Do you ever wonder how to convey the entire dynamic and tone ranges seen in music? From forte to mezzo piano to fortissimo, dynamics can change quickly and sporadically throughout pieces, which can be challenging to truly convey. Additionally, gradual volume or sound changes written in music such as crescendos and decrescendos can be difficult to illustrate at the appropriate time in phrases.
LUCKILY there are 3 techniques every stringed musician can do that will allow you to change the sound you are producing on your instrument; violinists, violists, cellists and bassists can all utilize and use these techniques. Once you’re aware of these 3 “tricks,” you’ll be able to easily fluctuate and create diverse volumes, tones and musical characters on your instrument.
1. BOW SPEED
“Bow speed” refers to how fast or slow you move and the speed in which you allow your bow to travel on each string. How fast your bow moves will determine different vibrations of the strings and produce different dynamic tones. The faster you move your bow, especially when changing its direction, will naturally cause an increase in volume. As you slow down your bow, volume will usually decrease, as the weight of your arm will simultaneously lessen. For example, if you’re having difficulty creating an exciting and noticeable crescendo, check into the speed of your bow! I guarantee that you will be able to make this gradual increase of volume as you gradually increase your bow speed.
2. CONTACT POINT ON THE STRINGS
Depending on where you place the bow and play between the bridge and fingerboard, you can produce a vast array of colors in your music. Remember that playing closer to the bridge increases the distance to your finger on the fingerboard. This increased length of string allows the string to have more room to vibrate, creating a brighter and louder sound. The opposite is true when you play closer to the fingerboard: the length of string becomes smaller and vibrates less. For example, if you were trying to create a pianissimo dynamic, you would be able to do so very easily if you moved the bow closer to the fingerboard and played slightly farther away from the bridge.
3. BOW WEIGHT ON THE STRINGS
“Bow weight” can be tricky because it can be misinterpreted as the “pressure” we put on the string, but pressure uses tension and we want to avoid that! So what is arm or bow weight and how do we use it? Applying this type of weight requires relaxation. While placing the bow on the string, feel your bow hand relax into the string, knuckles flattening down on the stick, and you should be able to start to feel this “hair to string” weight. Let gravity take its toll (which is tension-less) and feel the weight sink “into” the string as you place different parts of the bow on it. Once you’ve experimented with this technique, you will be able to use arm weight intelligently and it will help you create a variety of dynamics that will bring phrasing and musicality alive in your music.
I hope these tips and tricks will help you create any sound you are looking for. When combining all three of these techniques, you will be able to generate all levels of tone production and sound!
A student signs up for guitar lessons. They initially are fired up, they fizz out, and quit. How many times have you heard this story? I have witnessed it over the years, and we all have done this, or know someone who has. So the question remains: How do you maintain your enthusiasm for Music Lessons?
Let’s face it…showing up to your lesson unprepared is a drag. You feel let down, it’s frustrating for the teacher, and you have to go over the same material again, making no progress. Simply getting into the routine of practice goes a long way towards maintaining your interest. You and others will see the improvement in your playing. This growth will inspire you to practice more. The more you put in, the more you will get out.
Find an outlet for your music. One of the things I love about Freeway Music is the performance opportunities that we offer. We have showcases, recitals, camps, rock band classes, and community outreach opportunities. These public performances give students specific goals to prepare for. Play for a school talent show, your church, with a group of friends, etc. Get plugged into your local music scene. Watch people play, join a songwriter’s guild, sit in at open mics, etc. If you aren’t plugged in and playing somewhere, it will be very hard to maintain interest.
A lot of who you become is directly related to those you associate with. One of the people that spurred me on as a kid was my friend Eric. He would come over and we would play guitar all night together. It was so great for my growth as a young musician. I have constantly challenged myself by putting myself in situations where I played with musicians that were better than me. These situations pushed me and inspired me to be a better guitar player. I have surrounded myself with people that have the same passion that I have for music…including my guitar teacher.
Find the Right Teacher
Finding the right instructor is key. An instructor should be passionate about teaching, inspiring students, presenting opportunities for students, the local music scene, and the community. Music instructors should be qualified, professional, and enthusiastic. It’s very important that you take the time to find a great instructor that fits you. A teacher can make or break a student’s learning experience. If your music teacher is not actively studying, or plugging in, you may want to consider a different teacher.
Metallica was the reason I started playing guitar…not a m7(b5). It’s different for everyone, but we all have music that inspires us. I once asked my good friend Jerry Sims for the best advice to grow as a player and he answered, “Learn a tune that you like each day.” It makes sense. If you wanted to lose weight, you should exercise. So, it makes sense that learning tunes is a great way to maintain your interest in an instrument. I have also learned over the years that each song presents a new challenge, forcing you to stretch in ways that you wouldn’t stretch ordinarily.
My friend Sue is an amazing singer/songwriter. I was feeling uninspired once, and I asked her what I should do. She gave me a harsh reality check. Sometimes you are trucking along and you hit a wall. Then, you pick yourself up and go again. She said that the passion never leaves and you will always go again. Even if you are doing everything possible to stay inspired, you will go through ups and downs. You will continue upward, though. Just make sure that you have realistic expectations, and don’t let a downswing keep you heading down!
If you aren’t maintaining that fire for studying music and continuing your pursuit of musical growth, look within. Are you practicing? Are you plugged into something that will make you grow? Have you surrounded yourself with people that will support, challenge, and inspire you? Have you gotten away from the spark that got you inspired in the first place? Be real with yourself, answer these questions, and weather the natural ups and downs. Then, you will have a much smoother musical journey. Good Luck!
We briefly touched on this benefit of music in a previous post 5 Benefits of Music Lessons and we will delve into that a little more here.
In doing some research on this subject, I found out something really cool.
Drum roll please….
Music is INSANELY good for your brain. (No pun intended.)
But seriously, the fact that something so fun/creative is as good for you as school is? WHAT? Not that it negates the need for a good education, but I was really happy to know that I’ve been doing my brain a huge favor by choosing to have music be such a vital part of my life.
Let’s start with some basic science…for those of you who like evidence to back things up. If you don’t care to hear the science, feel free to skip to the next paragraph for some incredible stats on the effects of music on the brain (we all love some good stats). 10 different parts of our brain process music, and I will spare the names as they are complicated. The point is, music stimulates our brain in multiple areas, the majority even, not just one small part.
A simple explanation would be this, about half of those areas of the brain have to do with the effects of LISTENING to music. Music can help shape our emotions, identify feelings, help predict our personalities, and even help us be better drivers (when not too loud, of course). The other half has to do with what PLAYING music does to our brain, which is the main focus of this post.
Playing, teaching, learning/listening to music does the following:
Improves motor and reasoning skills, i.e. better performance on tests, school work, analysis of visual information, etc.
Increases visual attention.
Makes exercise more efficient/even more frequent.
Increases lifelong memory skills
…I could go on, but it seems that scientists who have dedicated their lives to these studies say it a tad bit better than I do. P.S. Read them all if you can, b/c we obviously picked the coolest ones. 😀
“Adults who receive formal music instruction as children have more robust brainstem
responses to sound than peers who never participate in music lessons and that the
magnitude of the response correlates with how recently training ceased. These results
suggest that neural changes accompanying musical training during childhood are
retained in adulthood.”
— Skoe, E. & Kraus, N. (2012). A Little Goes a Long Way: How the Adult Brain Is
Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood, Journal of Neuroscience, 32 (34)
11510. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1949-12.2012
“Young Children who take music lessons show different brain development and
improved memory over the course of a year, compared to children who do not receive
musical training. Musically trained children performed better in a memory test that is
correlated with general intelligence skills such as literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial
processing, mathematics, and IQ.”
— Dr. Laurel Trainor, Prof. of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behavior at
McMaster University, 2006
Stanford University research has found
“Stanford University research has found for the first time that musical training improves
how the brain processes the spoken word, a finding that researchers say could lead to
improving the reading ability of children who have dyslexia and other reading
problems… ‘Especially for children … who aren’t good at rapid auditory processing and
are high-risk for becoming poor readers, they may especially benefit from musical
— From “Playing music can be good for your brain,” SF Chronicle, November 17,
2005 (article on recent Stanford research study linking music and language)
“Learning and performing music actually exercise the brain – not merely by developing
specific music skills, but also by strengthening the synapses between brain cells…What
is important is not how well a student plays but rather the simultaneous engagement of
senses, muscles, and intellect. Brain scans taken during musical performances show
that virtually the entire cerebral cortex is active while musicians are playing. Can you
think of better exercise for the mind/brain? In short, making music actively engages the
brain synapses, and there is good reason to believe that it increases the brain’s capacity
by increasing the strengths of connections among neurons.”
— From “The Music in Our Minds,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 56, #3; Norman
Nearly 100% of past winners in the prestigious Siemens Westinghouse Competition in
Math, Science, and Technology (for high School students) play one or more musical
instruments. This led the Siemens Foundation to host a recital at Carnegie Hall in 2004,
featuring some of these young people. After which a panel of experts debated the
nature of the apparent science/music link.
— The Midland Chemist (American Chemical Society) Vol. 42, No.1, Feb. 2005
Dr. James Catterall of UCLA has analyzed the school records of 25,000 students as
they moved from grade 8 to grade 10. He found that students who studied music and
the arts had higher grades, scored better on standardized tests, had better attendance
records and were more active in community affairs than other students. He also found
that students from poorer families who studied the arts improved overall school
performance more rapidly than all other students.
— From Catterall, UCLA, Fall 1997
Though it’s crucial to invest in math, science and engineering, as the president outlined
in his recent State of the Union address, there are other fields that hold more
promise…Prefer a more artistic career? Our economy is poised to create new forms of
entertainment, from rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop to film and video games. Indeed, over the
next 10 years, jobs in art, music, culture and entertainment will grow twice as many as
jobs in engineering will.
— From “A search for jobs in some of the wrong places,” USA Today, February
12, 2006; Richard Florida
The moral of the story is this, if you enjoy music, play it, listen to it, whatever. No matter how well you do, no matter how advanced you are, the sheer activity that it produces in the brain will make you smarter, improve your self confidence, and increase your memory among other great things. And that you won’t be the one that forgets anyone’s birthday, anniversary, etc.
Go get em’ you musical genius, you.
by: Matt Knox
How To Develop A Positive Practice Cycle
Five words that a music teacher never wants to hear: I didn’t practice this week.
Concession – “I swear I will practice twice as hard this week!”
Transference – “It’s my mom’s fault. She makes me go to bed too early!”
Overload – “I didn’t have time to practice. I had to do x, y, and z last week!”
The truth is that letting yourself off the hook when it comes to practicing can lead to serious problems. Not practicing one week leads to not practicing the next, and so on and so forth, until an entire month passes without any progress – or worse – perhaps even regression. Sometimes, the problem becomes so severe that you may give up entirely, believing that your schedule or a perceived lack of talent is too great to overcome.
Why do we do it?
While it is true that some weeks become too hectic to find time to sit down with your instrument, this circumstance is a rarity; the real problem is not time or skill, but attitude. Many students are hesitant to pick up an instrument because the small chunk of free time that presents itself (15 minutes here, 10 minutes there) seems inadequate to make any real progress. Discouraged, the student decides to hold off on practicing when the seemingly daunting task will be more manageable. What we fail to realize is that very few people will be handed a solid hour on a silver platter to sit down with his/her instrument. It just doesn’t happen.
What does happen, though, are those brief moments of freedom we experience throughout the day – the 15 minutes in the morning we spend waiting to leave for school or work, the 20 minutes we waste on the computer after school/work to give our minds a break, the 15 minutes before bed when we try to clear our thoughts for sleep. These are the moments we need to seize and use, the ones we can’t let slip away. They are short, but they add up. Though they may seem too brief to be productive, they aren’t – any time spent with the instrument in your hands will benefit you as a musician, and short burst of concentrated practice are arguably more effective than an hour spent half-practicing/half-noodling in one sitting. Keeping your mind engaged in your homework for the week will keep you focused and sharp, and will also build your confidence in what you are doing – this time, causing a positive cycle of practice that will draw you in instead of push you away.
Stay sharp, stay focused, and take advantage of those small moments. They may be the only thing standing in the way of your becoming the musician you want to be.