Tone is basically the quality of sound that you produce. “Bad tone” is all too familiar – the scratchy, dull violin sound that is, as some would say, not unlike a cat dying.
Good tone is the sweet, resonant sound that is pleasing and inviting to the listener. Luckily, there are a few basic points to understand, and exercises to practice, that will drastically improve your tone. Improving violin tone production is a lifelong process, so the earlier you start, the better. Here are Tips to Improve Tone.
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Tone is a Relationship
Tone is the relationship between bow placement, bow speed, and bow pressure. If one of these factors is out of balance, the tone will suffer.
When bowing on the violin, bow placement is everything! If you place the bow on the strings just over the fingerboard, the tone will be poor, dull, and weak. If you place the bow near or on top of the bridge, you’ll get a terrible, squeaky and scratchy sound. Sometimes you want these tones as a kind of effect or “color” in music because it creates a certain atmosphere. However, these are only considered effects, not the basis for a good tone.
The best placement for the bow on the strings is directly above the f-holes. Placing the bow there and keeping it in this area while playing will offer the best tone. You’ll find that the violin will sound louder, more consistent, and more pleasant.
If you pull the bow quickly on the string, you’ll get a very light and airy sound, whereas if you pull the bow slowly across the string, you’ll get a very heavy sound. Both speeds are necessary for different techniques, but ultimately, you’ll want to balance the speed relative to the weight to accomplish the best tone.
Fast bow speed with light pressure will produce a much more light tone than a fast bow with heavy pressure. This will produce a much more bold sound. Slow bow speed with light pressure will produce a soft and muted tone, whereas a slow bow with heavy pressure will produce a big, heavy tone.
The pressure of the bow is completely dependent on the weight of your hand when holding the bow. Most of the pressure comes from the weight of your index finger on the stick of the bow. To increase the pressure, you’d slightly press down with your index finger while moving the bow. To decrease the pressure, you’d slightly release the weight of your index finger.
See below for an exercise on how to distribute the weight in your fingers to develop good tone.
Exercises for Improving Tone
Long tone – open strings
The best tool for improving tone is to simply play open strings on a daily basis. This is the “bread and butter” of tonal exercises. It is so easy to get distracted by playing scales, etudes, or pieces, but jumping into this can often create a “busy-ness” that only distracts us from focusing on the quality of sound.
Before you even play a single “note,” begin your practice with playing long, slow bows on open strings. Set a metronome to quarter note equals 55 or 60. Begin with a downbow, at the frog, on the G string. Pull a slow downbow for eight clicks, and then repeat on an upbow. Repeat this a few times on G, and then again on each of the other strings: D, A, and E.
Pay close attention that the placement of the bow is over the f-holes for the duration of the bow strokes. If the sound is too “choked,” use less pressure in your bow hand. If the sound is too weak, try adding a little more pressure with your index finger.
Weight distribution in the fingers
As you pull the bow across the strings, the pressure in your fingers should slightly adjust to promote even balance. When you are “at the frog,” or the bow is on the string closest to the frog of the bow, most of the weight of the bow should be felt in your pinky finger. When you are at the tip and the bow is drawn all the way to the end of the bow, the weight of the bow should be felt in the index finger.
Expanding on the open strings exercise, play an open string slowly. Start at the frog, preparing for a down bow. Feel the weight of the bow in your pinky. Slight lift your index, middle, and ring fingers. The only contact with your hand is the thumb and pinky.
Play an open string and, as you pull the down bow, gradually place your ring finger, middle finger, and index finger back down one by one. By the time you get to the tip of the bow, the weight of the bow should be in your first finger or index finger. Slightly lift your middle, ring, and pinky fingers.
Play the open string on an up bow. As you approach the frog, place your middle, ring, and pinky fingers back down.
Repeat this exercise for at least two or more times on each open string.
Build the Foundation for Good Tone
Having an awareness of the relationship between bow placement, speed, and pressure will be a valuable tool as your practice advances. If your beautiful tone is suffering, ask yourself if there is something you can improve in the relationship – perhaps your bow placement is off, or your speed and pressure are imbalanced.
Make a daily habit of starting your daily practice with open string tonal exercises. This is the equivalent of an athlete stretching and warming up before beginning a rigorous practice session: it is the key to injury-free and successful playing!