Holding the Horsehair for Beautiful Tone

Notes from my studies with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki

In a desperate attempt to get us to understand tone, Suzuki Sensei would say, “Only horsehair play you!? This means we should make sound using only the horsehair of the bow.

One day in group lesson, he handed out tissue paper– one piece for everyone. I wondered if he planned to make us all cry. He was very excited and patiently waited until we all held our tissue. He then carefully showed us how to wrap the tissue paper around the horsehair at the frog, and then to make a regular bow hold holding the horsehair rather than the wood. The middle finger pops up to keep the stick from wobbling. We played Chorus and the sound was very big.

He had us do it one at a time and explained that when holding the horsehair it was impossible for us to push the wood into the sound. It also made us move down to get sound. Everything was underneath the bow– arm, fingers, body — nothing on top. He called the tissue the “one million yen paper? because it made everyone sound like a million yen. He, himself never bothered with the paper and just held the horsehair with his fingers. And if he held the bow stick he said,?It seems I am holding the bow, but actually I am holding the horsehair. Only service for the bow.?

The first thing you notice when you hold the horsehair is how changeable it is. Really, it is so malleable! It feels like stepping into a rowboat. When holding the horsehair, you have to get your “sea legs?. Once you find your balance, it all works out beautifully, but it is difficult to keep that balance. Once you are in the boat, you must go with the flow.

Actually, I once heard an idea that the bow is very similar to a boat. This was an idea from another one of Dr. Suzuki’s students, and Suzuki Sensei really liked this idea. If the weight on a boat is unequally distributed, or if there are any barnacles underneath, it cannot sail quickly. When the weight is equally distributed front to back, (tip to frog) with no barnacles (tensions in the hand or arm or fear), it will sail very easily and quickly, even with a heavy load.


In order to get any sound at all while holding the horsehair you must move down towards the string. I equated this with keeping my mind on the important things in life–enjoying the moment, service, friendships, thoughts for others, beauty in life, etc… The wood was like the unnecessary things or rather, the unimportant things like money and status.

Suzuki Sensei said that one should never worry about money. If I live my life and do my best, it will not need to be a concern. Only service. I try my best to live this way. Dr. Suzuki never asks for money for his lessons. People simply pay him. And then, he spreads his money around like crazy! My friend who worked in the office at his school said that one year he decided that he wanted to send the entire office to Hawaii for a vacation! He is always buying expensive treats for the students. Once, a woman asked him why he spent his money so frivolously on treats for everyone, and he ignored her until she asked four times. Upon the fourth time he answered, “Madam, you cannot eat money!?

When I do worry about money, I become poor. I want therefore I lack. That is a spiritual law like a law of physics. Just the other day, (maybe ten years ago) I was destitute. I decided not to worry and to go along as normal even though my balance was at $14.00 and I owed several debts. There was a knock on the door and a friend brought me some rent that she owed to me. I had COMPLETELY forgotten about it, yet here she was to save my life. If I had not forgotten, I’m sure she would not have arrived. I then immediately set about repairing my own debts –“Forgive us our debts as we forgive…“ At first, I didn’t know whether or not this spiritual law worked in American society, but now I believe that it does.

In my private lessons, Suzuki Sensei always asked me to hold the horsehair. Everyday, only horsehair, Oh boy~ here we go again. I believed him this time and always held the horsehair, at home, at school, each and every time I held any bow for any reason; I was holding the horsehair only. Then, one day in orchestra sectionals, I suddenly felt that holding the horsehair was being obnoxious and that it was bothering people. I wasn’t doing a good job of keeping my “sea legs? and it kept ruining the effect for everyone. I was embarrassed. I felt that everyone was staring at me and it made me uncomfortable. Really, I felt that it was in the way. Against my better judgment, I switched to regular bow hold and I heard a sound…

Just then the door to the room was opening. It was the Sensei Shuffle! Suzuki Sensei yelled at me in Japanese and this time and I felt honored– at least he wasn’t speaking in English! “If you want to understand this, you must really do as I say.? Manaka ni — I can’t really translate this, but it means something like “the very center?. I immediately switched to holding the horsehair and was not embarrassed anymore. In fact, I felt pretty bad that the rehearsal had to be interrupted because of my disloyalty. Manaka ni; this is holding the horsehair. This is being right in the center of the bow and the sound. This is bold service without shame.

At this time I was studying with Miss Yuko Mori as well as Dr. Suzuki. Miss Mori is a great teacher and was so helpful because she knew so much about training children. However, I was getting confused about their different ways of teaching. For instance– when holding the bow with the thumb outside of the frog one of them wanted the thumb half-way on the horse hair the other wanted it all the way on the silver. There are advantages to both ways, but I kept getting confused. To this day I cannot remember who liked it which way, but I suspect Suzuki Sensei liked it half on the horsehair because he was so excited about the idea of feeling the horsehair as it played.

Chizu Kataoka took lessons from both of them as well, so I asked her what she did. She explained that when she played for Dr. Suzuki, she did it his way, and when she played for Miss Mori she did it her way. Then, I said, what do you do on Monday Concert? She said, “I do what I want to do.? These were words of wisdom from a 16-year-old girl. Isn’t it great that her training has been so thorough that she has the freedom to play the way she wants to play?

Dr. Suzuki was having tea with Miss Mori and explaining his new idea to her. He used me as an example of a student who “become tone” through holding the horsehair. Later, Miss Mori came to me and explained this. I was very grateful for this because it cleared up my confusion about what to do during the different lessons! I could politely hold the horsehair in front of Miss Mori now. I said, “I understand.?


“I don’t think you really do understand– Suzuki Sensei has noticed you.” she said. “This is an important honor! He does not single out every student!? This had not occurred to me. And now that she had said it, I had to forget it because it would make me grab on to my bow and be greedy and vain. Of course, I was his slowest student. I was a fool, and I still am. He was my mentor, my Sensei, and of course the pathway he was showing me was becoming more and more difficult.


Dr. Suzuki had a beautiful new violin and he was calling in various students to try it out. I have a friend named Libby who has a bow which he gave to her and so I greedily noticed what was happening. I thought he might be planning to give this violin to a student. Miss Mon’s idea flashed through my head and I tried to shake it off. Suzuki Sensei called Shin-kun and me both in to his studio. Shin-kun was so cute and funny, but he did not play that well. He was a very serious and diligent student, but not one of the best students there in terms of brilliant playing. However, Shin-kun eventually became one of the best violinists at the school, but this came much later.

I played the violin first It was a beautiful violin, but it did not “go well with? me. Despite this, I wanted the honor of receiving it. How silly to be so greedy as to want something which doesn’t fit! Now it seems ludicrous, but then I played my heart out in order to earn it. I wanted, therefore I lacked, and my tone was hollow. Shin-kun then played. His tone was clean and flawless. He did not know what I knew. He had no wants– he was only playing in “this moment?.

Later, Suzuki Sensei presented the violin to Shin-kun at group lesson. He was honestly surprised and honored. It was a great gift I don’t know about exactly how it happened, in terms of Shin-kun and Suzuki Sensei and their relationship, but for me it was a very humbling experience. I learned not to judge and again, I tried to learn to keep from judging. Why did I believe that Shin-kun was not a brilliant player– he was! With all of my students, I must always remember not to be so quick to judge! Sometimes the worst can be the best and vise versa. Also with myself. It isn’t bad, or good, it just is. And then we study to make it better. We study, we learn, we grow all at our own rates. And we get to know each other along the way. Unconditional love means love without judgment. “Love… Love is important’ Shin-kun had said and my roommate Susanna later printed this on her graduation program.


I was washing dishes again one day and suddenly I felt that Suzuki Sensei needed an ashtray. I was embarrassed. How silly to go running down the hall with an ashtray. What if he didn’t need it? I had read somewhere that Suzuki Sensei knows when a student is ready to graduate from his school because they will bring him an ashtray before he needs it… service without shame… I quickly hustled down the hall with a big ashtray and burst into his office as he was sitting there at his desk. A cigarette in mouth, lighter poised and then I heard a click. I set it down and bowed. He looked at me and said, “Not only for ashtray, but always, you must have such thought?.


Somehow, I became obsessed by the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I think Yuriko Watanabe was playing it and I loved it. I had been playing Schubert Duo in lessons and in Monday Concert and I loved this piece but I adored Tchaikovsky. I wanted to get a recording. My mother had come to Japan tovisit and Miss Mon had taken us to Kamikochi, a beautiful mountain resort. On the train, on the way back, I asked her which recording of Tchaikovsky was the best. Of course, I didn’t dream that I might be able to play it … (okay maybe in my dreams). I simply wanted to listen. She deliberated for a long time and said, “David Oistrach?. I somehow found a recording of David Oistrach playing the Tchaikovsky.


At that time, another girl named Kaori was learning Tchaikovsky. She never quite finished it and would emerge from each lesson crying. We all supported her and wanted her to do well. Finally, Suzuki Sensei asked her to play it on Monday Concert. He placed Megumi on her left and Yuriko on her right, two Tchaik. veterans and then they played with the recording of David Oistrach, cadenza and all. It’s an amazing thing, the synergy that occurs with more than one violinist playing together. She did quite well and Suzuki Sensei was excited. “Maybe, this is first time in the world that three violinists play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto together.? I was excited too… it was the cutting edge, like Vivaldi A minor was in the 60’s.


The next morning at private lessons, Suzuki Sensei started assigning Tchaikovsky to everyone. Everyone! He had tapes of David Oistrach mass-produced and the music xeroxed for all the students. Everyone, I should say, except me. I played Schubert Duo and he worked with me, but he never said, “Learn Tchaikovsky’. Of course, my egotistic desires were in the way again. I wanted to play it… I dreamt of playing it, I was drooling to play it, so of course I did not get asked to play it. I even tried to pirate the music from Yuriko and she said, “Have you been assigned to play it?” I could not lie. No music for me.


The next week it was the same story, more and more students were being asked to play Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Everywhere people were playing Tchaikovsky. It was in the halls, in lessons, everywhere. Those who already knew it were reviewing it, and I just played Schubert Duo. I kept thinking that Dr. Suzuki was smiling behind my back. Now, I really wanted to play it.


The next week even more students were assigned Tchaikovsky and it was very apparent that this was a big investiture. Even Miss Mon’s youngest students were learning it, and he was talking about having it performed at the National Concert. People were playing Tchaikovsky all day long now. And I simply played Schubert Duo. People started playing Tchaikovsky together in group class and I wanted to cry.


After four weeks he stopped assigning it and I knew I had missed my chance. I would be playing Schubert Duo for the rest of my life. I would be content to listen, and I knew it was too hard for me anyway. As I had my back turned to him in lessons and was rewinding my old, Schubert Duo tape (nothing against Schubert, mind you) he said quite softly, “You should play Tchaikovsky.? I was in shock. I had resigned myself to the fact that it was too hard. I looked at him with a startled glance and he said, “Or Brahms or any Concerto you want…? What a joke. Of course I wanted to play Tchaikovsky. He giggled and looked at the other students. I was given the music.


I practiced Tchaikovsky day and night. This is true and no exaggeration. I was so excited. I remember running to practice it as soon as possible. I was visiting Julie at Ishi-san’s place when I had first been allowed to begin Tchaikovsky. I asked her if she would mind if I practiced and she gave me her entire bedroom for two hours. I learned the first two pages there. Then, there was a big room at Susanna and Stuart’s place, and they said I could “go for it? and practice there. I learned the runs on the third and forth pages. I remember practicing Tchaikovsky upstairs at Keiko’s place, in the little room behind the stage at school, at Smith Hall, at the Tokyu Inn hotel room where Diane was staying, upstairs at the school, in the hallways at school, at home in my own bedroom, in the kitchen, in the living room….

I played with the tape and rarely looked at the music except to clear up a fingering. I remember working in the kenkyusei room with a metronome to get some runs fast enough. Mi-chyan came into the other kenkyusei room one day to show me how to play the harmonic in the cadenza. Then I was handed a xeroxed sheet with an additional run for the cadenza. I remember when I finally did that one with the tape on stage for Susanna and Joy. They were cheering me on!


I held the horsehair and pulled to get tone. I got used to the feeling of playing Tchaikovsky while holding the horsehair. At least 20 students were playing Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto together every day in group. Maybe even thirty students played it. Eventually it was over 100. It was so intense. We would stand there during the introduction and nervously look at our feet while listening and finally, raise our violins to begin. We would play it cold, first thing in the morning. My hand used to ache, but eventually I got used to it and it no longer hurt to play Tchaikovsky. Sometimes we played it three or four times a day. Every time someone important showed up at the school, Dr. Suzuki would ask us to perform it again.

It took a long time for me to finally learn the entire first movement. I think it took 4 weeks. By playing it so often I learned how to relax and save energy while I played. I always tried to stand near Yuriko because I learned so much by watching and listening to her. Once Matsumoto-kun was standing next to me and he stamped his foot at just the right moment during a performance which helped me to wake up and get the runs near the end. I had almost fallen asleep! I was just fatigued from all the excitement and work. I was tired from playing the whole thing–it is about 16 pages long and takes 20 minutes to perform.


I held the horsehair everyday. We always played the development section either holding the horsehair or upside down bow. Suzuki Sensei kept saying, Tchaikovsky is an easy piece.? It wasn’t easy –but it was easier because I was so motivated! This was because of Dr. Suzuki’s wisdom in not allowing me or anyone to play a piece too soon! The preparation of observation and waiting builds up enough energy like steam for a steam engine. The latent power of unfulfilled desire is like a sling shot being pulled back. Some of my friends thought I was so obsessed by Tchaikovsky that they would only say the word Tchaikovsky to me, oven and over again. I didn’t really mind. I was caught by the power of motivation and desire.


I watched Baryshinikov dancing the Nutcracker Ballet by Tchaikovsky on a video my parents had sent to me in Japan for Christmas. The longing and desire he portrayed was so great — now I could begin to understand Tchaikovsky’s heart! Somehow, this seemed like a huge revelation to me– desire as meaning both lacking and power. POTENTIAL power is so great. Like the unlimited potential of early childhood education. Also like the potential of the elastic power of the horsehair.


After holding the horsehair for so long, holding the regular bow seemed to lack the intimacy of the horsehair. I wanted to feel the horsehair despite the fact that I was touching the wood. By using the sensitivity of the pads of your fingers, you can sense the horsehair as you are touching the wood. Although you are touching the wood, you desire the horsehair. Then, there is potential power in the sound. It is three-dimensional sound. There is eagerness, longing, yearning, wishing, and dreaming. This is music!


“Tone is not music. Music is music. Music in tone.? ~Shinichi Suzuki Sensei





Filed under Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, how to use the bow, Stories about Dr. Suzuki, Suzuki Method, Suzuki Sensei, Talent Education Research Institute, violin

2 responses to “Holding the Horsehair for Beautiful Tone

  1. I have a cute picture of some guinea pigs on my blog. It’s of the babies when they were about 3 weeks old, have a look if you like.

  2. They are adorable! Thanks 🙂