Sunday, 13 April 2014

Tone production on string instruments

As all violinists and string instrumentalists out there will know, the technique of the violin (and other string instruments) is usually split into two sections: right-hand technique (bowing styles, tone production, dynamics) and left-hand technique (dexterity, intonation, vibrato). 

Why, just the book!

Many people, myself included, spend a large amount of time addressing left hand technique, but do not quite match that with the time they spend on right-hand technique. Lately I have found that the main area of improvement that I need to focus on is tone production and bow changing.

So I want to share with you some of the things that I've been told, some of the things I've researched, and some of the things that I'm practising.

Tone production can be thought of being comprised of three main factors:
  • Bow position
  • Bow speed 
  • Bow pressure
Bow placement is important, as one can easily loose track of where they are, regarding this. A problem that I'm sometimes encountering is that I realise that I'm playing too near the fingerboard when I should be nearer the middle or the bridge, which is crucial, especially for the staccato bow stroke (as in Wieniawski, not staccato articulation). The opposite is that I'm playing too near the bridge, as I live life on the fast lane and am a totally free spirit...

Bow speed ties in with this very closely. For example, to play a note on the bridge and to achieve a beautiful, wispy tone, you need to use a faster bow, whereas for a loud, gritty (not scratchy) sound near the bridge, you need to use a slower bow.

Bow pressure is also very important, as - for example - you cannot produce a good fingerboard sound with a heavy bow. 
Lack of pressure control results in either scratching or, on the other end of the spectrum, a shy and timid tone. 
Factors that I have found affect this are forefinger pressure (on the fingerboard, the little finger must be used to counter-act the forefinger's pressure); arm and elbow height (the elbow must be in a high position for soft tone production and in a relatively low position for forte tone production) and straightness of bow.

An interesting contraption used to keep violin students' bows straight.

Also, different problems can be encountered at different points of the bow, such as the heel, where it is difficult to produce a soft tone due to its natural heaviness. This needs to be controlled in the arm and fingers in order to overcome these difficulties.

This can all seem basic, but everyone has these issues.

The problems that violinists encounter are due to a lack of control in these fundamental areas. Here are some exercises that I've researched or that I already practise, and that I think are effective:
  • Play a long note near the bridge, with slow bow speed and high bow pressure. Do this for both up and down bows, taking care with bow change and keeping tone even.
  • Do the same, just that on the fingerboard, with fast bow speed and low bow pressure (taking extra care on the up bow)
  • "Press-ups": Place the tip of the bow on the string (bridge) and press down with the forefinger so that the bow hair touches the stick. This can also be done on other points of the bow, and is quite literally an exercise that should be repeated a couple of times.
  • This exercise by my favourite violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian improves control of tone, despite the location of the bow (tip or heel). It is to be done on all strings, scales, double stops etc...
  • This exercise by Dounis, whose studies aid and plague many students today, is brilliantly effective. I practise it every time I get the violin out. Apparently Leopold Mozart would get his students to practise a similar study, which means that Mozart Jr. probably did something like this.
    The bow shouldn't be stopped for the accented notes, as the forefinger should be used to emphasise these. (Again, this study is for all strings, and all positions, preferably.) 

Good luck with improving tone. Wish me good luck as well though!