Technique: strum bowing

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A guitar technique adapted for violin, to help bowed string players plug into their inner groove. By Tracy Silverman, electric violinist, author of The Strum Bowing Method, string faculty member at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and jazz clinic and workshop tutor worldwide

Some say string players can’t groove, and let’s face it – it’s not our strong suit. We’re highly trained, so it can be frustrating when we think, ‘How can it be that I went to Juilliard and I don’t have the rhythm of a 15-year-old guitar player who’s only had four lessons?’ It’s because most classical musicians have very little to do with popular culture today. Popular music relies heavily on the underlying rhythm or ‘groove’, and we need to learn how to feel this, to improve our sense of rhythm and to keep our instruments relevant to contemporary culture (see our article in the Opinion section, October 2018).Our natural inclination is to find equilibrium with the bow, without stops and starts, in the same way we want to step evenly when we walk. This means that if we play a rhythm that goes back and forth in an uneven way, our arm wants to play a regular rhythm instead: we may start with dotted quavers, but soon it will become a group of three and finally the dots will disappear, because that’s just the back-and-forth physics of the arm. It was only in the 90s that I realised how to use this idea in my teaching: I was watching some guy in a cowboy hat strumming a guitar on TV when the phone rang, so I muted the sound. Five minutes later, when I looked up again, he was still strumming up and down in the same way. I thought, ‘Gosh, this is a long song!’ but when I turned the sound back on it was completely different music in a different key, with a different groove. A light bulb went on in my head: I realised that the strum is the common denominator of the groove, and that is the way to teach it.

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