How Important is the Bow?? Setting bow tension.

September 8, 2006 at 06:33 AM · I am an old timer who Just got started with the Violin and am wondering how important the quality of the bow is in playing well and the correct way to tell if the bow hair tension is correct. Any help from you folks would certainly be greatly appreciated!

Replies (22)

September 8, 2006 at 08:44 AM · I usually tell my students that if you hold your pinky finger parrallel to the bow, the distance from fingernail to pad should be about right.

However, it must be adjusted for everyone. Best to err on the side of looseness, as if it's too tight, the hair won't be able to bend and wrap around the string. I've had people tell me to only do it up as much as is neccessary to have the hairs look tight. If you can't bottom out, it's too tight (bottom out=have the wood touch the string).

Bow quality is important, a good quality bow provides a good quality sound - if you know how to use it that is. You can never spend too much time on your bow hand/strokes

September 8, 2006 at 12:46 PM · >If you can't bottom out, it's too tight (bottom out=have the wood touch the string).

Oh my goodness, I wouldn't have guessed. My teacher has commented once before that I needed to loosen the tension just a bit, and now I realize that I like it far more tight than I should have it. I've hated that "bottom out" feeling and have tightened the bow to avoid it. That tiny little gritch of the hair against the bow wood just feels all wrong (to this adult beginner).

An eye opener. Thanks, Ben. And thanks, Daniel, for posting this interesting question. Hope you get other replies.

September 8, 2006 at 04:37 PM · Eventhough I agree with Ben, Fritz Kreisler was known to play with alot of tension on his bow. In fact, people say it was as straight as an arrow (bow hair to stick=very tight hair tension on bow).

He also liked to play very much in the middle to upper half of the bow.

A good or great bow makes light years of difference in everything one is trying to do on the instrument.

September 8, 2006 at 04:52 PM · Speaking of bows, what would be the best way to describe the physical appearance and playing qualities of a stick from the hands of Francois Tourte?

September 8, 2006 at 08:44 PM · Greetings,

Ben is correct but with the qualifier that he is only correct from his position and everyone else who occupies it ;). What I mean by this is there is no answer to this question. It depends to a great extent on which school of playing you occupy. The pure Franco Belgian school uses very tight hair and the Russian much looser. As a consequence the way the bow is used changes. Roughly, the loosser the hair the flatter one keeps it on the string. Proponents of looser , flatter hair argue that the greater contact akes for a bigger sound. When I was at RCM Jaroslav Vanacek taught his studnets looser hair and they had huge sounds. Proponents of the tight hair argue that using a wide band of hair on the string chokes the conatct point where the bow touches the string and they also prodce a huge sound. Oistrakh for example didn't exactly sound small....

One difference between tight versus loose is it is slightly easier to produce sprung strokes form the extra tension.

About the bets ruleof thumb I cna think of is to keep the gap between hair and stick about the same as the width of the stick. Then experiment up or down in tension always keepng in mind the fundaental and oft ignored rtule of a good sound:the bow i pushed and pulled , not pressed.



September 8, 2006 at 09:18 PM · Gil Shaham also plays with very tight bow tension. I've also seen some pictures of Grumiaux with very tight bowhair.

September 8, 2006 at 09:53 PM · I'm not sure if there's one correct bow tension. It all depends on one's playing style.

There are good arguments to doing it with high or low tension. I prefer low.

John Thornton, I can't speak for the physical appearance properties of Tourte bows other than to say that I think they're marvelously graceful looking. As far as sound, the Tourtes I've tried sound to me as if there's a warm fuzziness around the centrally pure note. I'd love to take a spectrum analyzer to a Tourte and see if there are overtones being produced that the human ear hears but can't isolate.

September 8, 2006 at 10:07 PM · A stiff bow works well (especially with a beginner) and doesn't need to be too tight to keep the proper tension, while a "noodle" is a "noodle" no matter how much you tighten (over-tighten) it. Tightening the bow too much removes the camber and can harm the bow, especially if left tightened for long periods. I have heard that on some newer carbon fiber bows, a better sound (an oxy-moron??) can be had by keeping the bow tension less than you would with a normal pernambuco bow.

September 8, 2006 at 10:23 PM · Thank you all for the excellant advice on bow tension setting and the quality of a bow. I found a Eugen Meinel (Germany) bow stick in my Dad's old violin case...Now I better get some good hair on it and try it.

Thanks for your time and consideration !!

September 9, 2006 at 03:42 AM · The quality of the bow is very important. Most beginners are shocked at the idea of spending a few hundred dollars on a bow. When you buy a starter violin, even a good one (not from ebay, not used as rentals for schoolchildren), the bow is usually the first part of the outfit that you need to upgrade.

A long time ago, I was taught to test the tightness of the bow by bouncing the hair part on the back of my wrist. It should bounce, and you should not be able to feel the stick touch your wrist. I wonder whether anybody else has heard this or used it as a test.

I use much less tension on my carbon fibre bow than I do on wood bows. I don't know why this should be, but it is a dramatic difference.

September 13, 2006 at 04:35 PM · Angelo - When do you know if a bow is a noodle? We are trying out a bow for my daughter. It sounds nice on her violin, and she says it is easy to play. The only thing is that she has to tighten the bow until the stick is almost straight if she wants to avoid hair touching the stick in playing double stops. Is it a noodle? And is it bad if it is? Or maybe she is pressing down too much.


September 13, 2006 at 11:00 PM · Greetings,

it may well be a noodle. Try afew more...



September 14, 2006 at 02:44 PM · Too bad, it looks rather elegant with a skinny stick. A fake LAMY.


September 14, 2006 at 04:23 PM · >He also liked to play very much in the middle to upper half of the bow.

Interesting point, Gennady. I find myself doing this all the time - is it a common thing for a beginner to avoid playing close to the frog? I keep trying to use the whole bow when the notes/music calls for it, but it seems I'm always reverting to that comfort zone of middle to upper half. Are there players who prefer playing in the lower half, or is it an acquired habit?

September 14, 2006 at 11:16 PM · Greetings,

it is a common thing for players of all levels including the very best, at times, to avoid playing near the frog.

My teacher was taught by Sammons who told him `master the heel and you have mastered the bow.`

In my own teahcing I appraoch adults and children a little differnetly on this question. Playing at the heel can strain the litlte finger and arm without a good biuld up of strehgnth which is why children work towards this area rather slowly with me. However, for adults, I have adopted the approach which seems a little more weighted towards soviet pedagogy these day , in which the whole bow and loer half is introducved as soon as possible. A great dela of wprk is done to control the lower half so that after six months I expect my students to do fairly rapid whole bows fluently.This has a useful effetc in confidence buislding and keeping the back muscles open and involved in the playing.

For somebody who comes ot me with too heavy a bowing arm have them play a lot of etudes int he lower hald over the finger board.

You might find it interesting to spend, for example, awhole weekebnd or week even, practicing scale sand etudes only in the lower half. However, be careful of overloading the little finger. Take a lot of breaks and practic ein short bursts.



September 15, 2006 at 01:03 PM · "For somebody who comes ot me with too heavy a bowing arm have them play a lot of etudes in the lower half over the finger board."

My daughter may not be ready fot this yet, but it would be very useful for her, What do you mean - the lower half over the finger board. How far down the finger board from the bridge? Thanks.

September 15, 2006 at 11:01 PM · Greetings,

if your daughte ris working on double stops then she should be working at the heel of the bow in small amounts every day. In the bok `Fundamentals of Soviet Technique@ (sorry, need to check the name again) it is argued that the heel should ne used right from the beginning asopposed to the currnet trend of beginning at the position where the arm is in a square shape.

There are five `lanes` between the bridge and begiining of the finger board. One has to learn the corretc bow speed an dpressure for each note one is playing in each lane. The lane I am refrring to in this dicussion is where the fingerboard actually begins.

Incidenatlly, in first position the lanes are found by dividing the spac ebetween the bridge and the fingerboardd evenly. However, as one nmoves into the higher position the string length shortens which means taht althouhg there are still five lanes with the same equal space between each other they are actually clupmed closer together and nearer the bride. The closer to the bridge the higher the 5 lanes are situated.



September 16, 2006 at 08:03 PM · Thank you! We'll try that.

September 16, 2006 at 08:49 PM · While it is more common to have students be uncomfortable playing at the frog, I have encountered many also that love to play at the frog and are uncomfortable in the upper half. Rarely do I see a student who is naturally comfortable using the whole bow. I agree with Buri though. Teaching students to be comfortable using the entire bow (various bow distributions and speeds throughout the bow) is vital and should be done as early a possible. I've seen many "advanced" students who play only in the upper half because they waited to long to start working on developing a free and full bowing arm.

September 16, 2006 at 10:18 PM · Thanks, Laura. My daughter is a kid "with a heavy bow arm'" who could use "opening up back muscles". She neglected her bow arm, and we are scrambling to catch up on that. She doesn't show discomfort anywhere on the bow. But her bow doesn't flow and there is something awkward about her bow.


September 16, 2006 at 11:43 PM · Having a reasonable bow is very important. As with most things in life "everything affects everything else". Without a good (enough) bow, nothing else will develop properly - even left hand, much less tone and sound production, and development of the different bow strokes.

My own development was hindered through all my productive years of learning because of a bad bow. No-one ever told me it was bad. I'm not a teacher, but I would have thought a bad bow might be OK for the first few months, but after that a learner needs to upgrade violin and bow periodically to a set-up which gives more "head-room" for development.

Fortunately, there seem to be lots of affordable bows and violins for students these days. (Would you beleive I had my "first" violin, shoulder rest, bow, cake of Hill rosin, and bow hair for about 20 years...). Hmmmm.

September 18, 2006 at 03:33 AM · It seems when I play the violin using a bow with not to much tension, my tone is more warmer and the bow is easier to control, especially at the frog. It feels as though the bow is just sinking into the strings. On the other hand, I do at times experience using the bow more tensed. Using the bow this way seems to produce more tone, but not as warm. This just could be me. Interesting post.

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