Your Tone Color Toolkit
I love chamber music… there is a connection that happens when musicians are all actively listening that is, for me, the most fulfilling kind of mental presentness. An incredible moment of cooperation — in which compromising becomes joyful and clear suggestions are made with no words at all.
There are a number of aspects of playing that are continually negotiated throughout a performance— not limited to, but including ebb and flow of tempo, articulation, dynamics, use of vibrato, timbre or tone color... and tone color in particular is such a fun puzzle and has such an impact when the entire group is on the same page!
Have you ever had a teacher ask you to “play into” someone else’s sound? What does that mean? And what kind of tweaks can you make to match a sound that is not your own — to complement a different string player, or an instrument from a different family altogether?!
To “play into” another sound is to complement it, and to let its qualities influence the choices you make, with volume, with brightness, with urgency or lack of... Is this sound bright and “direct”? is it warm and relaxed? hollow and ghostly? Is there an audible vibrato in it? How do I alter my tone to fit better with yours?
As string players, we have incredible range of tone color to choose from, and near infinite possibilities of how to encourage our strings to vibrate. Everything from a brutal, percussive attack with the bow or pizzicato that sends a string immediately into action — to a glassy, peaceful sweep of the bow over the string with barely any pressure at all. And then there are extended techniques— I’ve literally used everything from chopsticks (like in this piece!) to an entirely retuned instrument (scordatura) to achieve extreme effects in overall tone. More on that another time though :)
Here’s some easy, basic manipulation of tone you can practice today to get your ears opening up to new possibilities!
Add “Brightness”: Need some extra punch, or to match an instrument in a brighter register or with a very “direct” sound? Perhaps violin, piccolo, flute, top octaves of the piano, synthesizer, etc.
Cello naturally sounds pretty mellow compared to violin, piccolo/flute, oboe, even the top couple octaves on a piano! If you have a passage where you need to blend seamlessly with something high and bright… you might try a faster bow, closer to the bridge. This will give you immediately a more direct sound that you can take all the way to “harsh” if you need that effect (for extreme: think ponticello, right up on the bridge!) You’re engaging a series of overtones that seriously pops and gives the sound a harder edge.
Pair it with faster bow speed and you’ll really start to project! The higher the note you play on your own instrument, the faster bow speed and closer to the bridge you can go (to complement the shortened vibrating string!)
*We are talking about matching sounds, but this same brightness can also be used to contrast. Playing a concerto and need to cut through the full orchestra behind you? Think about where you might use this bright/direct edge in varying degrees to add extra punch and projection to your solo sound!
Match a “tense” or “concentrated” sound: Think oboe, english horn, alto or soprano saxophone, trumpet or bagpipe (Who knows what you versatile strings may be up to out there!) Play with your bow speed — without compromising too much resonance on your end, see how your sound changes if you keep the bow speed consistently slower. You might also pair it with a more labored or urgent sounding vibrato.
Pay attention to the beginning and ending of notes on the instrument you are matching as well… do they have a hard, sudden attack? If you had to mimic it with your voice, what consonant would you use? (Kah? Taaa? Pah?) Maybe it’s not such a startling attack? (waaa, maa) — Think about the complete experience of hearing a note from that instrument and see if you can approach your sound production in a similar way.
A deep, dark or mellow sound: aha! What cello does quite well :) Maybe you are playing with clarinet, bass clarinet, horn, trombone, string bass, guitar or something else that shares a little more in common with your register and general mellowness and richness. Pay attention to your vibrato (especially if you are with clarinet, or another instrument that may not use vibrato at all!). Do you have a brighter sounding instrument? Maybe tone that down a bit by watching your contact point and making choices to play certain passages on darker sounding strings (like, tackling a melody on the D string versus the bright A string). Keep bow speed and softer/slower attack of the sound in mind. You certainly still have a large artistic range to choose from, but be mindful of what your partner can and cannot do with ease on their instrument.
A “hollow” sound: Now let’s flip to another extreme. Perhaps you are looking for a smoky or haunted effect, or are accompanying a chill acoustic instrument, or a breathy sounding woodwind instrument or even interesting auxiliary percussion.
Take a little ”core” out of your sound by using a faster bow but not adjusting your weight to match. (Think- the faster, surfacy bow speed you would use to get a false harmonic to really pop!) Sometimes, a controlled disconnect on that front creates a very cool effect. I had a teacher one time ask me to play a creepy passage with an extremely crooked arc of the bow to achieve the same thing. Be creative! You can also get a special and unusual sound by choosing an unusual spot to play it— maybe in a higher position on a lower string, or in a spot that allows you to use a dramatically different bow speed.
Leave some time at the end of your practice sessions this week to experiment with tone color. Maybe stick on a recording or two of chamber pieces you love with varying instrumentation and try to play along in a way that blends with those performers. What choices are you forced to make in the moment? Take note, you beautiful chameleon, you!