I have heard this game called “hang like a monkey” although the image on this card is of an orangutan.* This is another one of my favorite lessons especially for preteens. There is a subtle lesson of personal empowerment that is taught at the same time. Children don’t often think of themselves as capable of carrying weight. It is fun for me to witness a student’s discovery of how heavy their arm is and how that weight can transfer to the bow.
Arm weight vs. pressing harder on the bow
It is possible to get more sound from the violin by pushing down on the bow. However, you will probably hear a lot of “extraneous noise” in your sound. When a violinist instead uses arm weight, a deeper sound is produced without extra surface noise. Moreover, there is less wear and tear on your bow arm and the increased resonance has a deeper emotional impact both for the violinist and the listener.
The first step in accessing arm weight is to relax the shoulders, especially the right shoulder. Having an elevated right shoulder actually pulls the bow off of the string. I have experienced this in my own playing. Even a slight elevation of the right shoulder can affect the sound. The second step is to work on “point of contact “ which is the place where the bow hair contacts the string. The contact will need to be consistent throughout the bow stroke and from string to string.
The elbow is raised and lowered according to string height. It seems pretty natural to raise and lower your shoulder and elbow together. However, students very often do not realize that it is possible to raise the elbow without raising the shoulder. It will be helpful to look at what is going on with your shoulder while practicing in front of a mirror.
How does this work?
The rectangular area around the bridge is a natural amplifier. When playing with arm weight, it is possible to access this amplifier. If you are only playing on the surface of the strings, you are not accessing this sound producing machine that makes the violin such a powerful instrument. Even intermediate level students at the end of Suzuki book 1 can learn about the inner workings of their instrument. Encourage students to listen for sound that has velocity capable of reaching the back of a concert hall.
Not hearing a deeper sound: Try feeling your arm weight by resting your right elbow on a piece of furniture approximately the height of your elbow at a 45º angle.
The deeper sound isn’t consistent: Work on maintaining the angle of the bow stick when changing strings.
The deeper sound only occurs in the middle of the bow: Keep the angle of the bow stick consistent throughout the bow stroke.
There is a deeper sound but with a lot of surface noise: This one can be complicated. Make sure your instrument is properly adjusted and your strings are fairly new. Keep in mind that you hear more surface sound under your ear than at audience distance. You can verify this by recording yourself. Keep checking to make sure your right shoulder is dropped.
There is only a slight change in the sound: Check the bow hold. It can help to relax the right ring finger and let it hand over the eyelet on the frog. The right wrist should be loose and relaxed. Posture and alignment can be a factor as well. Be sure to stand up straight, letting your shoulders comfortably roll open. I use the imagery of a large open dictionary frequently seen at the entrance of public libraries.
*Orangutans are critically endangered primates native to Indonesia and Malaysia who thrive in rain forests surrounded with diverse plant and animal species. They have been impacted by deforestation due to the farming of palm oil which is used in some foods, cleaning products and cosmetics. To honor the orangutan in this card image, I have made a donation to Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), orangutans-sos.org, which rescues, rehabilitates and relocates orangutans. They also train local farmers on best farming practices and plant trees that provide safe and appropriate habitats for orangutans.
Inspiration for Violinists card deck The “body weight” card is part of a 50 card deck. Every card has a unique image and text inspiring musicianship, mindfulness and spirituality. On sale through December 2021, $22 with free shipping in the US. Use offer code holiday2021 at InspirationForViolinists.com.