Jessica has kindly written a summary of part of her presentations at this year's Summer School.


STRING TONE (Jessica O’Leary 2016)



Good words to describe string tone

Warm, varied, colourful, focused, strong, gentle, vibrant


Not so good!

Weak, harsh, pressed, monochrome, dull, thin, disjointed


In General:

Much of tonal awareness is to do with our image of sound, so firstly link the concepts through aural training, then scales to develop techniques. Think of dynamics in terms of varied tone quality rather that volume: piano = gentle, forte = strong. The actual amount of volume depends on the acoustic, genre, balance with the piano and technique available.

Angles are important to the physics of a string instrument so use a mirror to check the alignment and posture.


Here are some specific trouble shooting points:


Breathy tone

  • Check that the bow is not over the fingerboard
  • Bow needs to be parallel to the bridge – is the violin on the collar-bone?
  • Right elbow is often locked
  • Bow might be too tight or lacking rosin
  • Left fingers may be too flat or not using enough natural weight


Thin tone

  • Is the bow making enough contact with the string?
  • Increase bow weight (or pressure) – are full bows being used?
  • Keep relaxed but firm arms and fingers
  • Good posture – our bodies need to be upright but relaxed physically, like an athlete
  • Right shoulder often too high, tense or suspended

Monochrome tone

  • Concept of tonal variation might not be fully assimilated – give good examples for image of sound – demonstrations, CD’s, YouTube, concerts etc.
  • Introduce the concept of variety early on in learning a piece – it won’t be reliable under pressure if it’s introduced two weeks before the performance
  • Vary the point of contact - close to the bridge for projected tone, closer to the fingerboard for a hushed tone – always parallel to the bridge
  • Bow speed – this will need to vary for crescendo and diminuendo.
  • Bow division – take a mathematical approach especially when the rhythms vary, to keep the music flowing. Very small bows for the faster rhythms


Wobbly tone

  • Tension in the arms and rigid fingers
  • Hair too loose
  • Check strings are tuned correctly – a lower pitch will not ring freely
  • Bow speed is too slow?


Disjointed tone

  • Check bow changes at the heel and tip – fluidity needed
  • Relax right wrist and elbow
  • Sing the passages in legato for increased awareness


Harsh tone

  • Reduce tension generally
  • Bow speed too slow or pressure too heavy
  • Strings or hair might be old or caked in rosin
  • Hair is often too tight or bow is too close to the bridge



  • Clean string crossings and co-ordination – play on open strings to gain control and independence of the arms
  • Is the violin out and bow parallel to bridge?
  • Tension of the bow – keep it as loose as possible for greater tonal flexibility (check in the middle)
  • Smooth changes at heel and tip – angle and height of violin dictates how much to raise the right arm on the up-bows
  • Point of contact - close to the bridge for projected tone, closer to the fingerboard and tilted on one hair for a hushed tone.
  • Bow weight (or pressure) - watch the string vibrate sideways with the change of pressure.
  • Bow speed – will need to vary for crescendo and diminuendo.
  • Bow division – aim to keep the music flowing.
  • Faster notes are often easier and more natural in the middle of the bow.

The quality of sound is the first sign an audience notices in a performance. Whether the audience relaxes or worries is decided within seconds. It is worth recording a piece to check the tone is what we intend and that the shapes of phrases are being clearly projected.


Maxim Vengerov says: think it, do it, can you hear it?


Copyright Jessica O'Leary. Please seek permission before using any of this material.

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