Starting bow on the string?

September 17, 2016 at 08:07 PM · Hello,

I am trying to work through Simon Fischer's Basics... Trying..

Anyway, I'm about to practice lesson 63 (Attacks). When it says start from above the string, does he mean with the bow moving in an upward/downward direction before it makes contact with the string?

The wording is many times ambiguous, but I am mostly confused because my teacher has stated multiple times that the bow never moves until it's in contact with the string. She even said the other day that it's a violin playing cardinal rule, to have the bow on the string before sounding a note.

What am I missing here?

Replies (20)

September 17, 2016 at 08:14 PM · A stroke can start from either above the string or on the string. It depends on the type of bowstroke.

The cardinal rule is actually "fingers before the bow" -- fingers down before the bow moves.

September 18, 2016 at 12:09 AM · I think it is important for a beginner to learn to start a note with the bow stationary on the string. If they don't learn how to do this there is the real danger that they will end up doing what my teacher called "aeroplane landings" on the string - which is self-explanatory if you visualize a plane landing on a runway. The 'plane sometimes bounces during touch-down, and this is what can so easily happen with a moving violin bow descending onto the string - the dreaded uncontrollable bow bounce.

Learning to start a note with the bow stationary on the string will develop bow and tone control, and this control is essential for mastering more advanced bowing techniques involving a descending moving bow.

If you listen carefully to a decent recording of a good violinist playing solo (or near solo), you'll often hear a very slight, almost imperceptible "crunch" as a note starts. What is happening is that the player has the bow stationary on the string for a tiny fraction of second with the bow digging very slightly into the string (gravity with a truly relaxed bowing arm will do it) before he moves the bow. The tone produced is controlled right from the inception of the note. The violinist I have in mind as I write this is Eduard Grach performing Paganini's "Centone" sonatas, but you'll find any good violinist doing it.

September 18, 2016 at 12:58 AM · Corey, although Simon Fischer is wonderful and I believe his books will be the go-to references into the 22nd century and beyond, if you have a teacher, you should listen to what you are told. Don't try to get ahead of yourself.

Yes, there are strokes that start above the string, but there is no sound until the bow touches the string and you want the sound to be what you want it to be. So every musical sound actually starts on the string and the only time you will start off the string is if you are doing one of the more advanced bowings like spiccato and "brush strokes" (a kind of 'airplane-landings' spiccato controlled by the hand), sautille (a very fast spiccato controlled by the bow). Then there are the up and down bow staccato or spiccato boeings where the bow hair leaves, or seems to live the string multiple times in a single stroke. But everything starts with being able to control the bow on the string.

In the community orchestra I played in for 16 years, the principal 2nd violinist for the first years, and violin coach had retired from 20 years as principal 2nd violin with the San Francisco Symphony, and Concert Master Emeritus of the Marin Symphony (the local regional orchestra). He ALWAYS had us start with the bow on the string - even if the passage was going to involve off-string bowings. The bow doesn't have to be on the string for long in that case - how long depends on one's skill level, but it's the only way to assure a uniform start in an ensemble.

Read the rest of BASICS "lesson" 63 - there is enough to learn to do "on the string." I think Simon Fischer's books, especially "BASICS" and "THE VIOLIN LESSON" are life-long studies, not so much to be worked through as to study for understanding and solving particular problems, or at least to gain a particular perspective on them.

September 18, 2016 at 07:24 AM · She even said the other day that it's a violin playing cardinal rule, to have the bow on the string before sounding a note.

What am I missing here?

Probably a good teacher. You can't start spiccato on the string, or ricochet, and many bow strokes can start away from the string, even if it's only by a couple of millimetres (16th of an inch).

September 18, 2016 at 01:14 PM · Actually, I have heard Mimi Zweig argue that you should start spiccato from the string first and let it bounce from there. Ricochet, though; you don't have a choice on that one.

September 18, 2016 at 02:32 PM · Hi Corey, as your teacher suggests, there can be no sound until the hairs touch the string, but at the same time, bowing always starts away from the fiddle and so every kind of stroke involves a landing of sorts, whether just initially or repeatedly. When starting from the string you place the bow, pause for however long, then draw the bow (useful in ensemble playing when precision one with another is most important.) When starting from the air you draw the bow as soon as you land the bow (necessary for some types of strokes as has been mentioned, but also useful when you want a moving start for bow speed, or extra vertical impact for heavy articulation.) I'll take a look at Basics later and get back to you, but at first it's good to practice simply placing the bow on each string with sufficient pressure (of hair against each string, appropriate for the thickness, and or sound point) to draw a sound with a clean 'edge' to the start of the stroke, both down and up bow, at frog, middle and tip. Start at a mf dynamic. It sounds like a simple exercise, but involves a whole complex of controls which form the foundations of bowing technique. More later.

September 19, 2016 at 05:29 AM · Thanks all.

I definitely listen to my teacher. lol

September 19, 2016 at 11:56 AM · What others already said - but just to add this: there are different traditions which include different bow placements. The Viennese approach is from slightly above, like an airplane - a good one, with a more vowel-like approach to starting a note. (Think Vienna Philharmonic.) The French approach starts on the string, emphasizing a start like a consonant. (Also think Capet-Galamian-Zukerman: "catch, catch, catch" (and release).

Me? It depends on the nature of the music and what effect I want. For a student? What the teacher says.

As far as ambiguous wording in Simon Fisher, I'm sorry to say that reading through a number of his articles in The Strad in the past, my impression was of someone very knowledgeable who wanted to be very helpful - and yet someone who had a talent for sometimes making things sound more complicated than necessary.

September 19, 2016 at 12:15 PM · Would not starting on the string favor intonation and control in general?

September 19, 2016 at 01:07 PM · I am constantly reminded by my teacher to start on the is a difficult habit to break! In terms of preparation and being ready for the next measure, group or phrase it is invaluable. When your bow naturally moves to set and is almost there waiting for you to "catch up" everything is better, bow control, intonation, tone production and your ability to prepare again for the upcoming phrase. Since everything is working together as quickly as possible it allows much more freedom to prepare and focus on other things.


September 19, 2016 at 03:58 PM · Raphael, I didn't think there were other people that felt same way about Simon Fischer as I do. I personally find Flesch much easier to read through and glean from.

This was something I was wondering about. My spiccato is not exactly where I want it, but it seems like sometimes a piece of music will put a spiccato passage right after a passage that leaves my bow in a place where starting off the string is not an option, and that in higher parts of the bow, I can start spiccato with the first note being on the string.

I think I ran into some of this in the Kreisler P&A.

September 20, 2016 at 12:45 PM · Darlene - I don't see how starting on the string - or off the string for that matter - should affect intonation. That's the left hand - unless we hit the string really violently with the bow. Control, yes.

Both approaches require good control of different kinds. When I start on, I want a clean, crisp sound - no smudging, no even borderline scratch, like saying "to". When I start off, it's more like "oo" or "lu".

Starting from above does not mean dropping the bow vertically from an inch away. It usually involves holding the bow very slightly above the string and easing the bow into the string in a slight semi-circle at a bit of a sloping angle - again like landing a plane. And that does take control and practice. It all depends what effect I want. That slight sloping approach is the way I would start the Bruch #1 or the Meditation from Thais, down-bow.

September 20, 2016 at 02:13 PM · Of course, you are correct about intonation.

Sometimes I get confused with the rules.

Isn't there also a caution about fingering a note prior to sounding the string?

I am always trying to master all of this so I can afford to forget it (if you know what I mean).

I'm weak on having the bow (start) neatly track the string changes.

September 20, 2016 at 05:13 PM · With enough experience and advancement the bow and fingers coordinate almost simultaneously. But of course, if the bow gets there before the finger, it will play whatever was there before - an open string, the previous finger that may have been there.

September 20, 2016 at 05:43 PM · Cardinal rules are always dangerous. It's best to have lots of approaches and techniques. Catching the string as advised Zukerman and Raphael are good ones in the right situations. And I do also agree that bowing technique is extremely important and at least 80% of what you need in violin playing. (But you don't need an old French bow ...)

September 20, 2016 at 06:16 PM · My viola teacher has been after me to start on the string. I've played a lot of bluegrass fiddle, which often requires a more percussive style, and I had gotten into the habit of dropping the bow onto the string. This is fine if you're looking for a good rhythm chop, but often - especially in classical music - you need a more controlled beginning. My teacher has mentioned making that bit of a "crunch" at the start of a note, especially when accenting one of a group of notes, but it's a good exercise to practise while starting on the string. If there's time, I try now to concentrate on placing the bow on the string, then starting the note as a separate action.

September 20, 2016 at 06:56 PM · "Catching the string as advised Zukerman and Raphael are good ones in the right situations."

As much as I'm happy to be mentioned in the same sentence as Zukerman - and seemingly with equal footing! - kindly keep in mind that I'm also a big advocate of starting from slightly above the string as I've explained before, in other right situations.

September 20, 2016 at 07:00 PM · Point taken Raphael (no pun intended) - I do also remember you saying just that. Having various methods is the best way forward.And you can mention Heifetz and me in the same sentence if you like!!

September 21, 2016 at 08:56 AM · "Heifetz played the violin - and so does Peter!" ;-)

September 21, 2016 at 09:38 AM · Thanks Rafael!!

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