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Shredding Bow Hairs

Technique and Practicing: Quickly dissipating bow hairs.

From Michael Crawford
Posted August 21, 2010 at 03:49 AM

I bought a new violin bow five months ago, and in that time, half of the bow hair has fallen off (while playing). The same thing occurred with my previous bow, so it is not a problem with the bow but with how I am playing. 

I have been playing for seven years, and I have progressed through the Mendelssohn and Bruch concertos. I have also worked on pieces by Paganini and Sarsate, though I am quite far from mastering them. Thus, I do not think that there is anything horribly wrong with my technique. 

I consulted my teacher about this, and she told me that it was a unique problem, but she gave me a few tips:

-Lighten bow pressure on double stops and chords.

-Keeping the bow completely straight and not edging over to the fingerboard.

There definitely could be more causes.

I have followed her advice and tried to correct this, but I am not certain if it is working. I am still losing more bow hair than I should (at least 1 if not 3 per practice, 2 hours).

I would not want to get an expensive re-hairing ($50) until I conquer this problem.

Any advice would be very much appreciated.




From Dion Ackermann
Posted on August 21, 2010 at 07:46 AM

 If it is not a very cheap bow then you could be tensioning the bow too much. The distance between the hair and the wood should be roughly the thickness of the wood. The curve of the wood should definitely be inward not outward like a baroque bow. See if the strands is always breaking on the top or bottom, there may be a sharp edge on the mounting or the plugs holding the hairs may be loose. Broken hairs should be cut off not pulled out, that will loosen the other hairs also. Pressure on the strings should not be the cause if the bow is tensioned correctly and you are not using cheap strings. Clean the strings regularly the rosin build up could also be a cause. 

If none of this applies to you, upgrade to a more expensive bow, and fumigate your violin case there may be microscopic small termites eating the bow hair.

From John Greenwood
Posted on August 21, 2010 at 08:14 PM

Dear Michael:

Your problem it probably not your playing technique, but "bow bugs." These are tiny creatures -- I believe that they're beetle larvae -- that can lodge in your violin case. Bow hair is primarily made of protein and the bugs love it. 

It would be best to totally vacuum out your violin case, try to leave it open out in the sun for a day or two, and, just to be safe, put a small mothball in the case for a couple of weeks to finish off any remaining critters.

You should also get your bows rehaired, because the critters are probably feasting on them as I type. 

John Greenwood, Bowmaker

From Nate Robinson
Posted on August 22, 2010 at 02:31 AM

Hi Michael, breaking hairs comes from usually playing on tilted hair and not flat hair.  There's some misguided advice I have read on online forums and heard from teachers to play on tilted hair (leaning the stick towards the fingerboard).    

By playing on tilted hair you get a fraction of the amount of sound you would get with flat hair and a good amount of the bow's weight is pressing on just a few hairs (when the hair is tilted) as opposed to spreading out the weight and force throughout all the hairs.  As a result the hairs that are over exerted (by playing on tilted hair) break.    

On average each year I break maybe 5-6 hairs.   I hope this helped.  Good luck!


From Sue Bechler
Posted on August 22, 2010 at 08:50 PM
I also suspect bowhair mites. Take everything out of your case and temporarily store elsewhere. Vacuum the case VERY thoroughly w/a small nozzle, then put some lemon peels, lavender, or other bug-fighting herbs in there, and close for a few days. Wash or toss any fabric covers, dust cloths, etc. Go over your violin, bowstick & bow hair(this lightly, of course) with a clean dry cloth. If you still have the problem, you may need a new case. You'll obviously need a rehair, but first work out if mites are the issue. Sue
From John Greenwood
Posted on August 24, 2010 at 02:29 AM

Dear Nate:

I personally feel that pronating or tilting the violin bow towards the fingerboard is a valuable expressive resource for the string player. If you experiment with slightly tilting the bow, at least for volume levels up to forte, I think that most players will experience a clearer and purer tone.

The fact is that to produce even a forte volume a slight tilt will result in a less "choked" and scratchy sound. My own playing experience and observation of fine players proves this out.

As a side note, when I rehair bows for my customers, I'm always mindful not to overload hair into my rehairs. Too much hair in the stick results in a loss of valuable "grippiness" in the bow-hair ribbon.

Hey, not that I'm so virtuous, but I rarely break hair while playing, even though I'm a fairly aggressive player and that I do pronate the bow, as musically required.

I maintain that excessive breaking of bow hairs are the result of "bow bugs," as previously suggested, and not playing style.

John Greenwood, Bowmaker

From Nate Robinson
Posted on August 25, 2010 at 03:35 AM

Hi John,

The school of playing I come from (Auer-Heifetz/Russian School) believed in producing a sound that would carry to the back of a large concert hall with flat hair.  I think it is physically impossible to achieve the same type of carrying power or projection with tilted bow hairs much like it is not likely a golf ball can be hit with as much power and precision with one arm as opposed to two. 

The 'choked' or 'scratchy' sound might sound that way under the ear, but according to Heifetz, that is the kind of sound that carries.  The 'grit' I think you might be referring  to in the sound is I have noticed lost after the 1st few rows in a hall.

I did at one time during my teens twist the bow hair near the frog (as I was taught to do by a teacher at Manhattan School of Music).  I would need rehairs almost every two months.  When I went to another (much better) teacher who studied with Jascha Heifetz, he had me get rid of this habit.  As a result, since this switch to playing on flat hair, I haven't broken more than 6 hairs a year, and I have a much larger tone according to my friends and audiences who have heard me over the years.


From Laura Reynolds
Posted on August 26, 2010 at 01:54 AM

 Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Issac Stern, Leonid Kogan (who is Russian and a disciple of Leopold Auer)and many other well-known solo violinists play with tilted bow hairs.  It is a well-accepted technique across many schools of technique.  Perhaps, Nate, the reason you experienced trouble with the techniques was because you had adapted your arm, wrist, weight and movement to flat hairs over the years making the change to tilted bow hairs a hassle.

I would agree that there is either a problem with bow mites or a flaw in the bow itself. Analysis of the bow by a bowmaker would  most likely be best.

From Tom Bop
Posted on August 26, 2010 at 02:58 AM

Laura has a good observations- and pushing one method of bowing exclusively is missing out on a lot of tone colors and sonic possibilities.  Different amounts of hair, angles, speeds, etc. all add to expression.  Flat can be nice, but not as the only flavor available.  Bow bugs not a good flavor....yuck...