It’s All in the Bow

It’s All in the Bow

Woman playing violinAchieving auditory perfection for string musicians takes time, maturity and discovery. Through all the complexities, being aware of what you are playing and reaching sophisticated auditory skill is one of the most crucial steps in improving weak or irregular tone. Reaching the tone you desire and finding that perfect blend between vibrato, tone and pitch takes shifting your focus to the foundation: the bow.

Try this simple, two-step plan provided by Strings Magazine to improve your tone:

Re-tool Your Bow Arm

What is the appropriate age to identify your bowing style and the specific mechanics at play? Twenty-year-olds who have finished a couple of years of college may have developed enough of a mature musical mind to observe what they’re doing without relying on the instruction of others. You can’t teach the inner sensations and reaction times that the bow arm requires, just as you can’t teach someone to walk. However, a teacher can demonstrate to students what these poorly produced tones sound like, from exposing a thin, one-dimensional sound to one that is forced and unable to fit into a phrase. Rather than having the student copy the teacher’s method, it is far better to identify the goal.

If you’re older than 20 when you start exploring your “inner bow arm,” you should be thankful that your observational skills are sophisticated and mature. Try to keep preconceptions, false expectations, and low self-esteem at bay—the adult baggage you carry around can get in the way of an older, smarter, and more mature mind.

Streamline Your Right Arm

A good place to start is learning how to sense when your bow sound is matching the prevailing sound of the ensemble. Do you sound a little too coarse, too weak, or not fully focused? To adapt your sound, employ some “add-ons” or “take-aways.” You can enrich the string vibration, not force the string, use more legato, less staccato, and so on. You are the one that’s expected to change, because the sound of the section is exactly where it needs to be. Think of what sculptors do, and mold your existing sound until it matches that of the ensemble.

One’s bow arm starts life much like the big bang theory: all at once a child starts moving the bow during his first lesson, and the gears and complete apparatus start working. Details are the last thing on a child’s mind, including the idea that the arm is there to serve the string. As a violinist gets older, he or she notices that the ear has the ability to direct subtle changes in the mechanics of the bow’s movement. The most important thing to develop is the art of compensation: when the ear and the musical result are not matching, do something slightly different to make the result successful. Changing the visual position of the bow arm has an insignificant effect compared to changing the subtle coordination of speed, energy, and contact. The bow arm is merely a conveyor belt for the bow itself.

Every bow sound is only as good as how it relates to the adjacent sounds. You depend on context to create a narrative that sounds like music is speaking to you and telling a story. Broadus Erle, the celebrated violinist of the Yale and New Music String Quartets, demonstrated in a master class how sound evolves from its most infinitesimal utterance to a massive tonal energy that never overpowers or reaches critical mass. He would play one note, getting louder and louder, and each increment would unfold organically. His awareness of his particular sound, with its unlimited possibilities and specific boundaries and limitations, was an important part of his musical mind.

It’s not that easy to think about the ear before you go to college because most training is geared towards the placement of hands, the set up, and outer-oriented techniques. But from your 20s through the rest of your life, your mature mind is ripe for understanding how the inner ear guides everything.

Click here to read the complete article in String Magazine.