simple stuff.....

April 8, 2008 at 07:08 PM · In the early 1960's my father played two pianos for Steinway at Dr. Goldmark's CBS Physics Laboratories to find out why one piano was ALWAYS requested by concert

pianists and the other wasn't. After a lot of research Dr. Goldmark stunned Steinway by announcing it was the overtones that make or break an instrument, even the ones we can't hear; the "bad" piano was lacking those overtones, the "good" piano had them in droves. Now it was up to Steinway to find out why.

Overtones give a tone quality and aliveness, if you will, a lack of overtones makes an instrument sound dull.

April 8, 2008 at 10:17 PM · "The human ear is most sensitive around... one reason the harmonics are so important to perceived loudness. "

That's an important thing, relevant to the topic, that shouldn't be overlooked. Judging by the graph, if everything is the same except for the harmonics, the example with the harmonics will sound louder because it has more content where the ear is most sensitive. So, assuming the amount of fundamental is the same, as it is in the graph, it would behoove you to play nearer the bridge, if you wanted loudness (regardless of what note you were playing). The second half of the first sound clip sounds quite a bit louder, although both halves measure close enough to same, not taking the ear response into account. Of course it's more than just playing close to the bridge, but the experiment says what you do should probably include that.

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