Baroque violin: How to get the most out of a bow stroke

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Bow control and son filé with Simon Standage, professor of Baroque violin at the Royal Academy of Music and leader of the Salomon Quartet

I see a lot of young players whose bowing is quite undisciplined. This is partly because of the nature of Baroque music: when playing post 1800s compositions on the modern violin, sostenuto is inbuilt; it’s a basic element of technique. But the language of earlier music is more articulated and this generally applied sostenuto isn’t appropriate any more, so some players think it is OK to play flimsily. From Baroque era reports of playing and teaching, however, it is clear that this was not the case.

When my students start playing ‘fluffily’, I remind them that if you wanted to be in Corelli’s band you had to be able to play two strings at once for ten seconds with a full, steady sound, in one bow – and they had short bows at that time. This tradition was continued by Corelli’s pupil Giovanni Battista Somis, whose ‘single bow stroke lasted so long that the memory of it takes one’s breath away’, according to French violist Hubert Le Blanc – and then by his pupil Pugnani, and by Pugnani’s pupil Viotti.

This in turn inspired Pierre Baillot (1834), who considered practising ‘filer des sons’ to be as essential for the development of bow control as scales are for the training of the left hand – a thought echoed by Ivan Galamian in his 1962 Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching.

EXERCISES

In early music in particular, every note should be shaped – even the shortest. Once you have acquired some control of your bow speed, there will be a wider range of sound shapes you can make.

The principles below apply whether you are using a modern violin and bow…

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