Tone is probably the singular most powerful category needing our attention in playing and learning violin. When decent, we are happy to hear more; when poor, we want to run away! Okay, that may be a little extreme, because if we are really teaching, we know that ugly tone has a physical, findable cause and it’s our job to apply our experience and patience to remedy it. Now, I know that tone does not exist in a vacuum—rhythm, harmony, melody, dynamics, bowings and more all are necessary moveable parts which we have to successfully teach and learn—it’s just that we can have all these other rudiments in place, but without great tone we essentially have nothing.
WHEN SHOULD I INTRODUCE TONE?
So, when do we approach the topic of tone in our teaching? It can and should be taught early, in one of the first lessons if not the very first one. Kids know and will tell you the difference between nice and not-nice tone if we give them a side-by-side comparison and ask. Plus, there is a very touching reason to bring it up early and often: when a student brings her attention to tone, the student brings her listening awareness to the forefront, and we need this skill and this sense to be developed deeply. Listening awareness is both skill and sense, for the fact that listening can be developed and refined. (We’re born both hearing and listening, though in my opinion hearing is innate and listening is more active–the processing of what is heard and learning from it.) The reason tone is touching is based on our physical sense of listening, since sound is vibration in the air and these vibrations actually touch us—not only coming into our ears but they strike our entire bodies, resonating in our bones, particularly in the skull. If this is a new idea for you, read more about it in the subject of osteophonie (or bone conduction), which is the science of how sound resonates in the bones. There is a whole field of study about how children process sound differently as their auditory systems continue to mature, even into the late teen years which is one of the reasons why they are very clingy and touchy as young kids.* They are actually “hearing” with their bodies more, in addition to using their ears.
I don’t think we can demand perfect tone production from our students in the first lesson or three, but we can demonstrate different types of tone so that the student has an experience and an awareness of it right off the bat, which can be brought up or revisited when it seems that the student forgot to listen to herself. Some of us bring the student’s awareness to tone in every single lesson, as there usually are opportunities each time to do so.
WHAT GETS IN THE WAY
In the course of teaching, there are plenty of reasons why a student forgets to pay attention to tone, though the most gifted and self-motivated seem to be able to grasp the gravity of it earlier and keep it at the forefront more. One of the big reasons a student forgets to listen to tone is that there are so many other things he is told to learn, (bow-hold, bowing patterns, left-hand position, intonation, note recognition, note-reading, nomenclature, rhythm, memorization, breathing…) which in many cases results in listening to tone plummeting to the bottom of the laundry list of ‘things’ in their playing and practicing. It isn’t exactly their fault that tone flies out the window, for during a time span that seems like an eon to them they have to juggle combining so many different skills and aptitudes to establish the rudiments, even when we think we have only given them one or two tasks.
Some of us already approach tone and have people listen for it from day one. Others of us wait, but this results in the consequence that the student may not come around to the idea of really listening to himself for an inordinately long time, to the detriment of possibly not liking the instrument or the experience of learning about music very much.
Are there things we have to teach which legitimately compete with the student’s focus on tone? Probably. Most of us can’t stay on open strings for very long without getting bored, deflated, or crying our eyes out and quitting. So, the grand introduction of the left-hand finger placement is another major tone-displacing diversion for some. Soon comes reading or memorizing or both. All responsible teachers see to it that their students learn to read, in due time, though certainly (or at least hopefully) after the sense of hearing tone is developed. Yet every new aspect of learning to play can cause learners to forget to listen to themselves, so it’s on us to integrate anything new into their growing tonal awareness.
To foster students’ ability to differentiate tone, we might give students (of any age) a chance to hear contrasts, which can be accomplished by listening together to different recordings and interpretations of the same piece while focusing on tone. Even better: take them to a live, in-person concert, where we can elicit growth by asking how a certain type of tone was produced, and how they might be able to do it too. This can also be really effective when done before tackling a new type of bowing.
LANGUAGE ACQUISITION AND TONE
Think of language acquisition, where sounds are heard from even inside the womb, and the baby is born knowing at minimum the sound of its mother’s voice. Tone is what a growing baby uses to learn language for a few years before speaking, and even more years before reading or writing. That is to say, listening naturally develops in humans before speaking words. Therefore, it follows based on human physiological development that learning to hear, create, and differentiate types of tone is naturally something we can give high priority early (and onward) in the education of our string pupils.
Learning to hear, produce, differentiate, and appreciate tone on stringed instruments is remarkably similar to what we do when learning language. Even learning a first or second language, there are development milestones in comprehension and use, the first of which is the ability to understand what is heard. And what is heard is largely tone, organized and punctuated in the unique way of a particular language. The more precisely we learn to listen to these tones, the faster we learn the language. The same goes for the language of strings.
Stay tuned for Tone Part II, coming in a few rotations of the earth!
You can also obtain a thoughtful, beautiful, free set of student reflection pages for 52 weeks for use in lessons (perfect for discussions and thoughts on tone) just by taking the String Teacher Census. It’s also available for sale if you would rather just buy it here >>Thoughtful Lessons Journal.
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