Improving tone on the fiddle

Improving tone

In the October workshop we worked on improving tone on the fiddle.
We started off by getting an better understanding of how the bow functions to create a sound from the fiddle. The hairs on the bow have tiny scales along their length (rather like fish scales). When we put rosin on the bow, tiny flakes of the rosin lodge under the scales, along the length of the hair. This rosin creates a slight ‘stickiness’. As the bow is pulled across the string, the hair sticks, pulling the string sideways. At some point, the tension created overcomes this stickiness, and the string and hair part company, which sets the string vibrating.

Bowed violin string in slow motion.gif
By ViolinB0W –, CC BY 3.0,

The bridge transfers this string vibration to the body of the fiddle. The body of the fiddle acts as a “sound box” which amplifies the sound produced from the string.

We worked on getting the bow to fully engage with the string. Playing on an open A, we placed the bow on the string very close to the frog end. We allowed the weight of the bowing hand to rest fully on the bow. Once in this position, we gradually added an increasing ‘pull’ on the bow. At some point, this pull overcame the stickiness of the rosin, and the bow moved, setting the string vibrating (albeit it with a very scrunchy noise!). We were aiming to get a sense of the feeling in the bowing hand, at the moment the string starts to move. When we’re playing notes on the fiddle, the hand is responding to that moment when the bow engages with the string, and immediately relaxing, to allow the string to ring out, and resonate beneath the bow as it continues to move.

We also worked on using the index finger of the bowing hand on the back of the stick, to help really dig the bow into the string at the start of the note. When playing the fiddle, this action feels like a short pulse in the hand. The index finger pushes into the back of the stick, helping the hair to really engage with the string. Doing this helps to add a dynamic to individual notes we play, so the note doesn’t have the same volume throughout its length.

To be in control of the sounds we make on the fiddle, we need to be in control of what we are doing with the bow throughout the bow stroke. There’s a number of things that will affect the tone of the notes we play. Follow the link to find out more about improving your tone on the fiddle.

We worked in pairs, and gave each other feedback about bowing action, noting whether the bow stayed perpendicular to the strings throughout the bow stroke, and also whether it stayed close to the bridge.

We tried playing long bows on an open string, using the action of our index finger on the stick to create a pulse at the start of each note.

We tried playing on different open strings, to get a feel for the effect of using the bow lightly or with more weight behind it. On the G string there’s a tendency to let the hand add weight to the bow, to create a full resonant sound. When doing this, it will feel more natural to add weight when we’re using the frog end of the bow, as the hand is immediately on top of the bow where it’s making contact with the string. As we move towards the tip of the bow, the weight is transferred into the bow by pushing down with the index finger o the back of the stick.
When we’re playing on the E string, we generally need to hold back a bit on the weight of the bow. As we move towards the frog end of the bow, this involves taking a bit of the weight of the bow in the hand, by pushing down very gently with the pinkie on the back of the stick. The thumb acts as a pivot, so pushing on the stick effectively lifts to tip of the bow. This is a very subtle action, as we don’t want to lift the bow off the string.

The bowing hand in action
Photo ©Ros Gasson

Then we tried playing a long note on an open string, focusing fully on listening to the sound we were making. Learning to play the fiddle can seem like a pretty complicated business in the early stages. There’s a lot of different aspects of technique to work on, and it’s very easy to get into a habit of always playing while thinking – about whether we are in tune, what note comes next, which direction our bow is going, and so on and so on. It’s important to keep practicing playing while really listening to the sounds we are creating. Ultimately we need to be able to play while hearing the tune we are playing in our head – the fact we hear it, means it automatically comes out of the fiddle. Until we can get to a point where we can play in this subconscious way, our playing is likely to be stilted, and lack a sense of flow or connection with others. We also need to be free to focus on listening to what we and others around us are playing, so we can learn about the quality of the sounds we are making, and learn to interact with others we are playing music with.

We learnt the waltz ‘Valse des Pastouriaux’ (written by Jackie Molard).

We played around with the notes in the arpeggio of the D scale (D F# A and D). We all found these notes on our fiddles (and they can be in any octave, so we could go as low as the bottom A, right up to a top A on the E string). We then played around, creating riffs and drones using any combination of any of these notes. We could chose to follow what another person was doing, and play something that worked with what they were playing, or we could chose to play something that cut against what others were doing. While we were doing this, we were fully focused on listening, both to our own playing, and the playing of the fiddlers around us.

We also tried playing some basic chords, working on controlling the bow position so we could confidently chose whether to play a chord or a single string. We tried playing an open G, followed by a G/D chord, then the open D string, followed by a D/A chord, and so on across all the fiddle strings. Playing chords across 2 open strings, for the full length of the bow, helps us to practice listening, and learning from what we hear – in order to play the chord throughout the bow stroke, we must keep the bow travelling in a straight line (on the vertical axis). We should immediately be able to hear if the bow moves off this straight line, as we will no longer hear both notes playing.