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V.com weekend vote: Do you hold your bow thumb bent or always straight?

The Weekend Vote

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Published: February 20, 2015 at 4:26 PM [UTC]

There's no such thing as a "proper bow hold."

That's because any "bow hold" we create changes as the bow moves up and down, and we have to let it do so. We try to set up the hand and fingers so that certain mechanics can work, but to describe this set up as a single "bow hold" or "bow grip" is not quite right.

That said, different kinds of finger placement lead to slightly different mechanics, and one of the most crucial fingers in deciding how you cope with that ever-moving stick is the thumb. Is it straight all the time, or does it bend when moving up to the frog?

bent thumbLike many violinists and teachers, I play with, and advocate, a bent thumb. This provides both strength and flexibility in the bow hand, and it requires a strong pinkie, to take the weight of the bow at the frog. Of course, when the bow is far at the tip, the thumb will straighten, but the thumb bends as the bow moves upward and the weight of the stick shifts to the pinkie. It's usually a feature of the Franco-Belgian bow hold.

straightHowever, many players have a bow in which the thumb is straight, even locked, whether at the tip or the frog. This usually involves a high wrist at the frog, and very often the pinkie is straight as well. I would love to hear from those who make this type of bow hand work, because I know less about how the mechanics function in this bow hand, which is more aligned with the so-called "Russian" bow hold.

I have to say, there are a lot of famous violinists who have made rather unusual-looking bow set-ups work, for example:

famous thumbs
L-R: "Paganini," Heifetz, Kavakos, Ysaye

In the above photo (Editor's note, which is a fake! See comments below), Paganini's thumb appears to be pointing up the stick, certainly unusual! It's hard to know how exactly he held the bow several hundred years after the fact, but various drawings and pictures would lead me to believe: rather strangely (perhaps due in part to his Marfan syndrome). This all serves as a reminder: we each have our own physical shape, and so technique will vary.

How do you hold your thumb on the bow? Is it bent at least some of the time, or is straight all the time?

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From Paul Deck
Posted on February 20, 2015 at 5:25 PM
My teacher, who is from Ukraine, recommends a standard Franco-Belgian bow-hold with a bent thumb, and that is what I use. Actually I found that I have to keep my right thumbnail well trimmed!

When I took up the violin again after a long absence (25 years), I conducted my own a Google-Images study of bow holds of the masters, which resulted in a relatively large PowerPoint file. It's not complete by any means; I stopped when I felt I had learned what I had set out to learn.

Regarding the photos in your post, one thing I did learn during my study of bow holds is that posed publicity photos have to be regarded skeptically, because the player will often adopt a highly idealized position that is completely different from what they will do when they are actually playing the violin. Unfortunately, action photos are often not available for players who were around during the days of film photography, and those that are available are too blurry because the bow hand is, by definition, moving in an action photo. That will be especially true for players like Ysaye who lived when film was too expensive to dare waste. That said, compare the photo that you showed of Ysaye with photo of Josh Bell that is on the cover of his Kreisler album.

Another fine question to consider, perhaps in another Weekend Vote, is what you do with your index finger. Does it mostly rest with the others? Does it point out? Or does it wrap itself around the bow stick?

From Lars Peter Schultz
Posted on February 20, 2015 at 7:22 PM
My bow hold is like the one called "Franco-Belgian" with bent thumb, but I have played with the "Russian" bow hold style many years ago, when I was a viola student at the Royal Danish Academy of Music. It was an un-common bow hold when I compared myself with students from the other violin teachers. I think my teacher was the only teacher with that bow hold.

Some years later I changed bow hold with another teacher. For some reason it was fairly easy to change. I wasn't looking for a new bow hold though, but that teacher happened to play with the "Franco-Belgian" style of bow hold, and it turned out that I liked it very much.

With my "Russian" bow hold style my wrist was very high and straight thumb, now I play with bent thumb. I didn't know the names of those styles when I learned to play with them, I can just relate them to "Russian" and "Franco-Belgian" when I read what those styles are about.

From A. O.
Posted on February 21, 2015 at 2:16 AM
As a user of the Russ'an bow hold\ here 's what I have to say:

The muscles used are primarily those of the back, shoulder and the wrist moves the bow.

The fingers are not involved in the stroke, and the index and pinky fingers balance the weight of the bow either way towards playing fff or ppp.

It is more difficult to use the last bit of bow right under the frog, which is why I do not do it, but you also need much less bow speed and amount of bow because the deeper hold adds the power and volume for you. This also means that you need to be exact in terms of bow use, or you will produce an overly scratchy tone.

The essence of the hold is to conserve movement,and strokes requiring finger action are possible but need lots of effort as you must move the whole forearm.

The scratchier tone under the ear means more projection, and is a result of using loose and flat hair for most of the playing duration. The hold makes it more difficult to keep the bow tilted because it naturally keeps the arm in a position where it wants to keep the hair flat on the bow.

P.S.: The bow hold works better if you have shorter/normal length arms, and helps to pull a full bow if you canot reach one iwth the Franco-Belgian hod. :)

Sorry for the excessive post! :D

From Mark Roberts
Posted on February 21, 2015 at 2:17 PM
I use a standard bent thumb. Thumb nail is present as I also play the classical guitar, the odd thing is that it does not seem to get in the way, I am not sure what exactly is happening but I think that the point of maximum contact is actually on the nail, I just ignore it as there does not seem to be a problem. There are lots of pictures of classical guitar nails on the web, not quite as I do it but if you are interested start http://www.thisisclassicalguitar.com/fingernails-on-classical-guitar/
From 172.254.17.171
Posted on February 21, 2015 at 4:12 PM
Just a comment on the "photo of Paganini" -

his 1979 biography of Paganini, Leslie Sheppard quoted Miss Geraldine de Courcy, "..One of Paganini's most competent biographers.." I include her evaluation of the photograph here:

This picture is so obviously spurious that along with my research, I set forth to "track it down" with the following results:
At the end of the nineties of the last century the violin maker Giuseppe Fiorini (who had removed from Bologna to Munich in the late seventies) was spending some time in Italy and in "collaboration" with a photographer in Venice, concocted the picture, took it back with him to Germany where he had it copyrighted in 1900 and sold it (evidently for a round sum!) to a collector of Paganiniana. The picture eventually came into the Theatre Collection of Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson in London. When the publishing firm of Rockliff was preparing to bring out the English edition of the Farga book, they applied to this collection for a picture of Paganini and were given the one mentioned. To have accepted it unquestionably demonstrates the lack of judgement of the average person in taking too much for granted. Instead of Paganini's "long slender hands" the picture gives us those of - to use a common expression - "a butcher's hands." The costume is obviously that of the late seventies, and the manner of displaying the medals equally so. In fact, Paganini only possessed three and among them there were none of the Cross of Saints Maurizie and Lazarre, which stands forth so prominentlt in the picture! As far as I have been able to ascertain the picture was only published once in Italy, early in 1915, that is, shortly after Fiorini's return for a visit after moving his business from Munich to Luzerne.
The Italians have always sharply repudiated this picture and have refused to display it, even as a curiosity. © - All Rights Reserved.

From Johanna Sailer
Posted on February 21, 2015 at 4:37 PM
This weekend vote made me leave my corner where I have been lurking and reading v.com for quite a while.

The tendons of my right hand's thumb and index finger are inherently connected, which means I cannot bend my thumb without bending my index finger, too. This phenomenon is neither harmful nor awfully rare, yet for me it basically means that I feel more comfortable with a more Russian bow hold with straight thumb and high wrist.

From Man Wong
Posted on February 21, 2015 at 9:34 PM
Johanna,

I think my (mid-teen) oldest child might have similar thumb-to-index-finger connectivity as you -- both she and maybe our youngest (and my wife) cannot open their hands as widely, especially in that area, as I (and our son). Her hold has evolved to resemble a cross between the Franco-Belgian (that she was first taught) and Ysaye's claw hold in part because of this.

Actually, I wonder if learning her initial bow hold w/ thumb at the point where bow hair meets frog (like most/all? Suzuki kids) didn't also contribute to this -- that plus she started later than most Suzuki kids (as a nearly-8-yo).

Our youngest might end up w/ something resembling a cross between the Franco-Belgian and Russian hold, but she's still very young yet (at just 8-yo) and more flexible and kinergistic (and advanced) than our older kids were at this age...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on February 22, 2015 at 4:52 AM
I fell for the fake Paganini photo! My apologies. I will leave it up there for the sake of publicly debunking it, as the commentor above has done so thoroughly! Many thanks, and now we can all know that this photo of him is not the real deal.
From Cynthia Faisst
Posted on February 23, 2015 at 2:16 AM
After observing students with violins of varying sizes applied to their bodies I have noticed how they adapt physically to instruments which are too large.

The Franco-Belgian community of violin makers had great resources coming into their ports for making violins, much like the Italians. They could make violins of many different sizes.

In far flung places like Russia, every piece of hard wood was rare and difficult to come by. I'm sure that violins as the Belgians and Italians knew them were rare. Local fiddlers made many adaptions and had influence on playing technic. It is interesting to see the folk instruments people used from locally available sources. Getting your hands on a modern violin in smaller sizes must have been a challenge if you didn't have access to rare woods from the tropics. These Violin makers would have put all of their resources into the full size instrument without much sympathy for younger players.

I would not be surprised if this had just as much influence on the choice of violin position and bow holds.

When you place a violin that is too large on a child's shoulder their violin elbow extends farther from their body. While the body tries to manage this strain on the torso the bow elbow lifts to create balance on the other side of the body. Struggling to move the bow with an elbow lifting away from the body is definitely going to influence the way the bow hand holds the bow. Young students adapt to the challenges you place on them and eventually they become habits if they are not addressed. Over time, these students do not know or question how they got those habits.

If you are hanging on tightly with an immobile hand to a bow to keep from dropping it, most of the movement for the bow must come from your shoulder and elbow so the wrist is not strained. How many of you have had students with a stiff wrist in their bow arms? And I'm still talking about growing students without any special physical conditions which complicate matters.

I have been challenged with teaching several students who are missing bow hands let alone other physical conditions. I'm learning new things every day about what the use of a prosthesis does to interfere with how a child adapts his back, shoulder and arm muscles because they can't wait to play a violin. The challenge for these students is to feel the weight of the horse hair sitting on the string from a deeper place in their arm with the prosthesis between them and the bow.

I don't know what the frequency of Marfan's syndrome is, but I suspect most teachers have had at least one in their studio. They are not great candidates for sports (where they are very vulnerable) so instrumental music can be plenty of challenge for limbering up the muscle tone of a child with weak upper body strength or skills. We do everything we can to help these students get a sturdy core so they can minimize any contortions they might create to hold their instruments. We can never learn enough ways to help this type of student on either side of their body. Turns out one is not divorced from the other.

I think the Franco-Belgian bow hold technique and variations on it are the most ergonomically natural and internationally successful methods for play the violin. With this technique, you can start the violin at 3 and play it well into your 90s+ without injury, which is great because there is something about playing the violin that seems to keep you alive. Putting a student on a properly sized instrument makes it a sustainable position. Unless you have a disability or physical challenge why would you use anything else?


From Paul Deck
Posted on February 23, 2015 at 3:49 PM
"I don't know what the frequency of Marfan's syndrome is, but I suspect most teachers have had at least one in their studio."

According to the Marfan Foundation (http://www.marfan.org/about/marfan), the incidence of this disorder is about 1 in 5000. So, unless you have had thousands of violin students, there's really not a very high chance that you have had a student with this disorder.

From Paul Deck
Posted on February 25, 2015 at 5:14 PM
Another thing that makes it hard to find "action shots" of violin bow holds is that when photos are taken while a violinist is playing, photographers prefer pictures where the bow is at the tip because then the violinist's hand is not in front of their face. Then, the photo gets cropped and the bow hand is gone.

Here is one of Lisa Batiashvili. You can see from this picture why violinists prefer posed photos. Someone who wanted to criticize her technique or her appearance based on one photo (yes there are people who do such things) would have any number of complaints. For example her bow is not straight! I chose this photo for this blog threat because you can clearly see her right thumb. If you use "google images" to search for more pictures of this violinist you will see a fairly straight thumb in most of them.

http://www.resmusica.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/20130723-id-live-2434-Batiashvili-Lisa-%C2%A9-AlinePaley-VerbierFestival2013-5-362x241.jpg

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