3 Ways to achieve Gracefulness in String Playing

3 Ways to Achieve Gracefulness as a String Player

String Playing is all about being graceful, isn’t it? This article highlights how 3 specific techniques, which are shifting, bowing changes, and vibrato can help achieve more graceful playing when done well!

So, what is the purpose of using grace notes when shifting?

Well, Kreutzer and myself certainly believe shifting to be a point of gracefulness, hence his study No. 11 in E and my entire collection of pieces devoted entirely to the release, glide and press method of shifting in Violin Time Book 2 (and Viola Time Book 2). So your left middle finger is sitting pleasantly on the A string on a C with the B just a semitone below it. The two fingers are best friends; yet the next note in the phrase is an F marked ‘sul A with a 1st finger.’ Good gracious, so how on earth shall I reach 5th position from back here?

The fingers of the left hand release their pressure from the string, the 2nd finger glides gracefully up the string towards the grace note G (in 5th position), and then the 2nd finger releases itself from the string while the 1st finger presses down confidently a tone below it to reveal the F played, sul A. A successful shift which negates the need for guesswork, blind but hopeful leaping and the use of vibrato to mask a pitchy shift! The grace note has proven itself to be quintessential to the art of graceful shifting.

What’s the issue dear? 
Can’t you make your bow changes sound a little more . . . graceful?
Let’s choose a tune we are all familiar with . . . Skye Boat Song. A piece renowned for it’s need for gracefulness, particularly when changing the direction of the bow. The bow changes in Skye Boat Song tend to occur at each end of the bow due to the slurred nature of the piece. Down to up at the tip and vice versa at the frog. The bow changes at the frog are the tricky ones. To achieve a graceful up to down-bow change at the frog there are a few important points to remember

1. The right hand will be in a pronate (leaning) position when approaching the frog on an up-bow and the bow will be turned slightly so that the bow hair is no longer flat on the string.

2. The fingers and wrist will then give one last relaxed bend before resuming a supinate (non-leaning flat) position as the bow changes from up to down.

3. As the bow travels downward towards the tip the bow hair will most certainly flatten so that all of the bow hair is being utilised once more.

This phrase should be played gracefully . . . It is too stiff at the moment, like an Oak tree shaking fiercely in a storm!
(The storm being a metaphor for tension)
The watchful teacher glances up from his/her notebook only to discover the neck muscles of his/her student tighten and the bones begin to become increasingly more visible as a small warble of sound is produced from the instrument. ‘Let’s work on your vibrato, you hear yourself say with enthusiasm and determination!’ The problem here is that when students are learning vibrato they can sometimes become tense or warble the whole body instead of just the arm/wrist. The solution is to have the arm work independently from the body free from tension.

Vibrato can certainly be used gracefully and artistically to enhance the tone and add warmth to a phrase. Whether it is a large intended warble or a neat little warble, which increases in speed and depth to warm up a long story-telling note. Vibrato always needs to be done tastefully and gracefully. To play with a beautiful vibrato we teachers all agree that the neck muscles should be relaxed so that the left arm is free to wobble. When the neck is free from tension the neck muscles and right arm muscles can work independently to create a wobbling action exclusive to the arm, thus keeping the body of the player still.

The arm vibrato is a great one to teach beginner students and some lovely exercises are featured in Violin (and Viola) Time Book 2 where students can practice their wobbling to different rhythms with the metronome. A series of beautiful and expressive pieces follow where there are many opportunities for students to vibrato to their hearts content in this collection of music.

So let’s gracefully conclude by saying . . .

The concept of gracefulness can be achieved by refining one’s shifting technique, bowing technique and vibrato. If you feel like your repertoire of teaching resources may have room for one or two more books, which encourage graceful playing, I invite you to hop online and peruse violintime.com and perhaps try something new with your next student. I hope that the series can be as useful to other string teachers as it has been for my students and me.

By Nicole Billimoria A.Mus.A, BMus, Grad. Dip. Ed, MHRM Author of Violin Time and Viola Time Book 1 and 2