Really Effective Practicing by David Weiss

David Weiss was a great musician who played oboe with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and he was also a marvelous saw player. He was often at the IMSA summer saw festival in Santa Cruz, and he wrote a helpful and generous column for the Saw Player News, the newsletter for the International Musical Saw Association. David’s skill as a professional musician shows in all his advice about playing the saw. Here, in an article from the summer 2010 newsletter, he offers some great advice about how to practice.

(There are many of the newsletters online at the IMSA website. They have generously allowed me to feature some of the articles. Check out the website!)


Really Effective Practicing

by David Weiss

Getting students to practice effectively has always been a top priority for teachers, no matter what instrument. Motivation is really the key to successful practice. It is simply human nature that a lot of us tend to put off the more difficult things until we absolutely have to deal with them — whether it be paying taxes, studying for tests at school, or practicing your instrument! The desire has to be there, and one of the best ways for that to happen is to have events on your calendar where you have places to perform or people to jam with! By putting lots of dates like these on your calendar, you then have reasons to be much more regular with your practicing, and that will lead to becoming a much better player. Playing in a group also teaches you a lot about music that you can’t learn by practicing alone. Here’s part of an email that Morgan Cowan recently sent me: “I play so much at open (and sometimes closed) groups of jammers that I’m really always practicing. The most significant improvements I’ve made in my musical development in the 38 years I’ve been playing the saw have come from playing with other musicians on a regular basis. I now play between 4 and 16 hours a week at jams — some happen every week, some every other week, some every month. The more you play the faster you learn, and the better you get!” Let’s hope Morgan will write a column for a future issue giving us details about his experiences jamming with other musicians.

I have a T shirt with a slogan that reads, “I played it better at home!” That’s something we can all relate to and makes us smile. Why is that funny? Because when you’re a little nervous or feeling “on the spot” you become more distracted by things that aren’t an issue when you’re by yourself. Getting used to performance situations really helps you improve by making you all the more aware of your weaknesses and better able to correct them.

The two R’s of good practice are relaxation and repetition. For all my students, I recommend sitting in front of a mirror to immediately see how your body looks when you are playing. As with anything physical, using only the muscles needed to function effectively is ideal. You don’t want to tire yourself out unnecessarily. Getting into a good position while playing is very important! Presuming you’re seated and bowing with your right hand, your left shoulder should be down and relaxed. The left elbow should be down, fairly close to your side. The saw should be angled over the left knee and towards your body a little in such a way that you don’t have to extend your left arm too far forward. This will also help your right arm, keeping it from stretching too far, and enabling it to work most efficiently. The left wrist should have a relaxed arch to it, so that the thumb pivots into the saw with the fingers pulling back at the tip. Don’t overdo the S curve! A common mistake for novices is to get frustrated and bend the saw too much. Just enough is what I consider to be the correct amount. For comfort where the thumb meets the saw, I use a one inch square piece of thin bulletin board cork under the thumb. It is not glued down, but can move so I can position my thumb slightly up or down the blade as needed, with no fixed pivot point. This is especially important when playing the highest and lowest notes.

As for the right hand grip on the bow, for best balance and a relaxed arm, I suggest gripping the bow between three and eight inches below the “frog,” the end with the tightening screw. As you improve, you can grip the bow closer to the frog for longer phrases, playing more than one note on each bow stroke. Place the thumb between the bow hair and wood. The back of the thumb should be somewhat facing you, the four fingers opposing the thumb. So there is no confusion, this is not like how you would bow a violin. It is easier to begin with the hand close to the saw, pulling the bow upward. Position the bow perpendicular to the saw, that is at roughly 90 degrees or right angles to the edge, in the “sweet spot,” the flat area between the curves of the saw when you bend it into the S shape.

Practice bowing the saw in both directions. This will enable you to play a lot faster and more musically once you get the hang of it. In addition to putting rosin on the bow, I also rub some rosin on the edge of the saw. String bass rosin seems to work best, since it is stickier and gives more friction for better response. Start with one of the lower notes (less stress for the left hand since the S curve is slight and requires less pressure). Pull the bow upwards slowly and steadily until you get the note to ring. Make a mental note of the placement of the bow on the sweet spot when you hear it ring easily. Try again. You may have to experiment with the amount of S curve, the amount of pressure of the bow against the blade, and the speed of the bow stroke to get a good quality sound. Once you get the tone ringing easily, hold that position steady and boa downstroke starting at the tip and going to the frog (handle) of the bow.

Once you get this first note to respond consistently, bend the tip of the saw slightly down, move the stroke spot up a tiny bit, and try again. You should notice the tone being a step higher. Use your ear to determine a whole tone up, and then a whole tone back to the starting note. Repeat. Look in the mirror. Relax. Repeat. Don’t go further until you can get those first 2 notes well in tune, back and forth. If you have another instrument in the house, play those two notes on that, and then go back to the saw to check yourself for good pitch. You can vary the speed and pressure of the bow until you get the tone to respond quickly with minimal bow noise, and then remove the bow to allow the sound to ring for as long as possible. Take frequent breaks! It is a good idea to rest every every few minutes when practicing. During the first couple of weeks using this kind of diligent approach, saw practice can be very tiring!

Once you can play 2 notes well in tune with each other, go on to a third, a fourth, etc., the beginnings of a scale. This may seem like slow, tedious practice, but it will yield the quickest results. Try not to approximate the pitches. Force yourself to play right on the note. At this point I should mention that for about $25 you can purchase a battery operated tuner. Smaller than a deck of cards, tuners have a display that will tell you if your note is sharp or flat and by how much! Korg is the brand I like best (model CA-30) and can be found in any music supply store or online. Using this type of tuner can be invaluable in helping you to train your ear for good pitch.

You will notice that the right arm has to reach further when playing a higher note, since the sweet spot is moving up the blade. Always remember to keep an approximate 90 degree angle of bow against the saw. After you have mastered an eight note scale, going up and down one octave, you are ready for intervals: for example from your first note, play a third higher and return to the starting note (C-E-C) or fourth (C-F-C) etc. Try to be as on pitch as you can. You will soon be able to get a feel for the note changes, developing a muscle memory for what you have to do physically to play clearly and expressively.

Along with this no-nonsense type of practice, you’ll also want to play some tunes. Melodies like “Long, Long Ago” or “Home Sweet Home” or “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” are good choices. Practice them slowly and don’t be satisfied until you get the tones to respond immediately to the bow strokes, keeping the pitches as accurate as possible and minimizing both scratch noise which is caused by too much pressure and/or the wrong speed for the notes. Then you can gradually speed up the pace until you reach the right tempo. If you have a video camera, record yourself now and then to make sure you look relaxed and that your notes are in tune. If you have a friend who plays piano who will work with you, that can be an enormous help too.

Vibrato is a key element in the characteristic sound of the saw. But for basic practice purposes I recommend not using any! Vibrato often tends to hide the true pitches of the notes you are trying to get. So beware! Vibrato can act like perfume hiding bad odor, or in this case, poor intonation! So spend a lot of time practicing without vibrato to make sure your pitches are accurate and not “fudged.”

When you are ready to work on and improve your vibrato, you should devote separate practice time just for that. Play one note, add vibrato gradually, and experiment with making it fast or slow, wide or narrow. The important goal with vibrato is that you can control it. Vibrato is most successfully used when it enhances the music you are playing, without becoming too obvious or distracting, and without it being used to cover up poor intonation. Most players lift one heel an bounced the need to achieve vibrato. Another method is to use a wrist vibrato, but this tends to be more difficult to master and not one I’d recommend until you are fairly advanced.

For those of you who are thinking about entering a contest, here are a couple of pointers to help you play your best:

  • Play a preliminary mock audition for friends or better yet some professional musicians and ask them to critique you
  • Record or videotape your mock audition. Playing it back can be very revealing, and help you cure your flaws that you may not have realized you had.


David Weiss

Summer 2010

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Rowena Southard, your blog hostess, is a musical saw enthusiast who lives in California. She loves all kinds of music and has a special fondness for unusual instruments.