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Playing the Violin With Beautiful Tone

Updated on September 13, 2017
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Tong Keat obtained M.A. in Violin Perf. at MTSU, TN. He is currently a member of the Selangor Symphony Orchestra and Strettosphere Quartet.

Bow Hold: The Beginning of Everything

A good bow hold is the pre-requisite to beautiful tone. Each finger in the right hand has its functions and it is important that each finger is placed correctly on the bow stick. Subtle finger motions are required when playing the violin and therefore, the fingers have to stay curved and relaxed.

One of the most common problems found in student’s bow hold is the over-extended thumb and/or fourth-finger (pinky). Over-extended fingers stiffen the entire bow hand because the joints have been locked into a fixed position. Students who have not be able to maintain a flexible bow hold will find it difficult to play with the lower part of the bow. The thumb plays a crucial role in allowing the other fingers to move flexibly while the fourth-finger is needed to balance out the weight of the bow when playing near the frog.

There are different ways of holding the bow taught by different schools of violin playing. According to the famous Hungarian pedagogue Carl Flesch, there are the German, Russian, and Franco-Belgian bow hold. While Flesch favoured the Russian bow hold - the contact point of the first-finger (index) closer to the base joint, many violinists that I have encountered play with the Franco-Belgian bow hold.

Keeping it Straight

Keeping the bow parallel to the bridge is a complicated task. It helps to set the strings into uninterrupted vibrations in order to get an even tone. Often time, the tone quality suffers when the bow missed the perfect angle with the strings.

In the Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, Ivan Galamian said that “all natural motions of the hand, arm and fingers are circular in character. Therefore, a straight line motion is formed only through a combination of movements which are naturally circular.” In other words, drawing a straight bow requires a sequence of movements, in which every single movement has to be well-proportioned.

Beginners often start learning to play using the middle part of the bow, where a simple forearm movement, similar to opening and closing the elbow, will keep the bow parallel. This is the same bow stroke used in playing a rapid passage of even notes. Playing the bow towards the tip and the frog requires more attention as it involves the upper arm motion from the shoulder joint. As the bow reaches the tip and the frog, some wrist and fingers movements are required to keep the bow in good angle and also to facilitate a smooth bow change into the opposite direction.

Weight and Pressure

Young students who have learned to hold the bow will need to learn how to release the weight of the bow and the arm onto the violin. This can only be done when the right upper arm is equally levelled with the bow. Playing with this kind of natural weight gives us a richer tone and a more flexible bow hand. Students who are unable to engage with this natural weight will tend to force the pressure down using the fingers when being asked to play a loud passage, resulting in stiffness and bad tone.

To play with beautiful tone, we need to be awared of the difference in weight at different parts of the bow. Playing with the same pressure throughout the bow will result in an uneven tone, due to the uneven weight distribution across the bow. Therefore, to maintain an even tone, we have to learn to counter the natural tendency of the bow.

An inward rotary movement from the right forearm (pronation) can add weight to the bow and is especially helpful in sustaining the volume or doing a crescendo on a down-bow. Meanwhile, an outward rotary movement (supination) helps to maintain the volume or to create a diminuendo on an up-bow.

Understanding Sounding Point

Sounding point refers to the distance of your bow from the bridge where it plays on the strings. A sounding point that is close to the bridge gives you a solid, rich, and projected sound. Soloists often play on that sounding point in a concerto performance. Many teachers would encourage their students to play as close as possible to the bridge without going over (i.e. cracking) when performing a solo repertoire. On the other hand, a sounding point that is closer to the fingerboard gives you a soft, thin, and airy sound. It is more often used in chamber or orchestral music in the accompaniment parts. In certain cases, we can find composers asking the violinists to play ‘sul tasto’ or ‘flauntando’ in a solo repertoire.

Finding the best sounding point depends on what strings and positions you are playing as well. Generally, a lower/thicker string will sound better with a sounding point further away from the bridge compared to a higher/thinner string. Playing in a higher position will shorten the length of the string and therefore, it is better to play closer to the bridge in the higher positions.

The bow pressure, bow speed, and sounding point form a unique relationship, in which any one aspect will affect the other two. For example, if you want to play with a good tone close to the bridge, then the bow has to be heavier and slower. However, if you want to play with fast bow speed, then it is better to play further away from the bridge with a lighter bow. Understanding this relationship gives you a whole palette of sound to choose from in your playing.

"One must always practice slowly. If you learn something slowly, you forget it slowly." - Itzhak Perlman

© 2017 Goh Tong Keat

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