Master Basic Bowing Techniques (Advanced Players Should Skip on to the Next Tip.)
It may seem obvious, but for the inexperienced player, the most profound improvements to your instrument's tone can be brought about simply by mastering the basics of good bowing. This takes discipline, a good teacher, and a great deal of practice. But, it's worth it!
- Keep the Bow Straight
Keeping the bow straight, i.e. parallel to the bridge, is challenging for beginners. From the player's perspective, it can be hard to see whether the bow is straight or crooked, so a tall mirror is often helpful. Parental assistance during practice is also recommended. Many teachers recommend using just the middle portion of the bow to start, since keeping the bow straight when playing at the frog and tip is more difficult. Note: a crooked bow is the most common cause of squeaking and squawking in beginners, because as the bow becomes crooked, the distance from the bow to the bridge becomes inconsistent.
- Keep a Consistent Contact Point on the String
Fix the bow on a point approx. half way between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard. As you bow, keep the hair touching that same point, and don't allow the bow to wander. Advanced players learn to draw the bow in towards the bridge to achieve greater power, and to draw away from the bridge when a sweeter tone is desired. But, the beginning player must simply learn to control this point of contact, and keep it consistent. A bow that wanders will have an inconsistent tone. Worse, a bow that is periodically brought too close to the bridge, without a compensating change in bow pressure, will squawk.
- Control Bow Speed and Pressure
A great variety of tone colors can be produced by adjusting the combination of bow speed and pressure. A high speed with very little pressure, for example, will yield a soft, ethereal sound. A slow, heavy bow, on the other hand, will produce a powerful and growling tone. But, for a player to use this wonderful palette of tonal colors, he or she must first learn to control both the speed and the pressure - keeping them consistent. Beginners tend to slow down and lighten the bow at the end of each bow stroke, producing an undesirable "wah-wah" sound. If a beautiful tone is desired, the player should practice long, slow, steady bow strokes, with consistency in both speed and pressure.
- Keep the Shoulder, Arm, and Fingers Relaxed
The bow must be gripped firmly enough to prevent it from sliding out of position. (The placement of the fingers should not change as the bow moves up and down. To keep the bow straight, the wrist must do the work - not the fingers.) But, a strangle-hold on the bow will prevent fluid motion and can also be bad for the player's health! Likewise, the shoulder, while doing the work of holding up the arm, must not be raised or stiff. This will lead to robotic motion and a skitterish, difficult-to-control bow stroke.
- Use the Weight of the Bow and Arm
Players trying to overcome a skitterish bow must learn to relax their fingers, arm, and shoulder. The bow is bouncing around simply because there is no weight to hold it steady. Allow the weight of the bow to rest on the strings. (You don't need to hold it up, unless you are playing pianissimo. And, even then, the work is done with the pinky, not the arm.) Now, allow the weight of the arm to rest on the string as well. This will put pressure on the wrist, and can be a difficult skill to master. But, by allowing the weight of your arm to draw the sound out of the instrument, rather than trying to push to bow into the strings, you will produce a much more relaxed, natural, rich, and beautiful tone.
Have your Bridge Examined by a Professional
If you've mastered the basic bowing techniques and still don't care for the sound of your fiddle, a professional adjustment may be in order. This is particularly true for instruments in the $100 - $1000 range, which are often sold with a poorly cut and badly adjusted bridge. A well-cut bridge, fitted and tuned to an instrument, can make a tremendous difference to the tone produced, and to the playability of the violin as well. Be sure to take your violin to a reputable violin shop, not your local general music store, if you want professional workmanship.
Have your Sound Post Adjusted
While you're having the bridge adjusted, ask for a sound post adjustment, as well. The height, thickness, fit, and exact placement of the post can alter the tone significantly.
Consider Different Strings
Strings should be changed frequently, if you wish to maintain a good tone quality. Use this to your advantage, trying out different types and brands of strings. Every violin is different, and a certain amount of trial and error is necessary. Your choice of strings can have a profound impact on both tone quality and playability. Please see our Guide to Violin Strings for more on this topic. Note: Don't be afraid to try different combinations of strings. Many players find that getting just the right E string will enhance the quality of the rest of the set.
Consider a Different Bow
Your choice of bow has almost as great an impact on the tone as your choice of strings. Certainly, it has a tremendous impact on articulation, dynamic range, and ease of play. Advanced bowing techniques can be extremely difficult to accomplish with a poorly made bow. And, matching the tone of your bow to the tone of your instrument is vital. Pernambuco bows tend to be darker in tone than carbon fiber (with some exceptions), making pernambuco a good choice to match with a brighter sounding instrument. Carbon bows, which tend to be more brilliant, tend to match well with warmer/darker sounding instruments. See our Guide to Violin Bows for more, or contact us to arrange a professional consultation. Your choice of bow will affect the brightness, richness, complexity, and overall quality of your tone. A good bow will also allow for wide variations in tone color, altering with changes in bow speed and pressure, allowing for greater nuance and expression. Bow choice also effects articulation, softness of touch, and quickness to speak.
Consider Cleaning Bow Hair or Rehairing
Old hair will certainly result in a scratchy, dull tone. Much like old violin strings, the tone produced by bow hair will deteriorate over time. This is primarily the result of oil and dirt building up in the hair. Whether you choose to clean the hair or replace it, you should do something with your bow hair every 6-12 months.
The quality of the hair used is also an important consideration. If the technician installs old, dry, or cheap hair when they rehair your bow, then you may hear no difference in tone quality from what they removed. For the smoothest, clearest tone quality, with the least amount of surface noise and roughness to the tone, choose fresh, high-grade stallion hair. If properly installed, the technician will inspect the hair carefully, removing any hairs that are inconsistent in thickness or are not completely smooth over the entire length of the hair.
If you are very discerning about your tone, try to find live stallion hair, which is taken from a live horse. Live stallion hair can be difficult to find. And, it tends to stretch more than less expensive hair, which can lead to problems when playing in humid conditions, and more frequent rehairs. So, consider your choice carefully. But, it does produce a wonderful tone.
Consider Changing Rosin
A frequently overlooked, and relatively inexpensive item that can greatly impact tonality, is the rosin. Your choice of rosin can be surprisingly important to the tone quality. Different rosins really do produce different tones and vary enormously in how they grip the strings. From dark and brooding, to sharp and brilliant, rosins are certainly worth a bit of experimentation, if you are trying to improve the tone of your violin.
Be sure to replace your rosin frequently, as rosin dries out quickly. Long before it becomes too hard to use, it will have lost its desirable tonal qualities. And, the best quality rosins seem to lose their vitality more quickly than the cheaper ones. Please see our Guide to Rosin for more on this topic. We recommend changing rosin every time you clean/replace your bow hair, which should be at least every 6-12 months.
Consider Using Less Rosin
This is a simple, but often very effective tip. If your rosin is fresh and of high quality, you'll need to use very little. Three to five strokes, up and down, is enough. More will not only cause clouds of dust, possibly damaging the fine varnish of your violin, but will also deaden the tone.
Consider Changing Chin Rest & Should Rest Selection
Finally, for the very discerning player, the choice of chin rest and shoulder rest can have a small, but discernible impact on the instrument's tone. Any hardware that prevents the free vibration of the instrument will have a muting effect. A harder, smaller foot on a shoulder rest, for example, will mute the instrument less than a softer, larger, foot. (Of course, a shoulder rest with a harder, smaller foot will also be more likely to slip.) Center-mounting and Guarneri-style chin rests may effect the tone differently than side-mounting chin rests, because they are mounted on the block, rather than the rib. And, finally, the construction and resonance qualities of the rests themselves can impact tone, which is why many players are opting for wooden rests, rather than plastic.