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Bowing practice
Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 Topic Rating: 5 (2 votes) 
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DanielB
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January 23, 2013 - 6:17 am
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(Definitely putting a coffee/tea disclaimer on this post, since it is of necessity a bit long.  Any of the 'attention-span challenged' members who do decide to suffer through reading it, all I can say is that the exercises I'm explaining aren't super exciting or fun either, and they take longer to do than to read about.)

For most of my first year I haven't really practised bowing itself.  I mostly worked on a few scales to limber up the fingers, and then would play the songs I like to play on violin.  

After my 6th month, I got my Hoffmann Amadeus model (which I call Amelia) because I had a bit of funding available to spend on music and it seemed reasonable to try a violin that might be a bit better than what I had been playing on.  Sort of a combination celebration and incentive "treat" for myself, for having stuck with a new instrument for 6 months of playing some on it daily.

I do consider myself as playing several instruments, but only one (guitar) seriously enough that I put in a considerable amount of time over the years both practising and playing on.  The rest, I can play some songs or improvise on, but I mostly just play on those, I do not do much if any actual dedicated practice on a regular basis.   There are only so many hours in a day, and my life is not such that I can spend them all on music.

So for most of the first year, I have done little of what I actually consider practice, and have just played and amused myself.  That was intentional, since I was not familiar with the instrument and what sounds it was capable of, so the intention was to approach the instrument for that time as a child might.  Doing mostly what came easily and was fun/enjoyable. 

When I got my newer acoustic violin, I decided to spend the first 30 days (the usual return period) making sure it got some hard play, so anything that was going to shake loose or start rattling in it would do so while it was in the time frame when I could have it replaced easily.  So I set aside 15 min a day to go into the basement (to spare the ears of housemates at least somewhat) and would play on open strings as loud as I could manage.  Just BWAH, BWAH, BWAH, BWAH, over and over for 15 minutes.  I think I did gain something from that.  I got more accustomed to playing strong notes sometimes, and reassured myself that the instrument wasn't going to break if played hard.  LOL  (That may sound silly, but especially the acoustic violins have always seemed fragile to me)

When I was nearing the end of that month, I was advised to not drop that bit of practice, but to refine it just a bit.  To watch the vibration of the string, and try to bring it to maximum vibration as early in the stroke as possible by use of bow pressure and speed, and to try and keep it at that level of vibration to as near the end of the bow stroke as possible.  To make the note not just loud, but as steady as possible for as much of the stroke as I could manage.  I think I gained a bit from that as well, since it took using more control over bow pressure to get a good strong loud note, whether I started the stroke from frog or tip.

The next bit of advice was to add some practise involving rhythm.  To take a slow waltz tempo (60 bpm) and play it on the open G and D strings, with the first beat on the G string and played with as much power as possible while keeping it sounding good.  After about a week of that, it was suggested to work on lifting the bow between strokes, to play a very strong LAAA on the first beat lift and to a lighter zum, zum for the 2nd and 3rd beat, but for those two beats to sort of glide the bow to a smooth landing on the string.  So that's another 15 minutes.  I feel that has helped because my bow landings were not very smooth, they bounced or didn't sound good for the first instants of the note, and even though the tempo seemed maddeningly slow at first, it was challenging enough to try and make the exercise sound at least maybe reasonably good.  A later refinement added to that has been to view the space between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge to be 5 "lanes" the bow can be in for a stroke and to vary which one is used to experiment with the differences in timbre and volume, working towards using those sound qualities intentionally in playing as opposed to trying to find and stay in just one "sweet spot" for the contact point.

The latest addition has been to take the scales I practice as warm up for the left hand (always from the keys at least one or two songs I plan to play/work on later are in) and do at first a full octave of the scale as a single bow stroke, working on getting the note changes as clean as possible and the string changes smoother.  That's now another 15 minutes.  And more recently, going from doing one octave with a single bow stroke to two octaves with a single stroke, which is still being more than a bit challenging for me.  Still working on getting that one to actually sound good.  LOL

I feel it is being helpful, because I was tending to cover string changes by changing stroke direction at the same time, and being aware of how much bow I have left while fingering the scales is a bit more challenging than I expected.

So I am currently spending about 45 min a day just on practice that focuses on bowing.  I have to admit, I did need it.  Bowing is a very unfamiliar motion to someone coming to violin from guitar, and my bowing was not very good.  it still isn't, really, but I can see and hear some slow and steady improvement in my playing from working on it, and so I have been keeping up with the practise exercises I've mentioned.  I view practice as a separate and distinct activity from playing.  Practice is what I do so my playing can sound a bit better when I actually play songs or melodies.

Ok, folks, do you do anything similar, or what do you do to work on bowing?  Any exercises or insights you'd feel comfortable sharing here?

 

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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StoneDog
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January 23, 2013 - 8:12 am
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Nice post > a lot of good practice points. Your post will definitely influence my routine. I am doing some of the things you mentioned. Sometimes I sit down to try out a song but usually end up working on technique. Like you implied > the better the technique the better the song will sound. I work on the bow a lot > pressure, long strokes and short on open strings and with scales. Been trying to get one octave up and back with two strokes of the bow. I go at it about an hour a day. Then if there is a little time left I try to do a song or two. > after I try a song or two my brain tells me to go back and practice more. I don't find practicing technique boring or anything > it actually excites me.

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suresh
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January 23, 2013 - 12:34 pm
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Hi Daniel! Thanks for a wonderful post.Try another 15 minutes in playing on 2 strings.  It helps in playing the double stops.

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it ..(William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night)

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DanielB
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January 24, 2013 - 4:44 am
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Perhaps, suresh. 

I am still experimenting with how much time I can put in to practice for violin around the other activities of my day.  Like exercise or meditation, it helps most if it is consistent.  Easing up to a certain amount of time as one sees benefits from it is more reliable than trying to block off a large chunk of time early on and then finding one can't actually manage it.

 

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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ozmous
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January 24, 2013 - 9:37 am
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this is the best way to be good at plying:

put all of your oscilloscopes, piezo transducers, etc. and stop experimentin' and get practisin' tongue

cheers! - ⁰ℨ

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Composer
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January 30, 2013 - 2:44 am
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I now have strong opinions on the importance of dedicated bowing practice at least for classical repertoire.  I began the business of attempting to learn the violin like most, I suppose;  that is, treating the instrument from a melodic point of view.  I thought the quality of tone and other bow skills would improve just by practicing scales and arpeggios, or alternatively graded repertoire.  And again, like most, I only could dedicate about an hour/day to practice.

The problem is that it just has not worked out.  At least, from my own personal judgement, I can't play anything (eg. 1 octave scale) at a professional level.  As usual, the tiresome argument, "You need a qualified instructor", is the obvious problem but I really do not believe it.  I'm already rambling on so I will cut to the chase excluding the left hand problems for some other thread. 

Final conclusion:  I still feel the most fundamental problem is the lack of strength in my upper arm muscles in the right arm.  I think in focusing on the left hand, there is always a tendency to use only 2/3rds of the bow or less and the muscles don't develop.  Even more problematic is the practice time of less than 2 hours/day dedicated to just full bow exercises.  The strength never comes.   In fact, lately I'm wondering how much damn time does it require?  Try full down and up bows on the G string for 15 minutes straight.  Can you do it without considerable strain or discomfort in the right shoulder/upper arm muscles?  I have strength in my pinky and flexibility in my fingers (can even do a decent colle stroke) but yet the upper arm feels weak and a nervous trembling prevents a smooth stroke.

There are important other stumbling blocks.  One is the smooth bow change.   I'm trying the figure 8 approach as outlined in Robert Gerles book: "The art of bowing practice".  So far its been slow progress on that. 

Another problem is the mind blowing boredom of doing bow exercises and listening to either open strings or 1 note all the time.  I tried a heavy metal mute which really deadened the sound (too much in fact) but found it obstructive at the bridge for the bow change so I don't use it anymore. 

Right now all I'm doing is determining whether increased practice time (3hrs/day) to practice full bows will get rid of my weak upper arm muscles. 

The best books for tone production and bow mechanics are Simon Fischer's 'Basics' (chapter 1 and 2) and 'Tone' (method book for tone production).  His tone production DVD is especially valuable but I currently cannot even do the first exercise at a professional level.  Another good dvd set for bow stuff is Valerie Gardeners DVD's on bowing.   Here the figure 8 (Fischer uses the other technique of lighten pressure & reduce speed) technique necessary for a smooth bow change is demonstrated in detail. 

Other books I've read are the standard references:

Galamian 'Principles of Violin playing...'

Flesch: 'Art of playing the violin'

And so it goes.  I suppose a lot of people will be wondering why the big fuss over this and my answer is that I didn't appreciate the violin as a resonating box first and a melodic box second.  Vibrato which really enhances resonance is a very highly desirable skill (as it should be).  However, it should be first practiced informally in the context of tone production and not its much more difficult continuous form in a melodic line. 

And this brings me to the final comment:  I hated the sound I was producing.  It wasn't just a lack of vibrato, it was bad tone which is at least my experience the most difficult skill to master because even slightly too much pressure ruins the quality of the sound.  Who wants to practice music when the sound is fundamentally bad?  And I just don't buy into the argument that bow skills can be demonstrated by an instructor.  Its a combination of knowledge and experimentation and a lot more practice time than I want to accept.

To me, a professional violinist is one who can produce the best sound possible on a given soundpoint while playing up and down full bows on an open string with a seamless bow change.  In theory, its extremely simple and should be within the realm of every adult learner.  But in practice, it seems to require a hell of a lot of practice time just to get the arm in good fitness.   Thats why I say its impossible to learn the violin by practicing an hour/day for the next 20-30 years.  The physical fitness required never happens so nothing is possible.

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DanielB
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January 30, 2013 - 5:47 am
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@Oz:  tongue

 

@Composer: If I managed one *note* that I personally felt sounded like a professional player at this point, I would be astonished.  It would probably also be purely by accident.  LOL  I have been playing on this instrument for less than a year, and as such I consider myself to be still just making only the beginnings of an acquaintance with it. 

So, much of what you are speaking of regarding the figure 8 technique and assorted books on the matter are things I haven't even begun to consider yet.  They aren't something I am working on at this time.  Maybe in another year or two, depending on how things go.

I recognized within the first few seconds of picking up my first violin for the very first time that bowing was going to be one of the biggest challenges involved, since it was so alien to any means of sound production I was already familiar with.  So, with what I consider properly cavalier beginner's attitude, I intentionally didn't spend time worrying about it and proceeded to just basically hack away and work out some tunes to play and generally focus on having fun and enjoying the instrument.  I consider that an important developmental stage, and I am not in any particular hurry.

As I have been doing that, I become more aware of the nuances in the sound of the instrument and have listened to probably more violin/fiddle music in this past year than I had in my entire life.  Developing appreciation for the sound of the instrument and how it can be applied and getting an inkling of what can be done with it.  Learning how it sounds in different musical contexts, becoming more familiar with the sound and style of some of the great players.   

Perhaps more importantly, over these first months I have established a certain amount of time in my daily routine to spend on the instrument and developed it into not just habit, but time I look forward to spending. 

Still, yes.  The first couple of weeks of spending time actually just working on simple bowing exercises did seem incredibly tedious.  But even after a couple of weeks, I could hear and was getting comments from household members that I was sounding a bit better when I would go to play songs.  So, gaining some improvement from it, it seemed worthwhile to continue with it and extend a bit further into bowing practice with simple open string routines.  Working on getting a pleasing tone and finding the right bow pressure, speed and angle to get different qualities of sound in each of the "5 lanes" between the fingerboard and bridge made it less tedious. 

One point I felt was significant was when I was working a simple exercise with a waltz rhythm on open G and D.  After the initial boredom, I started trying to make it sound better, to get something that "childishly simple" to sound good so far as having some tone and the notes executed as I wanted them to sound.  At some point, it quit feeling like just an exercise and I could view it as music.  A very simple song, perhaps, but something where I could enjoy doing it.  Since then, the bowing practice has been much less tedious feeling.  Even just simple open string bits feel like music instead of feeling like I'm just standing there going BWAH BWAH BWAH BWAH.. I can get into the sound, and get a certain satisfaction from playing it that is similar to what one gets from playing a melody.

So that's how I have worked through the boredom point, personally.  Maybe it wouldn't work for you, I don't know.  Perhaps I am simply easy to entertain.  LOL  

I think you may be working on more complex points than I have been, and that your goals are rather more formulated than mine are at this point so far as what progress you anticipate and expect for your efforts.  But I found it interesting that you were talking about the importance of bowing practice just as I have been settling into a certain amount of it in my daily practice playing, which is why I started this topic.

"This young wine may have a lot of tannins now, but in 5 or 10 years it is going to be spectacular, despite the fact that right now it tastes like crude oil. You know this is how it is supposed to taste at this stage of development." ~ Itzhak Perlman

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StoneDog
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January 30, 2013 - 8:28 am
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I just play cause I get great enjoyment out of it and I also find it easy to entertain myself. I am grasping a HUGE appreciation for all that is going on with the bow. There is all kind of stuff, endless it is. Impossible to every learn? I learn something everyday>> That is the gratification I get for my endeavors. Thats my high.

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