How to Achieve the Best Tone

Learn to relax and get the best sound

The Problem

You have difficulty controlling the bow near the frog and feel like you’re applying too much pressure to your stroke.

The Solution

The Problem

You have difficulty controlling the bow near the frog and feel like you’re applying too much pressure to your stroke.

The Solution

Since bowing is generally what produces sound from the strings, the quality of your tone is dependent on the actions of your right arm. As basic as this seems, it’s surprising how many players try to fix right-arm bowing issues with left-hand exercises. While left-hand elements, such as the quality of your fingertip contact and vibrato, contribute to the quality of your sound, these factors will never make poor bowing technique produce gorgeous tone.

Fundamentally, the bow must be played perpendicular to the string for the best tone, except in certain controlled circumstances (see the Strings Guide chapter “How to Control the Contact Point”). “The straight bow stroke from frog to tip is the foundation of the entire bowing technique,” writes pedagogue Ivan Galamian in his book Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching. If the bow is traveling at even a slight angle to the bridge it won’t be able to properly catch the string and set it into vibration. Many of the squeaks, rasps, and squawks of the stereotypical beginning string student are simply caused by an angled bow sliding back and forth between sounding points. Add other tone factors, like excessive pressure, and you’ll have a great recipe for some really horrible sounds.

To draw a straight bow stroke, you can’t be tense. A single locked-out joint in the right arm can be all it takes for the bow to go off track. Any joint moving independently travels in an arc. For example, if you swing your forearm from the elbow with a stiff wrist and fingers, your fingertips will trace an arc through the air. To draw a straight bow, the wrist and even fingers must passively flex and extend to counter the primary motion coming from the elbow joint.

Endre Granat, violinist and professor at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, emphasizes that “no matter what type of stroke you are hoping to achieve, you need a secondary motion of the right arm, in addition to the primary motion, to keep the bow perpendicular to the string.”

Once you learn to bow straight, you can begin to increase your tone palette by adding other ingredients to the mix, like pressure, speed, and sounding-point changes. With a few months of practice and perseverance, you’ll be bowing straight and sounding beautiful!

The area near the frog presents several challenges to quality tone. Here you have both the weight of the frog and the hand, making it hard to avoid too much pressure. Again, focus on mindful listening, and then follow these guidelines

1) Learn the ‘Touch and Go’ Exercise

Since the weight of the bow naturally shifts into the pinky when you play near the frog, accentuate this feeling by practicing a “touch and go” exercise, a term coined by a pilot student of mine. Like a plane taking off and landing, up bow from the middle of the bow and in the last inch or two near the frog lift the bow off the string so your bow and hand hover above it. Change direction in the air, land smoothly back on the string, and down bow back to the middle. Did you feel the weight shift into the pinky when you were in the air?


2) Notice How the Weight Shifts

If you had trouble, check that the pinky is resting on its tip on top of the bow stick, is curved through both joints, and is far enough away from the ring finger to act as a balance to the weight of the hovering bow stick. As you continue to practice touch-and-go exercises at the frog, gradually spend less and less time in the air until you remain on the string the entire time. During each bow change maintain the feeling of weight shifting into the pinky. As your upper arm moves inward to do the up bow toward the frog, scoop your elbow down just a little as you prepare to make the bow change. This will help take additional weight off the string.

3) Study the Mechanics of the Forearm

To utilize this slight scooping action and to master the subsequent wrist-bending needed to keep the bow straight in this area of the bow, it can be helpful to experience these mechanics as a natural see-saw action within the forearm. Here, the fulcrum is the midpoint of the forearm and the elbow and wrist are the two sides. Hold the arm out away from the body and bend the elbow to ninety degrees, as if playing in the middle of the bow on the A or D strings. Inwardly rotate your forearm and apply downward pressure on the right elbow with your left fingers. Watch how your right forearm sweeps inward as if bowing toward the frog.

Notice how the wrist, when relaxed, naturally bends upward.

Curling fingers?

Just what you want!

4) Pick Up Your Instrument

To return to the original position, press up on the underside of the upper arm just above the elbow and watch it swing open—the motion of a smooth, relaxed down bow. Notice how the wrist naturally flattens and the fingers lengthen a bit. Once you experience how natural it can be, add your instrument and initiate this same see-saw action through a slight dipping motion in the upper arm as it actively swings in toward the frog. To keep the bow straight, make sure to keep a relaxed wrist, which will naturally bend on the up bow and flatten out on the down bow to counter the upper-arm motion from the shoulder.

5) Now Put It All Together

It might seem that to use the entire bow, one could simply string together the motions required of each section. However, for fluidity and even tone, it’s better to take the opposite approach. The motion for a full bow stroke must be integrated and continuous. Playing with less bow utilizes portions of this movement. You should always be able to expand a short stroke into a full bow length and vice versa.

Because maintaining good tone throughout the entire bow length can be challenging, first master playing with good tone in various sections of the bow on open strings. Once you have mastered playing in all the fourths or thirds of your bow, spread out from these regions into half and three-quarter bow lengths until finally you have mastered consistent tone throughout the entire continuum of right arm motion. Though you’ll probably find that certain areas of the bow are easier to play in initially, getting into the habit of just using the same area of the bow all the time greatly limits your expressive range.

Challenge yourself to gain fluency in all areas of the bow.

Be patient—this could take a few weeks or months but is well worth the effort.

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*This article appeared in Strings February 2012
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