Let’s face it—it is very easy to sound bad on the violin, and it is very hard to sound good! Of all the dozens of elements you could work on to improve your violin playing, the one thing that will give you the best return for your invested effort is a four lettered word—TONE.
What the…? Everyone knows TONE is what primarily makes us sound good or bad, and separates the pros from the amateurs. Well, intonation is pretty critical too, but that will be discussed in another post. So if everyone knows tone is important, why aren’t teachers paying more attention to it?
I believe that TONE has been over-mystified. It has become a “Holy Grail” or secret elixir. It starts to feel like only the elite few can attain it, or only those who get an expensive enough violin. Or an old enough violin. Or how about a teacher who pays attention to it?!
Well, I am here to tell you the truth: good tone can be achieved by anyone on almost any violin. All it takes is the willingness to pay attention to three fundamental ingredients in what I have come to call the “TONE PIE”.
Tone Production, Simplified
Tone on the violin consists of three basic ingredients. I’ll tell you what they are in a minute. You can adjust your tone by changing the amounts of each ingredient—but if you reduce one ingredient, you have to make up for it by adding more of another ingredient.
For example, if you have 1/3 cup flour, 1/3 cup sugar, and 1/3 cup water, you will have a total of 1 whole cup of pie. Suppose your pie is way too sweet. You would reduce the sugar, right? Maybe only 1/8 cup of sugar. So the rule I gave you would require you to add more flour, or water, or a little of both to make up for the sugar you removed. (and usually, you’ll add a little of each one) If your pie is too dry, less flour and more water. How simple is that?!
Are you biting at the bit, wondering how long I’ll string you along before I give you the 3 ingredients? Oh heck, I’m no good at that game, so here you go: The 3 basic ingredients of tone are:
- Bow Weight
- Bow Speed
- Bow Placement
Each of these ingredients accounts for 30 percent of your tone, for a total of 90 percent. The other ten percent comes from more subtle nuances of bow control and of left hand technique. I don’t count the instrument as an ingredient. Obviously, you want the best violin you can afford, but I want to teach you how to sound your BEST on the instrument you have NOW.
Bow weight is challenging because the bow at the tip is very light, and the bow at the frog can be very heavy because your whole hand and arm are right there. That is why 98 percent of crunches happen at the frog. Ideally, you want to distribute the bow weight evenly, so it is consistent from frog to tip. This involves finesse at the frog to deal wit the extra weight, and strong “pronation” of the bow hand to lend weight all the way out to the tip.
Bow Benders (for bow weight control)
The following is an exercise to develop the muscles and technique of pronation:
Place the bow on any string at the TIP. Make sure your bow is STRAIGHT (parallel to the bridge), and make sure your bow hand remains PERFECT. (You must be careful not to let exercises like this start bad habits like caving your bow thumb in.) Bend your bow by pressing the tip against the string. Pronate your bow hand forcefully enough to bend the bow until the stick actually touches the horsehair. Most of the work will be performed by your index finger opposing your thumb. You will also feel some work being done by your forearm muscles. Do this repeatedly, but slowly to monitor your bow hand and muscle sensation. Again, don’t let your bow thumb cave in.
To avoid muscle injury or pain, start off easy. You can make this exercise easier three ways. 1) Put the bow on the E string. Trust me—it’s easier. 2) Don’t put the bow all the way out to the tip….put it 6 inches or so from the tip. 3) Don’t tighten the bow fully, leave it somewhat loose. As you get stronger and better at this exercise, try doing it on other strings, and tighten the bow more. The hardest element is putting the bow on the string way out at the EXTREME tip. That takes some serious pronation!
This is the simplest of the 3 ingredients to understand and control. In fact, bow speed is self-explanatory—it refers to how fast or how slowly your bow travels across the string. And as a general rule, Bow Speed is closely linked to Bow Weight. You will usually inversely adjust these ingredients. More bow speed needs less bow weight, Less Bow Speed needs More bow weight, generally.
This ingredient is somewhat more independent from the other two. Bow placement is in reference to how close or how far from the bridge your bow is placed while you play. Many Suzuki teachers refer to this as the “Kreisler Highway” named after the famous violinist, Fritz Kreisler. I like this analogy, but I like to break it into a 5-lane highway, so if my student makes a crunch….I simply say, “What lane are you in?” , and they know exactly how to fix it.
When you play with the bow right next to the bridge, you will tend to get a scratchy sound unless you use lots of bow weight, and a very slow bow. If you play with the bow far from the bridge, you can get a beautiful, soft, wispy sound….until you try to play louder, and then all you get is CRUNCH. This happens because when you play loud, we all know you must press harder with the bow…i.e. BOW WEIGHT! You just changed an ingredient in your tone pie without adjusting the other ingredient–namely the bow placement!
In case it’s not obvious, volume and dynamics are not additional ingredients in the tone pie. Volume and dynamics are achieved by manipulating the tone pie itself.
Exercises for Great Tone
I like to create a “default setting” for my students: Middle lane of the Kreisler Highway, medium bow speed, and medium but not wimpy bow weight. I find that this default works 85 percent of the time. Here are some basic examples of when the “default setting” of your tone pie needs to be adjusted:
I) A very long note, played loud: (Try with a Loud Twinkle Theme)
–Loud requires lots of Bow Weight
–Lots of Bow Weight requires less Bow Speed
–Less Bow Speed and more Bow Weight requires Bow Placement close to the bridge.
II) A very long note, played softly: (Try with a Soft Twinkle Theme)
–Soft requires less Bow Weight
–Less Bow Weight needs a little more Bow Speed
–Light, fast bow needs Bow Placement further from the bridge
III) A staccato stroke or many staccato strokes: (Try with Twinkle Variation B)
–Staccato is a fast bow stroke—lots of Bow Speed
–Staccato requires Bow Weight to GRAB the string
Normally, we don’t combine Fast bow with Heavy bow, so our last ingredient will make or break us—Bow Placement is critical. Choose the middle lane of the Kreisler Highway. If your bow is really fast, go a little further from the bridge. If your bow is not so fast, try going a little closer to the bridge.
I should mention that if your bow is not straight (parallel to the bridge), you will NOT have good tone. This is not a Tone Pie issue. It is a technique issue.
IV) A strong, clear detache’ stroke and combination strokes (Try with Twinkle Variation A and D)
–Medium Bow Weight
–Medium Bow Speed
–Middle Lane of Kreisler Highway
This one is your default setting! You will use this 90 percent of the time.
One final word: It’s important not to be wimpy with your bow weight in a detache’ stroke. Don’t be afraid of getting a crunch here and there! REMEMBER: Your best, biggest sound is one hair away from a great big crunch! You have to take risks! You will never know how far you can push until you push too far! I heard Perlman crunch in concert once. You have to push the limits to achieve your best sound! LIVE DANGEROUSLY!