Making little to no sound when I bow

July 5, 2014 at 07:20 AM · I’m having a lot of difficulty getting my bow to make a sound when I’m playing with my local orchestra. I run the bow along the string and get either no sound at all, or jittery sounds that suddenly jerk into life and then disappear, which is really awkward when I’m trying to play!

My obvious guess is that my bowing technique is wrong, but I can’t see what I’m doing wrong. I have no difficulty making a sound when I’m practicing alone or having lessons with my teacher, and the only differences I can see between lessons and rehearsals is that a. I’m standing up in lessons and sitting in rehearsals, and b. I am more confident in lessons. To me I always sound so much louder than everyone else in rehearsals, and also out of tune even though I’m not, so I am always more hesitant. But even when I try to play confidently, I get little to no sound.

At the moment my only way around it is to keep putting plenty of rosin on the bow, but lately the conductor made a comment that he could tell from listening to the orchestra that someone had too much rosin on the bow, and I feared it was me. So I’m at a loss.

It’s especially awkward in concerts when I’m practically playing the air violin instead of music.

Any idea as to precisely what I’m doing wrong? I know my bow hand can be a bit stiff and inflexible (because I don’t have much hand strength and the bow is too heavy for me to balance properly), but I don’t have any problems outside of the orchestra.

I know I hate playing sat down anyway, and I’ve wondered if that could be it. When I’m sat down I’m always shifting about because my bow’s either hitting my chair or my leg, and if I move to avoid that then my violin is blocking the sheet music so I can’t see it to play it! I also wondered if it’s just a confidence issue, but when I try and put a bit more effort and be less hesitant, I come out as playing really loudly and sounding (to me) out of tune (and I know I’m not because I have a tuner which I use before I start playing).

Any suggestions?

Replies (32)

July 5, 2014 at 08:09 AM · The obvious answer is have a lesson or two on playing sitting down. But also, how about doing some chamber music?

July 5, 2014 at 08:13 AM · When sitting, to lower the right knee:

- perch on the front edge of the chair, feet under the chair (at least the right foot) like perching on a bar stool (sorry, kitchen stool?

- sit normally, slightly on the right edge of the chair so that the right foot can go back and lower the knee.

Avoid the "little black dress": you must be able to separate the knees, (while remaing decent!)

Also, your violin may have pleasant, and even strong, tone close by, but not be strident enough to be heard above the din of an orchestra.

July 5, 2014 at 08:19 AM · Does this mean that you frequent bars, Adrian? Naughty ...

July 5, 2014 at 08:38 AM · Is it possible that you only think that you are playing without sound but that you actually are? Its harder to hear yourself in an orchestra string section because obviously everyone else is playing the same note. Indeed, the object is to sound like one instrument.

Why not check with your stand partner to see if they can hear you? Its possible that you are worrying about nothing...

July 5, 2014 at 11:11 AM · I am definitely not making a sound. I can feel the vibrations of the strings when a sound is being made, and I feel no vibrations at those times. And when I do hear a sound there is a distinct volume difference.

July 5, 2014 at 03:05 PM · How much bow are you using? My guess is that you're not using as much when sitting as when standing, so the net effect is a noticeable reduction in volume. Another issue, possibly linked to the length of bow issue, is general tightening up, which stops you from relaxing. This may well be due to nervousness arising from the new experience of being in an orchestra. Again, a state of not being sufficiently relaxed manifests in a reduction in tone.

Having said that, such problems are notoriously difficult to diagnose and cure in an on-line forum. I think face-to-face with your teacher on this issue is definitely needed, and the teacher may well recommend doing your practice (or the orchestral part thereof) sitting down. This is where the cellists and bassists have an inbuilt advantage over us violinists and violists.

I'm not sure that a conductor can necessarily notice over-rosining by one or two players in an orchestral environment just by using his ears; but he only has to use his eyes before the rehearsal starts! New arrivals in an orchestra tend to get noticed by the conductor and section leaders (it's their job to notice, after all), and I suspect that your particular conductor may have been indulging in a bit of gamesmanship to get a message across.

Incidentally, over-rosining is a common fault (one of the very few faults in violin playing that is easily remedied), and does affect the tone. I have 8 hours of orchestral rehearsals a week (plus necessary practice hours), and in that week I suppose I apply rosin no more than two or three times, and then only a couple of swipes.

July 5, 2014 at 09:21 PM · As suggested, you need more input from others (and to try a different instrument). I'm not sure how you "feel" the vibration, but I can't. However, one of my fiddles acts the way you are describing. By itself or with two or three other instruments it sounds fine to the player. In a larger group I cannot hear myself play, although it projects fine. I do not know of any fix, and I made the fiddle. It's the only one of about 70 that has that problem.

Your problem may well be different, but mine fooled a VERY good player, and others, when he bought it. Eventually we traded for another that has served him well.

July 7, 2014 at 06:30 PM · Another thing to consider is when you last had your bow re-haired. After a while, bow hair can wear out and it doesn't grab the string anymore or give as good of a sound. You may feel like it slips at certain points. Adding more rosin will not help, and as was mentioned earlier, using too much rosin affects your sound as well, and cakes your strings with rosin.

July 7, 2014 at 07:29 PM · Playing sitting down can easily effect your technique so it's worth practicing that way, don't you think? Play sitting down on your own & in lessons to see if you or your teacher notice any issues there, if not then pay attention to how you're sitting when you're in orchestra... make sure it's the same as when you're on your own. Things like sitting with a stand partner (a biggie for me), not having enough space or sitting so that you can see that conductor could all easily effect the positioning of your body & instrument.

But perhaps you're just tensing up in orchestra. Is orchestra a new experience for you?

July 8, 2014 at 06:18 PM · Just as a guess, try a little more weight, a bit closer to the bridge. Perhaps when sitting down your arm position changes a bit. Or, given how intimidating the orchestral environment can be, you might be subconsciously letting up on the strings.

Recently I was having a lot of trouble getting sound out of my G string. Other people tried my violin and bow and pronounced them OK, and when playing bluegrass fiddle I don't have the problem either. I gave Simon Fischer's DVD "The Secrets of Tone Production" a quick review recently because I was also crushing my E string. Simon recommends playing the E string a bit closer to the bridge than the others. When playing bright fiddle tunes I tend to play a bit harder - by kicking it up a notch on classical pieces as well, my tone improved greatly, and my G string now sounds fine.

July 9, 2014 at 07:11 AM · Your rosin may not be fresh.

July 9, 2014 at 05:25 PM · Amanda,

If you are new to the orchestra, that may well be causing your "soundlessness." Although I had a fine violin and produced a good sound at home or at a lesson, I experienced the same soundless phenomena when I first joined an orchestra resulting from lack of confidence and the stress of the situation. If that is your situation, just hang in and keep playing to the extent that you can. It will get better.



July 13, 2014 at 02:39 PM · Dear Amanda,

I agree with the previous poster that this is most likely a confidence issue. You also refer to the possibility in your question. I suggest that when the orchestra is tuning, you practise tuning a little louder until you can hear yourself. Make sure that you drop your shoulders and really try to bow 'into' the string. Furthermore, when there are slow sections in the music that can confidently play, try playing these a little louder too, so you can hear yourself. You will find that over time, you can join in playing louder in more and more sections of the music. Allow yourself a year or so, to fully join in with all the music and hear yourself at all times. Check out my legato bowing video on my website. Best wishes, Henriette de Vrijer,

July 13, 2014 at 10:53 PM · Just to repeat another suggestion, unless you are confident of a solo career, you should be practicing the way you will play--sitting down. The time to overcome any problems is during practice.

July 16, 2014 at 05:17 PM · it's hard playing with others


i should say, it's not easy playing with others

July 16, 2014 at 06:52 PM · In the medical field, people always tell you to look for horses before Zebras when diagnosing the problem.

Utilizing that same concept, I'm going to address the more common problems before rarer ones.

If the bow is skipping, it is very likely that the elbow and wrist are not at the same level (they should be pretty close). I'm speaking in broad generalities here, but the elbow should be pointing in the direction you wish the stroke to go. If it is too low or too high, you will lose contact with the string causing the skipping motion. Has this been ruled out yet?

July 23, 2014 at 06:17 PM · I had the same problem when I was younger. When I tried to play softly, my tone was inconsistent, and the sound would drop out on parts of my bow. I was pretty embarrassed by it, and thought that I was doing something wrong. It turned out that my bow was a piece of junk. I bought a better bow, and the problem was fixed 100%.

You may also just need a re-hair.

Ask friends in your orchestra if you can play a scale or two with their bows. If you still have the same issue, then you have to address your playing.

If looking for a new bow and you don't have a lot to spend, I recommend a decent carbon fiber bow. Some people cringe at this idea, but $900 can get you a really good carbon fiber, but probably not such a great wood one. I've found that wood bows between $2,000-$3,000 are really decent, but still comparable to the cheaper carbon fiber ones.

July 24, 2014 at 07:28 AM · My rosin is about 25 years old. Vintage like a Strad.

September 19, 2014 at 02:24 PM · I'm going to hazard a guess that you're not bowing in a straight line at a right angle to the line of your strings, like you do when you're standing up. In my early days I experienced the very same thing. A quick check in the mirror showed me that my bow was at a horrid angle to the instrument. I would say that sitting down has thrown off your violin to bow position. Try practicing sitting down in front of a mirror like you were in your orchestra seat if you can, and get the feel for the correct angle of the bow to your instrument. This seems to me to be the most likely answer. I doubt it's your rosin or you'd have the same issue no matter where you played.

September 19, 2014 at 06:55 PM ·

September 19, 2014 at 11:28 PM · It's hard to get to the bottom of this without actually seeing what you're doing -- or not doing -- and without actually trying the same passages with your instrument and bow.

I agree with the previous posters on the condition of your bow hairs. Worn hairs will definitely reduce your traction. So will strings that are past their prime -- just think of all the times the bow has gone over the strings between bridge and fingerboard.

Still, if your bow hairs and strings are in good condition and giving good traction, one other thing to consider -- something not mentioned previously in this thread -- is to use flatter hair on the bow if you're not already doing so. If you're not using all available hairs, especially in forte and fortissimo passages -- well, I'm sure you can guess the rest.

September 20, 2014 at 01:05 AM · I think that the bow doesn't grip the string correctly. This can be caused by low rosin, not parallel bows, no bow weight, etc.

However, if you were to post yourself playing it would make us helping you easier.

September 20, 2014 at 08:25 PM · While undoubtedly hair and rosin certainly can have a great impact, if she doesn't experience the difficulty at her lessons or at practice when she is standing, but it occurs when she is sitting, then it isn't likely the problem is the hair or rosin. Presumably she is using the same bow and rosin for both. The logical conclusion is that something changes when she sits that doesn't occur when she stands. Having experienced the exact same symptoms in the past, my money is on the bowing.

September 20, 2014 at 10:15 PM · "This is typical rubbish from a conductor!! Don't believe a word that they say! They usually have no idea what day of the week it is, and also what piece they are waving their arms in (vague) time to."

Peter: I'm sorry that during your career you happened to witness and suffer (allegedly) mediocre conductors, but I think it's despicable that you seek to feed this sort of prejudice to other people, especially when your comment is just a brain dump of negativity that doesn't answer nor address the OP's question.

Amanda: you said you feel more confident in lessons. Have you tried having entire lessons while sitting down? Have you tried playing a piece during your practice time first standing and then immediately sitting down, just to see if there's a difference? If so, I'd suggest you sit down and play in front of a mirror, perhaps the extension and angle of your bows are not the same as when you stand up.

September 21, 2014 at 11:17 AM · Amanda, if your bow is hitting the chair or your leg when you're sitting down, then something's at a very funny angle.

You're having lessons? Why not discuss it with your teacher? Devote a lesson to your sitting position as it is in orchestra, and that should solve the problem.

September 21, 2014 at 11:47 AM · Alejandro,

Maybe when you've been around a little longer, you'll realise that Peter is correct in his appraisal of most conductors - even if you puts it a little more forcefully than some of the rest of us.

The ones who add nothing to a performance, the ones who make a total mistake and then blame the players, the ones who go to the back of the hall to listen and come back saying "I think it sounds better without me" - and who think they're making a joke. If only!

I used to sit there and think "I must take up conducting - I'd do it much better than this guy". But then you get one of the few good ones who add so much - the orchestra even SOUNDS different.

September 21, 2014 at 01:11 PM · Well, Malcolm, you nailed it with your very first phrase: "Maybe when you've been around a little longer". If indeed this is the case with many conductors, it's better to realize this little by little (and case by case) as personal experience develops, and *not* as an inherited prejudice, since prejudices predispose people to see what they were told they should see, usually in a negative way.

Peter, there's no need for insulting messages to my personal email via private message. That only shows your childish disposition to discuss and your inability to argue your case properly.

September 21, 2014 at 01:23 PM · As I said in my short email to you, I think you need to get a life. Also a bit more experience before you make silly statements.

Regarding conductors, if one had said to me that he/she could hear that someone had used too much rosin in an orchestral section, I would have repeated what I said in my post, to their face, and in adition I would have pointed out that if they want to be regarded as an idiot conductor, then continue with such stupid remarks.

The problem the young lady has is not too much rosin, but something else. (Could also be lack of rosin). But it would appear that many people have answered that she has a problem connected with perhaps sitting down, or a general bowing problem. It could also be that something is wrong with her violin, but who knows.

One of the signs of a good conductor is one that says little, and gets on efficiently with the job. If they are uncertain about something, then the players will help out. For example, a conductor that does not know a certain concerto well may sensibly ask the orchestra about any traditions, traps, problems etc before the soloist arrives.

From your comments, Alejandro, it would seem that you should consider a conducting career, as your attitude is about right for such a position. (wink)

September 21, 2014 at 02:02 PM · That's much better. I'm only an amateur musician, and I've "conducted" only a group of colleagues who formed a small music group, but one of them sings in a choir and has commented similar things about conductors, especially the part of a particular conductor blaming musicians when something goes wrong, even though it is apparent that they don't know the music too much.

Still, as I've said before, bluntly feeding a prejudice is something I can never agree with, and in my opinion such comments should be accompanied by context and further recommendations as to what to do or how to confront the situation.

In other matters, "you need to get a life" is one of the poorest replies you can come up with, surely you realize that. It doesn't add anything to a healthy discussion.

September 21, 2014 at 02:17 PM · As Trevor has hinted - conductors do not always endear themselves to orchestral players.

Have you ever heard a conductor play a wrong note, or conduct anything other than in C major? Do they have to big a sound, or too small a sound, and do they use vibrato? Do they have a great sound (only if its their own voice wanting to impress).

What about the conductor who altered some double bass parts notes to incorrcect ones in an FFF orchestral passage. At the rehearsal he stopped the orchestra and said they had a wrong note in the part. To which the principal bass replied "no - we spotted it and changed it back!" (True story)

Or the one that said the viola parts were fine against the horns when it was obvious they were not. It turned out when the real musicians looked at the score in the rehearsal break that the viola parts were in the wrong cleff!

So yes, do become a conductor and you will have enemies for life!

Alejandro - I see you have been playing the fiddle for 16 months, so maybe we should all bow to your superior experience and knowledge. (wink)

September 23, 2014 at 07:35 AM · Alejandro,

Unfortunately it's not a "blunt prejudice". It was something learned by many bad experiences. What DOES need contradicting is the opinion that conductors are all-knowing, all-inspiring figures who should never be challenged (mainly put about by conductors).

Professionally, most of these are treated as a minor annoyance and ignored, so what you get is a safe, routine play-through by the orchestra which is exactly the same as you'd get with an empty space. That is, unless the conductor makes such a big mistake that they wreck everything.

Sure, keep an open mind - but keep your expectations low and you won't be too disappointed!

September 27, 2014 at 01:04 PM · John, if you value your masculinity don't go near such a thing as a conductor's forum. They have big teeth and no logic, and the only thing they answer to is a nuclear bomb! They are the equivilent of G W Bush, Tony Bliar, and ISIS.

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