Learn to break it down and boost your sound

by Heather K. Scott

The Problem

Difficulty achieving a warm, dark tone.

Where to Begin

Violists who approach instructor and recording artist Helen Callus, an associate professor of viola at the University of California–Santa Barbara, often complain that they sound like violinists playing the viola. “It doesn’t sound right to me!” is a common self-assessment of tone. The secret to that dark, seductive tone sought by all violists can be found in mastering basic skills, along with checking the setup of the viola. Callus believes these can resolve issues with flat tone and depth and help to achieve that trademark rich sound.

The Solution

1. Right Arm Weight

“The idea that you can ‘release’ your arm weight completely while bowing can be a revelation,” says Callus, who believes that this is the key in capturing the viola’s open, ringing tone.

How to Master It
Don’t use pressure on the first finger of your bow hand. Instead, utilize the weight of your arm. Callus suggests that you get the string to “bloom,” and project sound outward rather than straight into your strings. Try an étude, like Kreutzer’s No. 10, and play all down bows or all up bows (as retakes) slowly. On the down bows, imagine you’re throwing a ball down to the floor with a motion utilizing your entire arm (not just the hand).

2. Bow Speed

With the weight coming into the string properly, be sure to use the correct bow speed in order to disperse the energy. “If you bow too slowly, the sound will crush or become harsh or tight,” Callus advises.

How to Master It
Practice bowing long, even notes. “You will most likely hear a bumpy bow change or different speeds throughout the bow as you pull it in string crossings as different parts of your arm take over the operation,” Callus says. As a cure, practice long bows with an étude such as Kreutzer’s No. 2 (or scales) and watch yourself in the mirror (or videotape yourself) to evaluate your technique.


3. Point of Contact

Watch your bow placement between the bridge and the fingerboard, but also consider how your bow hair is hitting the string (flat or from the side). “Maximize the vibration of the string directly at the moment of contact by remembering that a down bow pulls from behind the string and an up bow pushes in front of it,” Callus says. This point will help you avoid pushing down too much with your bow hand or first finger instead of using the natural weight of the bow arm

How to Master It
Bowing a straight line is essential to maintaining proper point of contact. Many problems with articulation and sound quality can be cured by simply correcting bow direction. This is easy to solve by practicing in front of the mirror. “You might be surprised how different it looks from your perspective compared to what you see in the mirror,” suggests Callus. She adds this tip: think of your elbow as a hinge with movement extending down.

4. Flight Path

The way in which you get from the tip to the frog and how you change bows can greatly influence your sound. “The simpler [movements] the better for violists—fancy maneuvers don’t translate well to our instrument,” Callus says. You’ll need to master keeping a legato line and changing bows, she adds, while not “losing that core.”

How to Master It
When studying the bow, a mirror is your best friend. “[It] becomes the eyes of your teacher and allows you to see things from an outside perspective,” Callus says. Practice repeating the perspective that looks best in the mirror while away from the mirror, too. Check yourself frequently.

5. Vibrato

If you’re tight in your left hand, chances are you’re tight in your right hand, too (which can result in too much squeezing and pushing). “The messages from the brain have to be trained to become independent from one another,” Callus says. No matter what your right hand is doing, your left hand should always play lightly or pianissimo. And if you are hammering your left hand fingers, for instance, it is unlikely that your right hand will be making sound the way it should.

How to Master It
Practice, practice, practice! Sometimes turning on a metronome and bending pitch back and forth to the beat can help. But, as Callus says, vibrato is not easy to solve, and can be difficult to teach. Diligent practice will help you find your comfort zone.

6. Posture

When playing, check yourself in the mirror or have a teacher evaluate if your instrument is too low (which changes the angle of the bow to the string). Also, take note of how you tilt the instrument and how that affects the angle of the bridge.

How to Master It
“For me,” Callus says, “where the viola actually sits on the body is a huge amount of work and takes time to get right.” Sometimes simple changes can help. Try holding the viola higher, raising the music stand, and finding a stance in which your bow doesn’t drift down the fingerboard.

“I believe that the sound of the viola is extremely seductive when the instrument is played well,” Helen Callus says. “There is something completely different about it from a violin, something unique, dark, and gorgeous. And there are really just three basic elements to a great sound: arm weight, bow speed, and point of contact. There are variations for all and experimentation is the key to discovering them for yourself.”

This article was originally published in StringsFebruary 2011 issue. Please help keep this article relevant by commenting below or by contacting us directly.