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Developing Technical Skills – Bowed Strings part 1
Modelling good technique is an important aspect of effective teaching. Reflect on our own technical strengths and shortcomings to raise our awareness.
Posture. With string instruments it’s very important that students are relaxed but very confident physically as well. I usually start by taking one of their hairs as if I’m pulling it right up to the ceiling and then I get them to drop their shoulders, so their spine is elongated, their shoulders are down, their tummies are soft, their knees are soft as well, so they’re not locked. And if they’re standing to play a violin or a viola their feet it’s useful if they’re about shoulder width apart, and obviously if they play a cello or a double bass they might be on a stool with a double bass.
When they put their instruments ready and they’ve got their bow on their instrument, just checking the angle is very useful, because sometimes they have angles like that or they just collapse a little bit, or you can see a bit of tension. So just getting all of that sorted right from the beginning will give them the best possibility for a great sound later.
Tuning a string instrument. In the beginning it’s useful if students don’t touch the pegs. It’s very easy to break your strings if they touch the pegs, so I usually say wait till you’re about grade five to do it. If they’re ready for it earlier that’s fantastic but it’s a good kind of measure for them. The fine tuners or adjusters, I only have one on this violin, they can they can use those pretty soon as long as they’re secure about which direction to go in. So with my students I play a note on the piano maybe, or on my violin, I sing it, then I get them to sing the same pitch and then to play it.
And then they can tell me if it matches perfectly or whether it needs to go a bit higher or a bit lower. And then I take their bow while they adjust the tuner so they don’t damage their violins. And that gets them really used to having to sing in tune and developing the confidence about pitch control and then we just do the next string and the others. If they’re reluctant to sing they can hum or the idea is just that they can hear it so they can adjust.
When they’re a bit more advanced then I get them to tune in fifths, so once they’ve tuned their A, then they tune the A and the D and see if that resonates really freely, and once they’re confident that then, obviously the next ones.
Angles on a string instrument. Often when learners begin they put their bow on a string and then they go without hinging any of their joints and they play like this. And of course what we’re aiming for us to keep the bow completely parallel to the bridge, and ideally halfway in between the fingerboard and the bridge as well. And that gives a really solid ‘mezzoforte’ sound there. And one thing that can be useful is if they put their bow right in the middle and then just open their right elbow like this. The bow stays pretty parallel.
Sometimes you can get them to kind of reverse in so they’ve got a wall here, so they can’t move their upper arm they get that feeling and then in the lower arm they have to move their whole arm. But it’s very useful just to start in the middle or in the top half so they get the feeling of being very parallel and a really secure solid sound. Tone quality. Tone quality is a lot about the sound, their own aural perception, so if you can convince your students to go and hear are some concerts or watch on YouTube even, it makes a real difference just to that image that they’re trying to recreate.
Obviously if we can demonstrate, that might be very helpful as well. And we’ve talked about keeping the bow parallel. There’s obviously weight and lightness that can make a difference as well, not just with dynamics, obviously, but with the kind of colour and the texture of it as well. And even in the beginning if we can get our students really interested in that sound, then they start to enjoy it and recreate it much more quickly. And the other thing is how close or far they are from the bridge, so it’s just worth experimenting with that but always they need to know that they need to be as parallel as possible.
What we sometimes see of course, is that they have very straight fingers and of course the second that their fingers are and their thumb are straight on a violin or a viola particularly then, especially on the E string, the skinny string, they tend to, you know, make that kind of sound, that kind of sound. So even if you can’t convince them to curl their fingers in the early days, just having light fingers and some teachers get them to hold a bow bit further up, just having light, light arms and light fingers just gets things moving a bit more freely.
Because if they’re worried about things, they will just move more slowly and try and get it right and of course, tension will just get in the way. So, lightness, perhaps if they can tilt the bow a little bit as well then there’ll be less friction, less resistance, and they can move more with more greater bow speed, so they can move more freely. And again you can see with my right arm that I’m just trying to move it very naturally and but quite a lot. They often use very small bows at the beginning, especially when they start to add fingers, so getting really free bowing that’s really useful.
The next thing that can be enormously useful long term, is a little bit about bow division, so if they’re playing you know just a really simple tune, just thinking small bows, big bows, small bows, big bows, even that will make a really big difference to the quality of the sound. So again just trying to connect the their image and perhaps getting them to do a little of singing of the tune, maybe adding words, all those kind of things, so they’re really creating what’s in their head rather than just doing something physically.
Coordination between the hands. Obviously, once we’ve got the right hand sorted and it’s making a nice sound and we’ve got some fingers going up and down, we need to coordinate the two. To do that best, students just need a bit of space between the notes, so let’s say they’re doing a D major scale, so if they play the D, get their finger on and then get their bow ready, then play finger on, get ready with the bow, so they’re always ready before they move the bow. And as much as possible, try and keep their thinking on the bow side, so they’re really mindful about the tone quality of the whole time.
When it comes to slurs, again you can divide it up, a little bit of bow division, I sometimes put a sticker in the middle of the bow or you know a couple a the third, the third way point. So if they’ve got two notes in a bow, again on the D major scale, maybe just get them to wait, put their first finger down and then carry on very deliberately on a down bow. Wait, and then they can just do smaller waits until there are none. Until they’ve got it really smooth, and then obviously they can build up the tempo after that.
So the general rule is very slow, no pressure, no panic, lots of time for preparation and thinking in between everything, because as long as they’re thinking and preparing then we know they’re really learning it, they’re really learning it, and when they go home they’ll know exactly what to do. So preparing, giving lots of time, especially something that’s complicated like slurs at the beginning. When it comes to string crossings, they need to know the right arm needs to move. If their fingers are changing that arm needs to rotate as well, so for example, So I’m moving my left arm and my right arm in sympathy with each other like that.
And often students, they find it easy to play on the E in the A string, but they don’t lift for the D, they just stretch and then stretch, which of course doesn’t get a very good tone, and it actually makes it harder for them. So that feeling of having a kind of balloon under their arm, just kind of to help them, they can sit on the balloon when they come down and it can just kind of help raise them up when they go back to the G string. They might find that very useful. But rotating the arms in sync is a really useful concept for them.
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Modelling good technique is an important aspect of effective teaching. Reflect on our own technical strengths and shortcomings to raise our awareness. In this film, ABRSM Examiner and teacher, Jessica O’Leary discusses the basic principles of technique that can be applied to all Bowed String instruments.
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