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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Song of the Wind, part 3: Downbow Circles Preview

Song of the Wind teaches an important right hand skill: down bow circles. Down bow circles are the foundation for all sorts of other skills, from setting the bow on the string to begin a good articulation, to playing double stops and chords in more advanced repertoire. Along the way, down bow circles can test whether a student is still maintaining the bow hold (it tends to fall out of the hand if the bow hold is incorrect) or if the student is holding too much tension in the shoulder (the student can use the circles to learn how to set the bow and release the shoulder tension).

If you have not already done this when teaching the Twinkle variations, place a tape mark on the student's bow at the point where the student's arm forms a "square" (right arm bends 90 degrees at the elbow, and the forearm is parallel to the violin strings) when the student has placed the bow on the strings to play. It is a good idea to check the placement of this tape mark periodically as the student grows, to be sure that the mark still "fits" the student's arm length.

Airplanes and Helicopters

Here is how I introduce the down bow circle:
  • I ask the student to play a down bow on the E string to produce a nice ringing tone.
  • I then ask the student to lift the bow in a circular motion in front of the student's face and land the bow at the marked tape spot. The circle should be done counter-clockwise, similar to the hand gesture that one makes when saying "come here" with the hands.
  • I then ask the student to make several down bow circles. I bring to the student's attention how the bow bounces on the landing, and I ask the student to experiment with eliminating the bounces.
  • I then introduce the concept of airplane versus helicopter landings.
    • Airplanes bounce on landing (at least once, no matter how good the pilot is).
    • Helicopters are capable of landing without a bounce.
    • Airplanes land while still in forward motion, hence the bounce.
    • Helicopters can drop straight down without forward motion.
  • I then have the student practice landing the bow on the E string after a down bow circle while completely stopped in forward motion, as in "helicopter" style. The student is usually able to eliminate the bounce.
  • We play 10 down bow circles on the E string and strive for a good ringing tone.
  • We then progress to down bow circles on the A string just for variety.

Railroad Car Wheels

I also discuss with my student how the "arm" of a railroad car wheel works. If you recall, the railroad wheel has an arm that connects the wheels with each other. That arm moves the same way between the wheels. In such a manner, the frog and tip of our bows should imitate the circular motion of the railroad car wheels. The circle we make at the frog of the bow should be the same size circle as that made by the tip of our bow.

Group Classes

In group class, we use Song of the Wind to practice the down bow circles in several ways:
  • We sing the song using the "Goosey Gander" words, and we practice making circles:
    • On the first verse, we turn in a circle at the places where we would be making down bow circles with our bow. This prepares the student and helps them to remember where the circles actually occur in the song.
Fox has stolen Goosey Gander.
Bring him back to me. (circle)
Bring him back to me. (circle)
If you don't I'll sic my dog
And chase you up a tree-hee-hee. (teeny circle)
If you don't I'll sic my dog
And chase you up a tree.
(circle when making the repeat; no circle after the second verse)

This a loose English translation of the original German lyrics,
"Fuchs, Du Hast die Ganz Gestohlen."
    • On the second verse, we make circles with our bows in the air, using a "come here" gesture to mimic the actual down bow circle motion.
  • We practice making down bow circles using fruit as a measurement for the circle's size. For example:
    • We make circles as large as a watermelon ("What is the largest fruit you can think of?")
    • We make medium-sized circles ("What is a medium-sized fruit?")
    • We make tiny circles ("What is the smallest fruit you can think of? A grape?")
  • We talk about what size circles we might make throughout the song. My goal here is to help the students recognize the need for a grape-sized circle between measures 10 and 11.
Advanced Students

I have used this song or at least the down bow circle skill to help an advanced student learn how to play double stop chords and to check for shoulder tension:
  • We practice making a circle bow and setting the bow, stopped, on the string before drawing out the notes of a double stop chord.
  • We practice making circle bows, and checking for tension by saying:
    • "Set" (is the bow set on the string and stopped?)
    • "Sink" (has the student released the tension/energy/air from the shoulder?)
  • Song of the Wind is also useful for checking the state of a student's bow hold. If the student has let his or her bow hold posture slip or get sloppy, this song will reveal it.
Dr. Suzuki

Someone once told me a story about Dr. Suzuki and his teacher training classes in Japan (the story may have come from Pat D'Ercole. After Dr. Suzuki explained how to make proper down bow circles, he then told his teacher trainee students to practice the circles 10,000 times. Apparently the American teachers responded with the idea that Dr. Suzuki really wanted them to practice the circles a lot! The Japanese teachers responded by buying special notebooks so that they could begin keeping track of the number of circles they practiced until they added up to 10,000. I do not know if the story is true, but if it is, the story does illustrate a difference in response between the American and the Japanese.
    This pretty much wraps up the discussion about Song of the Wind. As you can see from the numerous blog entries I have posted, this song is full of useful teaching points. I frequently refer to this song in master classes, as it contains so many valuable uses for both the left and right hands.


      1. Hi Paula,

        I am a new reader of your blog, and wanted to leave a note of thanks for all of your great blog entries. I teach at a Suzuki school in CT, and really benefit from comparing notes on how I teach pieces with how you describe your teaching on your blog.

        Thanks so much for your conscientious and helpful writing,


      2. Thanks CG, what a lovely comment! I would love to hear more about how others teach the same pieces. There are so many different ways to approach things. Feel free to add comments, ideas, and suggestions.

      3. Thank you for covering specific skills needed for these beginning songs. I am a parent with 2 daughters learning violin and your site is a great resource.

        What was the story about Dr Suzuki & his training class?

        1. Well, my formatting was not as good 2.5 years ago when I wrote this. Since then I have learned quite a bit. I have updated the article to include the rest of the story. I'm not sure how it got left out. Another formatting issue? Thanks for writing.

      4. Excellent article. Very interesting to read. I really love to read such a nice article. Thanks! keep rocking. The 10th Circle