Harp Maintenance

Strings, When They Break…


• Count down from highest string, top string being no. 1. Each new octave begins with E (1st octave, 2nd octave, etc.)

• Top strings are usually nylon, middle are gut, and bottom are wire. Your string supplier should know what type based on the number.

• Lever harps: usually best to reorder from manufacturer. You can order a “mini set”: F and C + D and G from each octave. The D can also replace E and the G, A and B.

• Pedal harps: I recommend Bow Brand strings. Bow Brand Burgundy are a little less expensive (have minor visual defects) but are same quality as regular. Order from Vanderbilt Music (1.800.533.7200; www.vanderbiltmusic.com)

Harp Maintenance1

HarpMaintenance2Tying the “Bunny Ear” Knot


• Tuning key (good to keep a spare)

• Electronic tuner (buy at musical supply store or down load app; I use ClearTune)

• Nail clippers (sufficient for most string types)

• Wire cutters (necessary for pedal harp wire strings)

• Anchors (request when ordering or cut old lower gut strings into 1.5” segments)

The Factory Knot



• “Bunny Ear” knot: for mid-register strings (including gut).

• Factory knot: for upper-register strings.

• Wire strings: these are easy. Preknotted, so just string them through.


• See illustration for stringing through tuning pin.

• Wire strings will not stretch, so pull slack to a half-octave away.

• Tune up to match pitch of string below the new one. Then continue to tune up to match by the octave below.

• Play the string up and down, pull back and forth, etc. The new string will take a few days to hold pitch, so be prepared to do a little extra tuning!


• Pedal harps: tune to all flats with pedals in flat position.

• In C: tune all strings natural. Enables enharmonic glisses with B# and E#. Best for beginning students.

• In F: tune B’s flat (some tuners read A#).

• In Eb: best for more advanced lever harpists. tune B, E, and A flat.




• Tune 2-3 times daily with new harps until they hold tune. Otherwise, tune every 1-2 days.

• Play with left hand while tuning so you can hear the pitch changing.

• If pin is slipping, first push in firmly while tuning. If it still slips, tap carefully with a hammer.

You really can’t tune too much. The more you do it now, the faster you’ll be. More importantly, you’ll develop a good ear for hearing correct pitch. Playing an out-of-tune harp is no fun for you or anyone who is listening.

Taking Care of Your Harp Inside and Outside Your House


• Keep your harp away from vents, drafts, sunlight, etc. You want to keep the harp at normal room temperature.

• It is good to keep a dust cover on your harp. You don’t want direct sunlight to hit the harp; this can affect tuning and aging of the wood.

• When you finish practicing, always put all the levers down or pedals in the flat position. This puts as little tension on the string as possible.


• When packing your harp for travel, always put levers down or pedals in flat. For pedal harps fold the pedals up as well.

• Loading pedal harps in the car: either on column or with discs facing up. Never load with the discs down.

• Loading lever harps: always with levers facing up.

• It is a good idea to use a mattress in the back of your car, especially if the seats are bumpy. A sheet of foam rubber from the Army-Navy Store works great. I also made a cover for mine so it slides better and doesn’t get the mattress chewed up.

Written by Aubrey Elliott

Excellence vs. Success

I would suggest that you pursue a commitment to personal excellence, rather than success, based on your own God-given potential.  Success and excellence are often competing ideals. Being successful does not necessarily mean you will be excellent, and being excellent does not necessarily mean you will be successful.

Success is attaining or achieving cultural goals, which elevates one’s importance in the society in which he lives.  Excellence is the pursuit of quality in one’s work and effort, whether the culture recognizes it or not.  I once asked Segovia how many hours a day he practiced.  He responded, “Christopher, I practice two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half hours every afternoon.”  I thought to myself, “If Segovia needs to practice five hours every day, how much more do I need to practice?”

Success seeks status, power, prestige, wealth, and privilege.  Excellence is internal – seeking satisfaction in having done your best.  Success is external – how you have done in comparison to others.  Excellence is how you have done in relation to your own potential.  For me, success seeks to please men, but excellence seeks to please God.

Success grants its rewards to a few, but is the dream of the multitudes.  Excellence is available to all, but is accepted only by a few.  Success engenders a fantasy and a compulsive groping for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Excellence brings us down to reality with a deep gratitude for the promise of joy when we do our best.  Excellence cultivates principles, character, and integrity.  Success may be cheap, and you can take shortcuts to get there.  You will pay the full price for excellence; it is never discounted. Excellence will always cost you everything, but it is the most lasting and rewarding ideal.

–Christopher Parkening

Dadology 101

Don’t feel bad for a moment if your function is mostly transportation and encouragement.

Behind nearly every young harpist stands a bewildered parent. Most students go to lessons, rehearsals, and recitals trailing dedicated relatives with varying degrees of understanding of just what it is they are supposed to be doing.

In more than a dozen years as a “harp dad,” I have watched many parents and students work together. In any major family activity, parents tend to divide up duties and play different parts. Mom may carry more of the load in one area, and dad more in another. But I can’t help but notice how many dads struggle with the whole harp experience.

Say what you will, the harp world is a rather feminine place. Many excellent male performers and teachers notwithstanding, look at your studio recitals, or an American Harp Society convention, and it’s hard to make a reasonable case for testosterone domination. That leaves a lot of dads helping a lot of daughters, sometimes without being too sure of just how to be helpful.

I’ve met many great harp dads–the ones I think of as Harp Dads. They know what their harpists are working on, and how hard they work at it. Harp Dads are commonly found, after recitals and workshops, talking to the instructors and to the Harp Moms. When their  harpists head off to college or musical careers, they bask in the role of Harp Dad Emeritus.

But I’ve also met a lot of dads who aren’t quite sure what is going on. After the concert, these harp dads gather in a corner to quickly say what a nice concert it was, and then get on to fishing, football, cars, or other more comfortable topics.


First, let me assure every harp dad that you play a valuable role already. Second, I am not suggesting that every harp dad needs to be a Harp Dad.

It doesn’t quite take a whole village to raise a harpist, even if it seems like it at times. But it takes a team–student, teacher, parents, as well as conductors and other musicians.

Consider the role you are playing now, and whether that is the role you want to play, the one your harpist needs. The better you understand your role, the more intelligently you can make choices about how to contribute to your harpist’s growth, and the more effectively you can support your spouse in her own role.

A good starting point is to evaluate how you currently work with your harpist, through our highly scientific Harp Dad assessment test (see top right column).


Once you know where you stand, talk to your spouse, student, and teacher about how you can be more helpful. Don’t feel bad for a moment if your function is mostly transportation and encouragement. Your harpist needs a lot of help, and we all have our roles.

On the other hand, don’t let preconceptions prevent you from seeking a more active role. Sometimes I hear, “I’m not the musical one here.” Musical ability is great, but it plays a much smaller part in supporting your harpist than do your dedication and enthusiasm.

Here in Minnesota we’ve produced a lot of fine hockey players. Behind most of those great players, you’ll find Hockey Moms– dedicated, supportive parents that make all the difference–whether or not they play hockey themselves (more and more do). There’s no reason you can’t be important in your harpist’s musical development without being musical yourself.

Tuning? If you can read an electronic meter, you can help tune. Replacing strings? Can you tie a knot?

And if you’re still not sure whether getting more deeply involved in harp activities makes sense for you, don’t forget that there could be hidden benefits.


Learning to play the harp develops more than just musical skills. The personal growth achieved through music is just as important.
Harp dads, too, encounter extra opportunities to develop valuable life skills:

Listening skills. Most people are poor listeners because they are too busy being good talkers.To strengthen a relationship, business or personal, focus on asking questions that get the other person talking.

Harp recitals provide an excellent practice ground for this technique. The secret, harp dads, is to make a preemptive strike when your harpist returns from the stage. Before she can say anything, ask, “How did you feel about your performance?”

Never let her beat you to the punch with the leading, and deadly, question, “How did I do?” Whether she did well or poorly, you’re going to give the wrong answer. Ask first, and let her do the talking.

The fixed smile. Experienced musicians know a good poker face is essential. If a player doesn’t visibly react to her mistakes, the audience may not even notice them.

Parents, too, learn to develop that fixed, slightly positive expression. Behind it, you can be thinking anything. The outside world sees your serene smile and believes that you really do like that new dress (Does it have to be covered with musical notes?), that you thought everyone played great (How many times did that one kid start over?), or that you’re excited to hear “Aunt Rhody” played three or four times in one evening.

Once you can get this poker face past your young harpist and the rest of the studio, you’re ready for long meetings, dinner parties, etc.

Delegation can make you more efficient and productive. But few know how to delegate the important stuff, preferring to give away what they don’t want to do anyway (rather like giving up broccoli for Lent). As a harp dad, you can develop your skill at handing off tasks to others, even the ones that you do well and that are important to you.

One of the hardest dad duties to learn to “check at the door” is providing enough embarrassment to keep your daughter’s eyes rolling. Dads know that embarrassing their daughters is explicitly written into the job description.

But when your daughter becomes a harpist, it’s time to cut back a little. Fortunately, you can delegate most of this important work to other adults, who are more than ready and willing to leap in and drive your harpist crazy.

Roll the harp into your church or school, and listen to what the grown ups say. You might hear, “Is that a harp?” The really sharp ones suggest, “That looks like a big oven mitt.” And you’ll definitely get this one: “Don’t you wish she played the piccolo, ha ha ha?” All of these statements are guaranteed to give your daughter’s orbital musculature a decent workout, without the least effort from you.

Sit back and take it easy while friends and relatives bury your child under harp tote bags, harp stationery, harp pencils and key rings, harp pins and earrings and socks. Savor the moment when one of these “embarrassment helpers” pokes your young harpist in the ribs at a concert and says, “Look! They have a harp!” Adopt that  fixed, innocent expression the fiftieth or hundredth time they call out, “Listen, I hear a harp!” at a play, movie, or watching TV. (It is permissible to snicker a bit when your harpist informs them that they’re actually listening to a banjo.)


If I’ve convinced you to dive into the harp experience, let me also warn you that you can overdo this Harp Dad thing. The most common cause of the syndrome known as Harp Dad Insanitus is an attitude of, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” If you don’t believe me, harp dad, see how big a help you are when it’s time for your daughter to buy that dress for the big concert. The best outcome to be derived from following mother and daughter through clothing stores is severe exhaustion, with a pounding headache, and an exquisite sense of your own uselessness.

And Suzuki instruction harbors special pitfalls. If, in your initial enthusiasm and wholehearted support for your harpist, you promise to listen to the Suzuki tapes along with her every day, consider that you may have just signed up for a do-it yourself lobotomy. An excess of “Twinkles” can be extremely hazardous to the adult mind, and there are plenty of ways to support your student that are less likely to drive you to one day rip the cassette out of the player and stomp on it.


It doesn’t automatically make you a good harp dad if you can do absolutely everything related to the harp, and a poor one if you can’t. When you play a valuable role in the team, and help others to play their roles well, you’re doing a great job.

Just remember that kids grow up quickly, and your time for harp loading and hauling will be over before you know it. Your newfound ability to drop “Salzedo” into any conversation, on the other hand, will last a lifetime.

Article by Will Kenny. Will got into the Harp Dad business 14 years ago, when his daughter Derin took her first Suzuki lesson. For the next dozen years, he sat in on just about every lesson and rehearsal she had. He’s also pretty good at sitting through other classes and rehearsals. In his spare time, he makes a living as a freelance business writer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where he “explains things” for corporate clients by creating print, media, and online content to educate employees and customers about products, services, and best practices.

Good Buy? or Good-bye! – Bows

A Layman’s Guide to Purchasing a Bow for Violin, Viola, Cello or Double Bass

The first of this series of articles focused on the basics of purchasing an instrument in the violin family.  The focus of this column is on the selection of a violin, viola, cello, or double bass bow.  Generally, the instrument is purchased first, followed by the purchase of at least one bow.  An exception is the bassist who purchases a good bow first, transporting it in a hard-shell bow case for use with a school-owned instrument until a bass can be purchased.  Bassists also may choose between a French bow and a Butler or German bow.  Since the bassist must use a different bow hold for each type bow he should seek the advice of his teacher or orchestra director before making the final decision about which bow to purchase.

Bows have been made from many different materials, most commonly fiberglass and wood. In the 1930’s bow makers even experimented with aluminum.  The demands for aluminum in World War II curtailed further experimentation.  (There is at least one example of an aluminum violin and bow in the collection at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.  Having played on that instrument with that bow I can say with some authority that the sound is metallic at best.)    In the last decade graphite and carbon fiber have been used successfully to create bows of surprising strength and agility, capable of producing the subtleties of the great wood bows at substantially less cost.

A typical student fiberglass bow, strung with horsehair rather than synthetic hair, costs between $45.00 for violin and $85.00 for double bass.  A good quality entry-level student pernambuco wood bow may be purchased for between $275.00 for violin and $350.00 for double bass.  Viola and cello bows cost within these ranges.  Pernambuco (pronounced per-num-boó-co) is the wood of choice for both student and professional bows due to its density and flexibility.  While applewood and cherrywood bows may be purchased for significantly less money, such bows are not recommended.  Bows made from these inferior woods are usually of poor quality, tend to warp or break easily, and do not respond well in the hand.   Brazilwood is also used for less expensive, student bows.  Though it is better than the cheaper woods it is not as durable as pernambuco.

Many students begin with fractional size string instruments and matching fractional size fiberglass bows strung with horsehair.  This is quite satisfactory despite some teachers’ insistence upon using a wooden bow.  As a student progresses to a bigger and better quality instrument the need for a pernambuco wood bow increases.  A fiberglass bow can only mimic to a certain extent the weight, balance, and performance capabilities of a wood bow.

Choosing a bow takes time, patience, and the assistance of a reputable and knowledgeable instrument dealer or teacher.  Old bows by the great master bow makers can cost thousands of dollars.  New bows by recognized makers also have high price tags.  The most expensive bow might not work well on a particular instrument, so it is important to set a budget and stay within your financial comfort zone.  Avoid the assumption that the higher the price the better the bow will work with your instrument.

When choosing a bow:

•     Decide whether you prefer the French style (round) stick or the German style (octagonal) stick.  This is largely a personal preference though some performers prefer one style over the other.  The octagonal bow is only slightly more expensive.  That expense is so minimal that it should not factor into the final decision.

•     Sight down the stick from frog to tip and be sure the stick is straight.

•     Check for a good cambre or downward curve from the stick to the hair when the hair is tightened.  A stick with little or no cambre is useless.

•     Find the balance point of the bow by balancing it on two fingers.  A well-built bow will balance within a few inches of the bow grip.

•     Better bows will have their weights indicated in grams.  A heavier bow will generally do more of the work without forcing the player to add unnecessary weight from the arm and hand.

•     Check the bow’s fittings:  the winding, the frog, the tip, and the turn screw.  Pernambuco wood is graded according to quality.  A bow-maker usually reserves better frogs and mounts for higher quality wood.  Mounts start at the low end with nickel (German) silver, and range to the high end with sterling silver and a quality ebony, tortoise shell, or ivory frog.  A Parisian eye frog indicates that the pearl dot on the frog is encircled with a single or double ring of silver.

•     Draw the bow slowly across the strings with the contact point near the bridge playing a forte dynamic.  Check for spots in the bow that “grab” or “squawk.”  If such spots occur consistently they may indicate weaknesses in the bow that can hinder tone production.

•     Play spiccato, slurred, martelé bowings and check the bow’s response.

•     Whether buying an old bow or a new one check for hidden repairs, especially at the tip and on the lower end of the stick beneath the frog.  Check the frog to see if it is original or if it has been replaced.  A reputable dealer should inform a buyer of any defects or repairs that would affect the playability and value of a bow.

Take your time and try out as many bows as you can.  Get good advice.  The right bow in your budget is out there, and with patience you will find it.  Happy bow hunting!

This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.

Jay-Martin Pinner
directs Pinner Studios, a private string studio that teaches over 240 students in Greenville, SC.  He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and was the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.  While at BJU he was responsible for the University’s String Instrument Repair Shop, and for the procurement and maintenance of precollege and University-owned instruments.

Read Part 3

Good Buy? or Good-bye! – Cases

A Layman’s Guide to Purchasing a Case for Violin, Viola, Cello or Double Bass

The first two articles in this series focused on the basics of purchasing string instruments and bows.  This column will deal with the important issue of purchasing string instrument cases.  Having purchased hundreds of cases, flown thousands of miles with string instruments, and even seen one case with tire tread marks on it after being run over by a car (the violin was fine), perhaps I can help you as you look for the right case for your stringed instrument.

A Case for Cases

Choosing the right case is important for protecting a string instrument from bumps and scrapes, and for keeping that instrument safe from weather extremes.  String instruments are designed to come apart when exposed to heat and humidity.  Varnish will melt within minutes of exposure to the 120+ degree heat generated in a car parked in the sun with the windows up.  Conversely, extreme cold can crackle varnish and cause wood to shrink causing structural damage.  A good case will keep out heat, humidity, or cold for extended periods of time.

Case by Case Consideration

Violin and viola cases are identical except for size.  Viola cases often have to be specially fitted unless the case is adjustable and information states that it will fit all violas between 15 and 17 inches long.  Violin and viola cases range in quality from molded fiberglass with injected foam ($50-$75.00) to special order cases with luxury fittings such as leather, silk, velvet, and brass ($1500.00-$2500.00).  For special order cases it is wise to provide a tracing of the instrument’s outline so that the dealer can be sure of an accurate fit.  Many violin and viola cases are made with laminated wood covered with a screw-attached ballistic nylon cover.  This type of cover usually has a built-in music pocket.  If a cover is damaged and a case does not need to be replaced it is relatively inexpensive to order a new cover.  Interiors can be velour, velvet, or silk, in order of expense and longevity.  For better quality instruments it is important to select a case with “full suspension.”  This suspension consists of covered foam inserts built into the case that prevent the back of the violin or viola from coming in contact with the back of the case.  If the case is subjected to a sudden jolt the foam protects the instrument from direct impact within the case.  Violin and viola cases come with two or four bow holders.  Some cases include hygrometers or humidification systems.

Cello cases come in three varieties:  soft covers, hard shell cases, and shipping cases.  Soft covers come in ballistic nylon with varying densities of padding, several storage pockets, a music pocket, and a strap or backpack harness for easy transportation.  They range in price from under $100.00 to $400.00.  Hard shell cases are made of plywood, fiberglass, or aluminum, and may have options such as wheels and special handles.  Costs range from $350.00 to $1800.00.  Shipping cases are also made of fiberglass, and have features such as internal inflatable air cushions, heavy-duty padding, and wheels.  Shipping cases cost from $2000.00 to $2500.00.  Interiors can be velour, velvet, or silk, in order of expense and longevity.  Cello cases come with one or two bow holders.  Check the closure devices on hard shell and shipping cases.  Some cases are extremely awkward and difficult to latch.

Bass cases come in two varieties:  soft covers and shipping cases.  Soft covers come in ballistic nylon with varying densities of padding, several storage pockets, a music pocket, handles, and a strap.  Costs range from $100.00 to $500.00.  Shipping cases come in fiberboard and fiberglass, costing from $500.00 to $3000.00.  Fiberboard cases hold the bass and a soft cover.  Fiberglass cases hold the bass only.  Some models of shipping cases even come with a built in wardrobe for holding a tuxedo or other concert dress.  Interiors can be velour, velvet, or silk, in order of expense and longevity.

Case Closed

When choosing a case consider the primary usage.  Will it be used for extensive travel by air or will it be used to get back and forth from school, church, and other rehearsals by car?  If you need to travel by air you will need to get the best case you can afford.  Cellists and bassists have no choice but to purchase two cases:  one case for local rehearsals, and a shipping case so that the instrument can be placed in the baggage compartment on a plane.  (The only other option is to purchase two plane tickets for you and your instrument each time you fly.  Even then bassists have special difficulties to work out in advance with the airlines.)

Another critical factor in choosing a case is its weight.  While one violin case may weigh only two pounds more than another, over years of use your arms and neck will resent the additional pounds.  Lighter cases do not always offer sufficient protection, so the extra weight may be worth hauling around to insure peace of mind.  The “weight versus strength” factor becomes even more important for viola, cello, and bass cases.

With the dozens of case choices available in every shape, color, and style, it is possible to find exactly the right case for your needs.  That case can protect your instrument for ten or twenty years saving you hundreds of dollars in repairs, so take your time to choose and invest wisely.

This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.

Jay-Martin Pinner
directs Pinner Studios, a private string studio that teaches over 240 students in Greenville, SC.  He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and was the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.  While at BJU he was responsible for the University’s String Instrument Repair Shop, and for the procurement and maintenance of precollege and University-owned instruments.

Improving String Intonation

In our experience as music educators, guest conductors and performers, there are few musical problems more recurrent than faulty string intonation.  Pure intonation is the sine qua non of good string tone, and it is the foundation upon which to build all other musical elements.  One of the challenges for those of us who work regularly with string instrumentalists in churches and schools is to present a consistent expectation of good intonation in every lesson, rehearsal and performance.

Expectations of good intonation begin with the first lesson or rehearsal.  From a practical standpoint all first year and many second year string students should have tapes or dots marking the correct finger placement on the fingerboard.  This helps each student to develop a visual as well as an aural and kinesthetic response to good intonation.  (This also prevents teacher/conductor burn-out from listening to out-of-tune students with no tapes for years on end!)  These temporary “frets” can be cut from automobile pin striping tape readily available in a wide variety of colors to suit a player’s personality.

The next important step towards good intonation is tune the open strings — objectively and with care.  Students should begin tuning their own strings no later than the third year of instruction.  Until then the instruments should be tuned prior to the rehearsal by an adult musician or a qualified older student helper.  No amount of instruction on finger placement can overcome faulty tuning of open strings.  When working with young groups, teach students how to hear the “beats” between pitches that are not in tune.  Have students sing open string pitches on a neutral syllable (“la”) to help them hear the correct open string pitches.  Have the entire group sing lightly on pitch and signal half of the group to slide flat or sharp to illustrate beats.  Have the students play the same exercise on their instruments and then explain that they are hearing increased resonance when everyone plays exactly in tune.  For intermediate and advanced groups the director should establish a system of tuning for every rehearsal.  After tuning symphony winds, brass and percussion instruments following the standard procedures of a professional orchestra, an A-440 should be played for the cellos and basses.  This allows bassists to clearly hear the pitch and check harmonics before the upper string sections begin tuning.  Bassists need take special care to be sure that their section, the foundation of the string choir, is in tune. Players should allow the tuning pitch to sound for several seconds before beginning to match it bowing softly, at a pianissimo level.  Another A-440 should be sounded for the violins and violas, again with silence preceding the matching of pitch and tuning taking place at pianissimo.  For improving a string group’s intonation, tuning open strings is the most important event of the rehearsal.  Until groups can do this quickly and accurately, the director should take time to hear the entire group play each open string in unison.

String players should think pitches, and “mentalize” the location on the fingerboard and the sound to be produced before a finger touches a string.  Let it be known that in your group string players are allowed, even encouraged, to adjust pitches by sliding the finger forward or backward on the fingerboard to compensate for pitches that sound flat or sharp.  To help individuals without embarrassing them, have them play as a quartet or as stand partners to monitor their own “in-tuneness.”

One of the most subtle steps for improving the level of intonation in a group is teaching students to listen and adjust for specific scale degrees and intervalic relationships.  This expressive intonation” is one of the marks of the group that is moving beyond merely “playing the right notes.”  It is quite possible to hear expressive intonation at the middle school level, but it is imperative that high school, college and church groups understand this concept.   Begin with teaching the scale degrees, emphasizing the tonic, the dominant, the leading tone and the mediant.  Explain the basics of chord structure.  Then, for example, the director may say, “Violas, you have the third of that D Major chord.  Remember that sharped thirds need to sound high.  Bring out the F# and push the second finger higher on the D string.  It is the most important pitch in the orchestra right there…”  “Violins, that G# is the seventh step in our key of A Minor, the seventh step of an A Minor scale.  It will sound more in tune to all of us if you stretch your third finger on the D string and play it higher…” If possible demonstrate or have students demonstrate on string instruments rather than the piano.  The fixed pitches of the piano do not allow for the expressive intonation that should be expected of string students.

Pinner’s Practical Pointers for Preventing Prickly Problems with Penurious Pinkies:

•     Have string players “test” pitches with the open string above or below the offending pitch.  Let them slide gently until the pitch resonates in tune.  This reinforces interval studies and helps teach double stops.

•     Physically check intonation of individual pitches with a tuner that shows how many cents sharp or flat a pitch actually sounds.  Many players become convinced of sloppy intonation only after they see it on a meter!

•     Record a student or a group.  Listen critically to the playback together, discussing and marking the music where intonation problems occur and what can be done to solve them.

•     Have a student listen to recordings of great artists or play along with a recording.

•     Have a student play chamber music with you or other students.

•     When working with groups build chords slowly from bottom to top, helping students adjust pitches as a section.  Have the section leaders play out (in tune!) at a dynamic of mezzo forte and allow the section to tune to that sound at piano.

The quest for a high standard of string intonation is not mysterious nor nebulous.  It requires that music educators set the standard and maintain a consistent expectation that students will play in tune.  Assume that “If my group plays out of tune it is my fault as the director.”  If sloppy intonation is allowed in our groups, players become satisfied with mediocrity.  Like an unfeeling conscience that becomes seared to truth, players cannot hear the beauty of pure intonation that should always be there.

This article used by permission.  It first appeared in Lines and Spaces, the newsletter of David E. Smith Publications, 1999.  It appeared also in the August, 2000, issue of The Instrumentalist Magazine.


Conductor & Soloist Protocol

Recently we focused on solo and chamber music recital stage protocol:  bowing, acknowledging applause, and presenting a stage presence that is appreciative of the audience and one that helps put the audience at ease for a performance.

This issue will focus on protocol for orchestra conductors and soloists.  As conductors we have nightmares of being in the middle of a performance for which we had not seen a score and yet are struggling to conduct from memory!  Then we notice that we are conducting in our pajamas…

We would never conduct a score without serious preparation, yet we think nothing of winging it with our podium manner.  Each of us should evaluate our work to be sure that what we do on the podium heightens the music effect for our audience.

Here are several distractions observed at performances during the last few months:

  • The conductor’s stand was too low but the conductor did not take the time to raise it at any point during the concert.  The conductor had to bend his knees and stoop over to turn pages.
  • The conductor took solo bows but did not have the orchestra stand to take applause for an orchestra piece.
  • The conductor crossed in front of a soloist.
  • The soloist did not take a preliminary bow.
  • The conductor tuned a symphony orchestra by having the concertmaster give an A-440 rather than the oboist.
  • The conductor walked on stage too slowly before each piece.  The applause practically died away before he reached the podium.
  • The conductor did not instruct the soloist how to quickly and graciously return to the stage for a solo bow.  The audience began to wonder whether to keep applauding.

Having worked with pre-college and university orchestras for over 30 years I am well aware that occasionally, despite thorough preparation, crazy things can happen in a live performance that can not be anticipated.  That is understandable.  We as conductors should not however bumble along choosing to remain ignorant about the traditions of world-class orchestras and soloists.  Some would say that making music is more important than executing proper protocol.  I agree but hasten to add that how we as conductors handle ourselves on stage is very much a part of making music come alive for our audiences.

How can we improve our podium manners?  We should actually think through and rehearse every move to and from the podium, every bow, every acknowledgement, every gesture, and our facial and body language from the beginning of a concert through the end.  This may seem unnecessary to some.  I challenge those conductors to videotape their next concert and view the tape.  They may be unpleasantly surprised.

I have conducted concerts for which I spent several hours rehearsing what needed to happen on the podium in order to cue lights, narrators, transition music, signal choirs to stand or sit, acknowledge soloists, and set up curtain calls.  I scheduled time to literally walk through the concert from beginning to end, without conducting one note of music!  While this is unusual for most concerts it has shown me that I need to rehearse normal concert podium manners with the same care and attention to detail that I would give to the printed scores.

Now let’s fix the problems noted earlier.

  • The conductor’s music stand height should be set at the final rehearsals and checked again before the doors open on the day of the performance.  If for some reason the stand gets out of adjustment at the performance the conductor should fix it before beginning to conduct.
  • For an orchestral number it is always appropriate to signal the orchestra to stand and take applause with the conductor.  It is a team effort.  The conductor should not take a solo bow.
  • The conductor should never cross in front of a soloist.  The logistics of movements by the soloist and conductor should be worked out in rehearsal.  The orchestra may have to scoot chairs back and forth to help accommodate such movement.
  • Soloists should always enter the stage and take a preliminary bow.  After playing or singing the soloist should take a solo bow, then the soloist and conductor should bow, followed by the orchestra standing while the soloist takes another bow.  It is also appropriate for the soloist to shake hands with the conductor and acknowledge the orchestra.  The soloist and conductor should leave the stage briskly and the soloist should return immediately for a final solo bow while the orchestra remains standing.
  • When a string orchestra is performing without winds, brass or percussion, it is appropriate for the concertmaster to stand and tune the group playing an open A-string, A-440.  When winds, brass or percussion are added to the string orchestra to form a symphony orchestra then it is customary for the first chair oboist to give an A-440 to the orchestra.  (I have conducted groups where the aspiring oboist’s A-440 was difficult to tune to, but with encouragement and understanding young oboists can learn to sound an A-440 with a beautiful open tone.  Insist that the group wait for the A-440 to “settle in to the pitch.”)
  • Our body language and demeanor as conductors should reflect the music we conduct, starting with our walk onto the stage.  We must move briskly and energetically onto the stage, engaging our audience and generally looking like we know what we are doing!  A slow, languid walk kills audience excitement and stifles applause, especially when there is a great distance to cover before reaching the podium.

Attention to the accepted protocols of major orchestras and outstanding solo artists adds the finishing touch to high standards of music making.  Training for this begins with young students in pre-college orchestras and continues with university level, community and semi-professional orchestra musicians.  As conductors it is our responsibility to teach those within our sphere of influence.  Our audience will appreciate our effort to give them the best musical experience possible!

This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.

Jay-Martin Pinner directs Pinner Studios, a private string studio that teaches over 240 students in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.

Clarifying String Bowing Terms & Technique: Part 1

Part 1 – On the String Bowings

String bowing terms often create confusion for directors of church and school orchestras, even veteran directors who are string specialists. There are two general types of bowings: those prescribing that the bow bounce off the string, “off the string bowings”, and those prescribing that the bow remain in contact with the string, or “on the string” bowings. In this column we will take a look at “on the string bowings” in an effort to help clarify terminology and technique.

Grand detaché or detaché is the smoothest possible “on the string” bowing. Despite the term’s immediate image of deliberately separating one bow stroke from another, the term refers simply to the natural change of down-bow to up-bow and up-bow to down-bow. Detaché is the smooth change of bow that occurs as the player connects one bow change to the next. It is most often performed with the full length of the bow but can also be performed in the upper half, middle third and lower half of the bow, depending upon the passage of music. String players will often practice scales with a long detaché bow stroke. This bowing would be used to perform the melody for John Dyke’s Holy, Holy, Holy, or the melody for Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his Ninth Symphony.

Martelé is a “chopped” bowing. It is produced by the player deliberately “pinching” the bow to a stop, then releasing the pinch and starting the bow quickly across the string only to stop again. The pinch occurs as the right thumb, forefinger and second finger rotate and lean into each other and the bow stick suddenly. Each stop of the bow allows a break in the sound, and each change of bow direction begins with a bow “click.” Think of the bow click for strings as you would think of a strong initial consonant for singers. The martelé bow stroke can only be used at moderate tempos that allow time to stop the bow. This bowing would be used to perform the melody in the first movement of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite.

Slurred bowing is a smooth bowing that includes two or more pitches in one bow stroke. Slurring should mimic vocal phrasing in hymn orchestrations, arrangements and accompaniments. The number of pitches included in one slur is limited only by the tempo and the player’s ability level. Young string students in a church or youth orchestra will find it difficult to slur more than a few pitches without having to change bows. Advanced students and professionals can slur many pitches on one bow.

Slurred staccato bowing is a combination of slurred and martelé bowings. The player slurs several pitches under one bow but stops the bow movement after each pitch. This bowing may be used only at moderate tempos to allow the player time to stop after each pitch while keeping the bow moving in one direction at a time.

Louré bowing is a smooth version of the slurred staccato. With louré bowing the player slurs several notes under one bow with an almost imperceptible push of the bow on each change note change. Using a canoeing analogy, the bow moves along the string similarly to a canoe moving through the water. With each dip of the paddle the canoe surges ahead but continues to glide when the paddle is removed from the water. Pinching the bow slightly without stopping the bow will produce a slight pulse for each note change. This is much more subtle than using single detaché bows for each note change.

Helpful Hints:
Down-bow moves the bow from frog to tip. Up-bow moves the bow from tip to frog.
• The principle of the down-bow implies that a down-bow should be used for the first beat of a measure or any heavy agogic accent within a phrase. Conversely an odd number of bow changes before a measure or an accent should begin with an up-bow.
• The bow produces tone by combining three factors: bow weight, bow speed, and bow contact or sounding point. Bow weight refers to the amount of heaviness from the bow arm that is transferred to the bow. The more weight added to the bow the bigger the tone. Bow speed refers to the rate at which the bow travels across the string. Faster bow speed gives more energy to the tone. The contact or sounding point refers to the placement of the bow between the fingerboard and the bridge. The closer the bow is to the bridge the more intense the tone that results. Changing any one of these three factors will necessitate changing both of the remaining factors. For instance, if a player adds weight to the bow with a slow bow speed the tone will break up and sound crushed. Adding bow weight will necessitate increasing the bow speed and moving the contact point towards the bridge so that the bow can support the weight and the faster speed.

For a more in-depth look at string bowings consult the bowing chart in The Modern Conductor, by Elizabeth A.H. Green. American String Teachers Association with the National School Orchestra Association publishes The ASTA Dictionary of String Bowings, a comprehensive reference book.

This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.
Jay-Martin Pinner directs Pinner Studios, a private string studio that teaches over 240 students in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras..

Clarifying String Bowing Terms & Technique: Part 2

Part 2 – Off-the-String Bowings & Specialized Bowings

In this column on string bowings we will take a look at off-the-string bowings and specialized bowings in an effort to help clarify terminology and technique.

Off-the-String Bowings

Spiccato or bouncing bow are general terms that describe bow movement as the bow hair and stick strike the string producing a sound that is interrupted by the bow leaving and then returning to the string with a rebound. These two terms are used interchangeably. Bouncing bows may be performed at various speeds. The speed of the passage will usually determine the type of spiccato bowing a player or conductor will choose.

Brushed bowing is neither completely off the string nor completely on the string. The player provides a lift for each bow change, each bow change clears the string, but the bow movement is more lateral than vertical. Brushed bowing gives refined clarity to passage work and can be performed at a variety of tempi making the bowing one of the most used in the performance of string repertoire. Mozart and Haydn particularly benefit when appropriate passages are played with the brushed stroke. This bowing achieves an elegant balance when a high vertical bounce or an on-the-string bowing is out of place.

Sautillé bowing is the fastest bouncing bow performed with alternating down bows and up bows. Frequently used in virtuosic bravura solos, this bowing also shows up in orchestral literature. Sautillé is performed in the middle of the bow with the striking of the string controlled by the bow wrist and fingers.

Ricochet bowing is performed by dropping the bow on the string for a prescribed number of bounces, all in a down-bow direction. The up-bow is then used for a quick retrieval. The bow may be dropped for two bouncing bows followed by a retrieval as in the William Tell Overture, or the bow may be dropped for three, four or more bounces before a retrieval. This bowing is performed when the tempo is too fast to allow for individual bouncing bows and where sautillé bowing is not possible.

Staccato volante or flying staccato is performed dropping the bow and letting it rebound continuously in an up-bow direction. It is most often called for in virtuosic bravura solo pieces and only occasionally in orchestra repertoire.

Chopped bowing is a heavy bouncing bow indicated by accents and/or dots in a passage marked forte or louder. It is performed at the frog of the bow often with repeated down bows in quick succession.

Specialized Bowings

Sul ponticello describes bowing next to the bridge for a wiry mysterioso quality. It can be played at any dynamic and can be combined with free tremelo for added effect. It is abbreviated sul pont.

Sul tasto refers to bowing over the fingerboard for a light airy quality, usually in soft passages.

Col legno literally means to play with the wood stick part of the bow rather than the hair. It produces a percussive effect. Players prefer to use less expensive bows for repertoire that calls for this effect as playing on the wood scratches and damages bows. This bowing can be combined with a ricochet bowing as in Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Modo ordinario literally means in the ordinary way. The term indicates a return to normal bowing after playing with a specialized bowing. It is abbreviated modo ord.

Staggered bowing is a technique in which string players change bows at different times on held pitches for a continuous sustained sound. Staggered bowing is indicated with down-bow and up-bow symbols put in parentheses. Stand partners throughout each section agree to change bows at different times.

Punta d’arco literally means at the point of the bow. Passages so marked should be performed at the tip of the bow.

Free bowing is bowing that is not uniform within a section or sections of string players.

Unified bowing is bowing within a string section or sections that is worked out in advance by the principal players in consultation with each other and the conductor.

For a more in-depth look at string bowings consult the bowing chart in The Modern Conductor, by Elizabeth A.H. Green. American String Teachers Association with the National School Orchestra Association publishes The ASTA Dictionary of Bowing Terms, a comprehensive reference book.

This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.

Jay-Martin Pinner directs Pinner Studios, a private string studio that teaches over 240 students in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.