Beginner seeks better tone

June 13, 2011 at 01:07 AM ·

I took up the violin nine months ago at age 57--maybe way too late, but I'm trying, and enjoying learning about music. My tone is poor, which is to say scratchy rather than smooth, especially on the D and G strings. I'm a little better with the left hand, but I think the bowing of the strings is where I need the most improvement.  I'm using the book Essential Elements for Strings--working throught it for the second time--and playing some Beatles music in addition. I've only been able to have three lessons so far.

I know that my bow grip is inconsistent: my third and fourth fingers ride up the bow after a bit. I was also told to move my upper arm less, but this seems tough to controI.

I wonder if anyone would have suggestions for getting better--more playing of scales, which I do a little (in D major)--or particular exercises or books that might be helpful. Thanks.


Replies (25)

June 13, 2011 at 01:28 AM ·

June 13, 2011 at 01:32 AM ·


You are not alone in the park  with the issue of porr sounding D&G strings.  I have been playing a few, to several hours per day and trying all techniques of bowing to achieve a better sound out of our strings to no avail.  I have an observer watching  to make sure that my bow movement is consistent, and all reports are good thus far.  But it seems that no correction has any effect on my D&G strings.  D is not so bad , but the G is abhorent.

We have even changed the strings, to no avail.  After some discussion with the folks here on the forums , we are beginning to think that the problem is in the instrument.  Perhaps a bad setup , or even just a poor quality instrument.

The E & A strings on our girl sound beautiful, and the D is somewhat pleasant since we changed bows.  My wife and I are also just beginning , so we sympathize with your frustration.

And as far as age , you are never too old to start , as long as you are enjoying it you are doing just fine. I know this is far from an answer , but I wanted to offer some encouragement.

Happy playing !


June 13, 2011 at 02:02 AM ·

June 13, 2011 at 03:14 AM ·

my wildest guess and imo the best bet is to really carefully and seriously examine the bow hold first and foremost.  how you hold something determines to a very large extent how you can use it.

i highly doubt at this point the op has an optimal bow hold AND have a problem with using too much upper arm, aka, more shoulder motion than necessary.  an incorrect bow hold often leads to this excessive shoulder motion, and causes excessive tension in the entire bow arm, from the fingertips all the way up to the neck. as a result, the bow arm's weight never effectively transfers and sinks into the bow and sound production becomes strained.

short of seeing a teacher, find someone experienced to examine the bow hold first, imo.  often one does not know how tension free bowing feels like until much later down the road.  will be nice if the aha moment comes sooner with better guidance:)

not sure exercises or books are going to provide the understanding needed here.  here is a dude playing with a bow.  can you get something out of he treats the bow?


June 13, 2011 at 03:26 AM ·


what`s with this 57 stuff?  Just means you can produce 57 varieties of tone.

I am in a funny mood today so I will start from the other end by asking `what is tone?`

At the end of the day, tone is the way the energy of the universe expresses itself through you as a unique individual.

The reason I make this rather odd statement is that over the years I found not only myslef but just about everyone else not really expressing who or what they are through the instrument.  I came by this odd understanding through a long pursuit of Alexander Technique although it is the corner stone of many religions and spriritual schools of thought as well.   Basically humans have a great deal of trouble living in the present.  they worry relentlessly about the past and/or the future by thinkingthings like `I wish I sounded like Oistrakh,`  or subconsciously believing their sound should be a certain way instead of allowing the body to just produce what it is intended to produce for that individual.  Very often we are moved by somone elses playing so we take up the instrument and try to recreate that feeling that we received,  but herein lies the fundamental misunderstanding:   in the same way that you received a sound that evoked emotions in you,  your job as a violinist is to do likewise in other people -not- yourself.   That is the point where one begins to truly express music but it feels cold and distant to the ego at first because we so love `bawling and mewing` to the selfregardless of that fact that other people find it totally uninteresting.

In order to find this state where tone may flow freely we have to know and understand what are body is doing very clearly before leaving it alone.   Especially with beginners (but far from exclusively) the excitement of picking up the violin actually mars what we want to produce.  The sheer excitement of picking the thing up causes all sort of tensions  and reactions that are entirely useless.  In an ideal world it should be no differnet from pickung up your handbag.

So take a good look at yourself before you play.  Are your toes tensed,  knees locked back,  thigh muscles clenched?Do you have the feeling that a thread is puling the top of your head towards the sky and your cocyx to the gound.  Have you twisted your back in any way to accomdate the isntrument?  Are you raising your shoulders?  Are your wrists stiff?   Is the left hand gripping the neck?  and so on. One must stop again and again to check thes ekinds of things rather than `trying` harder and harder to ` do it better,` when one is actually simply practicing tense violin playing.

Irrespective of how you hold the bow are you really listening in real time to the sound or are you simply wishing it was better?  Try listening to two differnt things:  one p@ossibility is the sound of the hair itself which is a slightly rough wooshy noise.  Just trying to make this as consistent a sposisble automatically improves sound.   Or, try lsitening to the note behind the note IE if you play a d then you will actually be able to hear exactly the pitch d as a background note with a slightly dead timbre.  Keep practiicng this until you can hone in on that sound automatically.  I know many players who have gone a lifetime without realizing it actually existed;)

Consider now the nature of tone production.  We know it the interaction of bow speed,  weight and Sound Point.  Are these factors taken into account when you move to the lower fatter strings or do you just move there without changing anything.   In order to come to terms with this idea you would be well advised to buy Simon Fischer`s DVD on tone production.  Therein lies a lot of the understanding which I think you are probably missing.

Idle thoughts,



June 13, 2011 at 01:19 PM ·

Many thanks to all for your suggestions and encouragement. You've given me some good ideas to pursue!

June 13, 2011 at 03:42 PM ·

I have a hunch that one of your problems is an arm level which is too low.  This will tend to be more of an issue on the G and D strings.

It's a little hard to explain without demonstrating.  Roughly speaking, the right elbow needs to be higher when you play on the G string and lower when you play on the E string.  If you experiment a little, what you will probably find is that when the elbow is too low for playing on a given string, it's nearly impossible to bow with motion from flexing the elbow and you'll tend to use the upper arm too much (the elbow motion will tend to take the bow off the string unless you really contort yourself.)  

Perhaps a better (but more complicated) way to explain "arm level" is to visualize an imaginary plane passing through three points: at your wrist, the tip of your elbow, and your right shoulder.  If you're bowing on one string, those three points should stay more-or-less in the same plane throughout the motion of the bow stroke.  The angle that imaginary plane makes relative to the floor changes depending on which string you are playing on.

I don't think I'm explaining this well.

Bow hold might be part of the problem, but it's really hard to maintain a good bow hold when the rest of the arm is moving awkwardly.

June 13, 2011 at 04:55 PM ·

honestly, after only three lessons,it could be just too many things that could be wrong, the funny thing with the violin playing is that any one wrong thing creates a chain of other wrong things and it could be difficult to unravel that by oneself. it could be an ergonomic thing to do with the instrument (improper chin rest/shoulder rest) that causes tension that causes a myriad of other things, it could be your own tension as buri has pointed out and i agree that this is a deeply seated thing that is the base for many ailments, it could be your posture,  it could be the instrument/string/bow...etc. try to eliminate the possibilities. the instrument is the easiest... try different instruments at shops, try different shoulder rests/chin rests.

my take on this would be to relax, have a sense of humour about the scratchiness and just carry on with the lessons, you will also learn how good the teacher is in due time: if you're dedicated and you have a good teacher, you'll definitely get there.

i just have one more thing to add about this coplanar arm-wrist-shoulder...i really don't think its the best way to visualize could lead to an artificially enforced alignment. i notice that, in my case, actually my elbow hangs a little lower than this absolute alignment and when its aligned, thats when there is more tension i tend to raise the elbow up and my teacher asked me not to. the elbow should hang naturally otherwise the arm muscles are hitching it up and this results in tense tendons around the elbow and around the shoulder.

June 14, 2011 at 01:40 PM ·

playing the violin takes time and effort and teaching. I started age 57 and now 11/2 yrs later i am improving but mm by mm. I would guess it takes 5- 7 yrs or more like any craft...  

June 14, 2011 at 01:58 PM ·

i think this is where a mature adult possibly has an advantage over a child beginner, in that because of wider or possibly deeper exposure to music, there is a more established sense of what a good tone is for someone more mature with music appreciation.   with this in mind and in ears, an adult player may pursue the good tone with more directness and clarity.  

so it is possible for some adults to make this quantum jump in tone production, because they have already had the idea/ideal in their heads, assuming, of course, they are patient enough to go through the necessary tech training.  

but guess what?  the violin god is playful:  many adults rush through the tech development stage, cutting corners on purpose (inefficient and ineffective self learning for instance, or thinking that their own assessment on themselves is good enough) or inadvertently (lack of time and energy due to other commitments), often leading to a stage of frustration:  i know what i am looking for, i can hear it, and darn it, i just cannot do it...  kids often get a hug at that stage, what do you get? :)

so, people need to, almost on a daily basis, "hug" themselves and develop a more reasonable perspective and acknowledge the progress they have made and attack plans for the near future.

June 14, 2011 at 07:29 PM ·

57 too old?  Hah!  I started a year and a half ago at age 59.  Mind you, I had been playing bluegrass mandolin for about 7 years, and guitar before that.  But the violin is a far more demanding instrument - so much so that it's made me rethink the whole learning process.  There is no silver bullet.  Oh, you can get a lot of good guidance and technical tips, but in the end you have to just practise a lot and let the subtleties unfold on their own.  Sometimes insight comes unexpectedly - just the other night I sat in on my wife's cello lesson (we're rehearsing a trio for her recital) and something her teacher said about tilting the bow to use just some of the hair suddenly clicked at a bluegrass jam later that night, and all at once my tone improved on soft passages.

As for your G and D problems, are you perhaps using too much pressure while playing close to the fingerboard?  The G string is tricky to play, especially in higher positions - again, you just need practice to develop a feel for it.  Let me add my recommendation of Simon Fischer's "Secrets of Tone Production" DVD - my tone improved immediately after watching it. (I'm probably due for a review.)

Hang in there - it only gets better.  Now if I could just find that flash of inspiration that'll let my fingers figure out how to get a decent vibrato...

June 14, 2011 at 08:10 PM ·

I don't think beginners have exclusive rights for wanting a better tone.  We all want to improve our tone.  From first day beginners to world famous virtuosos. 

June 14, 2011 at 09:00 PM ·

June 14, 2011 at 09:04 PM ·

just watch hefietz and milstein and then get the dounis fundamental principles

June 15, 2011 at 06:26 PM ·

 I will be bold to say that the basics of tone have nothing to do with how to hold the bow, where your elbow is etc. A basic tone can be had many different ways and when you start playing a lot of music bow hold etc. will be much more important. In the meantime try this exercise. 

Place the bow on the string with absolutely no pressure and draw the bow across the string very slowly--so slowly that the friction of the string on the bow causes an intermittent scratching or popping sound but no real continuous sound comes out. If you feel that there is any pressure, hold the bow in your fingers by pinching the screw from the end. Do this very slowly and gradually work up to a more even popping sound. When you can do this with no pressure then increase the speed of the bow and voila you will have a tone. Don't try to progress too quickly to continuous sound. You need to master the feel of a no press, stick lying on the string sensation before you start actively drawing the bow for a continuous tone. Small and sweet is good. Loud and dramatic is so advanced that few violinists legitimately achieve it.

June 17, 2011 at 03:11 AM ·

 it is has everything to do with how you hold the bow and instrument

June 17, 2011 at 01:39 PM ·

June 18, 2011 at 06:15 PM ·

 I watch a 100 people hold the violin and the bow and they all more or less hold it the same way but only three or four have a beautiful tone. Something starts to tell me that how one holds the violin isn't necessarily how one makes a tone. 

I am very much a believer in technique, posture and all the other elements of violin playing but tone isn't achieved solely by telling someone how to hold the bow and instrument. They need a deeper knowledge of what is going on. Then they can use their technique to maximum advantage.

June 18, 2011 at 07:32 PM ·

June 20, 2011 at 07:08 PM ·

 Holding the bow with the hand on top of the bow is the only practical way to play the violin (note that gambas [at least any that are played "cello" style]) are played with the an underhanded bow grip.

However  this method (hand on top) of holding the bow suggests to the student that the bow must therefore be pressed into the string for a tone to be produced. Nothing could be further from the truth. A good tone is produced when the student learns to not press on the bow. Thus I suggest that until the student can get a sense of the bow moving over the string with its own weight only that they use a very unorthodox grip (of their teachers choosing) to learn that feel.  Only when a basic tone can be produced in this mode should the student move back to a more standard grip. The student will then know that the hyperextended first finger, or other methods that encourage pressing are not correct and will learn to properly use the hand for mastery of bow strokes and bow direction changes.

June 21, 2011 at 12:16 PM ·

Hi Steven

Well done to you for taking it on. I started a few years ago.  I was always worried I was too old (I'm 49) but have made great progress and now delighted that I did, so keep up with the practicing.   One thing I would really point out , something I didn't really appreciate early on is that when you start, particularly as an adult, you dont have the correct muscle tone to hold a good note, let alone use vibrato.  This is something that builds over time.  By practicing and living with a maybe not so good tone for a year or two you will eventually hear the improvement in tone. As long as you have a reasonable instrument and you can appreciate what a good tone is, then you will get there.  You simply have to stretch and build your muscles in a particular way, as well as develop good pads on your fingers and that doesn't happen overnight.

Its really good to see beginners posting on this site.  It should be for everyone interested in the instrument.  When i posted in the early days I had a couple of VERY rude comments asking me not to post until I was at least intermediate level !  Well JOE MAJ !!!!  I AM Intermediate level now .. so there !!!!!!!

Don (49) UK !!!!

June 24, 2011 at 06:21 PM ·

 My father (65) recently picked up violin and had similar problems with tone, as well as fatigue.  He found a training aid called BowMate ( that worked wonders.  In just a week or two he had an excellent bowhold, vastly improved tone, and was able to play/practice longer.  Incredible results for a $12 investment.

June 24, 2011 at 08:15 PM ·


my apologies if I am wrong but this looks/reads like spam/advertizing to me.

I looked at the bowmate siye and I would have to say that even if Parick`s claims about his father are true the (which I acknowledge is possible)  I personally think the claims made by Bowmate are misleading and inaccurate.  For example,  the idea that there is one and only one correct position for the index finger and that having the index finger in this position automatically ensures that the rest of the fingers /hand are in the correct position is,  in my opinion -absolutely false=. Not only does the position of the index finger change slightly during the bow stroke but little fingers and hands come in al shapes and sizes.

Even if this post is valid I do hope this new phenomene of providing a link,  the price and an endorsement from a gratified customer which also emphsizes advertizing type jargon (..all for an investemnt of 12 dollars)  over actuall analysis disappears from this site as quickly as possible.



June 24, 2011 at 09:47 PM ·

 Got to agree with you here, Buri.  Mr Kilts also has a 9 year old beginner who was helped amazingly by the bowmate, over on the 'problems occur' thread.

Laurie, are you in the house?

June 24, 2011 at 10:05 PM ·

I do believe that trying to, "catch" that extremely unique violin, "tone" that attracts people to the instrument is part of what makes playing the violin such an obsession. I'm only going to add one observation to add to the things already discussed and aslo to introduce yet another line of questioning. One thing that I suddenly discovered, after reading about tone production relates to catching the tone that results in the sympathetic vibration of the other strings. So this is what happens when you play, for example an A on the D string  and the open A vibrates in sympathy. You know when you get it just right because you can hear the difference and also if you lightly touch the open A with the fourth finger, you can hear a tiny, "click" as you stop the sympathetic vibrations. Just another consideration in the many, many variables that affect the final intonation.

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