Learn to improve bow control, expressiveness, and tone
by Laurel Thomsen

To achieve the full spectrum of dynamics while maintaining a beautiful tone, it’s important to consider all four of the factors that affect volume. Because these elements are interdependent, masterful interpretation relies on the effective interplay of all four. Here’s how to mix and match your way to more expressive playing.

The Problem

Your tone suffers when you increase bow pressure to get more sound from the string.

The Solution

To achieve the full spectrum of dynamics while maintaining a beautiful tone, it’s important to consider all four of the factors that affect volume. Because these elements are interdependent, masterful interpretation relies on the effective interplay of all four. Here’s how to mix and match your way to more expressive playing:

1. Pressure

More pressure through the bow creates more volume. Less pressure through the bow creates less volume. Unfortunately, added pressure can quickly lead to unintended sounds. To avoid this, recognize the difference between pressure created by gripping and pressing versus that created by simply resting into the string with a “heavy” right arm. To further prevent the crunchy sounds that are often the bane of beginning students, bear in mind that pressure and the next factor—bow speed—are closely linked. When applying more pressure through the bow, increase your bow speed—use more bow. To maintain a consistent, though softer, sound through less pressure, decrease your bow speed—use less bow.

2. Bow Speed

Since it’s hard to measure the actual speed the bow is traveling across a string, the easiest way to think of bow speed is in terms of length. Using more bow for a phrase transmits more energy into the string and therefore, assuming your pressure remains constant, creates a louder dynamic. The reverse is also true: using less bow vibrates the string less intensely and will create a softer dynamic. Because the act of applying more pressure through the bow often leads to tension in the bow hand, using bow speed to create contrasting dynamics is often a better choice. For crescendos, use gradually more bow through a passage. For diminuendos, use gradually less bow.

3. Sounding Point

Your sounding point is the location at which you draw the bow across the string to create sound. Depending on your tonal goals, the position you are playing in, the thickness of your strings, and the dynamics you wish to create, you might need to be closer to the bridge, closer to the fingerboard, or right down the middle. Ideally your sounding point will change only when you decide to change it. As for dynamics, first notice that the string yields more the farther you move away from the bridge. When playing over the fingerboard only a fraction of the energy you apply through the bow will transmit back as sound. When speed and pressure remain constant, playing closer to the fingerboard (Fig. 1) creates a softer dynamic while playing closer to the bridge (Fig. 2) creates a louder dynamic.

When experimenting with sounding points, above all, use your ear to guide you to the best location for quality tone and dynamic variety.

4. Bow Hair Usage

Using full bow hair will contribute to a fuller sound while using partial hair will create a softer, more airy sound. For full bow hair, tilt the bow stick away from you, just slightly (Fig. 3) so that the bow doesn’t slip on the strings. For partial hair, continue tilting the stick farther away (Fig. 4).

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This article is excerpted from the Strings Guide: Improve Your Bowing Technique, a series of instructional text and video lessons

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