Frequently asked questions
Will Strum Bowing harm my classical technique?
Learning a new style or technique on your instrument is like learning a new language. When you learn a second or third language, you don’t forget how to speak in your native language. Learning a new language is not destructive, it’s cumulative. Learning a new language usually brings insight and awareness into how we use our native language, and nothing could be truer of grooving. Rhythm is a huge problem area for many string players who were taught in the long-standing classical tradition of emphasizing melodic virtuosity above supportive rhythm, especially among violinists.
Will Strum Bowing make my rhythm sound mechanical?
Actually, it will do exactly the opposite. Strum Bowing helps develop better and more flexible rhythmic string playing. SB will help your classical playing come to life by being playful with it the way all vernacular (pop) styles have a built-in playfulness about them. In music, playfulness means musical flexibility, or improvising to some degree. In virtually all the great classical masterpieces, there is a pronounced rhythmic pulse of some kind, and, like contemporary popular styles, often a fast-moving subdivision providing a kind of “motor”. Many of the greatest works of classical music are based on dances of one kind or another, either explicitly or in its inspiration. It is our responsibility as classical interpreters to breathe life back into these works and pull them off the pages and into people’s bodies, not just their ears. Developing, nurturing and truly understanding the rhythmic life in pop music will only make you more aware and better capable of bringing out the rhythm that pulses through all the masterpieces of the classical string tradition. And the way into the rhythm of the music is through the bow.
Will Strum Bowing ruin my beautiful classical tone?
Part of SB is definitely exploring the noisier possibilities of the bow, something I refer to as Percussive Bowing, which is an important part of playing vernacular styles. But it’s like a new language that you don’t use when you are speaking to classical speakers, i.e. in your classical repertoire.
You will, however, do actual harm to the precision of your bow technique by taking “hack” gigs where no one can hear you and where you’re playing too hard. This is where having an amplified instrument is really much healthier for your playing than an acoustic. I played in the pit for 96 consecutive performances of Me and My Girl at the Chanhassen Dinner Theater many years ago, and I remember playing a wedding gig after that with a string quartet and having discovered that I could no longer play spiccato. It is not SB technique or any other technique that will harm you, it’s careless playing and being in an environment where you can’t hear yourself properly.
What should I tell my classical teacher? Strum Bowing goes against what I was told to do.
There are simply different rules for classical playing and vernacular playing. My students often joke about the fact that I tell them to do exactly the opposite of what their classical teachers are telling them or have told them in the past. Usually that makes me the good cop. There are different rules just like different games have different rules. And you can be good at more than one game. And try as I may to change those classical habits--things like vibrato and bow strokes--to include techniques more appropriate to popular music, I have never been able to remove them.
I tried to learn chopping but still can't do it. How is Strum Bowing different?
I came up with SB exactly because of that problem--there were too many different ways of teaching chopping and grooving. The main idea behind SB is that it is based on a single unifying idea of subdivision.
Many approaches emphasize teaching specific chop patterns or techniques but not addressing the larger issue of how to groove in general, which is so new to most classical players. SB teaches the chop but puts it in context of the wider goal of grooving and playing rhythm, rather than just teaching specific strokes or patterns. With SB, the emphasis is on the “motor” in your arm, the physicalized subdivision of the pulse, the strum, which is the key and the common thread in all groove-based music, including classical music. Once that is internalized, everything works! Without it, nothing works.
So, once I recognized that strumming was the key, I developed a system to successfully guide you to any groove, so that you internalize the subdivision through vocalization and physicalization. I call it GPS for strings—the Groove Proficiency System. It’s a foolproof way to find your way to any groove. This works for absolutely everyone because it breaks it down to where you cannot not get it: Hum it, Strum it, Say it, Play it. It works because of this brain/voice/body matrix that I use to link our intellectual understanding with our muscle memory. Absolutely guaranteed to work or your money back.
What if my rhythm is hopelessly bad? Can I still do Strum Bowing?
It is certainly true that some players will seem to bring more natural abilities to the table than others, especially at the beginning of a learning process. We don’t all start at the same place. But we all start somewhere. And we often end up in different places than you might expect.
Over the 35 years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve seen just about every variety of student. Some grab right onto new things like the Chop and other people need a little extra help to get there. And what’s interesting is that when it comes to this post-classical technique, it’s not always the beginners who have the most trouble. Often the more experienced players have more trouble because they have the most unlearning to do. Also, at Belmont University, I’ve had freshman who seem like they’ve never even heard pop music, then make a complete turn-around by their 4th year to the point where we have to try to convince them to stay in school and not hit the road with a band. So, I’ve learned that everyone moves at their own pace, and everyone can make huge strides, no matter where they are in their musical journey.
But to make the Strum Bowing process foolproof, I came up with the magic formula for learning this stuff, what I call GPS for Strings—the Groove Proficiency System. I outline it in the FAQ above.
Why are some Strum Bowing courses so expensive?
Each of the flagship courses consists of 30 lessons, totaling about 8 hours of highly focused and edited video training, including onscreen graphics, several camera angles, and including all the related books that go with the course. While I’m not quite in the lawyer tier of hourly wages, I can assure you that 8 hours of private lesson time would cost a lot more, not to mention all the additional books included.
SB represents well over 20 years of development, including many earlier iterations of the book and courses which I did not publish. While I do make the basic concepts of SB accessible to everyone for free with various online materials, I also feel that, for those who want to go deeper, the help I provide and the time and effort I save you are worth much more than what I charge for these courses.
I had a very famous vocal teacher for a while back when I lived in NYC--she was Jon BonJovi’s vocal coach. She charged $100/half hour in 1987, which would be something like $500/hr now, and was way more than I could afford at the time. But she told me something that stuck with me to this day. She said, it’s simply a matter of how much is your voice and your time worth to you? Do you want to spend years cleaning up the vocal damage from bad habits, spending lots of money and time on vocal lessons and possibly therapy because you either had no lessons or studied from someone who wasn’t the best? Or would you rather learn it right once and move on with your success? It’s always much cheaper in the long run, and many times faster and more productive, to get the best instruction once rather than less helpful instruction over and over again.
Will we learn any tunes?
In Part 2: The Rhythm String Player, we learn quite a few tunes—blues, rock, latin, funk, hip hop—including Lizzo, Daft Punk, James Brown and many others. These tunes are used as examples to illustrate the method for teaching yourself tunes called GPS for Strings, which is a system you learn in Part 1: The Strum Bowing Method.
Part 1: The Strum Bowing Method does not teach specific tunes. Instead it is about the fundamentals of Strum Bowing. Rather than give you a fish, in this course, I teach you how to fish.
Can someone be too classical to groove? Asking for a friend.
There is no one whose rhythm can’t be improved. That’s why I came up with GPS for strings—the Groove Proficiency System. It’s a foolproof way to find your way to any groove. This works for absolutely everyone because it breaks it down to where you cannot not get it: Hum it, Strum it, Say it, Play it. It works because of this brain, voice, body matrix that we use to link our intellectual understanding with our muscle memory. Absolutely guaranteed to work or your money back.
I use this formula all the time with students. It works because if you can say it, you can play it. So first we vocalize it, then we physicalize that strum motion in our arm, then we use our voice to clarify the bow direction. The secret to the success of Suzuki was to insist on the involvement of the parents in the process. The secret to SB is to insist on the participation your voice and your body in the process. This is essential to playing rhythm, but is typically not only ignored, but generally frowned upon in classical string technique—keeping time with your foot or any other part of your body, singing along while playing. They don’t do much of that at Juilliard. But you will never see a guitar player get into a groove without moving their body to the music. Different rules for different styles.
SB breaks the process of playing a groove down to very small, actionable lessons that lead you step by step towards understanding and activating your own innate rhythmic sense. You probably have no idea how much rhythmic sense you already have. The job of a teacher is to uncover the student’s hidden potential. Some students overestimate their potential but most underestimate it. If you are telling yourself that you aren’t good enough to have success with SB, you are definitely underestimating yourself. Never give up on yourself—I certainly haven’t.
It’s not hard, just different. In fact, it’s much easier than almost everything else you probably do on a string instrument. I mean, if guitar players can do it, how hard could it be?
What if I am a beginner? Will SB be too advanced for me?
Many of the concepts in SB can be played by nearly complete beginners. In fact, sometimes it goes better for them than more advanced players. First year string players in middle school have tons of fun with the Chop, with ghosting, with anything involving pop tunes and grooves, which they often pick up more naturally than more experienced classical players. Because the focus is on rhythm, most of the work is concerning the bow arm. The notes in the left hand are intentionally simplified as much as possible so that we are not trying to learn 2 things at once. The books are graded as level 3 (that’s on the standard publishing difficulty scale of 1-5) because I do have some more advanced exercises and things that we work towards. But there is usually an easier version you can play (leaving out a note in double stops, for instance) so even beginners can learn a ton and get started on the right foot, rhythmically.
Am I too old to learn how to groove?
Never! Some of my best students have been retirees who finally have the time and space in their lives to work on new challenges. You don’t have to love current pop music either. The concepts of SB are just as applicable to swing jazz or 60’s rock as they are to Beyoncé and Lizzo.
I’m afraid I’ll start but won’t follow through.
I purposely made each lesson a bite-sized 10 minutes so you can easily add it to your daily practice—10 minutes to get you warmed up or as a fun finish to your day. My 30-day challenge is easy to stick with because we don’t try to do too much in any one session, and the consistently does the work for you. I keep it challenging but also entertaining, so that you will not want to miss a single lesson. My mantra is Play, don’t Practice. It should never feel like work. You don’t work a violin, you play a violin. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be the funnest 10 minutes of your day.
What if I don’t play pop gigs? When would I ever use these skills?
You don’t play pop gigs yet!
Just think of all the cool gigs you won’t have to say no to. • Think of all the calls you will start getting from players and contractors who have heard about your abilities. • Think about all the students who you will help move towards more holistic string playing, the future of string playing. • Think about the fact that you can demonstrate these skills for your students and not just talk about them or refer them to someone else who can demonstrate for them. • Think of how high you could raise your lesson rates. • Think of how much more selective you can be about which students you have time to teach. • Think of the musicians you’ll be working with now that you have these marketable skills—the recording sessions, the jam sessions. • And think of the other string players who will look to you for guidance and to show them how to be cooler on their instruments.
When would you use this skill? As often as you can.
How long do I have to practice every day?
If you want results, this course is the fastest way to get it. Each daily lesson is about 10 min. It’s a 30-day challenge, so it’s designed to fit into your daily practice routine.
Short, consistent sessions are the most effective way to learn because you stay focused and engaged. I’ve designed the program around what to leave out and when to introduce new things, so we are able to tackle the important challenges in such small and entertaining increments that you don’t even realize you’ve overcome some of your biggest obstacles. It’s almost magic, except you do have to show up for 10 minutes a day, but I got it from there.
What’s the difference between Strum Bowing and Chopping?
The Strum Bowing method includes the Chop, which has become ubiquitous among alternative-style string players. But, Strum Bowing is a broader concept that refers to the underlying rhythmic motor that powers the Chop and other strokes, such as the shuffle and ghost notes: the subdivision.
There are more and more string teachers who have learned how to Chop and are teaching that Chop to their students. Of- ten, the student will learn a specific pattern that will work for a particular song or style, but the pattern may not apply to other songs or styles. So, the student is left with a cool but ultimately disappointing gimmick rather than a deeper understanding and ability to groove on their instrument.
If that student is very motivated, they may try to learn several of these different patterns, often from different teachers who may specialize in one musical genre, such as bluegrass or Celt- ic, but not another, such as rock. All these different patterns are complicated to learn because there are endless variations and mutations, some being quite similar. There are way too many possible patterns for most people to memorize. As a result, it’s common for players to slip into a rut, using the same handful of Chop patterns they’ve learned, unsure how to broaden their limited vocabulary in an interesting way.
String players should not have to memorize complex patterns in order to play grooves. They should learn how to use their bodies to discover rhythms, rather than relying only on their brains to learn patterns.
Do I need to be able to improvise to do Strum Bowing?
No, you will never be asked to improvise a solo on anything. The kind of improvisation we encourage with SB is the kind of small variations that happen due to the player not trying too hard to play it exactly perfectly the same way every time, as we often strive for with classical music. You could think of this kind of improvisation as the beautiful inconsistencies you might find in hand-woven fabric. You’re not trying to make those inconsistencies, you just aren’t trying not to.
One of the best side effects of learning how to play grooves is how it starts you effortlessly on the path of improvisation. The process of learning SB involves encouraging constant variations on a groove, which is a very real and important form of improvisation. We can then easily start to add melodic interest to this rhythmic improvisation, and what we achieve is not only effortless improv, but a way of soloing that is always in the pocket, even when you are playing melodically.