Laurie's Violin School: The Limitations of the Bear-Claw Bow Hold

September 8, 2014, 11:39 AM · "Why do I need to hold my bow this way, and not this way?" asked a student last week.

Bow hold 1

This is a nine-year-old beginner -- and I love those. She's taking lessons because she wanted to, and she's going to demand good explanations along the way. For example: Who would come up with this weird way of placing fingers on the bow, when it's clearly possible to play a tune just fine, clenching the bow with your fist like a bear would?

However, she had stopped in her tracks, halfway through all the Twinkle Variations, to ask this question. Those Twinkle Variations do require some stamina -- she's still working on the stamina part. Thus the interruption -- yes, I'm onto you.

"I can tell you why, but that's a bit of a lecture," I said. "I'll do it after we finish Twinkle."

So she finished those last three variations, and as soon as she took the violin off her shoulder she said, "Okay, I want the lecture." (As the mother of two teenagers, I confess that hearing "I want the lecture" fills me with a certain kind of glee.) Haha, she really did want the explanation!

So I gave it to her:

It is possible, I acknowledged, to play "Twinkle" holding the bow in the way that a bear would hold a bow. We can just call this the bear-claw bow hold.

However, the bear-claw bow hold has its limitations, and the better you get at the violin, the more these limitations become apparent. My reason for this picky bow hold is that I am setting up your bow hand so that one day you can play Bach, or country fiddle music, or anything you ever want to play.

I played her a little bit of the Preludio from the Partita in E -- kids (okay anyone, not just kids) tend to enjoy this piece. (It could have been a fiddle tune, to demonstrate the same thing.) With all these string crossings, I have to have a flexible bow hand, loose wrist and relaxed fingers. Does it look like I'm working very hard? No. Then I switched to the bear-claw bow hold and played the beginning of the Preludio again, with all the string-crossings coming from my upper arm, thanks to the stiffness in my bear-claw hand. I looked like an injured chicken, flapping one deranged wing. She laughed.

Moving on, what if we want to play the cadenza from the Mendelssohn concerto's first movement? Here's another crowd-pleaser. I showed her that four-string spiccato barriolage, which spikes up off the string with a flick of the wrist and just a bit of arm motion. Then I demonstrated the same passage with the bear-claw bow hold. Rather inelegant, and we're back to being a one-winged chicken.

I told her that the bow-hand I teach is based on the Franco-Belgian bow hold; there is also a Russian bow hold that works well, and other teachers teach that. The idea is that, over the years, we develop flexible but strong fingers and a relaxed way of holding the bow. The way we place the fingers in the beginning is just a start, and you'll learn how the balance works as you play more and learn more bowing techniques.

I don't know of any other activities that require holding something quite in the way that we hold a bow. But it's similar, in certain respects, to learning a tennis grip, or the way to hold a golf club or baseball bat. Humans have figured out the optimal way to swing a bat, and so we start with certain principles. Over time, you'll make it your own and optimize it in small ways for your body, to be most effective.


September 8, 2014 at 08:41 PM · This guy's got a mean bear claw style:

September 8, 2014 at 08:49 PM · I must say that your 'bear hold' bach preludio sounded pretty good, certainly a lot better than my version with my 'proper bow hold' ;) :D

September 8, 2014 at 09:31 PM · I enjoyed the explanation, I always told my students that they would need to hold the bow correctly when they got more advanced and then said, "The violin has been played for over 400 years, if there was a better way to hold the bow someone would have discovered it by now." It always seemed to satisfy their curiosity.

September 9, 2014 at 01:41 AM · Okay, I'll give that guy cred for making the bear-claw technique work, but he's a rare case!

September 9, 2014 at 03:12 PM · This is guy can use the bear claw bow hold just fine too!

In my opinion, the bear claw bow hold is good in some playing styles. However, the standard bow hold is much better since it minimizes injuries, makes the sound beatiful, etc.

September 9, 2014 at 05:03 PM · Your tennis analogy is good an you could have carried the analoy further vis à vis Franco-Belgian vs Russian in that in tennis, you also have schools of holds such as the Eastern Grip and the Western Grip (and even more actually).

And I must praise you for your open attitude to your student--allowing the student to wonder about ideas--and then to present a description which does not constrain her interest and curiosity but rather enhances her awareness.

That's good teaching.

September 9, 2014 at 07:04 PM · I suspect--(a lot of posts start with those 2 words) --that Table Manners (see Mr Wiki ) would help children with some manual dexterity . A line in that site reads;

" Under no circumstances should the fork be held like a shovel,with all the fingers wrapped around the base".

Left hand for fork and right hand for the knife,rather than Cutting and Switching. I just read about that nasty little habit.In this day and age . No elbows on the table.Don`t speak with your mouth full. Sit up straight. When we had finished eating we had to say ---"Please can I leave the table?" We really did say that when we were small . And we learned some manual dexterity . Mum knows best . Well one of her jobs was working in a stately home in Cornwall ,over the river. It didn`t do us any harm .

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