Musicians are multitaskers. Our brains, fingers, and bodies do so many things all at once to perform our instruments. When approaching practice, I encourage students to break things down into small OMGs–Obtainable Musical Goals–rather than attacking everything at once. Similarly, when planning out my year as an orchestra director, I break down instruction into different units such as Left Hand (which was featured in September 30’s article here), Right Hand (bowing and tone), and Rhythm. This blog post focuses on some of my tricks for helping students understand and master tone.
After students have a good understanding of posture and bow hold, I address the concept of tone through what I call the “LAWS of Tone and Dynamics,” with LAWS standing for Lane, Amount, Weight, and Speed. These four terms help students understand how to create a characteristic tone and a variety of dynamic levels.
The location of the bow on the string plays an important role in the quality of tone that one can produce and the volume that will be produced. Different methodologies divide this into various amounts of areas, with the basic three being Sul Tasto, Sound Point, and Ponticello. The opening of Sound Innovations: Sound Development explores lanes in relationship to dynamic levels, with an explanation of where to play prior to each of the first six exercises in the book.
Generally speaking, students should play near the sound point, staying parallel to the bridge; however, allowing your students to experiment with different tone qualities is a great way to open their ears to what is possible. Using a simple tune such as “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” have them try playing in different lanes. You could even have them change up the name of the song depending on the tone quality—“Mary Had a Little Dinosaur” (for ponticello) or “Mary Had a Little Fish” (for sul tasto).
When explaining to beginners the role “amount” plays in tone quality, I simply say that “more bow = more sound.” We then explore the mechanics of how to use our shoulders, elbows, and even wrists to extend our bows from frog to tip and tip to frog. As they advance, they learn that tone development is a balance between location, amount, weight, and speed—so more bow doesn’t always equate to more sound.
To explore “amount,” check out the first few exercises in Habits of a Successful String Musician (or Habits of a Successful Middle Level String Musician).
I like to use the term bow weight rather than bow pressure because pressure infers tension, whereas weight has to do with gravity. Discuss with the students where this weight comes from (gravity and their scapulas, not squeezing their fingers).
Sound Innovations: Sound Development has a helpful unit that teaches students to experiment with different bow weights.
The speed of your bow does not always equate to the speed of the music or the rhythm. How fast you move your bow plays an important factor in the type of tone you produce when applied with different weights and different amounts. For example, if you use fast speed and large amounts with light weight, the sound might be wispy tone-wise, but it might also be loud dynamic-wise just because of the speed.
An entertaining example of this is having the students make a “light-saber” sound effect by drawing the bow, slow to start and fast to finish, on an open string (sorry in advance that you will now hear this sound at the start of every class period!).
Once students understand how to use the LAWS, I add one extra letter… “T” for Tilt, and tell them they’d be “LAWST” (aka lost) without bow tilt. Tilting your bow with the hairs toward the bridge alleviates some of the friction created between the bow hairs and the string, and often results in a more resonant tone. For violin and viola, this means tilting your stick away from you and raising your bow arm slightly in response. For cello, this means tilting your stick towards you, which relieves some tension in your bow wrist and arm as well. For bass, there will be less tilt because of the necessity for some friction when creating a big bass tone, but you will at times tilt the stick slightly toward you.
Putting It All Together
I remember teaching Midnight Howl to my students one year, rehearsing the open 8 measures over and over. I was very focused on matching their bow lanes, amount, weight, and speed, so we could find a unified tone and match our articulation as well. Students started asking why we were going over this same spot day after day when they “knew it” already. They knew the notes and rhythms of course, but understanding all of the capabilities of their bow was another story, so we continued to work on it until they played and sounded as one. Setting them up with a strong foundation in these LAWS helped promote a very successful school year for that ensemble and I know it can for yours as well!