The Musical Saw – Different Methods of Playing

The Different Methods of Musical Saw Playing

By Natalia ‘SawLady’ Paruz

As a folk instrument, different ways of playing the musical saw have evolved. Some ways evolved regionally, others – individually. Many musical saw players are isolated from other musical saw players, and by necessity they “re-invented” the instrument, figuring out a way of producing sound from the blade without relying on someone to show them how it’s done.

Stance and Musical Saw Placement

The musical saw can be played sitting down (most common), kneeling (popular in Switzerland) or standing up.
The teeth can face the player or away from the player.
The handle can rest between the player’s knees or on the floor and some even place the handle under their chin, similar to a violin.
The handle can rest in specially made belts and stands.
Some musical saw players bend their torso down to the blade to reach the high notes. Others pull the saw towards them to achieve the increased curve needed to play high notes.
You may or may not use a tip handle or hand reinforcement. I tape my thumb placing half a cloths-pin to the back of my thumb for increased strength in bending the blade (see photo below).

Handling the Bow

Most musical saw players bow the edge of the blade which is farther away from the player’s body (the teeth face the player). But some bow the edge of the blade closer to the player’s body (the teeth face away from the player).
It is easier to bow in an upward motion and some choose this bowing direction only. Others bow both up and down. The latter technique usually enables faster strikes and increased control of attack.
Most musical saw players hold the bow with the hand perpendicular to the bow. I favor holding the bow as an extension of one’s hand. I find that it gives me better attack. As a busker, loudness of sound is really important. Amplification is not aloud in many public spaces, and musicians have to be heard over the noise of the street, not to mention other musicians near by. I discovered that holding the bow as if holding a knife when cutting a steak helps me achieve a louder sound. My ability to play loud without amplification paid off every time I played at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall and other similarly large concert halls with orchestras – being heard above the full orchestra and having the musical saw sound reach the highest balcony in the concert hall.

Natalia ‘Saw Lady’ Paruz tapes her thumb and holds the bow as an extension of the hand.

Playing Methods of the Musical Saw

All the above are technical variations on how to handle the musical saw and bow. No matter what variation you chose to use, your playing will most likely fall into one of the following methods:

Continuous Bowing versus Strike and Let Vibrate
Continuous bowing is accomplished when the bow hardly ever leaves the edge of the blade. Long notes are bowed for the duration of the note. Going from one note to the other the bow glides over the edge of the blade. This method is achieved with a very light touch of the bow on the blade.
On the plus side this method enables a quieter bow noise. On the other hand, the muffled bow noise is ever present as a thin film of additional sound, blocking the saw’s singing sound from resonating full out.
The ‘strike and let vibrate’ method consists of bowing the blade and immediately distancing the bow from the blade. Long notes are left to vibrate on their own for the duration of the note (really long notes are re-bowed if the ‘diminish’ effect is not desired). Going from note to note the bow may or may not be used.
On the plus side the saw is left to resonate in full glory and the bow noise is not constant. On the other hand the bow noise is harder to control.
Personally I prefer the ‘strike and let vibrate’ method while switching to the continuous bowing method when I find a passage calls for it (such as holding very long notes without the ‘diminish’ effect and with no additional attacks in the sound).

Snapping the blade versus sliding
The musical saw is known for its ‘portamento’ effect, sliding from note to note. Many people enjoy this trait of the musical saw very much. It is appropriate for many styles of music.
When it comes to classical music in particular, the ‘snapping’ technique is beneficial in order to move directly from one note to the other, avoiding tones and micro-tones surrounding the note. Whether playing the part of a flute, cello or any other instrument for which the piece was originally written, the musical saw needs to live-up to the composer’s intention. It is fun to use the slide here and there as a controlled embellishment. In the course of my work with contemporary composers I often present them with different ways of playing a phrase, letting the composer decide which effect he/she wants in his/her piece.

Which method is right for you? Which is the best method?

As a judge in the International Musical Saw Competition in France I have seen many of the above described methods and I don’t discriminate between the methods. Just like in the world of classical ballet, where there are different methods – the French, Russian, English, etc. – though they differ in details – the end result with all of them is beautiful movement.
The questions you should ask yourself are:
Which method enables me to play the musical saw for the longest period of time continuously with no physical pain?
Which method enables me to get the clearest tones out of the blade?
Which method enables me to achieve dynamics the best?
Which method enables me to play faster?
Am I in control of the saw or is the saw controlling me – meaning, do you chose to play with a particular sonic effect or do you not know how to play differently?

What works for one musical saw player may not necessarily work for another. The same destination may be achieved via different routes. There is no absolute technique, one technique which everybody should follow. If you are an aspiring musical saw player overwhelmed by the many choices – I suggest you start by finding a musical saw player who’s sound, method and way of playing appeal to you the most and try to see if what they do works for you.
The pluralism of musical saw playing methods is part of the charm of our art form.

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© Natalia Paruz 2007. Printed with permission.