Suzuki's Tonalization

Beautiful tone, beautiful heart.”

“Tone has a living soul without form.”

-Shinichi Suzuki

Tonalization is “the ability to produce and recognize a beautiful, ringing tone.” Dr. Suzuki observed that singers cultivate their voices daily through “vocalization” exercises.  He believed that instrumentalists should approach tone in a similar way. Great musicians make their instruments “sing”, developing a concept of tone that is inspired by the natural expression of the human voice.

Tonalization starts when the beginner first draws the bow across the string. Through continuous, careful repetitions of the first “Twinkle” rhythm, the tone, and the physical feeling of creating tone begin to take shape.  Throughout Book 1, Suzuki offers scales and Tonalization exercises in the keys of A, D and G.  More advanced students and professionals work on tone with three octave scales, arpeggios, thirds, sixths, octaves and more. The quest for the most resonant tone possible never ends.  Daily attention to Tonalization leads to improved tone for everything else you play.

Here are a few ideas to keep in mind as you work on Tonalization:

Listen.  In order to achieve your best tone, start by listening carefully.  Consider each note “guilty until proven innocent.”  Don’t ever be completely satisfied.  Always assume that an even better tone is around the corner.  Dr. Suzuki asks students to pluck the strings and listen as they ring.  He considers this to be the string’s most fundamental and natural sound.  As you bow, keep this ringing sound in mind.  Play the open strings and try to get the same resonance.  Next, challenge yourself to get the same ring on fingered tones, even though these will have a slightly different timbre (or tone color).  Stop the bow on the string and listen to how long the ring lasts.  Over time, try to increase the length of ring.

Notice that each tone has a beginning, a middle and an end.  The bow connects and pulls, articulating and then releasing, allowing the string to ring (“Tow”).  Make sure the volume stays even as a single note is played, or throughout the “Twinkle” rhythm (“Tuck-ah, Tuck-ah, Tuck..ah”).

Consider what the bow has to do.  The bow can be pressed into the string, cutting off it’s ability to vibrate, or it can slip around on the surface, never really catching the string.  Instead, connect the bow to the string and allow the arm to drop with a springy feeling.  Relaxed weight from the shoulder transfers into the elbow, wrist, fingers and into the string.  Now pull the bow and continue to feel the shoulder. Imagine the arm pulling and pushing in a slight arc, rather than a straight line. Notice that the wood of the bow itself is shaped like an arc.

Placement of the bow in relation to the bridge is important.  This is called the sounding point.  The closer the bow gets to the bridge, the more weight is needed. This is accompanied by slower bow speed.  As the bow is placed farther from the bridge, less weight and faster bow speed are required.  This is something players get a natural feel for over time.  Placing the bow near the bridge creates a louder sound with more overtones.  As the bow drifts to the fingerboard, the tone gets softer and more velvety. The beginner starts with the bow placed directly in between the bridge and fingerboard.  Suzuki called this the Kreisler Highway because it’s where the legendary violinist Fritz Kreisler played most of the time.  Kreisler is still remembered for the singing quality of his tone.

Consider what the left hand has to do.  Playing in tune is essential for tonalization.  Find that one place on the fingerboard where the tone rings.  Move your finger slightly higher and lower to see if you can get more ring.  Once you find the correct place, pick your finger up and try to find it again.  Your finger will begin to remember where it needs to go, especially if it is kept close to the fingerboard.

Make sure your fingers are up on their tips and are not touching nearby strings.  You want the other strings to be ringing sympathetically with the string you’re playing.  If you are playing G on the D string (third finger in first position) you should be able to see the G string vibrate as the D string is played.

Keep a cushiony, relaxed feeling in your hand.  Tension will limit resonance.

Develop a visual image of the tone.  Allow the string to ring like a bell.  Feel the string under the bow and imagine that the tone has a strong and intense center that is focused like a laser beam.  Around this focused center is a fluffy, soft layer of “ring”. Imagine that you are drawing the sound out of the box of the violin.

Turn on the energy.  How you feel inside will impact the way the bow pulls across the string.  Practice turning on an attitude of inner energy and vitality.  Don’t try to change anything you’re doing technically.  Just turn on the energy and it will affect what comes out.

Play the room.  This is how the unique sounds of the world’s greatest orchestras are developed over time.  Listen to how the sound is coming back to you in the room. Treat the room like another musical instrument that you are playing.

As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Suzuki was deeply influenced by the tone of the great Austrian violinist, Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962).  Now that we have considered the fundamentals of Tonalization, listen to this old recording of Kreisler playing his composition, Liebesleid, which translates as “Love’s Sorrow”:

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