The water spider, the hippo and the tuna: On the imagery of tone

Suzuki’s metaphors for tone.

One of the things that I admire about great teachers is the ability to inspire students through metaphor and imagery. It’s so important in music because conventional language is often not subtle enough to convey intent.

As a teacher, Suzuki was obsessed with producing beautiful tone. I recently learned about some of his metaphors for types of tone.

Water spider tone

More accurately called water striders, these insects use the hydrophobic properties of their legs to walk on water. You can see them skittering across the surface of the water. They are quite fun to watch; and it’s amazing to think about how these creatures evolved and adapted to their unique habitat.

But the skimming action of the water strider is undesirable when it comes to tone. It’s a “surfacey”, weak, skimming tone. It’s often caused by tension and an inability to relax the weight of the arm into the string. As a violin student myself, I find that I must constantly remind myself about tension to avoid skittering on the surface of the string like the water strider skims across the pond.

Hippo tone

The hippo is an enormous, ponderous animal. It doesn’t conjure up images of grace and beauty. Likewise, the hippo tone that Suzuki described is heavy, ungraceful. It is produced by pressing into the string and seems to be a misreading of what it means to allow the weight of the bow arm to sink into the string. It’s a forceful application of weight rather than letting gravity do the majority of the work.

Tuna tone

The tuna is a muscular, agile fish. Some of the larger types of tuna can weigh hundreds of pounds. People who fish for tuna describe the difficulties in reeling in such a large animal. But despite it’s size, the tuna is among the fastest swimming fishes on the planet.

Suzuki thought that “tuna tone” was the ideal. It’s a tone that is full and muscular. It is a tone produced through its own weight in the string.

I love these examples because because their imagery is easy to see and because kids love anything related to animals.

Written by:

Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.