Bow Control & Tone Creation (Simon interviews Zlata)
Simon Streuff interviews me about bowing technique and tone production
It matters more HOW you play than WHAT you play
Violin players are so focussed on hitting the right notes in the right rhythm, while what really matters is the sound you create, the emotions you express and the story you tell
In this interview I give you some practical tips and exercises on how to improve your bow control with just 5 to 10 minutes of practice a day. It’s suitable for beginner, intermediate and advanced players.
Bow control and tone creation
Simon: Welcome Zlata, today I am interviewing you for my Youtube channel. So maybe you could tell me something about yourself?
Zlata: I am a violinist and a teacher, play in several orchestras and have my own violin studio that you see here, which is a violin school and violin shop in the Netherlands. I also have a youtube channel with over 250 video lessons in all kinds of topics around the violin and about violin playing. So that is what I do, everything violin!
Simon: I know your youtube channel from someone from my audience. She told me about your channel and that it was very helpful for her: she started her violin playing just from your videos. It is nice to see that online violin lessons really work because she can play quite good now on the violin. We will talk today about bow control and tone creation, so let’s start!
Why is it important to work on the bow arm from the beginning when you start playing the violin?
Zlata: You can playing the violin actually compare to singing and then the bow and your bow hand are your voice and your mouth and the violin is actually the lungs. So if you can play incredibly fast with your left hand and in tune but your bowing technique is not sufficient, then it will just not sound good. Whatever you are playing, whether it is classical music or popular music, something easy or difficult, the most important is that it sounds good.
Simon: Yes, I once heard a fascinating story about a violinist that played very out of tune but with such a good sound that the audience loved it. I completely agree, it is very important from the beginning to study the bow because the sound also makes it pleasant to the listener and that is what we all want to do: please the listener.
What deficiency is the most criminant when you think of violin beginners specifically for the bow arm?
Zlata: I think when beginners start to play the violin they mainly use their shoulder to bow. What you get then on the violin if I get mine is, when you keep your wrist and fingers stiff, and you do this [plays a note] the bow goes everywhere.
The first step to create a good sound is to bow straight, which means that your bow is always in an 90 degree angle with your string [shows how]. The thing is, and I will show you my professional made graphic [shows graphic] actually your arm is making a circle and your bow is going straight. So you have to make several movement with your fingers and wrist and your lower arm and mainly keep your upper arm still or use it for the string changes, to be able to make a good sound. So the first step is: go straight.
Simon: I always call that the banana with my students. They find it very funny when I tell them they have to do the other banana with their arm. It appears that you are not going straight because the movement, you are correcting your natural movement.
Zlata: yes you have to correct this round movement of your arm and even if you keep your upper arm still then still your lower arm if I could hold a pencil then I am still making a circle. And you want the bow straight so actually my hand has to make a from a round so you have to two circles in that.
What role are the fingers of the bow hand for a straight or good bow stroke?
Zlata: There are two functions actually of the fingers in general.
- To make this round movement into a straight movement. And if you are a beginner and you want a feeling of that, then let someone hold the bow and just move your hand up and down the bow. Then you have to make this straight line and you will see that your fingers make this movement. You really have to gain some strength and coordination and balance in your fingers to be able to do this because if your pinky is still uncontrolled and tensed then this doesn’t work.
- The second thing is to round up the bow change and what I mean by that is: a lot of typical beginners sound is this [plays something]. And what we want is that you keep the resonance in your bow by moving your fingers like that so you can make fluent bow changes.
What is the role of the pinky and the ring finger?
Zlata: In general if you do something in life whatever if you write or move a chair, your fingers are doing all the same. In bowing your pinky has a role of itself to play and in daily life with your pinky you don’t really do something separate.
Simon: It is just not a very good trained finger and on the violin it has such an important role.
Zlata: yes, left as well as right. You need to use your pinkies in violin playing so you really have to make them strong but not only strong in the sense that your pinky gets a lot of muscles, but mainly in the meaning that you get a lot of movement in them. In bowing, the difference is that your middle two fingers kind of hold the bow steady so they are not doing that much. But what your pinky does is to round and smoothen this bow change.
Simon: and it holds a lot of weight right?
Zlata: yes and certainly at the frog, a lot of violinist have a fear of the frog, they find it very difficult because you have the whole weight of the bow on the other side. If you are playing at the tip, it is more between your index finger and thumb then your pinky doesn’t do that much. Just as with the fourth finger and the left hand, violinist tend to avoid doing something with the pinky. This weakens it a bit more then it becomes more difficult and so on.
What are the major factors to develop a good sound on the violin?
Zlata: Well a lot of people think it is magic or talent or a combination of them, but actually there are three factors:
- Contact point
And then you have to balance them out which is different on every string, on every note, dynamics, every position it is different. But in general, if you know that these are the factors that you are playing with and that you can control those and see what is the best combination. Then you can create optimal resonance which means that your string vibrates as wide as possible. That doesn’t influence how high or low the note is because that depends on the hertz. This is a bit technical but also of importance while playing the instrument.
Simon: I think it is very interesting for every violinist: the technical aspect is very much neglected sometimes. As you said it is all about magic and talent but some things you have to think about and understand. I think talent is closely connected with how good you are in feeling and interpreting the technical aspects.
Zlata: Yes, and some people may develop that quicker than others and that may be talent, but in general if you have the optimal combination in speed weight and contact point, with speed I mean bow speed, that is good. Then the weight, you actually transfer the weight of your arm through your index finger. So if you are using too little weight, you get [plays a little]. And when you get more weight you then you get a sound with a core, a deeper sound. Then contact point is actually where you are between the bridge and your fingerboard. In the beginning it is really a challenge to just stay there and bow straight. I even see violinist who play for 5 years and still do not do this. Then they want to do advanced stuff on tone creation but often, just get out of your violin get in front of the mirror and see if you are really bowing straight.
Simon: work on the basics, yes that is so important. I studied violin and I practiced every day on good contact point and a straight bow.
Zlata: yes I think violinist on every level are doing that. Even the big soloists are still taking lessons and are asking feedback. That is why they are where they are: because they constantly ask feedback and they never think they are done. I am not done by far either. It is also interesting to keep working on things if you like playing violin of course.
Simon: There is so much music and difficulty in the violin you could easily play and get better your whole lifetime, maybe more lifetimes!
Zlata: yes and even in that repertoire you can play all your life: Bach for example you find new stuff all the time that you can focus on. We talked about a contact point so if you bow near the brigde, but the first step is of course to bow in the middle. Even if you think that you do that, really check yourself in the mirror. Then you have this glassy sound to the bridge with lots of higher tones and overtones and then you have a more mellow sound close to the fingerboard. What you need to balance is if you are at the bridge that you use more weight and less speed for example. If you are here then you should not use too much weight. I think being aware of that these are the three things and maybe add to it the amount of bow hair and how much you tilt your bow, but I think these are the top three things that if you experiment with them and see what effect things make and just try things out, that you can already learn a lot about tone creation.
Simon: Yes. Just experimenting with these factors is very helpful and not only on a conscious level you will learn from that. So if you are doing an exercise on the fingerboard with fast bows and then slow bows at the bridge and after that you already have a better sound just by doing this.
What exercise do you recommend and how frequently and how long should a violinist practice the bow arm?
Zlata: Daily! You can take a day of once a year. First of all, you always need to practice your bow arm if you are playing pieces. A lot of people get stuck that they find tone creation really important but what they do is that they focus on just hitting the right note in the right ritm, so you should really add bowing and tone creation to that. Then what is really helpful is before you start playing as warming up you take 5 – 10 minutes every day, depending of course on your practice time.
What you can do is the boring bowing exercise: that is just bowing with straight bow with whole bow, and just listening to your sound, maybe play in front of a mirror, and try to get that same full sound all the time. So from frog to tip and you shouldn’t hear if you are going down or up bow and you want to make your bow changes as smooth as possible.
Simon: that is a great exercise, just doing long bows. What I sometimes recommend is to see with a watch how long you can hold that same note: how long can you create that sound without breaking the sound. It is one of the best exercises for violinists or cello players.
Zlata: yes! A lot of people might think, oh no this is to simple for me. But they also do it at the conservatory.
Simon: Of course, and I think everybody who is against those sort of exercises should experience the effectivity of those exercise. So you play those whole bows and after that you really feel that you don’t have to work so much on tone anymore for that day. Because you are properly warmed up.
Zlata: it is like your hand telling you what to do and the hand remembers for some time. But you have to refresh its memory every day. You are never done with this and you can always make your sound more beautiful.
A second exercise is a short bow stroke at every part of the bow and then mainly at the extreme frog and the extreme tip. For beginners this is maybe a bit difficult but you can combine it with a scale or something. For example when you play at the frog [plays] and at the tip [plays], something like that. You can make other variations of course as long as you just play short notes at the frog and tip.
Simon: short notes are especially good for the fingers right? Because then we warm up at the frog the fingers and at the tip the fingers and the whole bow is more warm.
Zlata: then of course you can get the shaft check school of bowing I don’t know if you are also bullied with that?
Simon: no, not the school of bowing but the variations I had to play. I loved them because they sound nice. I think the school of bowing is a little bit dry, the driest stuff you can get. But I think it is very effective and one should know everything that is explained there but doing it everyday… there is a limit haha.
Zlata: Yes but you can maybe find some exercises that fit what you are struggling with. It is useful but I don’t do them daily as well.
Simon: I wonder if there is somebody on this planet who played the whole thing, like note by note. That would maybe be a funny thing for Youtube just playing the whole school of bowing from the beginning to the end. And then the next challenge is to watch the video!
Zlata: I think it is really important that you just pick out things. It is more like an encyclopedia then it is a thing that you have to go through from start to end. You can download it for free so you can just see if it fits you. I think those things, and everything you need to practice for the things you need to play. So that is it!
Simon: Thank you very much it was very informative. And thank you for showing it on the violin as well. It is easier to understand especially for beginners or not advanced players.
Click here to get access to the FREE workshop ‘5 Bowing Secrets to Create a Professional Sound on the Violin’ I mention in the video.
What was the biggest insight you gained from this interview? What will you do differently the next time you practice? Share it in the comments below: