Technique: Speaking with the bow

Ophelie crop

Cellist Ophélie Gaillard on how to use language, vowels, consonants and inflection to colour and shape every phrase

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String players’ approach to sound has changed dramatically since the 18th century. We have almost lost the singing bel canto lines of the old Italian School, when musicians ‘spoke’ with the bow to produce articulate consonants and vowels, using barely any vibrato. Nowadays many people create a luscious but uniform sound with the bow, while hiding technical faults with a constant, unvaried ‘wallpaper’ vibrato. It is exactly as described by the late-19th-century violinist Joseph Joachim:

‘Most virtuosos – though in possession of often astonishing left-hand technique – have not made use of that healthy and natural method of singing and phrasing which was founded in bel canto of the old Italians. Their bowing and tone production only aim at sensuousness of the sound; there is only a little trace of the characteristics of the various bowings which is inseparably bound up with interpreting, as there is of that richly modulated tone production, which has every nuance of expression on its palette.’

To cultivate a singing voice on your instrument you have to be precise about how you shape every sound and phrase. Used well, the bow can help you to express musicality perhaps even more than the left hand. There are three main aspects to this. The first is the relationship between the bow movement and the string, which is not a flat object and can be approached from many angles to create different effects. The second is the mobility of the arm, how you modulate the speed of the bow, and how that impacts on phrasing. The third is how you express colours. As with speech, you can focus on articulation, consonants and vowels to influence the start of each sound, and find your way inside each note to manipulate its colour and tone. You can do this by working on the following exercises….

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