Teaching a straight bow

September 26, 2017, 9:58 AM · What exercises do you use to help a student develop a "straight" bow stroke, or in other words a bow stroke in which the bow stays parallel to the bridge?

Replies (24)

Edited: September 26, 2017, 10:18 AM · I'm not a teacher, and this is probably pretty obvious, but for some reason I hadn't been practicing in front of a mirror for a while, and recently, practicing in front of a mirror has been really helpful in me drawing a straight bow. I've been able to work on my bow distribution on Schradieck doing 4, 8, 16, 32 notes per bow and listening to make sure my sound is nice. So this isn't really anything new, but the feedback from the mirror is immediate and really helps.

My problem seems to be using the wrong parts of my arm at different points in the bow, so I have been working on drawing out from the elbow in detache in the top half of the bow while keeping as quiet (but relaxed) shoulder as possible, and then working with more of a finger/wrist/forearm motion in the lower parts of the bow, where my tendency is move my elbow/shoulder too much and throw off the straight path of the bow. (Although it seems like different teachers teach using varying parts of the arm and shoulder for different strokes or just drawing the bow in general)

It seems like I can have more explicit control over the bow path when I'm pressing down, but if I really let off the bow completely so that it could almost fall down, it seems to reflect my "set-up" more accurately - If I'm not drawing the bow straight, it slides all over the place, and I can work on drawing the bow straight based on the correct structure of my arm, and not from compensating at my bowgrip. Hopefully this makes sense. I always need to remind myself to really practice-in harder passages, where I sometimes fall back on old habits when things get hairy.

Right now I'm working on the passage work in the 3rd movt. of Wieniawski #2, and the spiccato has just about all the same issues, so I'm finding I really need to master it all in detache before I complicate it, and hopefully the straight-bowing work will transfer so I don't have to redo a lot of it in spiccato.

Edited: September 26, 2017, 10:31 AM · In my experience a lot of self-teaching can be gained by having students spend a little time using one of those "sounding-poinbowing t guides" that prevents the bow from going outside the usual range of sounding points" (i.e., that part of the C-bout area).

This bow guide that SHAR sells is an example ( https://www.sharmusic.com/Accessories/Teaching-Aids/Bow-Force---Bow-Training-Aid.axd ), but they and other dealers also sell similar, less expensive devices.

If they are not bowing "straight" the bow will hit the guide. This can help the student learn the proper angle at which to position the instrument for proper bowing with their personal physical dimensions. Of course they also must learn that "straight bowing" does not mean "straight arm," but rather constant change in wrist-forearm-elbow-upper arm relationships as they go from frog to tip and back again --and also how to change sounding-point without watching.

In my opinion, the teacher should own one (or more) to lend to students when deemed needed and take them back when their purpose has been served - like intonation tapes, they are not something you want students to become dependent on.

I must confess I used one myself just a couple of years ago to correct my bowing - by repositioning the angle at which i held my instruments (violin and viola). I had never tried one before in 75 years of playing and I probably used it for only a few minutes - but it did serve my purpose.

September 26, 2017, 1:56 PM · I have a really good method for this, actually, IF we're talking about teaching it to a brand-new beginner! Of course this won't be applicable to experienced students.

(as a side note, I don't generally believe in physical training aids or guides except in cases of students with deplorable motor skills, as they don't train the correct self-regulation within the muscles...take the guide away and their old habit will bounce right back.... with that said, there are cases there they can be helpful).


1) Have them set the bow on the D-string, about 3" from the frog... it should be close to the balance point.

2) Have them imagine a "laser" shooting through the bow in a straight line, in the direction of the frog. Where does the laser hit the ground/wall/whatever? (at this point, they are looking to their RIGHT with their eyes, to try to see where the laser hits)

3) Once they're identified this "target," have them bow directly AT that target, and don't stop until the bow has reached the tip. Oftentimes, I will help them identify that target and cup my hands into a target that they can bow at. I tell them to keep bowing until they have PHYSICALLY hit my hands. The bow should be a SINGLE, smooth motion that doesn't slow down until the movement has completely stopped (about 1-2 seconds to go from balance point to tip)

4) Now, we are at the tip. We must envision a laser shooting through the bow in the OTHER direction. However, the head can't turn that far, so we have to see it in the mind's eye instead. STAB the tip directly AT the target. The student should be thinking about the trajectory of the TIP of the bow, NOT their hand. Continue in a fairly fast motion (about 1-2 seconds) until the original starting point of the bow is reached.

5) The student must ALWAYS stop completely between the up-bow and down-bow motions, so they can mentally/physically reset and prepare to bow at each target, respectively. A minimum of 5 seconds should be taken between up-bows and down-bows.

6) Once the basic up-bow and down-bow motions have been learned, we can have the student observe the soundpoint of the bow with their EYES, and simultaneously direct the trajectory of the bow with their MIND'S EYE. This way, they're not wandering all over the place while the bow moves in a straight line.

There are more details to this method than I can easily list here, without knowing the student more, regarding age, experience, length of arms, anthropometry, body awareness, etc...

But the general idea is the important thing: we're thinking about where the bow is GOING, rather than where it is at. This is very similar to when we learn to drive a car on the freeway. We look far down the road into the distance, and try to drive AT that point, even through it's many seconds/minutes away from us. This keeps us moving in a straight line.

With this method, I also encourage the student to think more about trajectory/momentum in the bow movement, rather than regulating pressure in the strings. It's almost as if we're thinking of gently "tossing" or "pushing" the bow in a direction, while it glides on the surface on the string, like a hockey puck gently pushed on an icy lake.

Also, this method works for the general majority of new students, but some need a more "bite-size" approach to understand the motions of the bow. For these, I generally have them set the bow in the literal MIDDLE of the bow on the D-string, and gradually work their way out from the middle. 1" downbow, then cross the middle and 1" upbow. Repeat this until it's controlled, then 2" down and 2" up. So on and so forth, until they can effectively use at least 5" of the bow in EACH direction. At this point, I might start talking about the "laser method" with them.

September 26, 2017, 2:04 PM · What worked for me is the image, put forward by Drew Lecher, that you are actually bowing along a huge circle whose center is located at the scroll (the precise radius of the imaginary circle depends on the contact point). At all times you imagine that your bow ought to be tangential to that circle. It is just an image but that is what did it for me. I'm sure different ideas work for different students.
September 26, 2017, 3:03 PM · But then bowing in a straight line is not the optimum.
There is a lesson where Pinchas Zukerman says this on you tube somewhere. It is some kind of crescent or ellipse, or stirring or something that is best dynamically - not quite a simple straight line - although perhaps this is not good to confuse an early student with?
Edited: September 27, 2017, 6:11 AM · This is the exercise for acquiring a straight bowing action that my teacher showed me some years ago, and it worked like a charm. All you need is an area of vertical wall space with a smooth flat surface. Violin and bow are not required.

1) Stand facing the wall at a distance of no more than half a forearm's length.
2) Turn through 45 degrees so that your left shoulder is touching the wall.
3) Pretend you're holding a bow with your right hand. Slide the knuckles of that hand down the wall from in front of your face downwards and as far to the right as your hand can reach (your right arm should be straight at that point). And back again. Repeat as necessary. The line your right hand follows should be about 45 degrees downwards.

The exercise ensures that your right hand is following the ideal straight line for bowing, and teaches it to you.

When you've got accustomed to the movement try it with a real bow on the violin. And smile.

NB. The exercise is probably best done initially under the supervision of the teacher so that the smoothness of the right arm and wrist action can be checked out, together with posture.

September 27, 2017, 8:53 AM · The following is from Galamian's book on violin playing concerning the "slightly slanted stroke".

"It is a fact that in drawing a singing tone…the most resonant sound will be produced when the bow is at an extremely slight angle with the bridge-in such a fashion that the point of the bow is always a little more toward the fingerboard and the frog slightly closer to the players body. The bow thus takes an ever-so slight turn in the clockwise direction. The angle of slant is always the same and does not change from down-bow to up=bow. Technically , the bow should follow an identical path on both strokes, down and up. A slant in the opposite direction, the point nearer the bridge and the frog farther away, produces generally inferior tonal results.”

September 27, 2017, 10:52 AM · I guess I should probably ask: why are you asking this question in the first place?
September 27, 2017, 10:52 AM · What worked for me was the image that someone is pulling and pushing my bowhand in a straight line down and up.
And my teacher encouraged me for an exercise to bow full blast with lots of energy. I am still doing this exercise. I guess that stopped me bowing hesitantly with a weak tone. Somehow it also straightened my bowing.
Looking in the mirror did not work for me.
September 27, 2017, 1:12 PM · I saw this violin attachment online that's supposed to keep the bow straight. It's like those beginner walls on bowling alleys. Does anyone have experience using that?
September 28, 2017, 6:32 AM · Erik: The reason I ask is because I teach a violin pedagogy class for music education string players and I am always looking for new or different ways to solve technical problems to pass on to students.
September 28, 2017, 6:43 AM · I don't think this has been mentioned yet, but I ask them to focus their attention on the contact point and try to keep their bow in the same place on the string throughout the whole bow. Many young students get confused when bowing in the mirror, and after all, the whole point of a straight bow in the first place is to keep a consistent contact point so it sounds good.
In the beginning, I also move the bow for the student a lot (hold the bow somewhere in the middle (while they hold it normally) and draw it straight. I have them close their eyes the 2nd or 3rd time and try to memorize how their hand/arm feel when the bow is straight.
September 28, 2017, 6:44 AM · Practice in front of mirror. I learned how to tilt my bow an unusual way so I can't really say anything but to practice in front of a mirror.
September 28, 2017, 7:04 AM · I have noticed, virtually without exception, that virtuoso violin soloists bows are angled slightly as they reach the tip. This causes a change in the sounding point that quiets any noise of bowing direction change.

I have wondered if they do this because their arms are too short to maintain a straight bow or because of the acoustic effect. Does anyone know for sure?

September 28, 2017, 1:33 PM · The slight angling at the tip, that Andrew mentions, is something obviously to be aimed for. However, I'd say it comes under the heading of advanced technique and before the student can execute it well they should have acquired the control for a full length straight bow first.

Some people have problems with practising in front of a mirror - I know I do - perhaps because the brain has to do extra work to reinterpret the reversed image. What I have found easier to deal with is a video camera image viewed on a monitor screen, then I know I'm seeing what an audience would see. The only drawback is there might be a very slight delay, or latency, between the player and their screen image, but nothing to worry about for practising purposes.

September 29, 2017, 1:57 PM · Thinking like an engineer, I've seen and addressed the problem. The problem is the tendency to lock joints. Most beginners start bowing from the shoulder and it takes time to address that by using the elbow instead. The next problem is the wrist, which has to rotate in order to keep the bow straight. I've found that teaching a bit of over-rotation of the wrist eventually settles down to just the right amount to keep the bow straight
September 29, 2017, 3:17 PM · I'm not a teacher, but I figured this out by myself early on as a child: just look at space between the bridge and the angle of the bow hair, listen to the sound variation to determine whether my bow is on the right track.
October 4, 2017, 9:31 PM · My teacher used to teach young students by making a tube or something out of paper about the thickness of a bow, sending a thread through it, and tying it at sides of the room so that the student will move the makeshift bow nowhere but straight. I think this method would help students by making bow movement kind of stick.
October 5, 2017, 5:41 AM · I was taught to bow "straight." Then a couple of years ago I noticed in a pair of videos of Renaud Capucon playing the Beethoven Romances (easily found on youtube), he was playing the staccato 16th note passages with his bow at a lot of angles. I asked about it in a thread, and many of the responses were along the lines of why am I such an idiot. Based on my own reading, I surmised that what they were hinting at was what Galamian said that Bruce quoted -- sometimes a little angle is better. I was curious why that would be useful for that particular articulation, since that's where Capucon chose to do that. But of course nobody wanted to explain that -- they just wanted to point and laugh at the amateur.

What Erik wrote about the "laser" rings true to me. You have to learn to interpret what you are seeing from a very distorted, up-close view. Same with mirror work -- things will look weird in the mirror, and you have to learn to calibrate what you see against what's actually correct. For best results I think teachers should show their students HOW to use a mirror, not just tell them to do it at home.

If you watch Stern his bow comes around at an angle just like Bruce said. Now, Stern was a short man and maybe it's more pronounced with him because his arms are short, who knows.

October 5, 2017, 9:51 AM · I feel like very closely related to this is Dounis' concept of thinking about bowing in a crescent shape to make sure the pressure is at the correct levels at the frog and tip. Both bow angle relative to the bridge and weight can benefit from thinking about continuous change instead of straight lines.

Here's a treatment of Dounis' pedagogy that introduced the above concept to me:


Also, Simon Fischer has several exercises in Basics that I found very useful for working on straight bows, but I think the one in Warming Up covers most of what is needed: draw two half bows and stop and check at the end of each bow (down-down, up-up, check after each stop, keep repeating). You will obviously have to trace a quite different path with your hand in the first half versus the second half to end up with a straight bow at the end of each half-bow. Thus, the student now realizes that change in the path of the hand is needed, and should rapidly figure the rest out by repeating the exercise for the next few weeks.

October 6, 2017, 2:54 PM · I was in a workshop where the instructor had the student bow on the bridge.Place the bow on the bridge and keep it there while doing full bows.

I will also have the student (or someone else) hold the bow in their violin hand. Place the bow on the string as if you had bowed all the way to the tip. Make sure bow is parallel to bridge (straight.) Place the bow hand on the stick. Move the bow hand along the stick. I like to have a set of knuckles touching the stick as they move their hand. That will give them the idea of the trajectory their hand has to be on to have a straight bow.

Edited: October 7, 2017, 9:47 AM ·

Our mind learns things faster with variation. Using a mirror is only good at fixing major problems with the bow stroke, but doesn't teach us the feel of straight.

Going in and out of straight with our eye closed teaches us the feel.

4 strokes straight
4 strobes off angle in
4 strokes strainght
4 strokes off angle out

here's a mental image of what the bow is doing inline with the bridge:

4 ||
4 |/
4 ||
4 |\ :||

You can do the same thing with round and crescent bowings:

4 ||
4 |(
4 ||
4 |)

Try it once with your eyes open, then try 3 times with eyes closed.
You can also do this with variable string changes.

October 7, 2017, 11:50 PM · Hello Prof. Berg, I also think that the guides and gadgets are of limited use; once they are removed the incorrect mechanical motions will return. For demonstration with a beginner, I put the violin on my lap, hold the bow only with the thumb and second finger, set the bow at an acute wrong angle, and as soon as you move it, it drifts, pulls away from the best point of contact. the physicists call it vector forces. In one of Paul Rolland's book he suggests holding a cardboard tube at the bridge, and the student attempts to run the bow through the tube without rubbing the side. In Menuhin's book, he sets the frog on the music stand, then runs the hand along the stick. If the contact points of the fingers are stable, then the wrist must fold. If we move from the shoulder, elbow, wrist, naturally, all of those motions are circular, We can only move the bow straight, on the best point of contact, if we combine, synchronize the motions from those three joints. And then there is that other approach, also difficult, of having the stick pivot inside the hand. It looks like the "Russian" grip at the tip, and the Francoo-belgian grip at the frog. For the elbow movement, with the arm at 90 degrees, somewhere near the middle of the bow, stand with the upper arm against a wall. When moving down-bow from there, towards the tip, the elbow moves away from the wall. When moving up-bow, towards the frog, the elbow also moves away from the wall. The analogy that one of my teachers used is the motion of that gear on an steam train that converts the linear motion of the piston to a circular force on the drive-wheel. That slight angle that advanced players use insures that the bow doesn't drift at the extreme ends. I find my spicatto to be better, I don't know why, if the tip is slightly towards my left ear, the frog slightly away from me jq
October 8, 2017, 9:38 AM · I have students warm up with an exercise I call "20 on the highway."

The "highway" is that desirable spot between the bridge and the fingerboard where the bow is supposed to "drive." Most people, even very little children, can draw a straight bow when they are concentrating. Once I know they can do that I ask them to warm up every day with 20 strokes on the E, 20 on the A, 20 on the D, 20 on the G.

Thus, "20 on the highway"! (It's actually 80, yes, but calling it 20 is a little less intimidating!)

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