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Thumbs up for prunes...

September 15, 2009 at 3:08 AM


sometimes it seems there is nothing violin players and teacher’s appear to like discussing more than `the bow hold.` However, perhaps due to its hiding place under the ubiquitous `hold,` the thumb itself is in my opinion, disproportionately ignored.
This is a real tragedy and can be the source of constant problems and frustration up until quite high levels.  I recall reading a teacher in the US talking about how Menuhin visited her school and listened t a slew of her students play, presumably rather advanced students.  She seemed surprised (not to mention delighted) that Menuhin talked about the thumb and how it `needed to be relaxed and bent etc.` But I was puzzled as to why this should be a source of interest or even pleasure.  Surely something as basic as this should have been established from the word go and if the likes o Lord Menuhin were offering words of wisdom would want something with a little more meat.
The position of the thumb, it’s degree of relaxation, role and movement should be taught and reinforced over and over again with a beginner.  I am often amazed at how students who have been playing at a very low level for two, three or four years with a thumb collapsed inward and poking through the bow and hair, are extremely resistant to the idea of discussing and working on this issue.   Sometimes when I suggest a simple exercise such as hold the stick in front of you with left hand and simply practice placing the bent thumb on the stick over and over I am looked at like I am a Martian.
What then are some of the basic points?
First , the part of the thumb which touches  the bow should be explained. It is not the whole of the tip. Basically it is the top right hand corner. Easy enough to illustrate- just place your thumb against the middle joint of the middle finger.  Second, as suggested above, in the initial training the placing of the thumb and fingers can be practiced over and over as a drill.  It doesn’t take long enough to get boring bit it is essential. Third, be clear about where this part of the thumb is going to go.  Some teachers advocate between the leather and the frog. I used to but now prefer on the leather itself   Just a personal preference.    Fourth, make sure the students understand that the shape of the thumb changes as the bow travels form heel to point.  Fifth, explain the purpose of the thumb is to provide counter pressure to the fingers and show how this is basically zero at the heel by removing the thumb and leaving the fingers on. Compare this with other parts of the bow. Read up on Basics regarding this topic.
Finally, make sure the bow is set up properly with a decent thumb leather. One of the man cause of the thumb slipping through is lack of care on the part of the teacher about the condition of the bow.  Students don’t know any better. At the end of the day, there is no point in giving all the good advice about the use of arm, wrist, levels, soundpoints and what not if this most elementary point continues to be ignored perhaps even in the vague hope that it will somehow cure itself.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 2:26 PM

Buri, you are so right. At my first school, from about 14 to 16 yo, I didn't know at all such things. I just did anything with my bow thumb. It was fold under in a very uncomfortable way.    Everything went much better when I learned the appropriate hold!  Seems to me that this is crucial and one of the first things you should talk.  (when getting at the stage to play with the bow)   But I think my teacher I had then though I had pretty good instinct or so (because musically it was like this and my critical thinking was one of a 14 yo.) and let me free.  But I think even the greats were not born with instinctive bow hold lol 


From Malcolm Turner
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 4:11 PM

The number of students (and adults) I've seen with a rigid grip is frightening. The bow seems to move independently of the violin and if you moved the violin, the bow would stay in the same place.

Mechanically, it's like a see-saw. The thumb is the pivot, and pressure is applied with the first or fourth fingers. (I was an engineer before a violinist).

Useful "trick" from my old teacher - try putting the thumb under the frog for practice. Virtually guarantees a correct bow hold, and then you can just move the thumb up to the stick with everything else in the same shape. Just don't try playing off the string with it!


From Anne Horvath
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 5:32 PM

Thumbs curved for prunes?

I call it "Smiley Thumb", not a term I made up, but very useful.

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 5:49 PM

Thanks so much for this blog! It's very helpful.

From Bonny Buckley
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 10:58 PM

Teaching the bow hold, especially the thumb placement, uggggghhhhh!  It is the singlemost difficult task to instill in a beginner, and much worse to deal with if a bad habit has already become established.  But I cannot agree with Menuhin more.  This is the KEY to good playing and without it it's never going to be great.  Right now I have a few very talkative 3rd graders who barely are able to listen, let alone hold the bow correctly.  I think they are going to get the advice to put the thumb on the bottom just to get the basic hold for now.  I did that with a kindergartener last year and it worked quite well.  Older kids still struggle but usually with a lot of patience and persistence and drills they do get it.  It is so important ... maybe some day I will stop teaching beginning students.  Another thing that does help is to have some good pictures from several angles of the bow hold blown up so it's easier to see.  I couldn't find any so I just took some of my own. 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 11:13 PM


what I do fnd interesting is that the Soviet school (whatever that is) often etaches the appraoch to holding the bow while holding the right hand palm up.  Maybe this make sit cleaer where finger sare to go and the use of the thumb?

 think you can find a description of this approahc in `Secrets of the Soviet Violin School` (Probably I got the name right....)



From Christian Vachon
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 11:14 PM

 Hi Buri,

Excellent blog.  Question: you mention a switch of placement of thumb from against the frog/stick to the leather itself.  Why?

Cheers and best!

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 15, 2009 at 11:23 PM

Also showing it on a pencil works so well (you can see better and there is no way that you can put your thumb to "deeply". I mean less chances) and it is a nice thing to do in a boring class at school. (just don't let the others see you because they'll think you are kind of "weird"!) You can do as many "pivot" exercises as you wish in the air and won't break anything if you drop it : ) My teacher (from russian or soviet school. Can't tell the real difference??? Lets just say Ukraine in soviet years!) explained that there is nothing better than the simplest object possible (like a stick or pencil) to start with. Too many components can be confusing (frog, screw whatever) not to mention that the weigh of the bow can be very disturbing at first. (the student will just get scared to drop it and will grip so tight)


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 12:31 AM


Christian,  I was brought up on the standard view that the thumb touches the leather but is basically between the two pointsbin question.  I think this is what Simon describe sin Basics.  However,  I did begin to notice players with very good bow arms with the thumb on the leather and when I asked them about this (I thought it led to instabilty at the time...) they said they felt that the thumb in the groove could induce a lack of freedom by locking the thumb in one place.  The second reason offered was that this approach also often cuts a groove in the stick itself which is unfortunate wera and tear on a beautiful bow.

Having experimented witthe thumb slightly higher I was surprised ot find the distance it needed to be moved was veyr small indeed and that there was no loss of control.  It feels better for me now.



From Drew Lecher
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 4:59 AM

Brilliant as always, Buri.

The leather is also called the "thumb grip," as it helps the thumb get a grip (without tightening) and has a tackiness that is sufficient for all the security we need.

When I made the similar change, I never again had soreness or stress in the thumb.


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