Force vs. release

At times it feels like my sound just evaporates. I have also noticed this with some of my students. Attitude or belief system concerning one’s abilities can definitely influence one’s sound. There is also shyness or questioning of one’s competence about a particular piece of music that can play a role as well as one’s overall disposition. Individuals who normally are introverted or not very assertive may be more likely to have trouble producing a consistent, big sound on the violin. However, just because you are introverted or lacking in some self confidence, doesn’t mean that you can’t produce a rich and full sound on the violin. There is a lot you can learn including how to improve the functioning of your musculoskeletal system, how the violin’s acoustical amplification works, mindfulness and positive thinking.

When I teach my students I am always listening for and encouraging them to produce a big sound. I work on tone production in warm up exercises such as scales and arpeggios or tonalization with my younger Suzuki students. Along with intonation and rhythmic accuracy, tone is something that should be addressed in every lesson. I also work on this in my own practicing. If tone seems to be thin, after checking to make sure the bow hold is set up correctly, the most likely candidate is the right shoulder. All violinists, even professionals, seem to be prone to raising the right shoulder very often awares. It may be helpful to have a physical therapist or massage therapist release tight trapezius muscles.

It is important to check the position of the violin. Make sure the scroll is held up and the violin is high enough on the shoulder. There can also be subtle issues caused by body alignment. Since it can be awkward to talk about such things with tweens and teens, I would recommend including parents in the conversation. Besides checking obvious body positional issues, I remind my students to listen for loss of sound. I impress upon them that a big sound is something that always requires their attention. At about age nine or ten, no matter their level of playing, students will most likely be able to handle being more responsible for the technical aspects of their playing. Students can start to conceive of how the speed and weight of the bow affects their sound. Teachers can foster this independence by asking their violin students questions that cause them to reflect on their sound. “What do you hear?”

Sometimes students don’t realize they have unused muscle strength. I may take an isometric approach to developing this knowledge. I do this by, for instance, having them “pull” a bow stroke while I pull in the opposite direction. Yes. I do mean pull. When seen under a microscope, bow hair looks jagged. It is when these teeth engage in the string, pulling/biting the string, that sound is produced. The object is to maximize the extent to which the teeth can pull the string in a constant and consistent way. I may also have a student push their scroll against my hand if they have a particularly lazy violin hold. The oppositional push can wake up muscles. Students usually find this activity fun and start to understand that they have untapped strength.

I have met many fine violinists who work best by “muscling” their way through music. They like the feeling of resistance from the violin. Sometimes they are referred to as strad players; Stradivarius violins are known for requiring more force to produce a beautiful sound. I am more of a del gesu player. I do better when I don’t have to work so hard to produce a big sound. A friend of mine who is more of a strad player says that she doesn’t want to have to “work” to produce a piano. She would rather work hard to produce a forte. I, on the other hand, would much prefer to have ample sound easily available to me. I would much rather work to produce a small sound.

In terms of force vs. release, you may want to consider whether you normally prefer using a lot of force in your playing or whether you feel better with less resistance from your violin. You will want to make sure your violin is set up appropriately for your style of playing. All violinists use a combination of force and release in their playing. If your technique functions better when you release tension, you may still need to strengthen some muscles while paying attention to overuse. Be mindful in your playing and remember to take frequent breaks!

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