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Bow Distribution and Dealing With the Shy Bow Syndrome

Paul Stein

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Published: November 19, 2015 at 6:08 AM [UTC]

I had only one teacher who said, "Don’t think so much when you play." I imagine all of us have heard that at least once. But "not thinking" doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

In fact, in a perfect world, the violinist’s mind would automatically shift from thinking about the left hand one moment, then the bow arm the next. The shifting of concentration would take place with the regularity of a windshield wiper.

I’ve learned the hard way -- by hearing a recording of myself and noticing that my sound isn’t full and rich enough -- that bow distribution can’t take place unless I’m thinking about the bow arm with full concentration. The moment the windshield wiper is swinging to the right, it’s time to observe the bow arm and do whatever it takes to get the desired sound.

bow distribution

First (and Last) Bow Distribution Exercise

Bow distribution can be introduced early in violin training with the simple exercise of three beats on a down-bow and one beat on the up-bow. (In comparison to exercises for the left hand, there are hardly any other bow distribution exercises, except for the bowing variations in etudes, which aren’t particularly musical or inspirational.)

Two problems emerge during this simple, introductory exercise: the long bow doesn’t go far enough to the tip, and the short up-bow doesn’t get back to the lower half. This isn’t so much a problem of the bow arm, but the result of feeling the beats too quickly. Instead, each beat should be allowed to breathe and complete its cycle.

If the bow stops in the middle instead of traveling the necessary length, start the process again, thinking only of the bow arm. You have to have enough intent at the beginning of the stroke to over-ride whatever is stopping the bow from reaching the tip. Natural blockages like the bow stopping unwittingly can be overcome by will power, and then avoided in the future by feeling the length of each beat.

Left and Right Hand Independence

It wouldn’t be difficult to distribute the bow efficiently if you were playing only open strings. But the left fingers can fight with the bow arm, and with one hand going a different direction than the other, the bow arm stop suddenly and cause the bow to bounce. However, there is one way of thinking in which the two hands are more likely to be compatible, and when this blending occurs, it makes both hands move smoothly. This unifying force -- which is capable of guiding the hands naturally -- is the music itself, which guides the bow into gliding and swooping. The music and the ear are one entity, an organic, viable expression which exists to guide and discern.

Every bow distribution is linked to how you hear the music. If you’re mathematically dissecting a measure, the bow may change harshly and abruptly. If you’re hearing the phrase as if you were singing it, the speed and distances of the bowings will feel more natural.

Teachers should ask the students to sing during lessons, even if the voice is not developed. Someone with a bad voice should be encouraged to sing something resembling the rhythm of the music. This helps create a connection between the origin of the music in the ear, and what goes in and comes out of the instrument.

Free and Unencumbered Bow Speed

Knowing the correct bow speed and when the bow is going to change directions takes both artistry and astute observations of space and time. Here are three reasons why the player runs out of bow:

  1. The bow speed never changes from one end to the other. To overcome the inconvenience of running out of bow, the player should recognize there is an ebb and flow in music, and the speed and distance covered can change numerous times in one stroke.
  2. Slurred sixteenth notes use too much bow. Very tiny increments of bow length are all that are needed. It is possible to measure time with a legato bow just as accurately as left fingers do when they drum the fingerboard. Like conductors who learn that all subdivisions can be conveyed in the movement of the baton, a violinist can feel and measure each sixteenth note, even in legato passages.
  3. Bow length is often wasted at the moment of changing direction. Since the bow speed and distance should always be measured, start the bow measuring at the moment of change. Don’t change too abruptly. Instead, finish one direction naturally and completely, then change direction as simply as a saloon door swinging back and forth.

There are two types of bowing that occur during bow distribution:

  1. The bow retains its speed from the beginning to the end of the stroke, and keeps the same speed in the reverse direction. This strong and consistent bow speed is an important component to strong leadership, whereas hesitancy and unwanted speeds create confusion.
  2. In a slow melodic passage, the bow speed, by necessity, varies often, even when the bow is traveling in one direction. The various bow speeds help the sound and phrasing match the inflection inherent in the music. Be prepared to slow down or speed up the bow a little. Music has similar inflections as speech. The big difference between the two is that speech is produced naturally and without effort, while music must be created and manufactured to match what is in the ear. Two things must be trained, the ear and the body’s ability to recreate what the player hears.

Etudes for the Fluid and Flexible Right Hand

The bow arm is the expressive half of the body, and requires different movements for every measure and every dynamic. Unlike the left hand, nothing ever stays the same. Yet most of the Kreutzer, Wohlfahrt, etc. exercises require nothing more than changing bow direction multiple times. One excellent source for learning bow distribution is Melodious Etudes by Doris Gazda, a collection of singers’ vocalises from the 18th century, arranged for the violin. Deceptively simple looking, Gazda’s collection makes an art of strategizing each measure and being ready for anything.

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