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Developing a Good Tone From the Start

by Peter Zaret

Presented at the Suzuki Association of the Americas 2004 National Conference, May 28-31

Galamian: “Music is a combination of tone, pitch and rhythm. Pitch and rhythm are absolutes that can be factually controlled and substantiated.”

Each pitch has its frequency. A natural is 440 vibrations per second. This is a provable fact. The higher frequencies are faster and the lower ones are slower. Each pitch can be checked by playing the note on a piano or any keyboard instrument, or various other devices such as a tuning meter or a pitch pipe, etc.

Rhythm can also be controlled by an absolute. A metronome is a convenient method, or sub- dividing, clapping etc. A rhythm can be explained in a mathematical way such as two eighth notes equal on quarter note etc. 60 on the metronome means one beat per second. It is verifiable and proveable.

Tone is another matter. What is there to factually and tangibly reference a good tone? There is no such thing as a tone meter. There is no equivalent to a pitch meter or a metronome, a keyboard or pitch pipe that can be held up or cross refrenced to support a judgement of a tone quality. With tone quantity you can get a decibel meter. However, the amount of sound is determined by the player and varies. Therefore the tone quantity is not absolute. What might be a loud tone on a trumpet and a loud tone on a violin are two different things. Chances are the loudest tone produced on a violin would be considered to be a small tone on a trumpet. To prove the quality of sound played live comparing it to a recorded sound or tone really only partially works. The volume is different and there are so many other differences I have found over the years this doesn’t do much good in proving the tone has a good quality.

When I was teaching, I thought the ability to play in tune and play in rhythm could be taught as I knew it was proveable. I think to a certain extent this is true and to a certain extent I think it depends on the talent of the student. Since I had absolute references to refer to I thought eventually the student would see (or hear) the light.

One day I had a relevation that turned me toward the negative on the rhythmic aspect. I had a good, serious student who practiced hard, got plenty of parental support, and came reasonably prepared to his lessons. This student had a beautiful tone and played very well in tune. His rhythm was a problem. I would clap, explain here and there this note or notes were too short or too long etc, play along with each passage where there were rhythmic problems. Eventually, it got better and the piece sounded fine. He would get the rhythm in the context of the music as a whole. He could perform the music in public and the rhythm was about 95%. It was still a bit shaky but everything else was good so these innacuracies went unnoticed. I thought he would eventually catch on and the problem would disappear. I maintained my patience as the usual things that drive a teacher crazy such as scratching and forcing the tone and playing out of tune were not with this student. The tone was beautiful and the intonation was excellent. However, with each new piece of music we had to go back to the drawing board. The rhythm was a mess once again.

After a few years I was starting to get frustrated. The rhythm hadn’t improved much. I remember one day when I had a relevation. He was playing I believe a Seitz concerto and I asked him how long a particular half note in the middle of passage was. He said “oh about a second or two”. I was stunned and it wasn’t long after that I decided my days as a teacher were coming to an end.

I have had similar experiences with trying to teach someone to play in tune. One method I used was asking the student to constantly make reference to open strings. This helped to a certain extent but in extreme cases it didn’t do much good. Maybe if such a student paid me $200 per hour and had maybe 5 lessons a week these problems would eventually get cured. Maybe I could finally help the student overcome these problems but I made judgement at that time it just wasn’t worth it. It took too much out of me.

I now think it is more possible to teach someone to produce a good tone than to teach how to play in rhythm and in tune. As I stated before tone really has no tangible and absolute references. The closest thing to an absolute is volume. Volume, to a certain extent, can be measured. However if it is loud and forced it is no good. If it is soft and mushy it is also no good. It must be clear, focused, resonant, etc. The player must be able to produce a big tone. This is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of producing a good sound. The player must be able to produce as loud a tone as possible.

When you think of a great player one of the first things that comes to mind is he or she has a big tone. It is flattering to say of a player he or she has a big tone. It is a put down to say the player has a small tone. Can anybody remember in a violin concerto such as the Tchaikovsky or the Brahms for instance when the soloist drowned out the orchestra? Or say in the second movement of the Franck Sonata where the violin drowned out the piano. I ask a rhetorical question: why do you think an orchestra has 35 violins and 3 flutes? The answer is self evident.

When I was studying my teachers were always exhorting me to produce a bigger tone as well as playing better in tune and better in rhythm.

I remember a few years ago hearing Nicolae Snyder doing the Sibelius concerto at the Blossom Festival. For those of you who haven’t been there it is held in an outdoor theater that seats over 5,000 people. Well you could hear the orchestra just fine. You could hear the soloist well during the cadenzas. The rest of the time you knew he was playing because his bow was moving.

Many years ago I went backstage before a concert in which Szerying was going to play the Tchaikovsky concerto with a local symphony. He was warming up in a large room with the rest of the strings. Everybody was playing. It was not the most pleasant sound I have ever heard. It was like a loud cacaphony of sound. He was showing off to anybody who would listen. It was amazing. Throughout this cacaphony of sound you heard his tone sound above everybody else. You could tell who was the soloist and who was the orchestra. His tone was loud and penetrating.

Another disadvantage a violinist or violist has is that his or her left ear is about 3 inches from the f hole. It gives the player an unrealistic view of just how loud he or she is. A flute player blows the sound out to the side, an oboe player blows it down to the floor and a trumpet player blows it out to the audience. The violinist plays it directly into his left ear. If anybody here has played the Bartok Contrasts they will know how difficult it is to be heard over a clarinet and a piano.

Now that I have established that volume is the most important aspect of a developing a good violin tone the question comes in how to develop it. That is the purpose of my talk.

First I would like to say that for the most part nothing in violin playing in my opinion can be stated as absolute fact. I will explain this as we go forward. The first thing that comes to mind when teaching someone to produce a tone is to draw the bow straight. This is obviously very important and most teachers tell the student to do this right away. However there are exceptions to this. For instance the very fine players tend to draw the bow slightly out on the down bow and slightly in on the up bow particularly when they are trying to play loudly. Why?

The answer is that more friction is created against the string thus giving more power.

Galamian said tone is produced by speed, pressure and sounding point. As for speed, more speed of the bow stroke produces more energy transmitted to the string. However, much of the time you can’t use a fast stroke as it is musically unworkable. So power must come from other sources in combination with speed. Pressure and sounding point are added to the mix.

Pressure is a dangerous word for violinists. In this case I must disagree with him for using this word. He should have used another word. (I remember my old teacher tell me over and over “the more you press the less comes out”). This teacher unfortunately never told me or certainly never stressed to me what to replace pressure with. You have to use a certain amoung of pressure to keep the bow from slipping or skittering over the string. A better word that might work is “weight” of the arm. That is certainly more relaxed pressure. How is pressure or weight applied and where does it come from? I will get to that later.

The next thing that has worked for me is a concentration on the actions of the shoulders — particularly the right shoulder. I am not an expert in anatomy, but the arm starts at the shoulder and if the shoulder is stiff or raised or both it affects the quality and power of the tone. Pianists work a lot on relaxing the shoulders. Fortunately for a pianist — but not for a violinist — both of our arms, and consequently our shoulders, do different things while we are playing. Arms and shoulders tend to want to do the same things at the same time. That is one reason I always recommended a student use a shoulder rest to keep the left shoulder relaxed and in a comfortable position. I found in my own playing that if I raised my left shoulder to hold the violin it made my right shoulder stiff. It also inhibited my left hand fingering work.

I found over the years that what worked best for me on the shoulder issue was having the shoulder do the opposite of what my right arm was doing. If I am doing a down bow I try to think: my shoulder is feeling like it is going in the direction of the up bow. And visa versa. I know this will sound controversial. However, I have found over the years that if I took literally what a teacher said I always found out later there were exceptions.

Basically what I think I am doing now is keeping the shoulder in a neutral position. I think this works best. When I pull the bow to the bridge I feel my shoulder going out toward the fingerboard. When I do a down bow I feel my shoulder going up as if I were going to the tip. When I do an up bow I feel as if the shoulder is doing a down bow. When I approach the frog and the tendency is to lift the shoulder particularly on the E string I drop the shoulder down. At the tip, when I am pronating the forearm the tendency is to pronate the shoulder. I feel a muscle in my shoulder going up to counteract the tendency to push the shoulder down. There is a muscle in there that — as soon as it drops — I know I’m in trouble.

Another source of power is pulling the bow close to the bridge. As a matter of fact it is here that I solved the problem of how to exert pressure. I think of pulling the bow closer and closer to the bridge rather than pressing down. That is a picture I have in my mind. Rather than press, press, I pull and pull closer to the bridge. The closer you get to the bridge the stronger and firmer the string gets and the more bang for the buck you get with power from the bow.

I imagine it as though pressure comes sideways rather than up and down. If there is pressure vertically it is to keep the bow from slipping and sliding across the string.

Here is a question: why do you think you turn the bow to the side? One answer is the less hair that touches the string the softer the sound will be. That is partially true. I noticed great violinists playing loud and yet they used the side of the hair. It took me many years to figure this one out. The less obvious answer is the more you turn the bow to the side and the less hair you have on the string the softer and more flexible the hair becomes. Therefore if you want to play very close to the bridge the best way to be able to do this is turn the hair to the side. The flat hair is stiff and close to the bridge the string is stiff. The flat hair doesn’t work close to the bridge. It is like metal on metal; two strong and inflexible forces opposite each other.

Another important concept in developing a good tone is to think of each note as an attack. Winds and brass do this all the time. An oboe can’t get any kind of sound without an attack. With a string instrument it is harder to attack close to the bridge. An attack farther from the bridge is easier to disguise but to get a big tone you have to get closer to the bridge. Sometimes a good player will make the attack far from the bridge and then pull the bow closer to the bridge.

A loud attack can easily throw a player off the track. My old teacher at Juilliard, Joseph Fuchs, used to get criticized by many of his students (not to his face of course) for how scratchy and rough his bow changes were. When he did spiccato how rough and edgy it sounded. This was from up close. At a distance though his tone sounded like melted gold. You couldn’t hear the bow changes and the off the string strokes sounded precise and clear. Translated, he was attacking the string vigorously and powerfully and the tone was big, pure and rich. Without the attack the tone just doesn’t sound beautiful. By the way, in my opinion, a smooth bow change is highly overrated as far as its importance.

One of the reasons beginners sound so good when they are playing pizzicato is because what they are doing is attacking the string and letting it ring and resonate without letting the bow damp it down.