|Rosin is a sticky subject. If you don't get a grip on it you won't go far in playing your violin.
Okay, I'm finished with my puns.
Seriously, violin rosin is a very serious business for anyone who plays a bowed instrument. The more you know about it, the better off you will be.
Here are some Questions about Violin Rosin, and (I hope) some helpful answers.
What is Rosin?
Rosin is the substance that a violinist uses to make the hair on his bow sticky. If a bow's hair has never been rosined it will not produce usable sound when drawn across the strings. Once rosined, the hair actually grips the string and pulls it . . . but since the bow keeps moving the string snaps back to its original position . . . where it is caught again by the rosin on the hair and the cycle is repeated. This happens very, very quickly. In the case of your A-string 440 times per second. Without the rosin's grip, the hair just slides over the string and you essentially hear nothing.
How is Rosin Made?
The basic ingredient in rosin is pine sap. Manufacturers actually use more than 100 types of fir trees for this purpose. The tree is tapped, very much like a maple tree would be tapped for syrup. The tap needs to be renewed ever four or five days to make sure that flow continues. The time of year that the tree is tapped will greatly affect the resulting rosins. The product made by resin drawn in the summer and fall will be darker and softer than that drawn in winter and spring.
The resin that comes from the tree is heated and purified, and then comes the step that rosin makers will not talk about. Each manufacturer has his own recipe. The recipe is a closely guarded secret. Different resins may be added. Some add beeswax. Others even add gold, silver, lead or copper flecks, saying that it adds to the rosin's ability to grip the string. The mixture is cooled, and bubbles are forced out. The thick goo is poured into molds to form the cakes that we buy. There is an excellent page showing the production of rosin at www.stringsmagazine.com/issues/strings98/rosin.html.
Is there a Difference Between Rosins?
Rosin choice is quite personal. Generally speaking, the darker the rosin the softer it is. Softer rosins tend to be stickier. While stickier rosins produce greater grip on the string, they also produce a grittier sound. Softer rosins also throw off more powder, making things difficult to clean.
A harder rosin will not be quite as sticky, and so will not grip the string as strongly. The problem is that if the rosin is not sticky enough you will not produce the full sound that you desire.
I suggest looking for something in the middle. A dark amber seems to work well for most students. Look for a rosin that is smooth and free of bubbles. Some folks prefer rosin in the form of round cakes. Most student outfits come with cake of rosin mounted in a wood block. There are good rosins that come both ways. As you progress and become better at handling your bow you will probably start looking for a stickier rosin and will probably become more selective in the rosin you use, but at all stages of your violin playing career you will be experimenting with rosins.
How Do I Rosin a Bow?
The goal of applying rosin to a bow is to get an even coat of rosin over the entire length of the hair. Too little rosin and you will not get enough pull to use your violin to its fullest potential. To much rosin and you will coat your bow and violin (and possibly you and your neighbor) with a fine coat of sticky powder.
There are several rosining techniques, but the one I recommend is to use long slow strokes along the bow's entire length. Press the bow gently against the rosin and move it in both directions so that you collect rosin dust on both up-bow and down-bow strokes. Change the position of the rosin as you go along. If you are using a round cake, turn the cake slightly after a few strokes. If you are using a rosin in a wood block use the right side, left side and middle of the cake. Doing this will prevent you from actually wearing a channel into the rosin. Keeping a smooth surface on the rosin cake will make it most effective.
As you draw the bow back and forth, be aware of the amount of effort it takes to move the bow. I realize that it never takes much, but you will find that as more and more rosin clings to the hair it will become easier and easier to draw or push the bow across the cake. The change will be very subtle, but if you pay attention you will learn to feel it.
Once you have reached a point where the bow travels smoothly STOP. Putting more and more rosin on the bow will just produce that cloud of rosin dust that your neighbor will find so distressing. (More about this in a moment) I like to tap the bowstick on my hand a few times to knock off any excess rosin before I start to play.
When you finish playing, gently wipe off your violin with a lint-free cloth. A lint-free cloth is necessary so that the lint doesn't actually cling to the rosin on the violin. (A well-upholstered violin is not the sign of a violinist who knows how to handle his instrument.) At the same time you clean off your violin, wipe the rosin from your bowstick. (As always, avoid touching the hair as much as possible.) Caked on rosin does not look good. It is also harmful to the sound of the violin. If you don't wipe the rosin off, you'll soon need to use a cleaner on the violin.
It is also a good practice to wipe the rosin from the playing area of the strings, especially the undersides of the strings. The amount of rosin on a string greatly affects he playability and the tone produced by that string.
How Often Should I Rosin My Bow?
This is another question whose answer varies. The bow hair, the strings used, the temperature, the humidity, the style of playing and the violin's responsiveness all contribute to the answer. The answer can vary from "every few hours" to "every few days." I can definitively say, though, that students do not need to thoroughly rosin their bows every day.
My practice is to "touch up" my bow every day I play. It is more a part of my mental preparation to play than an actual need for the instrument, but actually running the bow across the rosin 6 or 8 times actually does even out the layer of rosin on the hair. If I hear the tone of the violin changing dramatically that is the time that I actually thoroughly rosin my bow. Even when I was my most active on the violin, a thorough rosining was almost never needed more than twice a week.
My Brand New Rosin Doesn't Work!
If you've never used rosin before, you may not realize that you have to "start" rosin. A new cake of rosin has been smoothed or polished. Simply drawing bow hair across it will probably not pick up any rosin at all! You need to rough up the surface of the rosin before it will cling to the bow hair.
How to do this?
Different methods with the same result. Some folks use a pocket knife and simply score the surface of the rosin in a crosshatch pattern. Some folks use a bow that already has rosin on it and stroke the rosin 100 times or so to scratch up the surface of the rosin. I even heard one teacher say that you need to scratch the surface of a new cake of rosin with the screw of the bow that will be using that rosin. She claimed there was some sort of metaphysical bond that formed between the bow and the cake of rosin at that time, and that the rosin would not work as well on any other bow. Me? I just take a piece of fine sandpaper to the top of the rosin and rough it up a little.
I hope this answers some of your rosin questions. If you have others, feel free to e-mail me by clicking here and I will try to point you in the right direction.