Foundational Principle #3 – Strive For Excellent Tone!

There’s a comedic video out there on the internet that goes something like this: One week of piano, and the student can plink on one key with one finger; one week of violin lessons, and the student is scratching away an open string with poor technique and horrible tone.  One year of piano lessons, and the student is playing scales and simple pieces fluently that are pleasing to listen to; one year of violin lessons, and the student has added an additional open string with the same poor technique and horrible tone as the first week.  Five years of piano lessons, and the student is playing concertos with great mastery and virtuosity; five years of violin lessons and the student has added one out of string finger to their two open strings while still paying with the same poor technique and horrible tone as the first week.

Now, of course this is hyperbole for comedic purposes, but as is often the case with a joke there’s a grain of truth in it – it requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and ability to “simply” produce a good tone on an open string on a stringed instrument, much less to add the fingers into the equation.  As a result, there’s a stereotype about beginning string players that involves “screeching” and “scratching” tones being produced from the instrument while the parents run from the room covering their ears.  Now, as a teacher I’m want to push back on that that stereotype by first saying, “Well in their first month of lessons, much less their first week, neither a violin or a bow should’ve been involved, but  they should’ve learned the postural principles and fine motor control that would allow them to produce a good tone as soon as their bow first touched the string!” And that leads us down the path of pursuing good tone from the very beginning, and in every subsequent lesson, and indeed every time we pick up our instrument for the rest of our lives.

So, what exactly is “tone?”  I most often describe tone as the quality of one’s sound.  Is it beautiful?  Is it resonant?  Is it clear?  Is it pleasing to listen to?  These might be some of the more basic questions to ask at a beginning to intermediate level.  Does it have color?  Does it evoke emotion?  How wide of a range of colors and emotions can one produce?  These are questions that might be asked as a student progresses to a more intermediate to advanced level.  At every level, though, the pursuit of a “good tone” – a quality sound – is central and crucial to development as a string musician.

For this reason, our practice must always contain several elements:

  1. Focus on our core techniques.  Without good posture, a good bow hold, and correct shape to the left hand and fingers, good tone will always remain elusive.  We focus so consistently on technique in our lessons and group classes not simply for technique’s sake, but because good technique is the foundational building block of good tone.  At every level – from a first-year student to the high school student who’s been playing for 10 years – practice must be carried out in a way that keeps these techniques ever in mind.  For the young student, this will require the practice parent’s help.  For the older student, it requires mindfulness and constant self-awareness.
  2. Priority placed on the quality of our sound.  It is somewhat unfortunate that the easiest metric by which students and parents often tend to gauge a student’s progress is by their movement through the Suzuki Books, or other supplemental materials.  The problem with using this forward movement as a gauge of actual development of ability is that a student can move from piece to piece without ever actually making much, if any, growth as a player.  If, instead, we use the quality of our sound as the gauge of our progress, we will have a much better sense of a student’s growth and development.  The difficulty with this, of course, is that there is no “tone-o-meter” that can measure the development of our tone for us, and taking note of the development of our tone requires us to become deep, careful listeners, which leads to the next point:
  3. Listening to high-quality recordings.  This point will actually receive its own post later on this summer, but for now suffice it to say that one can only ever achieve to the heights they know are possible.  This is the problem with listening to low-quality YouTube recordings of the Suzuki pieces or other supplemental pieces.  It may be better than nothing, as it can help students’ learn the overall structure of the piece they are learning, the gist of the rhythm, and perhaps even articulations and dynamics.  However, such recordings often paint a poor picture for students’ ears of what’s achievable, and truly desirable when it comes to tone.  Years and years of work has gone into producing the Suzuki CDs, and they are well-worth the investment of a few dollars for your child’s progress as a string musician!

Finally, Dr. Suzuki was famous for his saying that, “Strings are mindless entities,” they “only sing the heart of the one who plays them.”  This is evident when listening to people like Itzhak Perlman or Yo-Yo Ma play.  Their lives have been full of, in addition to music, humanitarian efforts, and their tone is full of love, joy, peace, and happiness.  This is no accident.  By contrast, there are famous soloists who are known to be cold and self-important, and this shows in their playing, as well, which though masterful and technically perfect never contains the same warmth and joy as the likes of Perlman or Yo-Yo Ma.

So, make tone – the quality of your sound – not simply progression through pieces, be the #1 focus in your daily practice.  Hold yourself to a high standard of clarity, beauty, and richness in everything you play.  And put your heart into your playing – make it your own!  You will never have a tone exactly like someone else, and no one else will ever have exactly the tone that you alone can offer to the world!