4.1 String Playing Tips

Author: Jo Cole, Head of Strings, Royal Academy of Music

Arco – Playing with the Bow

The bow is in essence an extension of the string player’s right arm. Almost every movement of the bow when starting from silence is preceded by an anticipatory preparatory movement similar to the backswing of a tennis player before striking a ball. These vary in scope and dimension depending on the nature of the stroke.

Playing on the Down Beat

The indication by a conductor of when they intend the sound to begin must therefore have absolute inevitability and expectation in it, allowing the string player to make the necessary flexion prior to contact with the string. A warm collective tone is produced if all players are fully convinced of the moment for sound to be produced. The ‘swing point’ of a beat can be an indicator of gesture and stroke. This is the place where if the beat was audible, the ‘swish’ would be loudest.

Remember that string players are already playing before the sound happens. In general, a downbeat will be on a down bow – when the bow is drawn across the string from right to left. This is because in the modern bow, the strongest (most easily controllable) playing point is at the heel – it is nearest to the right hand. The opposite – an up bow is generally for up beats (– but the contact point is not necessarily at the point of the bow!) 

Taking (never snatching) a breath in giving upbeats can result in a natural impetus – this is not restricted to wind or brass players. Breathing together is often the secret of section ensemble. Apply choral conducting technique.

A strong internal sense of pulse is crucial, as the placing of the first sound is the primary instruction for the placing of the next.

Anything approaching a ‘handbrake start’ where there is no chance to anticipate but a sudden demand for sound will result in poor ensemble and ugly un-resonant sound.

An accent or sforzando on a downbeat needs even more authority as it must generate sufficient confidence for the player to commit to the sound they are about to make, a long time in advance. Bear in mind that for this effect, the bow has to ‘bite’ the string before being drawn swiftly – therefore the exact instant of contact must be clear for the collective effect to work. There should be no ambiguity about when that happens: the rhythmic impulse of the ‘backswing’/upbeat will identify the moment when the bow bites the string. If your beat enables a group to clap together it should enable a string section to play together. Leave the string players to make the necessary physical adjustments.

In giving a clear precise request for sound take care not to give a conflicting instruction with regard to volume. In general, the greater the movement of the string player’s right arm, the more powerful the moment of contact with the string – and there will be a natural response to your gesture – the upbeat must be of a size that fits with the intended dynamic, but without smaller movements building in insecurity. A precise but bump-free start in a soft dynamic is difficult for a large string section. Make the gesture high enough for the backs of the sections – the idea of crouching down to make players play quietly is a wheeze with limited advantages and can only work at all if a stable rhythm has been long established. It can be quite a useful visual tool for subito piano, but most professional orchestras will find it patronising. They should be ahead of you in anticipating the necessary physical movement for subito. 

Conducting with palms down indicates that the temptation to increase in volume should be resisted but avoid ‘shushing’ gestures unless really necessary – they cause lurches in the pulse and are difficult to react to as a section.

Tremolo – the rapid repetition of bow strokes on the same note

These should be for the most part as fast as possible, about two thirds of the way up the bow (away from the heel) and of uniform length through the sections. If there is an sfz at the beginning of the note marked tremolo, this should be a fast stroke of some length which then settles into the ‘sizzle’ of tremolo. It is exhausting to do for long periods – don’t rehearse this for ages – string players will tire, and the sound will not represent performance quality. You may get confused about balance. 

A blending sound

This can get confused with an ‘anodyne’ sound and it is important to retain character in tone quality. However, there should be a degree of similarity through sections of the position of the bows in relation to the fingerboard and bridge, the length of the stroke used, and the amount and speed of vibrato. Individual players know the idiosyncrasies of their own instruments and sometimes one violin can take closer playing to the bridge than another to produce the requested sound. Don’t expect exactly the same from every chair but get used to hearing the sound of everyone matching in tone colour.


This is an area which is often ignored at the expense of the performance. It makes an enormous difference and can radically alter acoustics. There should be an understanding of the characters that different speeds and width of vibrato can make. If vibrato is not happening when it should prevail it is worth stopping in rehearsal and clarifying your expectations. 

Make sure the vibrato is ‘telling’ (i.e., contributing to the tone) – and watch out in melodic lines for ‘bald’ notes often on 4th finger. 

Here is an excellent video from the London Symphony Orchestra, demonstrating various string playing techniques. 

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