"Why do I need to hold my bow this way, and not this way?" asked a student last week.
This is a nine-year-old beginner -- and I love those. She's taking lessons because she wanted to, and she's going to demand good explanations along the way. For example: Who would come up with this weird way of placing fingers on the bow, when it's clearly possible to play a tune just fine, clenching the bow with your fist like a bear would?
However, she had stopped in her tracks, halfway through all the Twinkle Variations, to ask this question. Those Twinkle Variations do require some stamina -- she's still working on the stamina part. Thus the interruption -- yes, I'm onto you.
"I can tell you why, but that's a bit of a lecture," I said. "I'll do it after we finish Twinkle."
So she finished those last three variations, and as soon as she took the violin off her shoulder she said, "Okay, I want the lecture." (As the mother of two teenagers, I confess that hearing "I want the lecture" fills me with a certain kind of glee.) Haha, she really did want the explanation!
So I gave it to her:
It is possible, I acknowledged, to play "Twinkle" holding the bow in the way that a bear would hold a bow. We can just call this the bear-claw bow hold.
However, the bear-claw bow hold has its limitations, and the better you get at the violin, the more these limitations become apparent. My reason for this picky bow hold is that I am setting up your bow hand so that one day you can play Bach, or country fiddle music, or anything you ever want to play.
I played her a little bit of the Preludio from the Partita in E -- kids (okay anyone, not just kids) tend to enjoy this piece. (It could have been a fiddle tune, to demonstrate the same thing.) With all these string crossings, I have to have a flexible bow hand, loose wrist and relaxed fingers. Does it look like I'm working very hard? No. Then I switched to the bear-claw bow hold and played the beginning of the Preludio again, with all the string-crossings coming from my upper arm, thanks to the stiffness in my bear-claw hand. I looked like an injured chicken, flapping one deranged wing. She laughed.
Moving on, what if we want to play the cadenza from the Mendelssohn concerto's first movement? Here's another crowd-pleaser. I showed her that four-string spiccato barriolage, which spikes up off the string with a flick of the wrist and just a bit of arm motion. Then I demonstrated the same passage with the bear-claw bow hold. Rather inelegant, and we're back to being a one-winged chicken.
I told her that the bow-hand I teach is based on the Franco-Belgian bow hold; there is also a Russian bow hold that works well, and other teachers teach that. The idea is that, over the years, we develop flexible but strong fingers and a relaxed way of holding the bow. The way we place the fingers in the beginning is just a start, and you'll learn how the balance works as you play more and learn more bowing techniques.
I don't know of any other activities that require holding something quite in the way that we hold a bow. But it's similar, in certain respects, to learning a tennis grip, or the way to hold a golf club or baseball bat. Humans have figured out the optimal way to swing a bat, and so we start with certain principles. Over time, you'll make it your own and optimize it in small ways for your body, to be most effective.
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