Noisy Neighbors and Other Experiments in Violin Bow Control

violin for better bowing

If you have ever tried to play a string instrument, you know that it is easy to accidentally hit two strings at once. Playing more than one string simultaneously is called double-stopping and is a technique featured in all genres of music from bluegrass, world music, and classical music. When it is intentional, this allows the player to accompany themselves and provide harmonic support to the melody.  

Accidental double-stops are as annoying as noisy neighbors so that is what we call them in my violin studio. I find that the BEST way to get over the aggravation of noisy neighbors is to invite them over for tea and cookies! Well, that is what would work with your actual neighbors and it works well for string players too. In fact, this is a dynamic series of BOGO exercises designed to boost ear training, promote better intonation, and relax the bow arm for better control in string crossings.  

let your music journey begin

Find the 7 Sides of the Strings

I encourage my students to find the 7 sides of the strings. The four single strings and the three neighbor string combinations that are possible (more if you play a 5 string!). Use a rhythm that is familiar and use the middle part of your bow.

Begin on the highest string and do not pick up the bow off the string at any point. Resting on the top string, play your rhythm. Gently rock over to find the bow hair now touching both strings. Play your double-stop without pressing too hard! Keep going until you have played all 7 sides of the string.  

Play with the Contact Point

A great follow up exercise is to play around with the contact point. This term refers to the location of the bow hair touching the string. A lower contact point is used when playing double stops because the arch of the strings is lower. Try playing the 7 string exercise again experimenting with different points of contact.  

The placement of the bow in specific places, when it is called for, in both solo and orchestral playing. The musical terms most commonly used are sul tasto which means to play over the fingerboard and sul ponticello which is the opposite, to play close to the bridge. The tone that is produced is very interesting and delicate and can also be very frightening. Bottom line, this helps you with your violin bow control to feel and hear the different tone colors.  

5 Lane Superhighway

Before experimenting it is helpful to think about the contact points like a 5 lane superhighway! Lane 1 is closest to the bridge and is, in general, the SLOW lane (sul ponticello area), lane 2 and 3 are good traveling lanes (the ones we most commonly stay in and produce a healthy tone), and lanes 4 and 5 are passing lanes and generally a faster bow control speed and lighter weight is used. 

superhighway with lanes

Set the bow at the frog or lower part of the bow by the silver clip. Try making a long down bow and start in the center lane of your superhighway and visit each lane in one bow while keeping the bow STRAIGHT with the bridge. Try several more complete trips across the contact. Think of it as different contact points with quicker lane changes as if you are driving a Ferrari convertible in the Italian hills!  

The Modern Bow

The modern bow is designed to allow the player to produce equal down and up strokes, and to create a continuous sound (masked bow change similar in idea to circular breathing in wind playing). The other element that is very important for young students to know about their bow is that it wants to BOUNCE! Getting to know the balance point is easy.  If we know more about the balance point of our bows we can find a perfect mix of the weight of the frog and the length of the tip... 

violinist playing with sheet music

Experiment: Balance your bow on your outstretched finger and then form your bow hold on the stick with your right thumb directly on the balance point. Hanging the bow on the right corner of your thumbnail is a good magic trick! Apply slight and alternating pressure with the right pinky and index finger to make the teeter-totter happen. 

The follow up to the Teeter-Totter is one of my favorite bow strokes because when composers indicate to use it, it is usually a special moment in the piece. After you are comfortable in the air and can comfortably do one hundred teeter-totters at the balance point of the bow, angle the hair away from you, and get ready to rattle your bones! 

The “bones” are really the upper half of the bow stick that acts like a drumstick and your fingers absorb the shock of the stick hitting the string, like shock absorbers in a car. Poise the stick over the string and drop the bow stick and let it bounce freely. After you can get a little dribble going,  Try for one bounce, then two, and then keep adding them until you can create a long rattle worthy of a whole bag of bones! This technique is called col legno, hitting or bouncing with the stick of the bow against the string is an evocative sound effect. I teach this technique in group classes using pieces that we usually play in the “normal way”!  

Be Prepared

As with any experiment, be prepared to test the ideas described here multiple times and be prepared to accept new sounds coming from your violin.  It is helpful to give yourself the new experience at least 10 times as a general rule of thumb. It's guaranteed your bow arm and hand will feel different and probably much more sensitive to speed, weight, and contact point

Finally, it's a good practice to begin and end your practice sessions with a tonalization exercise that allows the violin and the violinist to focus entirely on beautiful tone production. This series of bow experiments is definitely a workout and your muscles and your ears will enjoy the warmth of your pure tone!