In any given year, I will have a few students in my studio who struggle to play with a big, rich, projecting tone. Sometimes this is due to shyness or insecurity, or perhaps the student lacks the technical skills to play with a big tone. Often it is a combination of both. If left unchecked, a weak tone come recital time can lead to confidence issues and difficulty being heard above the piano part. When the standard advice of “use more bow” and “stay in the highway” isn’t enough for some students, I pull out one of these tricks.
1. Use a visual. Every time I visit Home Depot or Lowes, I pick up a few of those paint chip sampler sheets in various colors (the ones with the different shades). I explain to my student that the lightest color is playing very soft and the darkest color is a strong, beautiful tone. When my student plays their piece, I will show them which color they played. I (or their parent) will also point to the different colors as they play or, even better, ask them to point to which color they think they played. This exercise helps them to become more sensitive to the levels of sound they can get out of their viola.
2. Focus on posture. Bad posture is the biggest tone-killer there is. In addition to checking that the viola is securely on the shoulder and being supported in a balanced way, I will also encourage my students to keep their knees soft and to have a strong enough posture that I can’t push them over easily. If the knees are soft, there is a much better chance that the bow arm will be soft enough to allow the bow to sink into the string.
3. Go above and beyond. If you ever watch a baseball game, you will often see hitters warming up off to the side with a weight attached to their bat. They want to be able to swing the bat really fast, so adding the extra weight in practice helps the hitter when they are using a normally weighted bat. With that concept in mind, I developed this game for my younger students who are playing on fractional-sized violas.
I hold my viola in front of the student (no way they could support the weight of a 16.5 inch!) while they bow the rhythm from Twinkle Variation A on the open C string. That’s right, a full size viola, on the thickest, least responsive string. As the student plays, I am careful to check that they are not tensing up their bow fingers or arm to make the sound. I want the tone to come from arm weight and activation in the muscles around the bow thumb. Except for the youngest beginner, who is still building up arm strength, it should be possible for the student to pull a big tone on an open string note and they love trying. Then when they try playing on their own viola, their tone is magically bigger.
4. Use friction. In French, instead of “up bow” and “down bow”, bow directions are referred to as a push bow (for up) and pull bow (for down). Many students don’t use the friction of the bow hairs to push and pull the string for maximum tone, but simply skate over the surface of the string. To get a sense of the push and pull, I will hold the tip of the student’s bow as they try play down bow and then hold the end screw on the frog of the bow as they try to play an up bow.
5. Get technical. For students who play with the bow skating on the surface of the string, I like to explain to them how the string is made. If they look at their strings, they should be able to see little ridges from the string winding. The core or center of the string is a very thin piece of metal, around which is wound another thin piece of metal. I explain that they should be bowing to the core of the string, not just on top of the winding. You can also share this video of the D’Addario New York Factory Tour, which shows the process of the producing violin strings.
6. See the tone. Some students are very visual learners, and it can help to engage their visual sense. If the student watches the string they are playing, they should notice that the string moves back and forth very rapidly, producing a blurred shape. The student should watch their strings with the goal of making the string move in the widest amount of space possible.
For WAY more information about string physics, visit this article: Why is the Violin So Hard to Play?
7. Use the room. Teaching students how to project their tone will enable them to produce a big sound without crunching or forcing. One of my teaching studios happens to be a block away from a Starbucks coffee shop. I will tell my students to send their tone to the Starbucks so that the friendly barista can enjoy their music. At the dress rehearsal, I have them imagine they are sending their tone to the very back of the large hall. This not only helps with tone production but reminds the student that they should be playing their music to others, not just for themselves.
There are many ways to work on tone with students and I am always collecting more. Please share your tone teaching ideas in the comments below!