Developing Your Expressive Vibrato

August 4th, 2019 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 01: Sounds | Goal 05: Ease | Left Side - (Comments Off)


 The use of vibrato is one of the most important elements of our sound. Vibrato increases the beauty and resonance of our sound, and like a singer’s voice, must be tied to the ebb and flow of musical tension. Below are three of the best exercises for developing the movement of your hand and arm in vibrato.

Amplitude and Release: the Dounis Flicker

Place the hand in fifth position, so that the heel is touching the body of the instrument. Totally relax the hand and wrist. Make one flick forward, as if from an electrical impulse, so that your hand comes closer to the violin and the first joint of your finger bends. Immediately relax the hand back. Repeat this, always making sure to relax the hand completely between flicks. Notice how you can control the amount your first joint bends and straightens; if you are trying to develop a wider vibrato, allow as much movement as possible; if you are trying to narrow your vibrato, control the size of the movement. Next reverse the direction, so that the long note comes in the upper direction; the short note should release backwards completely, almost as if your hand is swooning. Continue adding flicks as suggested below. Remember to wait between flicks as long as necessary, so that the hand is completely relaxed and the vibrato impulse feels almost involuntary. In this example, R = Release or Relax and F = Flick.

Developing Your Expressive Vibrato Insert

Continuous Vibrato: Pulsing

Put the metronome on eighth equals between 70 and 84. Play your scale or passage, pulsing four times per eighth note. Pulse forward to the beat. Do not allow the vibrato to stop or vary when you change fingers, when you cross strings, or when you shift.

Vibrato Between Notes: Bayla’s Four Part Special

  1. Choose a doublestop (e.g. a major seventh). Start a downbow non-vibrato and increase the vibrato into the next bow change, so that at the upbow you have moltissimo vibrato. Gradually decrease the vibrato so that by the frog you return to non-vibrato. Watch your hand (in the mirror if necessary) to make sure the vibrato actually continues and connects across the bow change.
  2. Now, keeping both fingers of the doublestop on the string, draw a downbow on the lower string and change to upbow on the upper string. Do the same continuous crescendo and diminuendo of vibrato.
  3. Lift the upper finger and bring it directly over the same string as the lower finger. The finger should be so close that it almost touches the string. Feel the doublestop in the air as you repeat the vibrato crescendo and diminuendo; put the upper finger down just as you begin the upbow, without any interruption in the flow of the vibrato.
  4. Keeping the lower finger on the string, draw the upper finger away from the violin so far that it almost touches the pegs of your scroll. Do the vibrato crescendo and diminuendo; during the crescendo, gradually bring the upper finger in close to the string, feeling the doublestop in the air as in #3 above. The vibrato should reach its peak just as you put the upper finger down. Leave the finger down as you diminuendo.

Do this exercise with every combination of fingers, but emphasize going from lower to upper fingers as well as from fourth to first finger. In your repertoire, if you hear any stops or holes in your vibrato between notes, apply this exercise.


There are specific releases and ways to move which will allow us the widest range of possible vibrato speeds and widths with the least amount of work and tension. Understanding how our bodies work best and learning how to feel and maintain as much physical looseness and relaxation as possible will help us tie our vibrato to our heartstrings so that we can instinctively express the feeling of every chord and note in our music — the ultimate goal!

One obvious killer of a free vibrato is overpressing with the playing finger. Another is clenching with the thumb. Less obvious are the tiny circular movements which if inhibited will create blocks to the vibrato.

Loosening the Thumb

The thumb can be one of the prime preventers of expressive vibrato. On a scale of one to ten, the thumb should never be pressing into the neck more than a three, and the thumb should never squeeze up in response to the playing finger.  My favorite thumb exercises are:

  1. With the left hand in playing position, hold your left thumb with your right hand to stabilize it and tap each finger down against that thumb. The thumb should not move. Repeat without the right hand. The thumb should not move.
  2. Simon Fischer Basics p. 218 # 284 (notice how the movement encourages forearm rotation)
  3. Simon Fischer Basics pp. 146-148 (I call this the thumb spa)
  4. Place a cloth against the wall at an appropriate height for you and place the scroll of the violin against the cloth. (You will have to lean into the wall slightly to keep the cloth in place.) Now play your passage or scale, taking the thumb entirely off the neck. Repeat, allowing the thumb to rest gently against the neck. Move away from the wall and play the passage or scale again.
  5. Play a slow scale. On the downbow, support the violin on the vee created by your thumb and the base of your index finger; gently take your head off of the chinrest and move it around. On the upbow, settle your head gently into the chinrest and take your thumb off. Try to maintain a beautiful sound and vibrato. Are there passages in your music where you can take turns or alternate holding the violin with either the head and thumb?

Forearm Rotation

Remember that the vibrato motion itself is not linear but instead a kind of oval. Make a clockwise motion with your left arm (see Simon Fischer Basics p. 214 #277); allow the hinge at your elbow to open and notice how your forearm is now rotating. Although the motion is slight, it is hugely important.


Circles are always more natural for our body to create than lines, and this is especially true in vibrato, when we want every muscle and joint in our left side to be as open and loose as possible. If we think of vibrato as a linear motion up and down the string, the more we try to vibrate, the more we will start to tighten; but if we find the natural circles in each joint we can generate a spiraling effect which will allow the vibrato to pass through into our fingertips as if it were electricity passing through liquid.

Without the violin but with your arms in playing position, make figure eights as you shift your weight from leg to leg. (See Connecting Upper and Lower Body.) Exaggerate the movement of your hips and allow this same circle to move into your upper arms; you can also feel tiny circles in your shoulderblades. As you become more aware of the circle in your left upper arm, allow the forearm to relax and begin to circle in the opposite direction – as your upper arm moves to the right, the forearm moves to the left; as your upper arm moves to the left, the forearm moves to the right. Now release the wrist and allow it to circle in the opposite direction from the forearm. Your entire left side is making a spiraling wave!

Bayla Keyes




The shape of your bow hand is fundamental to the type of sound you want to create. For clarity, articulation, and projection of a direct sound, a firm (but not rigid!) large hand (I call this “Big Hand”) is best. It will efficiently and effortlessly transmit the weight of your arm and back into the string, leading to a large, clear, focused sound.

If you experiment by holding the bow with your thumb on the outside of the frog, playing only at the frog and using very little bow, you will notice that your sound becomes automatically big, clear, and bold. To create this hand shape with a regular bow hold at the frog, bend your thumb, placing it so that it faces the frog. The bow will rest on the inside corner of the thumb (which while holding the bow is actually uppermost). Your second finger forms a ring with the thumb. Place the other fingers so that the pads of the first joints are on the side of the bow away from you; the pinky finger may rest on top of the stick, but ideally it still curves. Maintain spaces of a whole step between all fingers.

The space inside your bow hand when you are at the frog should be as large as possible. Do not allow the base joint of the index finger to drop toward the bow or toward your thumb.  Supination (rotating the forearm outward) will roll your weight onto your pinky, freeing the index finger so that its contact point is farther out; this allows an even bigger shape inside the hand.

One of the lovely paradoxes of this bow hold is that you should be able to drop your arm weight right into the string, producing the fullest possible sound, without your hand tightening or losing its springs. Learning how to hold this shape in your hand without stiffening is crucial.

As you draw a downbow, your fingers and thumb extend. As you arrive at the tip, your thumb will have straightened and rolled onto a different contact point, more toward the outside of the thumb. With the upbow this process is reversed.


A pinch at the start of a stroke gets the string to speak immediately. This pinch is followed by a release, so that the sound will not be pressed. This “catchbow” requires a good sounding point, a good hand position, and an immediate release of pressure, thereby making it possible to move the bow more rapidly. The combination of diction and generous use of bow are ideal for concertos and other repertoire requiring brilliance and power.

Ivan Galamian believed that every bow stroke should begin with a slight catchbow. The fact that you start the sound crisply and immediately and therefore must be at a good sounding point is a huge help to many violinists who suffer from “banana bows.” I especially recommend practicing concertos and repertoire with piano with this technique, even in lyric passages. Be careful not to do the pinch by contracting your entire arm; it must come just from the fingers — the arm remains relaxed.


The movement of the fingers in collé is rapid. To develop this movement, begin with the bow on the string, fingers extended; pinch the string and curl the fingers rapidly, lifting the bow out of the string. Galamian called this stroke pizzicato with the bow! Then start downbow, fingers curled and on the string; extend rapidly. Be sure to let the string ring.  Practice upbows and downbows in all parts of the bow, but particularly in the middle to upper half. When you feel proficient, progress to alternating downbows and upbows. I particularly like doing scales with a two-octave leap: start upbow on the E string and then downbow on the G string – then for a real challenge, do the opposite!

If you have trouble doing this stroke, check to see if your fingers are pronated on the bow. If they are too square, you will not be able to attain the sideways finger movement necessary for the stroke.

The ability to produce a good collé is one of our most important skills. I use Kreutzer #s 4, 6, and 7, as well as scales, for working on this stroke. Paganini Caprices with upbow or flying staccato such as #s 7, 20, and 22 will develop your ability even more.


The martèlé stroke is related to the collé stroke, but it requires more bow and therefore more arm movement. Start each stroke with a slight pinch; then release and move the bow rapidly – the collé movement will help you accomplish this. Do at least one of your scales daily with a martèlé stroke; begin with the middle half of the bow and progress to full bow strokes. Proficiency in martèlé will help you use greater amounts of bow as you learn how to keep the path of bow straight. It will also help relieve overpressing.




Violinists typically think of applying pressure down into the string, in order to get it to move maximally. However, the process of sound production is somewhat more complex. The movement of the string underneath our bow agitates the bridge; then the movement of the legs of the bridge is transferred into the entire top of the violin and through the sound post to the back of the violin as well. It is therefore more precise to think of applying pressure in the direction of the bridge, in order to create the most movement there.

Applying pressure with the stick of the bow angled slightly away from you, so that the wood presses toward the bridge, rather than directly downward into the string, can produce a warm, beautiful, rich sound. The wood when angled in this way has a feeling of softness and give, but if you make sure to keep all the hair in contact with the string, you can apply enormous pressure without ever scratching or straining. I call this scything with the bow, because the circular motion you are making with the bow resembles that made by a scythe when used to harvest crops.

A clear advantage of using this sideways curving pressure is that you will be less likely to trap the string underneath your bow. The string needs to spin and circulate underneath your bow. If you press straight down, you can all too easily pin the string, restricting its movement and removing many of the overtones which add depth and quality to your sound.


Use your left index finger as a substitute for the bow. Place your bow hand on top of the index finger and apply pressure directly downward. You may notice that there is a tendency of your right shoulder to come up and forward as you press down. You may also notice tension throughout the right arm, especially in the wrist, the upper arm near the shoulder, and the pectoral muscles at the front of the armpit.

Now place your right fingers around your left index finger and apply the pressure in a sort of curve in the direction of the bridge. Because you are curving toward yourself as well, you may notice how your right shoulder is opening back and your right shoulder blade is naturally tucking down and under. Your shoulder will feel freer and more open. You can feel the work in this pulling motion coming from the strong muscles in the back of the shoulder, rather than the weaker muscles of the front.

Especially on the downbow, this pull also encourages a natural engagement of the fingers on the bow. You will not be straightening the fingers and pushing down, but instead gathering the bow with the fingers, encouraging them to relax and curl into the bridge. Not only does the bow hold feel looser, it also feels paradoxically stronger; your fingers feel secure and fleshy on the bow stick.

Now try the above on the bow and violin. What is the type of sound produced when you think of applying pressure straight down into the string? What happens when you curve toward the bridge instead? For most violinists scything will create a deeper and more sonorous tone. This kind of sound is often ideal for romantic and lyrical expression. There is almost no limit to the amount of sound you can produce in this way, so long as you keep the hair of the bow in complete contact with the string and the wood of the bow pressing sideways through the hair and into the bridge. What I particularly like about this method of sound production is that when done properly, you will find it almost impossible to scratch or overplay!


Scything is especially wonderful when you want a warm sound, and since this sound can be both warm and huge, it is extremely useful in concertos and in any situation where you want to project without strain or edge. Here are some pieces to which you can apply scything:

  • Beginning of first movement of Tchaikovsky Concerto
  • Beginning of second movement of Bruch g minor
  • Outer sections of second movement of Brahms Concerto
  • First movement of Brahms G Major Sonata
  • Beginning of first movement of Sibelius Concerto
  • Beginning of first movement of Barber Concerto

Scything may not be the best choice when the sound you want to produce is direct, brilliant, heroic, or even angry. Catchbows and slightly flatter hair, when the wood is more directly above the hair instead of being angled, will be better for this type of expression. Flat hair, which is what Ivan Galamian recommended for maximum sound production in the upper half of the bow, produces a brighter, more direct tone. Even a détaché sounds different when done with flat hair as compared to slightly angled hair. Here are some pieces to which you can apply flatter hair:

  • Beginning of first movement of Saint-Saëns b minor Concerto
  • Brilliant fast passagework such as in the last movements of Sibelius or Tchaikovsky Concertos
  • Beginning of first movement of Lalo Concerto
  • Beginning of first movement of Brahms Concerto
  • Middle section of second movement of Brahms Concerto

Have fun experimenting — learn how to scythe in your lyric melodies, and switch to flatter hair for brilliant or more aggressive passages!



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.


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!




Tai Chi Figure Eights

July 31st, 2019 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 01: Sounds | Goal 05: Ease - (Comments Off)




One of the best ways to maintain a relaxed, strong, yet constantly releasing posture while holding the violin is to feel the connection clearly between the ground, your feet and legs, and your upper body. When you are in alignment and able to make your energy flow directly from your legs and lower body into your violin, it will be much easier to practice and perform many hours without tiring.

Stand with your feet parallel at a width directly under your shoulders. Your feet should be soft and relaxed, your knees slightly bent, your lower back in neutral (not arched – release your lower back so that your pelvis relaxes under) and your hips loose.

Push into the ground with your right toe. Notice how your body will react by shifting to the left and up.  Repeat on the opposite side. Continue to shift back and forth between your legs, alternating the pushes from your feet.

Now as you shift, instead of going directly across, trace a figure eight around your feet. Feel your weight as it passes from the front of your left foot backward around the outside, then around the left heel, then shifting weight, going diagonally to the right toes, then along the outside of the right foot into the right heel, then forward along the inside of the right foot and across to the left toes.  Do you notice how relaxing this circular movement is for your lower back? (To feel an extreme contrast, straighten your legs, lock your knees, and shift your weight from one foot to another, going directly across.)

Now return to the circular motions. Make the figure eight with your hips, allowing your left hip to drop back as you shift onto the left leg and then allowing the right hip to drop back as you shift onto the right leg.

Play air violin with this hip motion. Put your bow at the imaginary tip; shift your weight onto your right foot; drop your right hip back, shifting your weight onto your right heel. Push off from that heel; allow your right hip and entire right side to come forward, turning slightly leftward. As your weight shifts onto your left foot, allow your bow to travel to the imaginary frog. Let the motion of your body carry your bow; your arm should feel relaxed and passive.

At this point your weight is on your left leg and your bow is at your imaginary frog. Drop your left hip back, shifting onto the left heel. Push off from that heel, allowing your left hip and entire left side to come forward as you turn slightly toward the right. As you shift your weight onto your right leg allow your bow to open in a downbow to the imaginary tip. Now you have returned to your right leg and can repeat the circle.

Remember that the figure eight you are making, initiating in the feet and reflecting in the hip movement, has an overturn; this means that you will be in one continuous flow of movement. The overturns anticipate the movement of your bow. Start your air upbow after dropping the right hip back and beginning to move your right side forward; start your air downbow after dropping the left hip back and beginning to move your left side forward. You may be able to notice how soft and relaxed your hands feel. (To feel an extreme contrast, stand still and move your arm in upbow and downbow motions. Where do you feel the work?)

Repeat all the steps above with the violin. Try to feel the movement of your bow arm initiating from the hip. Your arms and torso should feel like one continuous flow. Do you notice anything about your sound as you draw the bow? Your ability to hold up your violin? The ease of movement in your arms? The release of tension in your back and shoulders? The arms begin in the lower back, and by moving in this figure eight you are constantly releasing those deep muscles, allowing your arms to work more freely and naturally. Put your awareness in your feet and legs, allow a subtle shifting and circling, and notice how much easier technique and expression become.

Mozart Should Not Sound Like Brahms:
Essential to being a fine musician is the ability to produce sounds appropriate to different styles, emotions and composers. The works of Mozart are masterpieces which often benefit from a particular sense of ease and effortlessness. Think sun, bubbles, high energy, celebration, and operatic joy!

Bow Speed:
In general faster bow speeds often convey a lighter, sunnier, more classical quality, while slower bow speeds communicate tragedy, stubbornness, difficulty, and suffering. Faster bow strokes are also useful when intensity and energy are key.
Beginning downbows with the frog angled slightly away from the bridge will help speed the bow and also lighten the frog, avoiding the gritty quality produced by playing near the bridge. Likewise, maintaining the frog away will help the sound production at the tip, because the bow is lighter at the tip and needs the heavier sounding point. (Remember, frog away from the bridge = tip into the bridge.)
The mixed bowing exercises found in Ivan Galamian’s scale book are useful. Familiarize yourself with the different feelings of sticky, resistant, slow bows vs. quick, free, traveling bows. In particular, exercises that alternate quick full bows with very slow bows will be challenging and rewarding.

Special Strokes and Smaller Muscles:
The flexibility of the wrist and fingers is vital to the lighter quality we associate with Mozart. The “Mozart” bowing, 2 slurred and 2 separate done in middle of bow, is used throughout the repertoire.

Always know where you are in the structure of each movement.
Microphrasing at all times is recommended. Be clear about where you are aiming; show high points with both bow and vibrato.
Often crescendos in Mozart are best done by adding bow speed rather than arm weight.
Natural phrasing, up and down with the line just as you do in Bach, will give an organic quality to your playing.
Be aware of sequences; start them at a lesser dynamic and build them so that they make a larger line.

Vibrato which is faster and narrower will work best with your lighter bow, but take care it does not become tense or constricted. Sculpt the rise and fall of harmonic tension in your line with your vibrato.

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 to keep the arm functioning well, and our sound may become stiff and thin.


The first bone of the arm is the shoulder blade.  When we move our elbows, our shoulder blades also move. The movable shoulder blade (and therefore elbow) are an important part of the sound; engaging this area is what it means to “play from the back muscles.” When this area is accessible, our sounds become fuller, warmer, deeper, and louder; chords are also easier, because we have the full weight of the large back muscles. There will be a circular movement of the upper arm, turning inside the ball-and-socket joint. The elbow will also make small circular motions. To encourage this movement, use your left hand to turn the upper portion of your right arm. Notice how the turning results in your right elbow circling down and up. Can you feel the motion of your right elbow all the way back into your right shoulderblade?


The second important area is the forearm itself. 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. The small circular motions of the forearm give smoother bow changes and a more liquid, creamy quality to the sound.  They also help in string crossings, particularly in fast passages. To develop this range of motion, place your right arm on a stand, with your elbow resting just beyond the left side of the stand. Now play Kreutzer #13 in the middle of the bow. Your upper arm will remain still while you cross strings using the forearm motion. This is one of the most useful capacities to develop in your bow arm; it will help you with fast barriolage passages, spiccato, and détaché.


As the forearm rolls, there is a resulting change in the hand balance which we call supination and pronation. The give of the hand into the bow facilitates these tiny adjustments. If we grip the bow too hard or are unable to bend the thumb, little or no forearm rotation is possible. There will be holes at the bow changes. We will not have enough variety of color or dynamic.

Three Systems of Intonation

June 11th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 01: Sounds | Goal 02: Intonation | Practicing - (Comments Off)


This article is a brief summary of the three primary intonation systems used by violinists today, and a suggestion for an ideal compromise tuning for the violin which will facilitate tuning doublestops as well as tuning to other instruments.

Good intonation is both an acoustic reality, with notes “agreeing” (i.e., creating overtones or undertones) with other notes being sounded simultaneously, and a kind of societal compromise, with musicians and audiences growing accustomed to and agreeing upon a certain delineation of pitches. Professional musicians must have finely tuned ears and accurate fingers, so that they can adapt to the intonation system being used by the players with whom they are playing; but true artists must understand functional harmony as well, at times choosing to shade a note up or down to create a certain tension or relaxation.

In my job at Boston University, I therefore find it helpful to teach three of the most used and useful intonation systems: expressive, equal-tempered, and just. My students learn to hear the clear changes in interval sizes and emotional moods when these different systems are employed.

I begin with descriptions of the two older systems still relevant for violinists today.


I. Historical systems of tuning

There are two important sets of musical relationships, both based on the overtone series, which are particularly relevant for the modern violinist.  The first, discovered by the Greek mathematician Pythagoras in around 530 B.C.E., was that certain perfect harmonies were formed by mathematical ratios of frequencies:  the octave, whose ratio is 2:1, the fifth, which is 3:2, and the fourth, which is 4:3. These ratios, and the beautiful pure sonorities which are the audible proof of their perfection, are the basis for typical violin tuning, with “open” fifths, which ring so deliciously.  However, a scale built solely upon these fifths results in some intervals, particularly thirds and sixths, which sound less than pleasing. In 1482 the Spanish theorist Bartolomeo Ramos de Pareja introduced just intonation, a system in which the major third is calculated by the ratio of 5:4, and other intervals are arrived at by using the Pythagorean ratios of the octave, fifth and fourth.  Tuned in this system, 3rds and 6ths will have a “third tone,” an acoustic phenomenon which greatly enhances the pleasure of the listener and the player. Present-day intonation takes advantage of parts of both of these historical tuning systems.[1]

To use either of these systems, listen for the tones beyond or underneath the tones you are playing. Perfect consonances (8ves, 4ths, and 5ths) which are perfectly in tune have no beats; listen for the “wow-wow-wow-wow,” which will change as you approach perfection, and cease when you reach it. 3rds and 6ths which are tuned in just intonation will produce an audible “third tone;” a minor third, for example, will produce the fifth below the top note (C#-E will give an A); a major third will produce its lower note an octave lower (C-E will yield a lower C). Likewise, a major sixth will give a note a fifth below its lower note (E-C# will give an A), and a minor sixth will give a bass note an octave below its top note (E-C will give a lower C).  Learning to play in tune means accessing the overtone series.

Problems: In both of these early systems, intervals do not add up over distance or are not consistently sized. In the Pythagorean system, a high C will not be the same note as a low C, and playing pieces in different keys will be impossible.  Even tuning your violin with perfect open fifths, as most of us were taught to do, will result in a G which is quite flat to your open E.  Playing a C major chord using G-G-C-E will be some kind of disaster, as you will be forced to choose between playing Cs and Gs which do not ring and agree with your G string, OR living with a C which is intolerably too low to make a nice-sounding major third with your E string. As medieval musicians discovered, some compromise must be found.


II. The system most in use today: Equal Temperament – the Ultimate Compromise!

Definition: This system divides the octave into twelve equal half-steps, ideal for keyboards, modulation, and even atonal music.  In fact, the development of this system in the sixteenth century made Western classical music possible.

To use equal temperament, tune your violin using a tuner/drone which can sound all tones.  Tune your open strings directly to the corresponding notes on the tuner.

Problems: This system does not take advantage of the acoustical properties of our instrument. The violin will not ring. The sound will be bland; intervals will seem indistinguishable and lack personality. Sharps will seem low, flats will seem high, and in general intervals will not be expressive enough.  Half-steps will seem lazy, especially at fast tempos. Fifths and fourths will be slightly too small to ring. Major thirds and minor sixths will be slightly too wide to get a third tone, minor thirds and major sixths slightly too narrow. Only the octaves will be pure, and you will most definitely match the piano.


III. Expressive or solo intonation – the String Player’s Secret Weapon!

Definition: This system, which is used primarily by string soloists (especially violinists), takes advantage of the string instrument’s ability to play in the cracks between equal tempered notes. Sharps are raised and flats are lowered to give the maximum expression for each interval.  An expressive half-step will have much more tension than its equal-tempered counterpart. Leading tones will truly and unmistakably lead: in G major, an expressively high F# will be dying to reach its G; in Bb major, an expressively low Bb will be quite close to the open A, resulting in an A which is dying to get to its Bb. Use of this intonation will raise the emotional temperature of music, exaggerating yearning, tension, sadness, etc. It will also heighten the profile of the player, helping him or her to come out of the texture. (This can be why students and even some soloists often end up playing generally sharp, by the way—they are trying to raise sharps, which will help them stand out from the orchestra, but stray into raising everything.) A side benefit is that this particular intonation will more often result in perfect intonation with open strings (for example, a B on the A-string will tune UP to the E string, not down to the D string), giving a generally richer and fuller sonority to the instrument as the sympathetic vibrations of open strings are activated.

To use expressive intonation, slightly raise the third and seventh tones in major scales (often the sixth as well); lower the third tones in minor scales. Slightly exaggerate all accidentals– put sharps higher and flats lower. Tune all notes possible to open strings using pure octaves and fourths and when necessary, combinations of these intervals, i.e., B on A string should be tuned to open E, G to G string, C to G to G string, etc.  Half-steps will be noticeably smaller and whole steps fractionally wider than in equal temperament. This will be particularly helpful in fast passagework, where the ear perceives half-steps differently.

Problems: this system should be used only for solo lines, not when tuning within a vertical or chordal structure. Also, the player must get used to hearing and tuning 3rds and 6ths NOT using just intonation; major 3rds will sound wide and minor 3rds narrow, in comparison to those tuned with the just intonation system. Lastly, the player will not blend as easily in an orchestral section, or even with other players who have been trained using equal temperament.  Expressive intonation is a powerful tool, so use it deliberately and only with discretion!


IV. Bayla Keyes’s Compromise Violin Tuning – recommended for all situations

To tune the violin in a way which will allow you the best of many possible worlds of intonation, purchase a tuner/drone which has a variable A and which sounds all tones.  (I use a Sorinuri Digital Metronome/Tuner #MTR-33.) Tune your A and D strings with the tuner/drone note at A=441; match the A of the drone exactly, then turn the dial to D and match your open D string to the drone D exactly. Tune G with tuner/drone at A=440, but with the dial turned to sound the note G. Tune E with tuner/drone at A=442, but with the dial turned to sound the note E.  (Note: If you don’t have a movable tuner, tune A to 440, tune D to A in a VERY TIGHT fifth, tune G to D in a SLIGHTLY TIGHT fifth, tune E to A in a SLIGHTLY TIGHT fifth.) Your goal is to squeeze your beautiful open fifths a little, but not as much as an equal-tempered piano would.  Note that your open strings will create fifths which are smaller than perfectly open fifths, but in the case of G-D and A-E, wider than those of the equal-tempered piano.


Open Fifths (Pythagorean)     Compromise Tuning (Keyes)  Equal Temperament (Piano)

E: tuner at A = 443                    E: tuner at A = 442                           E: tuner at A = 441

A: tuner at A = 441                   A: tuner at A = 441                            A: tuner at A = 441

D: tuner at A = 440-439         D: tuner at A = 441                            D: tuner at A = 441

G: tuner at A = 439-438         G: tuner at A = 440                           G: tuner at A = 441


Tuned using Open Fifths, the violin’s acoustical properties will be fully apparent; the instrument will ring gloriously. However, the G string (and possibly the D) will be noticeably flat to the piano, and the E will be noticeably sharp; the violinist will be likely to play flat on the bottom of the instrument, and sharp on the top. Furthermore, in C Major, a chord using open G and open E (i.e. G-G-C-E) will sound nasty, because the distances will be too wide. With the cello C string the problem is exacerbated.

Tuned using Equal Temperament, the violin’s open strings will match the piano perfectly, and playing in tune should be considerably easier, all over the instrument. However, the violin’s acoustical properties will be rendered mute; the instrument will sound like a cigar box. It will actually feel harder to produce a sound, because there will be no sympathetic vibrations from your fifths.

With Compromise Tuning, the violin will be able to have some ring from its outer fifths, while preventing the wide and disconcerting spread between G and E; furthermore it will be close enough to the piano pitches corresponding to its open strings to prevent discord when playing with piano. The G string will be SLIGHTLY flat to the piano and the E SLIGHTLY sharp, but not enough to trouble the listener. When playing with cello, the violin E will not be so disconcertingly high to the cello C string.


V. Remembering pitches vs. relating to a pitch environment

A player with consistent intonation can remember pitches, so that an A is an A no matter where on the instrument it is played. Working with a tuner/drone can help you become more exact in your pitch memory by toning the ear as if it were a muscle; if you use the tuner and experiment with both equal temperament and expressive intonation you will find your ear developing greater ability to distinguish ever finer degrees of pitch. From the point of view of reliability, it does not matter which system of intonation you prefer, as long as you are consistent and intentional. Your goal when practicing is to establish steadfast relationships in your own intervals and with your own instrument.

But intonation must always be relative as well.  In rehearsal and performance, when you are playing with other instruments, you MUST listen and adjust. Using equal temperament is advisable in many situations, e.g. orchestral playing, matching the piano or in combination with winds.  However you can expect to be using Pythagorean intervals as well, in order to make perfect ringing fourths and fifths with other musicians. You may find that you have to play certain notes “OUT” of tune, in order to be IN tune with another player. Strive to establish consistent intervals with others, listening to intervals in order to access the extra sonorities available to you through the sympathetic vibrations of perfect octaves, fourths, and fifths, or even the third tones to thirds and sixths created between you and another player. In your own practice, relational tuning by matching perfect intervals with a tuner/drone, as well as whenever you have an applicable open string, will help develop your ear quickly; in rehearsal and performance, you will be matching others instead.  In all cases, your ear is your constant guide and your first responder!


© 2010 Bayla Keyes

[1]  I highly recommend Stuart Isacoff’s wonderful book, Temperament, for an in-depth history of the development of equal temperament.


Expressive intonation when used on the violin takes utmost advantage of the sympathetic vibrations of our open strings. We should as a matter of course tune 4ths, 5ths, and 8vs to our open strings whenever possible; this makes the violin ring beautifully, enriching our sounds and giving us a sense of ease as we play. However, in addition to checking constantly for agreement with open strings, we can go further and begin to hear the relationships between groups of notes.  Basing these groups on 4ths and 5ths will make for consistency in intonation and a more expressive and powerful sound. It will also give us smaller half steps, wider major intervals, and smaller minor intervals; these are all hallmarks of expressive intonation, wherein we intensify and exaggerate functional harmony.

Perfect consonances such as 4ths and 5ths can be divided by their relationship to the open strings into two categories: Dark, building in 4ths up from the G string, and Bright, building in 4ths down from the E string.

Dark Side

G, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, all flats

Bright Side

E, B, F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, all sharps

You may have noticed that music in keys such as D, A, E, and G is often easier to make sound; this is because it is naturally using the ring of the open strings contained in the key. You may have conversely noticed more difficulty in works written in flat keys such as Eb, Ab, and Db. Not only do these keys contain fewer of our open strings, they also require us to relate in 4ths to the open G string – the “Dark Side” — which we might prefer to ignore. Even a movement in C Major such as the Bach C Major Fugue will be full of opportunities for mistuning C major chords with the G string, because we will try to tune them “up” to the E string. This is particularly difficult if we tune our fifths perfectly open.


Here is the tuning I recommend instead:

Keyes Compromise Tuning

E: Tuner at A=442

A: Tuner at A=441

D: Tuner at A=441

G: Tuner at A=440


This results in:

Dark Side

G, C, F, Bb, Eb, Ab, Db: Tuner at A=440

Bright Side

E, B, F#, C#, G#, D#, A#: Tuner at A=442

All flats are lowered and all sharps are raised, leading to narrow half steps and widened whole steps in both major and minor scales. In major scales, the 3rd, 6th and 7th steps are high. In harmonic minor scales, the 3rd and 6th steps are low; the 7th is high. The distance from C to C# is greater than that from C to Db. These narrow half steps greatly intensify our emotional expression.



Creating your Gorgeous Tone in Legato

June 10th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Goal 01: Sounds | Right Side - (Comments Off)

Imagination, Visualization, Emotion:

Your sound is your soul. Expose yourself to wonderful violinists so that you may learn what is possible; but — your sound must be uniquely your own voice. What do you hear in your mind’s ear?

Physical Facts:

All sounds will be a mix of bow speed and weight/pressure. Choose your sounding points:

Nearer the bridge = more tension/resistance = more weight = slower bow speed

Farther from the bridge = less resistance = less weight = faster bow speed

The angle of wood to hair also affects clarity and warmth. Although at the frog the hair should be slightly angled, experiment with flatter hair from the middle of the bow to the tip, especially in concertos.

Find strings that suit your violin.

Bow Arm:

Think of your hand, arm and entire body as a set of springs. If anything is locked the sound will be stopped, as water by a dam. Keep all joints open. Avoid strain or forcing.

Carve, caress, slide, pour, sink, curve – never hit or strike the violin!

Execute the bow smile. Land in a flattening curve, never with an abrupt vertical descent. (Airplane exercise)

Flexibility in the bow hand and wrist, facilitated by the proper relaxation of the thumb in combination with the proper hand shape, is essential for beauty.

Left hand:

The relation of the fingers of the left hand to the string can affect the sound greatly. Make sure your tips have a feeling of cushion; in lyric playing, play on the pads, not on the bone. The first joint should flex easily. Do not overpress with the fingers or clench with the thumb. The softness in the tips and first joints will especially help sound and intonation in multiple stops.

Vibrato is a key component to your sound and will help loosen your joints.

The arch shape of the fingers can give clarity and focus to your sound. Flattened fingers are fuzzier and warmer.