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Laurie's Violin School: Two Simple Exercises for Playing with a Straight Bow

Laurie Niles

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Published: February 2, 2015 at 4:18 PM [UTC]

"Straight bow!"

My teachers issued this directive at me hundreds of times, and over 20 years of teaching I've told my students the same.

Why is it so hard to play with a straight bow? Blame it on the way we humans are designed; specifically, blame it on the ball-and-socket joints that attach our arms to the rest of us. Our arms were made to move in circles, not in straight lines. In fact, when pulling a straight bow, it actually might feel a little bit like you are making a forward arc as you push forward for the down-bow and retract back for the up-bow. One teacher told me to envision tracing around a plate that is set with its edge at the fingerboard. Of course, don't do that literally, but it's a mental picture that is helpful to some students.

bow straight

My problem, when teachers asked me to bow straight, was that I had no idea how to do so. I'm left-handed and somewhat far-sighted. Looking at the bow made me cross eyed, and thinking about bowing straight while trying to play something complex only left me extremely frustrated.

Yet, bowing straight is important, for many reasons, including having a good tone, cultivating a variety of bow strokes, etc. etc. In graduate school, after I had earned a degree in music, my teacher made me play nothing but open strings for more than a month, to correct my bow arm. It was very simple and yet it was time-consuming work that required concentration. I welcomed this; it helped immensely.

As a teacher I've adopted a number of ideas to help students cultivate a straight bow arm, and I'd like to share them with you. Here they are on video, and below I've described them.

The Dowel Stick

First of all, it helps to know how a straight bow arm feels, because the feeling is hardly intuitive. For this, I recommend going to the local hardware store and investing (about $2.50 or less) in a dowel stick and a small piece of piping that is slightly larger in diameter than the stick. This exercise can be done alone, but it's better if you have a teacher/family member/friend help you. Take the piece of piping and thread it onto the stick. With the violin on your shoulder, have someone hold the dowel stick perpendicular to the fingerboard, over the area where you would normally bow, only hold it several centimeters above the strings. (If you are doing this by yourself, you can hold the stick from behind the fiddle, but it's a little more complicated). Holding the piece of piping as you would hold your bow, move it up and down the stick. Easy as that! The idea is to memorize the feeling, so this can be accomplished through repetition and also concentration: close your eyes and really try to feel the forward motion of your hand and opening of the elbow on the down bow, and the retracting of the wrist and hand on the up-bow.

20 on the Highway

Another exercise is something I call "20 on the highway." It's extremely simple, but then so are sit-ups. The key is to do them every day. To do this exercise, play 20 straight bows on the G, then D, then A, then E strings. The bow must be "on the highway," which means that it is placed between the fingerboard and the bridge and never goes skidding up to or past either one. And you must draw the bow straight -- perpendicular to the strings -- for every bow. To make sure every bow stroke is straight, you can look straight at your bow, look at it in a mirror (the violin strings must be perfectly parallel to the mirror) or have a friend keep track. Again, the trick is that you have to do it every day until you've done it 10,000 times, and I'm not exaggerating. If you do 20 a EVERY day on each string, you will reach 10,000 for each string in 500 days, which is about a year and five months. You will reach 10,000 faster if you do more every day, but I would not necessarily recommend it unless your powers of concentration are exceptional. If you lose your concentration and accidentally play 40 crooked bows, then you've just reinforced a crooked-bow motion, and you defeat your purpose!

Setting aside a few minutes at the beginning of your practice time to cultivate a straight bow is well worth the effort. I hope you find this helpful, and happy practicing!

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Posted on February 2, 2015 at 5:43 PM
I wrap a piece of paper around the dowel (more accessible than tubing)...loosely so it will slide up and down. Also, I put the dowel directly on the shoulder (without the violin). The end of the dowel can be rested on an item such as the arm of a chair etc....whatever is the right height. That way, 1 person can easily hold the dowel in place with the left hand and "bow" with the right. Usually the left hand doesn't have to help at all though.
From Jenny Rambo
Posted on February 3, 2015 at 12:42 AM
Coincidentally, I was thinking about how to teach a student this very thing, this very afternoon! I went to Home Depot, got the rod and a plastic extension rod for a sprinkler system. The Home Depot guy helpfully suggested I glue a rubber grommet on the end to keep the rod from falling off the stick. I had to glue two grommets- one large one to stop the plastic rod and a smaller one to stop the larger grommet. But it worked pretty well. After just a few minutes with 'the contraption' my student understood how her arm moves in the track. I sent her home with it, so we'll see how it goes. Great tip, thank you so much!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 3, 2015 at 5:10 AM
You are welcome, Jenny! Every once and a while I just stock up on the dowel sticks and piping, and I pretty much send them home with students until they are gone! The teachers who originally told me about this idea (some 20 years ago) were James and Jackie Maurer, but I think I have to generally thank the Suzuki community for that one. The other exercise, 20 on the highway, is just my simplified answer to the several months of right-hand intervention bow work I had to do with Henryk Kowalski at Indiana U. One can get more detailed with it, if one wants, doing the strokes from frog to middle, middle to tip, etc. etc. See Simon Fischer's work, if you want to get more detailed with which lane of the highway you work on, as well, for the purpose of tone color and production. But first, learn (or teach) to bow straight! ;)
Posted on February 3, 2015 at 5:28 AM
My son age 8 has this problem. he has passed Trinity Grade 1 with merit but keeping the bow straight was a huge effort. As a mom I wondered how to help him. Thanks a lot. I will try this.
Posted on February 3, 2015 at 5:30 AM
In My earlier comment about my son age 8 I forgot to put my name I am Jayashree Gopalakrishnan Mumbai India.
From Paul Deck
Posted on February 3, 2015 at 6:14 PM
I like the "20 on the highway" idea. It has kind of a boot camp ring to it.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 3, 2015 at 7:44 PM
Like punitive pushups, "Drop and do 20!" Except, no they aren't punishment! ;)
Posted on February 4, 2015 at 7:09 PM
This idea is a variation of the Simon Fischer exercise (I believe it was originally a Galamian exercise) from the Basics book, where the parent holds the bow at either end and the child moves the hand up and down the stick. The parent tells the student to focus on the feeling in the bow arm. When the student returns to holding the bow at the frog and playing actual bow strokes, the parent instructs the child to keep the same feeling in the arm as when they did the exercise. "Does your arm feel the same now? Keep that same feeling in your arm!"
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 5, 2015 at 12:49 AM
Definitely a very similar idea, all along the same line (so to speak)! Works very well. The teacher who first introduced the idea to me was a Galamian protege, so I wouldn't be surprised if it was inspired by Galamian!
Posted on February 5, 2015 at 5:41 PM
I also like little ones to play on my special eggbox violin. The ridges of the egg tray really help the arm feel how to move the bow perpendicular to the strings.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 5, 2015 at 8:32 PM
Is it like this, as demonstrated by Regina Carter, or a bit different? It's such a clever idea!

Posted on February 6, 2015 at 12:04 AM
One issue I've observed in trying to bow straight is that players pull the instrument too far to the left, as an extention of the shoulder, not the neck or collarbone, which forces the bow arm to reach farther out and makes bowing straight more difficult. This twists the neck, shoulder and back alignment which increases tension in the upper body, making playing stiffer and extreme cases, tendinitis over time.
Posted on February 7, 2015 at 5:23 PM
Yes, that pic of the egg box violin is great. It really is very informative for young kids.

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