The Incredible Lightness of Being a Bow

April 15, 2018, 5:14 AM · There are two things that happen with a bow that cannot be taught. When we first learn to hold the bow, we are told that pressure is exerted with one of the five fingers. (Even the thumb pressing up is sometimes recommended.) The wrist and/or the shoulder has been suggested as well. The back is sometimes mentioned as a source of strength and a foundation on which the bow arm’s structure is built. Sometimes the words “weight” and “energy” are substituted for the harsher sounding “pressure.” Enough choices for you?

Ever feel like learning technique is a game of roulette? Spin the wheel in Texas and your bow weight comes from the wrist. Spin it in Illinois and the index finger becomes the anointed one. There is no shortage of strategies, but very little consensus. One thing that becomes obvious when it comes to the bow arm, is that we have an abundance of hints and opinions, but no real facts.

How do you describe the relationship between the hairs and the string? Why does the bow arm have trouble finding the angles and planes of the strings? Even if a student follows the teacher’s verbal instruction, what are the traps and pratfalls that await so many violinists?

The Before Picture

The forensics on my bow arm from around grade 4 until college degree are not pretty. Let’s not mince words. Instead of fingers beautifully draped over the stick (picture freshly shampooed bangs cascading artfully over a forehead), my fingers were fixated on the stick with no cushion, margin or springs. (Picture very thin beached sea lions.)

This state of affairs was what I was dealing with years after I had come to the realization that music was going to be my profession. That was when I was sixteen, sitting in the orchestra at a Midwest music camp, and blissfully unaware of my semi-paralyzed bow hold.

My practice sessions were impervious to the numerous exercises for relaxing tension. I was at that awkward stage when you think you know everything, and learning a lot of notes kept my mind off of more important things like correcting bad habits. My unspoken attitude was “It is what it is.”

I remember being a student at a festival north of Philadelphia and playing one piece on a student recital. For all intent and purposes, my left hand was paralyzed and my fourth finger was useless. Forget the emotions I should have experienced with the music. All I knew was that I was scared to death. My teacher was at the performance and I told her afterwards what my hand had felt like. She said the performance sounded fine and my bow looked fine.

That brief exchange says it all. While she was a good (oops, I almost used the word “fine”) teacher who was always encouraging, there is a point where we are all on our own. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of published histories of how each of us got through these very personal moments of technical frailty and paralysis.

Revealing My Bow Arm’s Inner Lightness

What helped my bow arm from getting worse, and what reversed the damage that had already been done, was paying attention to each thing I was doing wrong. There was no panacea. There was no exercise. And most importantly, I was not a candidate for being given a new way to hold my bow. The work I needed to do included, for example, minimizing the pressure from my thumb, while replacing it with a healthier use of finger support.

feather bow

This is easier said than done. All those pressure points and dead weight from the fingers, along with hardness from the wrist, were sustaining my bow arm, albeit dysfunctionally. When you’re trying to exorcise bow demons, you appreciate the power of the ear to guide you. As I removed the strain of my hand, one part at a time, I willed my newer bow hold to produce the same sound that was in my ear. As my bow arm was evolving, it felt organic for the first time, not manufactured from a set of instructions.

Supple and Simple

What does a bow hold feel like when it’s not full of pressure points? The shape of the hand gets its strength and structure predominately from holding air, and just touching lightly the bow at a few points. The hand cannot collapse on and around the bow because it’s much easier to hold air than to hold a bow. The only thing that is difficult is wrapping your mind around such a thought. This is a good example of why music and violin playing are exercises in counter-intuitive thinking.

My current bow arm will always remind me of the old days. You can eliminate old habits, but you can’t forget them. The cosmetics of how my arm looked were deceiving. As my teacher had said at the camp near Philadelphia, everything looked fine. What slowly dawned on me was that change happens from within.

Replies

April 16, 2018 at 10:53 PM · I struggle all the time to have a light bow hold! Often my teacher will have me hold the bow with just finger and thumb and play an open string, then thumb and pinky, then thumb and middle two fingers...all this just to feel who’s job is whose!! And it helps.

April 17, 2018 at 01:29 AM · I always love your articles, Paul! If someone who plays at your level struggled at some point, it offers hope to the rest of us mere mortals! I tend to hold my bow as if it's a 100-pound tree branch. Starting with your headline, you remind us that the bow is light. Your comment that "the shape of the hand gets its strength and structure predominately from holding air" is a great visual image. I will now go try and minimize the pressure on my thumb (my problem, as well)!

April 17, 2018 at 05:29 PM · Suzanne, thank you for your exercise on how to recognize each finger’s role on the bow. Every passage we play may change what role is needed at any given time. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but’s it’s definitely effective.

April 17, 2018 at 05:34 PM · 87, it looks like our bow holds are very similar. Thank you for sharing your own travails. Half the battle is knowing that everyone shares in dealing with the obstacles the violin throws at us. Who can doubt that, when we squeeze the bow, we’re dealing with our initial fear of dropping the bow?

April 17, 2018 at 08:47 PM · this is really interesting and since I just started to learn the violin last year I am quite happy that my teacher is very good at teaching a light bow hold as she focuses on playing with no tension (not only in the bow hand but all over). She has a good eye for it and corrects immediately.

April 17, 2018 at 11:47 PM · You’re fortunate you found such a conscientious teacher. It sounds like you’re enjoying your lessons.

April 18, 2018 at 12:08 AM · What a fulfilling essay on the frustration of the bow hold. Thanks so much,

Glory najhawan

April 18, 2018 at 11:03 AM · Great essay, thanks, there are so many good ideas here!

I think strengthening can be helpful. Holding the bow vertically, you flex the fingers up and down like push-ups. Some teachers advise students to do 10,000 of these a week for weeks. The idea is that strength and flexibility go hand in hand. If the muscles in your fingers are stronger, than it feels more effortless to hold the bow and that helps you be more relaxed and supple.

Another thing worth considering is to own a very light bow. Last year I tried and fell in love with an Arcus S-series violin bow, which runs about 47 grams, about 20-23 percent lighter than a standard wood bow. It's so light it feels weird at first, like it might float away. But once you adjust, your grip necessarily becomes lighter. Even when I switch back to a heavier wood bow I try to hold on to that feeling of lightness.

April 18, 2018 at 11:36 AM · Thank you for your response to "87." Yes, I have always been afraid of dropping the bow! (Although in 54 years of playing the violin, that has never happened.) When I practiced yesterday, I took your advice to "remove the strain, one part at a time." I started with the biggest offender (my thumb) and it made a huge difference! Thank you again for such helpful, and manageable, advice.

April 18, 2018 at 10:47 PM · Thomas, those are great ideas. The final goal of every violinist is what message he ultimately sends to the hair. Holding the bow with strength and confidence helps the connection between the hair and the string. Sometimes the string is suffocated and other times it’s not getting enough hair. The hand is the control center. A decisive hand can maneuver and manipulate in the smallest of spaces. Ask a magician.

April 18, 2018 at 10:59 PM · Hey 87, There’s a story that may or may not be true. Isaac Stern was playing a recital in Los Angeles and dropped his bow. After he picked it up, and before he started playing again, he turned to the audience and said “passion!”

Now, if I had ever projected my bow into the audience from my orchestra seat, I might have been so embarrassed that I would terminate my job for good. On the other hand, we should learn to not be so sensitive. Maybe our least important concern should be the bow dropping.

April 20, 2018 at 12:51 AM · Many years ago, while playing 2nd stand in the 2nd violin section of a nameless orchestra, seated ala Vienna with the 2nds across the conductor from the 1st's, the rather rotund section leader lost-dropped his bow...and his officious nature had him attempt to grapple his stand partner's bow to finish the piece...it was totally comedic as they 'rasseled' for possession of the bow, while The Band Played On....the conductor was aghast but continued to conduct....as I was sitting outside, I couldn't reach the lost bow without stopping.....Oh me, them were the days....circa, 1958 !

April 20, 2018 at 11:12 AM · I enjoy every bit of your posts keep them coming ,as I have just started my music journey with violin , I am also learning theory and loving it, john A.

April 20, 2018 at 12:55 PM · I love the "grappling for the bow" story above!!! Those truly were the days!

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