Ever found yourself holding your breath when trying to “save” bow on a long note?
Bowing is the “breath” of a stringed instrument. Where brass and wind players (and of course vocalists!) use breath to move air to resonate vocal cords or reeds or an air chamber, we use the bow to resonate the string in a sustained tone.
Singers and wind players spend a lot of time learning how to breathe for certain notes and phrases. The dynamics, articulation, and even intonation of notes depend upon intensity and amount of air released- to say breath comprises the most complex aspect of playing a wind instrument (or singing) would be absolutely right!
So what about you- what about your bow? Sure, you can get sound from almost any sort of bow stroke, so long as the bow is moving and has hair left in the direction the bow is moving. The quality of sound, however, depends entirely on how much/ what speed/ what intensity of bow is used.
In a passage with a sustained, melodic phrase, using as much bow as possible ensures a tone quality worthy of the phrase. Don’t limit yourself on how much bow you consider “usable”- and you know who you are! The rosin content at the very tip and/ or right at the end of the frog on your bow is a centimeter thick with neglect from being ignored. When you’re practicing that sustained, melodic phrase, take that bow off the string and try air-bowing through the phrase while breathing along with your bow- exhale on down bows, inhale on up- bows. Measure your breath like you measure your bow: you should be completely out of breath at the tip of your bow, and have no more comfortable room to inhale at the end of an up bow. The phrase should begin to feel like more normal breathing, as you practice moving your bow at the correct speed so as to maximize your bow’s surface area on each bow stroke.
A violin teacher over at violinlab.com has posted an inspiring video this very topic, and shows (with a beautiful rendition of the intro to Saint-Saens’ “The Swan”) how the breath can bring life into a phrase. Check it out!
Another good, rudimentary way to practice bowing- at any stage of learning- is to practice son filé. Son filé means to hold a single bow stroke for 60 seconds or more. Sounds like a difficult task, huh?
Teachers of the past like Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian, in their books on violin practice, and each included exercises for practice of son filé. Each of these teachers included explanations:
Ivan Galamian: “what breath control is for a singer — the ability to sing long phrases without having to interrupt them for a new breath — bow control in a long, sustained stroke is for the violinist — the ability to sustain a long tone or musical phrase without having to change bow.” (source)
Simon Fischer: “[son filé] are among the oldest, best-known, most popular and also most appropriate of tone and bow exercises… Their simplicity and usefulness … give them a place of honour in the arsenal of bowing and tonal exercises.” (source)
at the very frog of the bow
at the very tip of the bow
Son filé may not be defined in identical terms by everyone involved in violin discipline, but the practice of son filé may help with a larger issue: tension. When we learn to breathe along with the bow, ultimately we are helping to eliminate unnecessary tension.
Misapplication and an excess of tension hinders every technique on the violin, and nowhere is it more obvious than in the bow stroke.
So, if you find yourself gripping your bow too hard and twinging a nerve in your palm, practice air bowing with your breathing.
If you find yourself breathing shallowly as your try to eke out just one more beat under a long bow, practice the passage son filé.
But most importantly, whenever you realize you’re feeling tension… Stop, assess, and address it!
And, if you need help in this journey to alleviate tension, let me know. I have lesson times open!