Today, let’s cover playing violin open strings & how to get the purest tone. I think one of the most popular reasons people play violin is its closeness to the human voice. There are a lot of nuances and special effects that one can apply when using a bowed instrument. The vibrating strings become our instrument’s vocal cords. These cords are capable of a wide range of timbre and tonality.
When we speak of tonality on a violin, the first thing that comes to mind is the intonation of the notes. Proper intonation is a whole other subject that we can cover in another article. Here, we will discuss the other aspect of tonality: How well can we make the violin strings speak their notes when a bow is drawn across them.
It isn’t fair, but some people have better voices than I do. Everything else being equal, that person’s voice will be purer and clearer than mine. That’s just the raw genetic material at work. So if you want a better sound, try not to buy the cheapest machine made instruments. They suffer from poor quality and materials.
You don’t need to spend a ton of money, just don’t get a super cheap violin and expect it to sound great. In fact, I would caution that a cheap instrument can delay your technical advancement as you will struggle to get a proper tone. Remember, renting a violin can be a cost effective option, especially for new violinists. You can find out more about choosing the right violin for you in this article.
Next up is the type of strings you are using. Avoid cheap student orchestral strings. These are typically just made of steel and will have a correspondingly tinny sound profile. No need to buy the most expensive strings. Mid priced strings will be a huge step up. See my article on changing strings if you need assistance with this.
Also, remember that strings are like fresh fruit, and can go stale and old. They lose flexibility and responsiveness over time and should be replaced every year. Even more frequently if you play a lot. You are practicing everyday, right?
Now, Let’s Try Playing Violin Open Strings
Follow the steps below to practice playing violin open strings. These steps will lay a strong foundation for all your violin skills.
First, Tune Up!
First, make sure you are properly tuned. This is super important, so don’t skip it. As you play the octave and other overtones that belong to an open string, you will cause it to vibrate sympathetically. That is the wonderful sonorous tone you hear from professional players. They play in tune and cause the open strings to vibrate a lot as they play. This is like amplifying the violin.
Now, Pull Out Your Metronome
Once you are tuned up, start by playing each open string with a whole bow and quite slowly. If you set your metronome to 60 BPM, each bow stroke should last 4-6 beats.
Now, Concentrate on Sound
Once you get a sense of the speed, turn the metronome off as you want to concentrate on the quality of the sound you are creating. The speed of the bow should be constant and the weight you apply should be enough to play forte.
You apply weight by turning your bow wrist inwards, and applying pressure on the index finger. Try doing the opposite and take all weight off the bow. Suddenly the sounds will get all wispy without substance. If you apply too much pressure, you will get the typical scratchy sounds that violin students are famous for.
Focus on Your Bowing
Play with the flat of the bow hair. If you are playing with the bow rolled over too much in either direction you will have a smaller contact patch of hair pulling at the strings, causing less vibration and therefore less tone.
Don’t forget to rosin your bow. You need to use some judgement here. You should not have huge puffs of rosin rising up as you play. This leaves a lot of rosin in the string and instruments muddying the vibrations. Too little rosin, and the hairs slip across the string without grabbing it and causing it to lack vibration.
Each string requires a different amount of pressure to make it vibrate well. The lower strings need more pressure and the upper strings less.
Your bow should remain parallel to the bridge during the entire bow stroke. Most students have trouble in the upper and lower third of the bow to maintain this straightness. You need to have a flexible bow wrist to maintain this straightness.
Finally, Look at Your Placement
Finally, imagine there are five parallel lanes dividing the distance between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard. If we numbered these lanes from 1 through 5 with 1 being the closest to the fingerboard, you will always want your bow to be in lanes 3 (the middle) to 5 (the closest to the bridge).
These three lanes cause the brightest purest sounds to be made, and should be mastered. Lanes 2 and 1 are reserved for softer more reserved playing. Once you are comfortable with the open string tonalization exercise, start using it with scales.
If you practice this exercise for playing violin open strings every day, you will be rewarded with a strong, pure tone when playing.