© 2005, 2006, 2007 by Raphael Klayman

II – The Bow

Considering that the bow is almost constantly in motion, it seems odd to speak of a bow 'hold', let alone a bow 'grip'. We do, of course, hold the bow, and in very specific ways – but note, 'ways' in plural, for any particular way must subtly shift into another way in the course of our motion.

The following limited discussion is focused primarily on the various factors that go into playing a whole note with a whole bow in a down-bow and up-bow. Do the following exercise without the violin or bow:

  1. Stand in a normal, comfortable position.

  2. Raise your right hand to the height of your right shoulder, keeping a slight, comfortable bend in your elbow. Let the knuckles drop slightly and comfortably down from wrist level.

  3. Thumb to the tip of your 2nd finger, creating a circle or ring.

  4. Find a pen with a clip. In a similar position to what you just achieved in step #3, hold the pen in your right hand. Place half your thumb tip on the clip, and half on the shaft of the pen. Now recreate the same ring with the thumb and 2nd finger. (The tips need not completely touch.) The 2nd and 3rd fingers should be well over the shaft of the pen. The little finger, only, should be on tip of the shaft. The 1st finger should come over the shaft to the extent that it touches the shaft between the 1st joint, a bit closer to the 1st.

  5. Continuing to hold the pen as in step #4, get comfortable with the hold. Move the knuckles and wrist up and down a bit and side to side. Continue to hold the pen loosely and only finnly enough so that it doesn't drop. While doing so, now open and close your forearm, in a hinging and unhinging motion. Repeat a few times. Keep a comfortable, natural and fairly even spacing between the fingers. The spacing will vary slightly with each individual, but our hand should always remain quite 'human' looking; neither approaching a 'flipper' or a 'claw.'

  6. Put the pen down and replace it with the bow. Try to hold the bow as you did the pen. The end of the frog (where it gets very thin and somewhat slopes to meet the stick) replaces the clip of the pen. The 'ring' remains with the thumb and 2nd finger. The third finger is well over the center of the frog. The little finger is on top of stick. The 1st finger is around the stick of the bow as it was on the shaft of the pen.

All the fingers should be well-rounded, as though you were holding an apple. The angle of the fingers should be fairly perpendicular to the stick. This is your basic bow-hold for beginning a down-bow at the frog. Now take up and hold the violin as shown earlier. Hold the bow as just shown. Choose a string (the D or A might be easier at first). Hold the bow the slightest bit above the string, then place on the string at the frog and gently pull it towards the point. A number of important factors actually go into this seemingly simple act:

  • We begin with the thumb bent-out and all the fingers very curved. The fingers are approximately at a right angle to the stick.

  • We also begin with the upper arm fairly raised, and the forearm fairly bent. The bow should be at a right-angle to the strings. The wrist should be fairly straight, bending neither up or down. There should also be a bit of an upward-turning of the part of the palm near the little finger, as well as the elbow, slightly.

  • We should tilt the bow slightly for the down bow at approximately a 60 degree angle toward the fingerboard. The knuckles drop slightly below the wrist level. When we are at the frog, we are using the heaviest part of the bow, plus our hand is directly above the string. This makes for a lot of natural weight, which we must control to avoid scratching. We must try to suspend our weight, and move the bow in the frog area, as though we were petting a very small delicate, baby animal.

  • As we make our way from the frog to the point, our forearm opens and straightens. As this is happening, our thumb and fingers gradually begin to straighten, and their angle to the stick changes: the fingers gradually pivot, so that by the time we reach the point, they are no longer perpendicular to the stick, but slanted so as to point forward toward the frog. The 1st finger, which at first bisected the stick between the 1st and 2nd joints ends up doing so at the 2nd joint. You will be shown (–if you haven't been, already–) special exercises to develop the finger pivot. By the point, the wrist and knuckles are fairly in alignment.

  • Two aspects do not change: We keep the 60 degree tilt throughout, approaching the string with the side of the hair, and we keep our wrist flat and do not let it 'sink' at the point.

In general, all the fingers should 'wrap' around and 'cling' to the bow but never press tightly. There should be a spring-like resilience in our fingers, wrist and arm. The 'wrap' at the 1st fmgertip releases slightly in the down-bow, and returns to the stick as the fingers pivot to the slanted angle towards the point. But it should never completely straighten out or wave around. Unless you have a really short 4th finger, you should keep it on the stick throughout. It may, however, come down from the top of the stick to the side (coming inward, towards you) as you make your way to the point.

Though there are further considerations, let's now turn to the up-bow. Make your way from the point to the frog, with the following considerations in mind:

  • As you complete the down-bow, make a slight clockwise rotation with the hand and begin the up-bow. This rotation should lead toward a slightly more slanted angle of the fingers and a more pronounced tilt of the bow – approximately a 45 degree angle. The knuckles drop again slightly below the wrist. (There are exceptions to these angles of the down-bow and up-bow tilt, but these are good averages and they should be your basic procedures.) There are other approaches which advocate that the hair be completely flat at all times, with the stick directly above the hair at a 90 degree angle to the strings. Still others advocate beginning the down-bow with a tilted angle, and gradually flattening out the hair towards the tip. With both of these approaches, I respectfully disagree. I have noticed that advocates of the first approach rarely practice what they preach 100% –particularly on the up-bow. Completely flat hair, with the stick directly above it, tends to produce a sound that is more dense and "gutsy," but is also somewhat dry, and even gritty, and yields some unnecessary surface noise. However, there are times when we may want this kind of dense, "gutsy" sound. The opening of the third movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto is a good example. On the other hand, for much of the music of say, Debussy, we may want a particularly transparent sound. Tilting the bow somewhat more – among other things – can help to achieve this. My approach allows for these variations. In no case should we ever tilt so much that we are actually having the stick touch the string. And even the variations in the tilt should be kept consistent throughout the length of the bow. Beginning a down-bow with a tilt, and gradually turning it so it is perpendicular by the point has no particularly salutary effect on sound or technique and leads to a sinking of the wrist at the point. In my approach, with a tilt that is moderate, most of the hair is utilized most of the time. But the hair approaches the string with a slight edge, with most of the rest of the hair coming into play in a kind of triangular buildup. For stronger dynamics, still more hair comes into play naturally, merely by using more weight in our hand and arm. (I prefer the term 'weight' to 'pressure' - the latter lends itself to constriction as opposed to controlled depth, edge and fullness.) I also advocate keeping the hair relatively loose. With the hair looser, you have a feeling of playing with the bow rather than the hair, and get more of a feel for its individuality. It is also healthier for the bow. With a strong, yet resilient stick, that is properly cambered, with the hair of the right length for the given time of year, the hair should touch the middle of the stick when it is fully loosened and not in use. When tightened for playing, you should still see – and feel – some of the concave camber of the bow, and the distance between the inside of the ribbon of the hair and the inside of the stick at the middle should not much exceed 5/16".

  • As you play the up-bow, the upper arm should rise somewhat. Imagine that you are filling bellows with air. In fact, for your basic up-bow and down bow, it is helpful to consciously inhale in up-bow and exhale in down-bow. The slanted fmger angle continues until you are close to the frog – approximately where your hand enters the middle-bout area – of the violin. Now it begins to pivot in reverse (to the way it did in down-bow) and anticipates the down-bow angle, the fingers becoming again more perpendicular to the stick and more curved around it. The down-bow and up-bow should be seen and felt as almost one, unending movement.

  • When changing bows quickly, the angle, particularly from the up-bow to the down-bow, changes more directly in time with the change of stroke. But in the basic slow tempo under consideration, the more gradual anticipation and follow through angle changes of the fingers are very important for smooth, seamless bow changes and natural movements. Toward this end, the following images may prove helpful: imagine that your fingers are like the bristles of a soft. paint brush. If you move a brush slowly along a wall, you should see a similar motion to what has been asked for here. Now imagine pulling a little toy wagon back and forth by holding and moving the tip of an attached string. Finally, imagine flinging a whip in the air, up and down and sideways. Now imagine it in slow motion. There will be a slight subsidiary follow-through of the tip portion.

Further considerations of the basic bow stroke:

  • For the most part, the bow must be drawn straight, and parallel to the bridge. The bow should not drift into the fingerboard area. It should also not come too close to, or point to the bridge. (For players with long arms, pulling the elbow back a bit helps keep the bow straight – especially in relation to holding the violin directly in front of you.) In general, (there are exceptions which need not be considered at this point), the bow should travel about equidistant between the bridge and the fingerboard. To counteract natural tendencies that militate against straight and parallel bow movement, we must compensate in the following ways:

  • In down-bow, when opening the elbow, move your hand a little bit away from you. In up-bow, move the hand a bit back towards you.

  • One exception to the completely straight bow is that toward the end of the down-bow, as we approach the point, we should not maintain the parallel aspect, but round the bow off slightly toward but not enter onto the fingerboard. We should never lock our elbow at the point, but always maintain a slight, comfortable bend.

For good tracking of the bow in its contact with the string, it is helpful to lean slightly in down-bow toward the neighboring lower string (without touching it) and reverse this in up-bow, all in a rounded way. Imagine that your bow strokes are the bottom part of an imaginary large circle.

There are many other factors relating to basic bowing, and many different kinds of bow strokes. All of the above are only some fundamental aspects of drawing down-bow and up-bow whole bows at a slow to moderate tempo. This is the basic foundation of using the bow properly.

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Updated Feb 9, 2012 violinist@rkviolin.com