A new (OLD) way of playing the violin!

September 29, 2016 at 11:23 PM · Is it worth taking a look at how people played up until about 1840 approx? How the violin is held, how the bow and bow arm are used, and left hand use?

Just for starters, having a low bow arm and more wrist action might make playing a lot easier.

Look at this link, at around the 40 minute mark, where this is discussed.


Replies (25)

October 4, 2016 at 08:02 PM · So much for that then!

October 4, 2016 at 09:39 PM · What is the definition of a low bow arm? I Play with my elbow a bit lower than my wrist; is that what is meant by a low bow arm? Or does that mean as close to perpendicular as possible? If someone could approximate the angle curvature for the wrist in a low arm position that would be appreciated.

October 4, 2016 at 10:42 PM · I haven't made it through the entire video, but it is fascinating, especially since it is presented Peter Sheppard Skærved.

October 5, 2016 at 12:18 AM · @Bailey Tincher

This can be a low bow arm

(Picture take from Ecole du Violon, Delphin Alard 1848).

October 5, 2016 at 12:50 AM · Wouldn't there be a lot of wrist tension with a grip like that?

October 5, 2016 at 03:15 AM · Sometimes when my arthritis acts up, I adopt a grip similar to the picture (not the low arm position thought). There is no tension throughout the fingers and wrist.

If you watch the video posted by Peter, you will see Skærved demonstrate a similar grip with a steel bow marketed by Vuillaume and Paganini, along with the advantages and disadvantages compared to a modern grip.

No one will ever accuse me of being a virtuoso, so anything that is comfortable and results in a decent, consistent tone has my vote. >grin<

October 5, 2016 at 05:34 AM · I think the elbow can be lower than the wrist. Often dropping it a bit can help fast string crossings and fast short notes. For long legato strokes maybe a bit higher.

People who commented on Paganini's London concerts in 1840 mention that he seemed to have both hands flapping a lot. Also that he had a small sound.

I'm not necessarily advocating this, but it's worth considering. It is probably best for players in the early stages of learning to only consider these things in conjunction with their teacher. I don't want to get the blame for confusion or a messed up bowing technique.

I met Peter Sheppard Skærved twice recently and I hope to see him again and take these things up even further. A lot of Baroque players play like this and the one thing they are sometimes good at is fast playing and complicated string crossing. Their legato and sound leave a lot to be desired (in my opinion) but we can at least take the positives and give them a try.

PS There should be no wrist tension as long as the wrist is not being pushed in any extreme way. I can play all day with a slightly bent wrist and lower bow arm.

October 5, 2016 at 10:01 PM · Note that in the Alard illustrations that there is no shoulder rest shown, which of course was not around until the 1950s, and no chin rest either - and that was more than 20 years after its invention by Louis Spohr.

It is worth observing that up to the Spohr/Alard era composers, most of whom played the violin, wrote violin parts with escape routes to assist the player in coming down safely from a high position. They composed to earn money so there was no point in composing otherwise unplayable music.

If you analyse a typical orchestral violin part these escape routes appear as a short rest or an open string, giving the player time to down-shift comfortably. You may also see composers taking advantage of finger patterns to enable an extended descending or ascending passage to be easily playable across the strings in one or two high positions instead of shifting down the positions - another escape route. It is worth looking for these patterns whether or not you play with a SR and CR.

October 5, 2016 at 11:37 PM · I do not see what is the point of this discussion. If you attend Tafelmusik concert, (or watch their video on you tube) you will see that almost all players have their unique way of holding the violin and approach to right arm technique. None of them uses SR or CR, but there are pads and chamois under the violin. I honestly thought that we are past cookie-cutters solution to ergonomics of playing this instrument.

October 6, 2016 at 07:04 AM · The discussion is because I decided to open my mind rather than having it closed - which then opens up possibilities for easier and better violin playing. But of course some people may not wish to look at new angles and just continue down the well worn path that leads to the same old way of doing things.

Everyone to their own prejudices - but I'll stick to mine for the time being.

P S Good post in my opinion Trevor!

October 7, 2016 at 02:35 AM · I play with my arm below my wrist, as per my naturally short arms.

String crossings are easy, as is getting a big sound with arm weight (No, I dont use an SR).

October 7, 2016 at 06:56 AM · Thanks - helpful comment!

October 7, 2016 at 10:35 AM · See in the Alard illustration where the player's chin is located - a location where it would be of assistance in stabilising the instrument in down shifts. Admittedly, it is isn't a (posed) photograph, but before the advent of photographs in instruction books the reader would have had to rely on the artist's professional skills in accurately depicting reality.

The essential point about stable down-shifting is that the sliding forces between the left hand and the neck should be less than any weight and friction forces applied by the chin on the instrument. The more relaxed and tension-free the left hand and arm the less contact friction and pressure by the chin is needed. This is why shifting by good players looks so easy and effortless - because it really is.

October 7, 2016 at 10:45 AM · Trevor - that makes a lot of sense. The easier we can make playing, and the less strain the better.

One problem for people (including myself) is that we make violin playing hard. There usually is an easier option, with holding, shifting, extensions etc. And as soon as you put on too much bow pressure the more the instrument needs to be held up, and the left hand tenses in sympathy.

October 20, 2016 at 11:45 AM · Peter, I think it's well worth discussing. Here's an interesting article I came across a few years back on the subject. Will have a look at the video later.

October 20, 2016 at 12:25 PM · fantastically interesting and thorough article, thanks, Jeewon, for the pointer!

October 20, 2016 at 01:41 PM · Thanks also, Jeewon. The final paragraph of the article is illuminating.

I've placed a link to the article on my computer for easy reference.

October 20, 2016 at 03:40 PM · Tanks Jeewon for your support on this subject, and I have also put a link to study further the very interesting article.

I hope to pursue the matter a bit more and maybe experiment myself with the violin a bit more and come back on this.

October 21, 2016 at 12:42 PM · What should also be considered is posture when sitting, as most of us perforce must do when playing in orchestras or other ensembles - in this respect the playing standing up ethos of many Baroque bands is to be commended.

October 21, 2016 at 01:58 PM · That's a good point Trevor. There doesn't seem to be much written about how to play comfortably while sitting.

Haven't had time yet to watch the whole video, but it looks very interesting. Thanks for posting about it Peter. During my studies I came across a small book on Paganini's way of playing (with respect to playing posture and technique) which I can't seem to find any more. It was a reproduction of a typewritten manuscript which, if I remember correctly, described what Sheppard Skaerved demonstrates. Wish I could find it.

For me, having to relearn my playing setup completely following injury has made me appreciate alternate ways of playing, particularly historical approaches, which have been eschewed by each subsequent generation presumptuously. I wish I'd had access to more than one approach 20 years ago.

Strad article on Ricci's thoughts:


October 22, 2016 at 12:19 PM · A year ago I was in a rehearsal for a big carol concert, the first rehearsal for the orchestra being in the church crypt. Unfortunately, the only chairs in the crypt were those dreadful plastic bucket seats. Mine gave me a bad back that lasted for three or four days. I very rarely get back problems, but this was certainly one of them. I mentioned it to the organiser/conductor (herself a violinist), who was very sympathetic and said she would arrange decent seating for us this year - she confirmed this in an email a few days ago, so the message got through.

The best orchestral seating I've experienced is that supplied in Bristol's St George's Hall, which is used regularly by the BBC and many other professional and amateur ensembles. The seats are flat, upholstered and firm, the right height for most, and metal framed which ensures stability.

October 22, 2016 at 03:08 PM · Hi,

I think that it is good to keep an open mind. I do find that there are some things that one should keep in mind, and some older approaches that may be beneficial...

1- Natural hand positions. I find that some of the older traditional guidelines for setting the hands naturally (like in Flesch's Art of Violin Playing) helpful in overcoming problems of tension. The three main ones that I find that have been most useful for me are the setting the left hand on the base of the first finger & allowing the thumb to come up to its natural height on the left side, and not overspreading the fingers on the right hand side.

2- The over-rotation of the left elbow to the right. This seems to have come along with the advent of the chinrest, but I find it adds of lot of tension and I am not convinced that it is necessary. It also detracts from shifting in and out or forward and back.

3- Excess bow pressure. Like Peter mentioned above, excess bow pressure creates problems on both sides. I don't know if this is the result of the overspread of right hand fingers, and less flexible modern strings, but I find that the older players seemed to emphasize more the bow being moved by the hand/arm rather than the fingers, with the weight coming from the arm, rather than the pressure of the fingers.

4- Intermediate notes. In the past there was more emphasis on these as part of planning and controlling shifts and intonation, and I find this concept really useful.

Other thoughts...

I think that the right hand wrist thing is more a question of arm geometry that has to do with the ratios of length of the forearm and upper arm. The more even the length, the more possible a flat wrist will be. The longer the forearm in relation to the upper arm, the more likely that the wrist will have to bend at the frog.

The seating thing - often in orchestras, we try to have the chair facing to the podium, and then cramming the left shoulder in to accommodate. Personally, I find that setting the chair so that the violin/playing angles are correct avoids a lot of problems. In most instances, the chair will veer or point to the right by a certain angle, while the violin and stance will look forward correctly. I find that this alone can save a great many of the back problems that people experience. In my very humble opinion, this can make an even greater difference then the kind of chair used in most instances.

Have to run, but just some thoughts on this topic.


October 24, 2016 at 06:06 AM · Just played an orchestra concert tonight in plastic broad-bottomed bucket seats. Backache despite precautionary Advil. Sigh.

At home, I have a quartet's worth of proper Wenger chairs -- Nota ConBrio Premier chairs, including one at a slightly lower than standard height to accommodate my short height, plus a cellist's chair. Much more comfortable way to spend a few hours seated.

October 24, 2016 at 03:07 PM · Returning to the Alard illustrations, it will be seen that a coat with substantial lapels was worn, as was the fashion. This would have provided additional support for a violin held horizonatally as shown, but a violin held pointing downwards would tend to slide and would need more support and grip from the left hand - detrimental to efficient technique.

Coats were worn because houses were generally a lot cooler than they are today. Remember the advice that wine is best served at room temperature? Then, room temperature would have mostly been 10° or less, whereas today it is more in the region of 21° - not the best for serving wine.

Another important feature is the tailpiece. I believe the tailpiece then was flatter transversely than it is today because it was not designed for microtuners, either integral or add-on. I have on my Jay Haide such a "baroque" ebony tailpiece, made by a local luthier, and I can assure you that it is a very comfortable substitute for a chinrest, which is now no longer needed with this tailpiece. Furthermore it is lighter than the modern one it replaced, and, being shorter, provides more scope for afterlength adjustment. In reality, as supplied, mine gives the correct theoretical afterlength (for what that's worth!). Some may see it a drawback that such a tailpiece is designed for gut strings and microtuners cannot be used with it. It is not a drawback for me because the Jay Haide now gives, with the baroque tailpiece and Chorda gut strings, its best tone ever - and I've tried many synthetics and steel strings over the years. Of course, if it is necessary to use a steel E on a baroque tailpiece then there is always the option to use one of the geared E-pegs (just don't discuss it in polite company!).

Someone, either on this thread or another one, raised the objection that using a tailpiece as a chinrest will affect the tuning. To that I would say that chin/jaw contact is at the end closest to the player, and the leverage at that short distance from the end button would be such that an almost impossible, and very uncomfortable, pressure would need to be applied in order to have an effect on the tuning. In actuality, if the violin is in the Alard position, the amount of pressure required is no more than a light frictional touch, and that only in down shifts.

The modern, narrow and more cylindrical, design of tailpiece is a little more difficult to use as a "chinrest", but it can be done well enough if the chin/jaw contact is divided between the tailpiece and the wood of the lower bout on either side. Here again, the Alard position is to be recommended.

October 25, 2016 at 02:35 PM · Here is a link to a photo of the baroque chinrest on my Jay Haide, that I referred to in my previous post.


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