One of the first questions I get from new students is “What is rosin and how do I use it?” Unfortunately, after those initial questions few violinists spend time thinking or even understanding the complexity of rosin. Like a free air freshener thrown into a car sale, many new violinists just use the rosin they get with their case without even considering whether it is even right for their instrument. However rosin is a vital part of producing a good sound. Rosin aides the bow in shifting the string from its natural resting position. When the string is pulled by the bow, the string oscillates and starts the vibration that we hear as a sound.
But who had the first idea to put rosin on horsehair? Some of the earliest examples of bows come from examples in Byzantine and Islamic art during the 10th century. By the 11th century, stringed instruments with bows had made their way to Europe. Sometime during the development of string instruments, the use of rosin came into play. Though we use the term “rosin” in the vernacular, technically it is called colophony. Colophony likely originated from the ancient Ionic city of Colophon, in Asia Minor. The word colophony is derived from the Latin, ‘colophonia resina’ which means ‘resin from Colophon.’
Today resin from trees is collected from across Asia, New Zealand, Europe and North America from 110 different types of pine trees to make rosin. Similar to the process used on maple trees for syrup, resin is collected from living trees. The color of resin depends upon when it was collected. If it was collected during the late winter to early spring it will be golden in color. If it was collected in the winter it will be dark in color. The resin is often mixed with other tree saps such as spruces and firs after it is taken from the tree.
The mixture is then purified and heated. Often precious metals are often added into the mixture such as silver and gold. The metals help to increase the static friction between the string and bow hair. Gold can help soften the sound of a harsh sounding instrument. Soloists often prefer golden rosin for the clear sound it helps make. All string instruments can use gold in their rosin. Silver helps violins and violas have a bright sound. Copper is useful for beginners to create a warm sound.
The rosin mixture is then put into molds. Rosin comes in two different shapes, boxed and caked. Boxed rosin is often a golden color and can work on most string instruments. It is not as fragile as caked rosin. Caked rosin tends to have a higher quality than boxed rosin. Purer rosin is better able to cover the bow hair. Dark rosin, often called winter rosin, is soft, sticky and is best used in dry and cool environments. Light rosin, or summer rosin, is harder and is better suited for high sounding instruments.
Many string players will change their rosin routine based upon the environment in which they are playing. For example, some performers find a softer rosin more suitable when playing with a microphone. Contrastingly, when string players perform in a large concert hall often they want harder rosin because it provides more grit. It is worth noting that some people do have allergies to rosin. There are several brands that now carry hypo allergic rosin. All these factors are important to think about when choosing your rosin.
There are several tips that should be mentioned for putting rosin on your bow. Many times I have had new students come to me exasperated because they are unable to get any rosin on their bow. A quick look at their rosin usually confirms my suspicions! If you have new rosin, you need to start a groove so that rosin can start becoming the powdering substance that coats your bow. I personally use a key to start two or three lines on the rosin when it is brand new. After the initial start, you will not need to scratch on the rosin again.
Make sure that your bow is tightened before you rosin. If your bow is brand new or it is a rehair you will need to go over your bow extensively to coat the hair. The whiter the bow hair the easier it will be for the rosin to coat the hair. Often lower quality or dirty bow hair will have a yellow tinge to it. This will make it very hard for the rosin to stick to the hair and is the reason we never want to touch the bow hair.
After the initial rosining, do not make the common error of rosining too often or putting too much rosin on at the frog (heel.) It is vital to evenly coat the hair with rosin but not to the point of excess so that your bow sounds sticky on the string. I recommend rosining your bow about every six hours of playing. However if you are having to apply more force than usual to your playing or there are patches of your bow that do not make a sound, rosin your bow right away. The more comfortable you become with your instrument the more you will instinctively know when it is time to rosin your bow.
As with all aspects of string playing, listening through trial and error can be your greatest guide to using rosin. Listen and note the differences to sound rosin makes with your individual instrument. Different brands of rosins will work differently for every performer so do not be dismayed if your favorite artist’s rosin does not work well for you. Rosin is ultimately an individual choice for the performer. However make sure your choice is an informed choice, not the rosin you just happened to get with your case.
About the Author...
Sophie Genevieve is an American violinist, earning her master’s degree in Baroque violin at the Royal Academy of Music, London and a master's degree in modern violin from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London. In addition to her UK studies, Ms. Genevieve studied at the Starling-Delay Symposium at the Juilliard School of Music in NYC and l’Académie du Domaine Forget in Québec, Canada. She has appeared in various concerts, including a performance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelle (Brussels, Belgium), a four-violin concerto solo with Laurence Cummings at the Duke’s Hall (London), and a concerto on a Landolfi violin on loan from the National Music Museum (USA), Royal Festival Hall (London), Wigmore Hall (London), St. Martin-in-the-Fields (London), Palais des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles (Brussels, Belgium), Holland Performing Arts Center (Omaha), le Salle Françoys-Bernier (Québec), and the Kennedy Center (Washington D.C.). In London, she was part of the celebrated Kohn Foundation Bach Cantata Series, which is highly reviewed by the London Times. She appeared live on the radio internationally, including on the BBC (UK) and on KVNO (Omaha). Sophie was a founding member of the Keats String Quartet in London, which performed extensively across the UK and frequently at Cambridge University, accompanying various Cambridge college choirs. She was a member of the early music group, Risonanti, which was the only ensemble in the United Kingdom to perform early Italian music solely at high pitch (A=465). Due to the technical demands and historical integrity of the music, Risonanti’s repertoire included many manuscripts that have not been performed for hundreds of years. Ms. Genevieve also enjoys playing the viola and trumpet.