Some Thoughts About Basic Technique

by Mari Jamison

Though my roots are in performing and teaching classical music the ideas discussed in this article are basic ones, applicable to many styles of playing. They are gleaned from many sources, the most recent being a series of Suzuki Teacher training sessions I have attended.

One of the first things I learned at a Suzuki Institute was to collect as many ideas as possible to keep in my bag of tricks as a teacher. Here are some that have worked for me.


The idea of "ring tones" has been invaluable to me in teaching how to play in tune. A ring tone is a note that has an open string in common on the instrument that causes the open string to vibrate sympathetically. All notes on the instrument can be related to ring tones in some way, either by notes next to them or double-stops.

The easiest way to observe this is to play 3rd finger on the D string (G) and see if you can make the open G string vibrate sympathetically. If the note is in tune you will observe a warmth and ringing quality to the tone of your instrument, and you will actually see the G string vibrate without having actually touched it with the bow. The 3rd fingers on the E and A will also produce this result, however it is harder to see the string actually vibrate (though you should hear the effect).

If intonation has ever been a problem you can experiment with this, moving your finger around until you can hear the instrument come alive with sound. I have found that even small children can hear this result (providing their instrument is of good enough quality to resonate properly and their open strings are in tune).

Every note can be tuned in relation to a ring tone. Such as D sharp (high 3 on A string): find E natural with your 4th finger (searching for the most resonant note you can) and then put your third finger next to it.

Unfortunately, intonation is not absolute - a D sharp may actually sound different than an E flat. Notes are always played in relation to other notes, and a D sharp may be higher if played in the key of E major due to it's relationship of being the leading tone (the seventh scale degree - "leading" up to E) than an E flat in the key of B flat major, where E flat is the fourth scale degree and possibly played lower.


Another idea regards tone, and the balance of the bow hand. My newest technique comes directly from my latest teacher training experience - via observations of other teachers and a lecture by Pat D'Ercole, a professor at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. These ideas have come from other sources as well - including some elements I learned from my college study (many, many years ago). I have been refining my student's bow hands using these ideas, and they seem pretty natural to adopt so far (unlike some "new" ideas I have imposed on my students in the past which have created confusion and new problems to cope with).

The bow hand is built on a fulcrum created by the middle two fingers and the thumb in a circular shape, the stick of the bow resting in the first crease of the middle two fingers and the tip of the thumb. The index finger (I call the "lazy finger") lays over the grip diagonally. Calling it the lazy finger helps to combat the curving underneath of the index, which takes away the ability to sink the bow into the string for a big tone.

The pinkie rests on the side of the bow. Most bows have six facets to them at the frog end of the bow. The pinkie rests on the side facet closest to the hand, not the top facet. Keeping the pinkie flexible, curved and on the tip of the finger helps to keep the tone warm instead of harsh. All of the fingers are curved and relaxed, balancing the bow rather than gripping it. The bow stick tips a bit away from you.

The bow thumb seems to hold a great deal of importance to tone. It is almost magic, the way the tone of a student's violin warms up and rings out once they bend their bow thumb (making a circular shape inside of the bow hand, rather than locking the thumb in a rigid way). Put all together, each finger provides a balance that makes the tone of the violin come out.

Of course, there are many ways to hold a bow - as many as there are different bow techniques. I have observed some very un-classical bow hands that worked great for the fiddler and style they were playing. My ideas also change as I encounter new students and observe different techniques of teaching.

These ideas are not new, but it is sometimes good to hear old ideas presented from a different viewpoint. Happy fiddling!

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