The Miracle Stop

Shin’ichi Suzuki was a genius in many ways. The philosophy of his method runs deep into personal character development, spirituality, and a vision for a better world. But he also thought very hard about what to teach, in what order, to students so that they can play with more ease and fluency.

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The very first rhythm

In the very first rhythm taught in Volume 1 of the Suzuki Violin School, taka taka ta ta (more affectionately known as “Mississippi Hot Dog” or “Pepperoni Pizza”), the final two notes are meant to be done with a stopped bow, introducing a slight space between notes.

There is no musical terminology for this, no equivalent in traditional pedagogy. Terms such as martele and staccato do not capture what is intended by the pedagogy of the stopped bow. So why did Suzuki feel this was so important?

In my years of teaching I have seen over and over the many positive results of introducing the stop-bow motion early on. It can be used at any time with any level of student to improve practice technique, bow control, tone, and facility with difficult passages.

Thinking Time

One reason the stopped bow is so important is that it introduces thinking time. Suzuki realized something to which later brain researchers would later catch up: we need brain space to prepare for what’s coming.

For example, when a new student first learns Twinkle, a lot of thinking time is needed when traveling from the E string down to 3rd finger on A. The student needs already to have mastered the ability to stop the bow between these notes, so that his fingers can catch up. Once his fingers are placed correctly on the A string, he can proceed.

In later stages of practice, when the piece and its technical challenges are mastered, there is no longer a need for thinking time. It shrinks down to an undetectable level for the listener, but in the child’s mind there is still a kind of “space” there.

That space leads to clearer articulation of eighth note passages, trills, turns, grace notes, runs, and later, shifting positions and finger patterns.

Allowing vs. Pushing

The idea is to let the bow come to a stop naturally, with full ringing tone, and a slight space between notes. I like to talk about the difference between allowing the bow to stop versus making it stop.

“If I slid my bow across the floor,” I often ask my students, “would it go on forever or eventually come to a stop on its own?” It doesn’t matter how young they are, they ALWAYS answer this correctly. A child’s observation of the world around her yields an inner understanding of the law of friction. She knows innately that left to itself, the bow will stop.

Dots don’t mean short

Many students have learned that staccato simply means "short." But this results in bow strokes that are too small. It is very difficult to produce musicality and tone using overly short bow strokes.

The dots are about space between notes, not the amount of bow. (Later I teach more about energy in the bow, especially at the front of the sound). This is a re-interpretation of what dots and staccato sound like for many students.

For example, when my students play Song of the Wind, which introduces staccato, I demonstrate how NOT to interpret the dots. I play it with a clipped, truncated sound, and students can usually hear that something is wrong.

“When people see dots,” I say, “they think they have to use one millimeter of bow.” Then I play with more bow while still allowing a stop, and ask them which one they like better. Universally they like the sound with more bow, and choose on their own to start playing that way.

A better staccato

The stop-bow concept helps to improve tone in staccato playing, in two ways. First, because we are allowing instead of pushing the bow to stop, there is more ringing tone. In fact, the ringing tone continues for a long time after the bow has stopped. I teach students intentionally to listen for this continuation of sound after the bow has stopped.

Second, staccato does not dictate how much bow to use. With a stop-bow concept, we can use more bow between stops, letting the notes sing out. This again adds to the tone quality during and after the bow motion.

ACTIONS FOR THE WEEK

  1. On the open A or D string, practice 8-10 bow strokes with a stop in between each one. Concentrate on letting the bow stop, rather than pushing it or forcing it to stop. Listen for the ringing tone, when done correctly it should go on after the bow has stopped!
  2. Practice Twinkle Variation A, putting a stop between the last two notes.
  3. WIPE OUT! Play Song of the Wind, Perpetual Motion and Etude, maintaining a stop-bow pattern throughout. This takes tremendous focus; if the student has trouble maintaining the stop-bow, she has to start over .

Intermediate practice options

  1. Find the most difficult passage(s) in your piece. Introduce a stopped bow immediately prior to the difficult notes.
  2. For especially angular note patterns (lots of string crossing and/or shifting), you may need a stop bow between each note, to prepare the bow for the new string or new shift position. (See for example, the preparatory exercise for the Bach Double Concerto in Suzuki Violin School, Book 4.)
  3. Identify places when a pulse, sting, or “landing” is appropriate in the phrasing. Mark a stop-bow immediately prior to that note.

For more advanced students I teach the same principle using whatever etude or exercise is appropriate for their level.

Troubleshooting

If a student has trouble producing good tone with a stopped bow, it is probably due to tension in the bow arm. Work with Practice Tips #8 - Bow Sinks Down and #23 The Arm Swing Cure in conjunction with the stopped bow exercises above.

Some students have trouble grasping that they are not actually stopping the bow. They are so used to connecting every note, that they can’t find the mental pathway. This is a good trait for legato playing! But it will prevent them from adding other important articulations to their repertoire.

All that is needed in this case is for the student to say “STOP” out loud in between each note. They may be annoyed to have to do this, but if it allows them to play more articulately on a Bach or Mozart they love, they will appreciate the exercise.