THE FIRST GREAT CIRCLE: PLAYING THROUGH THE VIOLIN
The best sounds and the longest lines are produced when we can draw the bow in a line, usually quite parallel to the bridge so that the sounding point remains steady. However our bow arms work best in circular motions: our shoulders are ball-and-socket joints, and our elbows are hinged to allow the rotation of the forearm. If we are concentrating only on the straight line of the bow, we may inhibit the natural circular motions needed for the arm to function well, and our sound may become stiff and thin. I call these natural and desirable circular motions the smile bow.
AIRPLANE A great exercise for developing the smile bow is one I call the airplane landing. Before starting, drape a cloth across the midsection of the violin, under the strings. Begin with your upper arm rotated entirely outward so that it is actually touching your face. The tip should be so far to the right that it is pointing to the floor. Now rotate the upper arm to trace a giant circle, beginning a downbow from a point as far as possible to the left of the violin. As you circle in for a landing on the G string, curve into the string so that you are incredible close to it before you land. Land without stopping the slow steady motion of your arm. Think of your bow as an airplane. Before an airplane lands, it levels off, and its touchdown is very gentle. Never hit as you land — don’t make your passengers spill their coffee! At the end of your downbow, draw the frog upwards and gently pluck each string (G, D, A, E) with the tip of your bow. You should end with your bow in the air, off of the violin, with the frog high in the air and the tip rotated downward, facing the ground. To perform an upbow, continue from this position, drawing the upbow from a point as far as possible to the right of the violin. As before, circle in for a landing, curving gently into the string without stopping. At the end of your upbow, gently pluck each string (E, A, D, G) with the metal of your frog; you should end with your upper arm touching your face, ready to start the downbow again. If you are not comfortable coming from above the string, or if you often hit the string when starting a stroke, this airplane exercise will be marvelously effective. Practice landings in all parts of the bow, on all four strings.
DEEP CIRCLES UNDERNEATH THE VIOLIN For the deepest sonorities (think chords, Brahms, and concertos) your smile bow should trace a circle far under the violin. Stand with your violin in your left hand, but hanging downward under your right armpit. Now with your bow make a slow and giant circle in the air, starting far above and descending far below where your violin normally is on your left side. You should feel quite relaxed, and there should be no change in the slow speed of your arm during this circle. After a few of these air circles, gently but quickly place the violin on your shoulder, without stopping the slow circles of your right arm and bow. The violin will intersect your circle; the bow will land on the strings of the violin; but you should continue to feel as if you are playing deep circles underneath the violin. Land once and return the violin to its position under your right arm. Your bow should continue to circle slowly, largely, and without stopping. Repeat.
What is most prominently and noticeably circling during this exercise is your upper arm. However you can also see your elbow drawing circles in the air; if you can, try to feel your right shoulder blade circling as well. This is what it means to “play from the back.” When your bow lands, the weight of your whole arm and upper right back is relaxing into the strings. If you were to stay pressed into the strings the sound would buckle, but the beauty of the smile bow is that it will lift you out of the string before the sound can be pinned and crushed. Try playing chords while feeling and envisioning this giant circle. Feel your whole back and arm releasing into the strings. At the end of your downbows, feel your frog lifting to the balcony; at the end of upbows, your tip.
FOREARM HINGE Another important circle is created by the forearm. Try holding your ulna bone and rotating your radius. You’ll be startled to see the range of motion possible without ever having to move your elbow, and without your ulna moving. To feel this circle, stabilize your right upper arm with your left hand and swing your right forearm. You can easily see the smile created by this motion – it is as if you are tracing the bottom of a hammock! These small circular motions of the forearm give smoother bow changes and a more liquid, creamy quality to the sound. This ability of the forearm to move at its elbow hinge is very important in classical repertoire such as Mozart and Schubert, and it also is crucial in string crossings, particularly in fast passages and barriolage. To practice passages using this motion, stand so that the back of your upper right arm is flat against a wall (D string level is best for your elbow) and practice Kreutzer #13 without allowing the upper arm to participate. Feel your arm opening and closing at the elbow as you draw the bow; also feel the tiny circles of rotation. After this, step away from the wall and produce the same arm motion, keeping your elbow level stable while using a free, even exaggerated forearm movement; use lots of bow.
PREPARING YOUR BODY TO RECEIVE THE WEIGHT OF THE BOW AND ARM
We often think of producing sound simply by moving our arms to press the strings into the violin, but we should remember that the quality and richness of our sounds will be greatly helped if we have springs and openness in our bodies. Remember the deep circles underneath the violin? If we think of those circles as continuing through the violin and into our chest, abdomen, and torso, we’ll realize that those parts of our body must not be rigid and stiff.
TREE GIRL One of the most beautiful, sonorous tones I ever heard was produced by an incredibly thin young girl. The tone could not be explained by arm weight, because her arms were the size of twigs. Her posture, however, was remarkable – her entire back was rounded forward so that the violin appeared to be wrapped inside her chest and body. It was as if she were a tree with a violin enveloped within. If you experiment by playing with this (admittedly terrible) posture, you can learn to feel as if your arm weight is going through the violin and directly into your chest and belly, and you will hear a big change in your sound. After doing this exercise, return to your regular upright posture, but imagine that you are still carving a C shape into your chest and belly.
SCRUBBING INTO THE BELLY (Karen Tuttle Exercise) Another excellent way to get the feeling of playing through and below the violin is to bend over, place your bow on the D and A strings, and make a loud, rapid détaché stroke. Push the wood entirely down as you feel your force going straight into your gut. Continue scrubbing as you straighten to playing position; continue feeling the force going right into your gut. If your sound changes, start over — you have lost the connection into your belly!