Chord and Bowing Planes
How do we roll a clean chord on the violin? Or, perhaps a better question: how do we consistently roll a clean chord?
In this short post, I’m going to focus on one element: bowing planes.
There are roughly speaking 7 planes in violin bowing (if we disregard triple stops): G, GD, D, DA, A, AE, and E. When you play on a single note, there is a bit of wiggle room. When you play double-stops, the bow must stay at the plane steadily and accurately. A little deviation from the plane will cause the sound to suffer.
For example, look at this video of Hilary Hahn playing Bach’s Sarabande in B Minor, especially starting at 0:45 where the camera shows the bow angle. Her movement is so precise. When she draws the bow, the bow stays in that plane without any deviation. And when she reaches for a different string, the bow snaps to a different plane, and then when it snaps back, it was exactly the same angle as before.
Despite the “snap” being so swift, the music flows without any bump. This is because while her vertical movement is abrupt, the horizontal movement isn’t. When the elbow level changes, the forearm still draws the bow at a constant rate, so nothing sounds disrupted.
It takes persistent practice to reach such a mastery command of the bow. But even if you’ve put in the time and effort, sometimes you can still get the feeling that your bow arm can’t find the planes. We naturally get rusty from time to time, and it shows when we play something chord heavy like Bach.
Here is a little warm-up exercise that I use to prepare myself for chord-extensive pieces. It gives some anchors to where each plane is.
First, play a simple legato exercise, connecting each plane to the next. Since we are warming up the bow arm, keep your torso stationary. Change the plane with your elbow level only. The aim of this exercise is to find where the planes are, and get used to moving between them swiftly.
When you cross from a single string to a double-stop, the double-stop must immediately ring. For instance, when crossing from G to GD, you must hear both G and D equally well. If D is airy, the elbow hasn’t dropped far enough. If G is airy, the elbow has overshot. The same principle applies for when crossing from GD to D. G must stop immediately.
What you are looking for is:
- The bow speed remains steady throughout the whole exercise. No stopping. No speeding up.
- The bow angle is held steady in the plane when you play each note.
- The bow angle changes swiftly when you change the plane. No muddiness.
Exercise Two: Dotted Rhythm
When breaking a chord, we must choose where and when to move from one plane to the next. An early break can make the chord sound more unified and with a stronger momentum. A late break put more emphasis on the first few notes, which is crucial for phrasing in some situations.
Ideally, you should be able to break the chord anywhere on the bow. In his masterclass, soloist Kerson Leung instructed a student do a simple exercise for Bach: break the chord as early as you can; shorten the first double-stop as much as possible, while still make them ring. The aim, of course, is not to play every chord curtly, but to acquire the capability of breaking a chord at an arbitrary place without damaging the tone quality.
We can reify this exercise with dotted rhythm. Again, play with the same requirement as the first exercise: clean, immediate string crossing. Snap into the plane and draw the bow as steady as possible. Don’t fidget with the elbow level; if you didn’t arrive at the plane accurately, take a step back and redo the measure. Remember, the goal is to anchor your elbow.
Increase the dotted ratio as needed.
Exercise Three: Advanced String Crossings
So far, we have limited ourselves in moving between neighboring planes. But chords can span up to seven planes, depending on the phrasing. Therefore, the third exercise is jumping from G-string to every other plane, and then jumping from E string backwards.
To make a clean sound this time, we have one additional restraint. The passing planes in-between your targets must not make a sound. Your forearm still can’t stop, while your elbow level needs to jump through a bigger gap.
From my experience, this is the part where you can really drill in the anchor of each plane.
Applying the Exercise
Take a chord from your repertoire, and deconstruct the chord into separated planes.
For example, to deconstruct the first chord of Bach’s Sarabande of B Minor, we separate the chord into double-stops and single notes, according to what phrasing you’d like. Use dotted rhythm to experiment with different momentum and emphasis.
The goal of this little 3-minute exercise is to anchor your elbow, to etch into your muscle memory the location of each bowing plane. You want to hear steady tone, consistent angles, and swift string crossings.
You can download the whole exercise here. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.