Tone improvement and bow hand sensation

August 3, 2017, 3:30 PM · Sorry about the clumsy title. I recall a respected pedagogue referencing feeling the bow hair on the string (in the bow hand). Can anyone elaborate? What are we sensing and how are we using this to improve tone? Can we obtain this on budget equipment?

Stay PAWsitIVE,


Replies (29)

Edited: August 3, 2017, 3:44 PM · It really is "A Thing"
It is why I was able to start playing cello on my own the first time I touched one after 10 years of violin playing. It is why I can switch from violin to viola with barely a thought about bowing.

One feels the friction between bow hair and strings and adjusts the sound based on what you hear and what you feel.

I have also found it to exist on cheap instruments and with cheap bows - but you do needed to have the proper amount of rosin and appropriate hair tension. But they won't sound the same!

Edited: August 3, 2017, 4:38 PM · So do we max the vibration we feel in the fingers of the bow hand?
Edited: August 3, 2017, 5:12 PM · David, you’ve asked an excellent question and your title is not clumsy either. As far as I can tell, tone production is often taught as, by and large, a bow control matter. Simon Fischer wrote excellent books on these techniques. So did Carl Flesch and many other great pedagogues. In addition, some teachers, such as mine, also stresses bow hand sensation in addition to these bow control techniques. It’s the direct feel of our bow fingers when we want to make certain colors, very much like when we use a paint brush to paint or doing calligraphy. The advantage of this approach is that it is kinesthetic and immediate: we are to think about how our bow hand is directly linked/making the sound we want, instead of focusing on the bow stick, hairs, strings and the bridge, all of which are the intermediaries between the sound we want to produce and how we control them to create the sound/colors. This may be a bit easier for little kids to perceive such subtle sensations but I learned this in my 40s from my current teacher. What worked for me is, when I want to make a certain sound, say, dolce, instead of thinking about vibrato (which should be used if appropriate), I tell myself to play dolce with my bow hand. In fact, whenever I want to beautify something, I tell myself do it with my bow hand. After a while, I started to feel and hear the difference more and more clearly. Not sure if this is helpful.

Edit: Just saw your post, David. I don't know what you mean by "max the vibration". When our fingers feel something, say our pulse, we learn to feel them but not maxing anything outside of us.

August 3, 2017, 5:19 PM · I was thinking about feeling the vibration of the bow, are you thinking resistance or balance or something else?
Edited: August 3, 2017, 6:26 PM · It's everything you feel with your fingers. Of course there are bow hand finger exercises one can use to improve the awareness and control of each finger, but hand sensation is achieved chiefly by directing your mind to the bow hand without trying to figure out what exactly your hand will feel. Empty any presumption. Try this, whenever you use vibrato to make a sound beautiful, listen very carefully and see to what extent you can achieve this sound with your bow hand first, then add vibrato, or not. Over time, your bow hand will tell you the feelings when you are producing certain sound.
August 3, 2017, 7:00 PM · Thanks, as an engineer I like hard data, as a musician, I rely on mood/energy. Lots to explore.
Edited: August 3, 2017, 10:52 PM · Yes, same here, as a law graduate and former policy advisor, I like analytical approach to solve problems. As a musician, I learn to let my body understand and do what needs to be done.
August 4, 2017, 9:16 AM · My Sukuki teacher training (I did not learn this way) included awakening the thumb. Being curved, instead of it being a fulcrum around which the fingers work, it could accompany the fingers in pivoting and balancing the bow, but also in shaping the attack and strength of tone.

Also, in France we have some useful terms:
- down-bows are "tirés": pulled away from the violin;
- up-bows are "poussés": pushed back onto the violin;
- "collés" strokes start "glued" (rather than "pressed") to the string;
- "sons filés" are spun like threads.

I like to hold the stick in my left hand, and feel the resistance in each hand while I "try" to pull, push, tip and roll the stick with my right fingers and thumb, vigorously at first, then with increasingly fine adjustments.

I am a little dismayed to find Pirastro promoting "stiff" and "bright" versions of their superb wound gut strings, as if we wanted gut to behave like steel!!

August 4, 2017, 9:30 AM · Interesting. I'm exploring up as in and down as out. My laptop recordings sound like a flute. Not so under the ear or at say 3 ft. Perhaps bright for me.
August 4, 2017, 10:39 AM · I use a musician's earplug in the left ear to "distance" myself from the sound. For the scratchiness, a ball of cotton-wool works well, too
August 4, 2017, 11:24 AM · Dave -- you feel the vibrations in your PAW. :)
Edited: August 4, 2017, 2:29 PM · So .... More thumb?

Now if I could get rid of the flute.

August 4, 2017, 11:50 PM · Active thumb.
August 4, 2017, 11:53 PM · See my comment on the other bow hold thread. Milstein did not bother with all the fancy wrist action.
August 5, 2017, 10:19 AM · Seems I mistakenly interpreted stick vibration as a relavent feed back. No?
Edited: August 5, 2017, 10:40 AM · Hi David, stick vibration is great feedback. By pressing radially into the centre of the stick you can dampen vibration and make the sound compressed. Moreover, you can stiffen finger action in all aspects. Instead try feeling pressure along the stick with friction. The twisting action between thumb and fingers gives you the leverage (into the tip) or counterbalance (at the frog) you need to draw an even sound. Pivots within the hand are important, probably more so than the curling and straightening of the fingers (as Milstein demonstrates.) Except in really loud, heavy bow strokes, especially with lots of string crossing at the frog, you want the bow to pivot between middle finger and thumb, controlled by the outer fingers. You want dynamic balance within the hand, like a see-saw, not static, like a table.
I would still teach passive and active finger/wrist motions as I still believe they're useful for the average learner.
Edited: August 5, 2017, 2:07 PM · Jeewon, I would love to hear what you think about this. I was taught that certain bowings, such as, colle and spiccato, flex fingers are the key. Also, regarding feeling the vibration of the bow stick,I find the feeling of the tips of the 2nd and 3rd fingers are special for colour. The thumb too, when tilting or lifting is required. Index the finger, while being super important, can be a troublemaker when being favored too much.
August 5, 2017, 11:31 AM · Instructions must be given based on the student's ability to understand/utilize them. For a beginner or a motor-deficient person, "feeling the bow hair on the strings" isn't a useful cue.

One can delve into the fine details of exactly what it means to "feel the bow hair on the string" but unless the cue almost immediately makes sense, then we're losing the whole point of the cue by over-analyzing/explaining it. The goal of a "cue" is to condense a lot of information into one small step, and by getting too buried in precisely what that information entails, we're essentially just wasting time.

Also, that particular cue could mean several different things, so it must be taken in context. So reading it out of a book doesn't help nearly as much as if a teacher was mentioning the cue in reference to something particular about your playing.

August 5, 2017, 12:53 PM · Thank you all. My take away is that the vibration of the bow stick in the hand is not of much use for tone improvement.
Stay pawSITive,
Edited: August 6, 2017, 3:13 AM · Hi Yixi, I was taught in the same way and would continue to teach coordinating all the joints in the shoulder/arm/hand/fingers. But I have also witnessed and experienced the exact opposite way of teaching, without reference to any physical technique whatsoever, used to great effect. And there are many artists who play with minimal action in the hand. I think there are trade offs, simplicity over efficiency, but in the end, all that really matters is the sound (and health, I suppose.)


I think learning to "feel the sound" is the most direct way to learning technique. It helps us focus on what our body 'feels like' while it's doing its thing, direct feedback to the quality of our movement. Also, learning to 'feel' the varying cushion in the stick/hair/strings is a more direct experience of bowing than thinking of lanes, or sound point, or direction/straightness of bow, etc., all of which adds a layer of abstraction. I like to focus on feeling the resistance or give of the strings. Being sensitive to the vibration of the stick while bowing is the positive way to tell yourself to stop squeezing (it's not a telling, which is also an abstraction; rather it's a feeling, which is more direct.)

August 6, 2017, 12:41 PM · Peter Charles mentioned Nathan Milstein a few posts back. There are few better visual examples of Milstein's bowing technique than his magnificent performance of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata in Sweden - he was in his 80's and played it from memory. Sadly, that was to be his last performance because a little time later he sufferred an injury to his left hand which prevented him from playing.

The video of that final performance is easy to find on YouTube.

Edited: August 6, 2017, 2:31 PM · Jeewon, thank you! For years, I didn't know what it means to feel the sound by hand and I sounded awful. But I hated it enough that kept me working at tone production, such as practicing Collé, Slow (15 and 30 seconds) long bowing while paying close attention to my sound and my hand feel. Then one day, I got it. I became a different player. I still have tons of other issues, but at least my teacher doesn't have to remind me about tone production so much any more. And I'm told by different teachers during recent masterclasses in Victoria Conservatory's Summer String Academy that I've got a "mature tone" (when playing Mendelssohn) and "a big romantic sound" (when playing Brahms).

So it is possible to improve one's tone at almost any age. The trick for me to get better is to hate what I hear (be it poor tone production, bad intonation or poor rhythm) so I won't let myself get away with it. This clearly won't work for everyone. Even a local well-respected teacher told me "don't beat yourself up so much" when I asked her input on my short-term and mid-term goals and strategies to achieve them. She probably didn't know that some of us thrive on challenges and would rather doing something else if things get too easy or sloppy.

Edited: August 7, 2017, 4:58 AM · Yixi, I agree tone production, all technique, can be drastically improved at any age. When I resumed studies at 27, my old teacher completely changed my tone by simply tweaking my wrist, giving the feeling of keeping my hand 'over the bow,' in one lesson!

I just read your earlier posts more carefully and see that you already mentioned everything I was trying to say :) Thank you!

August 7, 2017, 6:44 AM · Thanks so much Trevor for posting the details of that video of Milstein. What a performance at any age! And that bow arm was unique.

It goes to prove that all the points about finger movement and feeling the vibrations and wrist tweaking are unnecessary. He just bowed in a very simple way from the shoulder and that's it. No need for further discussion! End of story!

Edited: August 7, 2017, 4:03 PM · Jeewon, you give others way too much credit! You reminded me of a philosophy professor (Andrew Irvine) at UBC years ago, when my English was quite poor and I was really struggling to articulate my questions and/or comments in the classroom. He was always able to 'elaborate' what I was saying, only to make everything so clear and profound that beyond what I could ever thought of. When so many were trying to make other look less intelligent in a highly competitive academic setting, making other look smart like what Andrew did really shows what true excellence means.

Regarding your bow hand change, before you had changed it into "over the bow", how did you hold your wrist? I try to see if I need to do the same but it would be good to know the starting point/where it changed from. Thanks!

Edited: August 7, 2017, 6:41 PM · Hi Yixi, just sayin', you wrote it down first :)

I don't remember exactly, but I think in the upper half my wrist was overextended, so that it was below the hand and possibly "jammed" down (thereby raising the bow.) More than the shape of the wrist itself, the importance of having the hand over the stick lies in transferring weight of the arm (whole arm, or forearm, or even just the hand) onto the stick, for a solid tone; it's all about leverage.

All motions are relative. You can extend the wrist by raising the hand, or by lowering the forearm. If you raise the hand, you lift the bow. If you lower the forearm, the bow stays on the string. In a similar way, you can flex the wrist by raising the forearm; the bow stays on the string, but since you lifted the weight of the forearm, nothing transfers to the stick. If you lower the hand to flex the wrist, the bow is pushed down into the strings. Now if you combine those, raise the forearm while pushing down slightly with the hand, you are transferring weight onto the stick. So by judiciously adjusting those parameters over the length of the bow you adjust how much weight is transferred to the stick (all this without even talking about pronation.)

In terms of what bowing a solid f long tone feels like in the hand, you can feel a tugging sensation in the joints of the base knuckles and wrist, extending on a down bow, and flexing on an up bow, to the degree you allow motion through the wrist/base knuckles.

August 7, 2017, 11:44 PM · Ah, I understand the problem with the wrist below the hand. It's easy to happen, like pushing or kneading a dough. Raising the forearm we can pull better. But I'm not sure I've got the tugging feel when drawing long bow, Jeewon. Will do some experiment.
Edited: August 8, 2017, 4:27 AM · To feel the tugging at the joints you have to yield to the motion of the arm. When the arm pulls, allow the wrist and base knuckles to be extended, opened. If you fight the motion by flexing, tightening, then you won't feel it. As you push, allow flexion. A good way to practice this is to use Adrian's exercise above. Or you can bow on open strings but add some resistance by pressing the bow into the strings with the left hand (or get someone to do that for you.) By feeling the joints yield to the motion of the arm, you get the most open, resonant sound, completely from the weight of the arm. If you add resistance with the joints, you add pressure, slight compression for a more dense sound.
Edited: August 9, 2017, 6:03 PM · Got it! Amazing. Thank you Jeewon!

Edit: I just got back from a concert where the Dover Quartet performed entire three quartets by Schumann. Where I sat, I could see really clearly the bow hand of the first violinist (Joel Link), an amazing player, goes without saying. His bow hand was extremely relaxed throughout the entire evening, even when the sound was most intense. I thought my hand was relaxed, apparently there is plenty room for improvement.

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