Technique: Developing bow control for improved tone

Martin Outram, cr Melanie Outram

Violist Martin Outram on mix of exercises to help you draw out sound actively and attentively with the right hand

There are many issues that get in the way of successful tone development. This article is intended to help students – especially those who have migrated from the violin to the viola – develop their sound so that it is always free and ringing, never forced. Very often violinists who start to play the viola think that they need to use more bow weight, because the viola is a bigger instrument with thicker strings, but sound can be crushed on the viola as easily as it can on the violin. It’s all about releasing the string as much as possible and discovering how much weight one’s own instrument can take.


Learning to apply and particularly release bow weight is crucial when it comes to producing a full, rich and free sound. To begin, work on drawing sound constantly and actively with the right hand, while monitoring the weight, speed and positioning of the bow relative to the bridge. As you do so, make soft, elliptical pulsations with the bow by playing a portato or parlando stroke to apply and release weight:

  • Play any scale with long, slow bows and a mezza voce sound, with four beats per note at q= 60
  • On each beat, gently squeeze the bow up between the thumb and first two fingers, then immediately release into the string again. The effect should be soft and rounded, not hard-edged
  • Play 6, 8, 10 and then 12 pulses in each bow stroke. If you continue to add pulses, you will eventually find that you have ‘joined the dots’ so that you are playing one slow, controlled and continuous legato bow
  • Practise this bowing with crescendos, diminuendos, and combinations of hairpins and subito dynamics

In music we mostly shape notes and phrases using uneven bow distribution, so now try the following:

  • Play any scale with two notes to a bow, using half a bow for each. Begin with four pulses on each note
  • Now divide the two halves of the bow up unevenly. Pulse three times in the first half, then five times in the second; then twice followed by six times; and once followed by seven
  • Reverse these pulsing patterns and experiment with other possibilities. Always plan before you act..

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