Whether it’s intonation, vibrato, different styles, or mastering your nerves, it seems there is always a technique that can help improve your stringed instrument playing and musicianship. Here are a few tips that are not only especially helpful for adult amateurs, but can help players of all skill levels.
Improve Your Intonation
Good intonation is something you can work on almost from Day One. Here are some exercises to help develop your intonation skills from author and instructor Michael E. Martin.
1. Hear the music in your head before you play.
2. Sing everything before you play. You should be able to stop playing at any point and continue singing the melody. If you can sing a passage and then play it, you’ll see immediate improvement in intonation.
3. Work on finding the right notes by ear and correcting your own intonation errors, without waiting for your teacher to stop you.
4. Try not to rely on tapes or dots on the fingerboard.
5. Develop a vocabulary of scales and tonal patterns that you can sing, play, and recognize. This might be easier for you if your teacher labels notes with the solfege—do, re, mi—rather than identifying notes as A, B, and C.
6. Spend the first three to six months playing by ear, before worrying too much about music notation. Reading the notes feels easier if you already have the sounds in your head.
Good Vibes Only
Here are some suggestions for developing your own personal cello, violin, and viola vibrato.
As instructor Phyllis Young puts it, “The thing that has handicapped cellists more than just about anything else, is a lack of a beautiful and expressive vibrato.” For beginners, she suggests finding the best note on the cello, then watching the gorgeous vibrato and noticing how you are balanced on the pad of your finger. Then, you’ll have your own model right there in the practice room.
For cello, she suggests keeping the left arm loose. “Let’s see if you can make your arm so relaxed that all that fat on the inside of your upper arm will shake like Jello!” If that imagery doesn’t do it for you, she puts it another way: “Let your left elbow float in imaginary water.” If the arm is folded up at a sharp angle so that the forearm is cramped against the upper arm, Young observes, it is impossible for the student to execute the vibrato action freely. The left elbow should “float” as if on water.
In the end, it’s all about balance. “The whole concept of vibrato is based on balance and making of tension-free motions,” she says, “which are guided by the aural dream of a beautiful tone.”
Violin & Viola Vibrato
Here are some tips on how to maintain control of a violin or viola while eliciting a pure, warm, and personal vibrato tone.
The most valuable lesson when you start vibrato is to stay focused on the subtle movement of the fingertip going and up and down as it highlights the pitch. The goal is to hear the pitch loud and clear with a hint of warmth generated by the vibrato. If the pitch isn’t dominant and obvious, then the vibrato is too slow or the amplitude of the movement is uneven. The basic vibrato exercise of moving the arm up and down from first to third position, while sliding with one finger, should successfully develop an even amplitude around the pitch. If you experience uneven rhythm and distance, try eliminating any counting of beats. The pendulum that is inherent in a vibrato relies on a different rhythm from our usual metronomic counting system.
Start strong, analyze your movements, and chart your vibrato’s course. Sometimes, wobbly vibrato is caused by a lack of firmness as the fingertip oscillates between two close pitches. An exercise for a more firm vibrato motion is to move the bow smoothly, generating a perfectly smooth vibrating string, with the fingertip firmly on the pitch. Then rock the finger to a pitch slightly below the original pitch, and then rock it back to the original. The firmness is achieved by thinking of the ratchet mechanism in a socket wrench.
Battling a ‘Bouncing Bow’
Even though the most common cause of “nervous bow” is stage fright, a helpful strategy for solving the problem is to anticipate the bow’s movements and its variable speeds. The bow’s potential for chaos and unpredictability is great because weight and balance change constantly.
Dealing directly with bow technique while practicing addresses the problem squarely, and teaches that, while concert nerves may come and go, strong and knowledgeable technique stays forever.
The eminent leader of the Yale and New Music Quartets, Broadus Erle, taught a bowing technique called parlando that makes use of the full bow while making ever-so-gentle accents along the way. Literally meaning “speaking” or “articulating,” parlando translates into a bow arm that ebbs and flows with the string. (It’s often associated with Fritz Kreisler’s style of playing.)
Try it yourself: as you move the bow from frog to tip and make slight accents along the way, keep a steady momentum so that the bow doesn’t waver at any point. A passive, vague bow speed will give the bow a moment of doubt, and bouncing and trembling may become its only outlet.
While the bow arm can be endlessly analyzed, both by teachers and physiologists, the most successful bow arms look remarkably simple. They depend on the musician’s personal awareness of how the hand and arm work.
If there is a unified arm movement with a natural transfer of weight over the four strings, there won’t be any sudden conflicting movements. Make sure all the movements of the hand cooperate in tandem with the wrist.
Son filé, a bow exercise from the late 18th century, highlights both a spinning sound and the bow moving at various speeds. It develops the relationship between a fully vibrating string and the steady movement of the arm. It is usually practiced at a very slow speed, but you can play it with various speeds and dynamics (my apologies to all son filé purists) to simulate what actually happens in music.
To practice the son filé bow stroke, try playing long sustained notes slowly on open strings, and then on scales. Work on slowing the bow speed down more and more, and pay attention to the tone and quality of the sound you are producing.
Learn to perfect your practice through expert advice from top string players and educators with the insightful e-book A Practice Primer.