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Christina Wilke

'An order of legato bowing please? Hold the marcato...'

August 8, 2011 at 4:21 PM

I've decided to jot down some of my observations as a teacher.  I teach a large number of voice and piano students but I will always be a violinist at heart. I am constantly amazed at the complexity of a stringed instrument. 

This week's observation: legato bowing.  This is probably the first thing I work on with any student, especially those who come to me having played for a while.  Often as teachers, we are just happy to have our students make any semblance of a decent noise when they place their bow to the string.  With a beginner, it is easy to let it go and continue on to the left hand (which is infinitely more fun and exciting for the student). Then, years down the road, the student will hit a wall and then will suddenly be faced with the fact that their right hand is not as advanced as their left hand (in my own childhood this played out- it wasn't until late in high school that I had any idea I didn't have any sort of bow control!)  I was lucky I found a teacher who was brave enough to force me to "go back to the beginning" and re-learn my bow techniques. 

With many students, the bow gets neglected for months, even years.  After all, beginners are EXPECTED to sound like beginners, right?  As teachers, should we expect them to be able to create a legato sound, something that even professionals have to work for?

YES!  A beautiful tone is the first thing someone hears about your playing.  Why wait until the student has a strong left hand to incorporate bow training?  Students in their elementary years are learning coordination and movement and easily pick up new information.

The past few weeks, I focused on this bowing with my violin and cello students.  The concept is quite simple, and students from ages 7-60 were able to pick it up quickly.

Concept: A bow needs to be able to move at a constant speed.  

As professionals, we know that our bow speed, weight, and sounding point needs to be constantly adjusted to a phrase, piece, or note.  However, we cannot experiment with these until we first have control over all of these elements.  For most, the constant speed is the hardest.  Take for instance a car or a bike.  Anyone who has ridden one of these knows that you need to slow down your speed in order to make a sharp turn.  Not doing so would be... foolish, to say the least!  This is just a law of physics, so we then think, "Oh, this should be the same for my bow.  If I have to change my bow, it must require some sort of change in speed, or maybe I should stop before I have to change the direction!"  I find that almost every student instinctively slows down or speeds up just before a bow change, because they are scared of that moment where the velocity of their arm must change.

But a bow is not a car, even the ones that are as expensive as a brand new Lexus.  To give students a counter-example (I warn you, I use an example that is not known for its physical accuracy, but one that works incredibly well as an illustration).  I like to remind students of the Atari game "Pong" (I believe that's what it was called- for those who are too young, I usually show them a video of what it looked like).  The digitized ball in the game goes back and forth and is hit with a "paddle", where it is forced to move the other way.  I love to use this as an analogy- the ball does not have to speed up or slow down before it changes direction.  Now this is a video game and simplifies the real physics of playing ping pong, but I use it to explain the motion of our bow.

The fact is, we don't need to change the speed of the bow just to make a bow change.  Advanced students and professionals may choose to do so for a specific sound or bowing, but for the beginner, it is not necessary.  For students, I help them play "Pong" with their bows.  I instruct them to pull at a certain speed (I love to use analogies to driving a car, so I'll usually give them a mph to go for).  Then I tell them that when they hit my hand, the direction has to change but that car is stuck at that mph and is not able to go slower or faster.  I do this at both the tip and the frog.  If the hand is well balanced and the fingers are strong but relaxed on the bow, even doing this at the frog can be made easy!

So, here I am several weeks after beginning my crusade for smooth bow arms.  Do all of my students have it yet?  No, sadly they do not yet, but all of them (even the 4 year olds) are closer and closer every day.  Soon, they'll learn that the bow doesn't always get to stay the same speed and that there are many bow strokes that require far different techniques.  But we are only at step 1 of the process!

Next week, step 2 of the bow process with my students- playing with the whole bow! (After all, you or your parents bought the entire bow, so why not use it!)


From Trevor Jennings
Posted on August 9, 2011 at 11:57 AM

Also, what an audience sees can sometimes persuade them into hearing what they expect to hear. An example: some years ago the conductor of the SO I was in at the time was having a problem trying to get the strings to play ppp (or was it pppp?) in the last few bars, and then to die away to a lot quieter during the final pause bar. So he asked us to lift our bows off the string a fraction but to keep them moving (i.e. to "air bow") for that last bar. It worked. The audience were convinced they were hearing the best decrescendo ever.


From Christina Wilke
Posted on August 9, 2011 at 3:44 PM

An orchestra director had us do the same thing in the last measures of Alpine Symphony.  And you're right- it works!


From Violin Girl
Posted on August 9, 2011 at 10:39 PM

An important thing to remember is that bow speed and direction changes must occur with tempo.  I recommend to my students bow exercises that focus specifically on speed and alternating legato bowing and show them how  using a metronome.  The bow speed now has something to relate to as well as the timing of the change of direction.  Knowing the timing on the change makes finding proper speed easier.  First I have them practice getting the idea of the timing down using the middle of the bow and smaller strokes they can control more easily while their mind learns to focus on the metronome.  Once they are proficient in the concept, they can use longer bow strokes and learn how to adjust the speed accordingly.  This accomplishes establishing the idea that speed and timing are complex, yes, but very predictable once you understand how they work in relation to tempo. I encourage them to be aware of how their bow arm "feels" when they get it right and point out relaxing the arm is important. That being said, the change of direction can happen more naturally and the hand and wrist can be focused on more easily as the executing the concept itself is more on "autopilot" and the juggling of all the mental balls is far less frustrating.  I first start them with the open strings and then move to scales, after they are comfortable, I bring them back in time to a piece they have already done, and incorporate the legato bowing using the metronome of course.  I love it when they realize it sounds so much better and they get a real confidence boost when they hear it too, more often than not, on the first try! After a full revisit, we leave the piece better than ever, and  then move on to a new piece full of confidence which is always a great place to start.  :)  This works well with my students who have been playing only a few months, or years...


From Christina Wilke
Posted on August 10, 2011 at 5:14 PM

Violin Girl-

I like teaching that early to beginning students.  Perhaps I have put that off for later in their first year, rather than introducing it early (my adult students usually get this early but the idea of tempo is usually grasped quite easily for my adult students).  I have my young students play at different tempos and talk about how the speed of their bow needs to change but perhaps have not made it clear that while the direction change still needs to be smooth and steady, the speed of that change may be slightly different.  

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