My teachers issued this directive at me hundreds of times, and over 20 years of teaching I've told my students the same.
Why is it so hard to play with a straight bow? Blame it on the way we humans are designed; specifically, blame it on the ball-and-socket joints that attach our arms to the rest of us. Our arms were made to move in circles, not in straight lines. In fact, when pulling a straight bow, it actually might feel a little bit like you are making a forward arc as you push forward for the down-bow and retract back for the up-bow. One teacher told me to envision tracing around a plate that is set with its edge at the fingerboard. Of course, don't do that literally, but it's a mental picture that is helpful to some students.
My problem, when teachers asked me to bow straight, was that I had no idea how to do so. I'm left-handed and somewhat far-sighted. Looking at the bow made me cross eyed, and thinking about bowing straight while trying to play something complex only left me extremely frustrated.
Yet, bowing straight is important, for many reasons, including having a good tone, cultivating a variety of bow strokes, etc. etc. In graduate school, after I had earned a degree in music, my teacher made me play nothing but open strings for more than a month, to correct my bow arm. It was very simple and yet it was time-consuming work that required concentration. I welcomed this; it helped immensely.
As a teacher I've adopted a number of ideas to help students cultivate a straight bow arm, and I'd like to share them with you. Here they are on video, and below I've described them.
The Dowel Stick
First of all, it helps to know how a straight bow arm feels, because the feeling is hardly intuitive. For this, I recommend going to the local hardware store and investing (about $2.50 or less) in a dowel stick and a small piece of piping that is slightly larger in diameter than the stick. This exercise can be done alone, but it's better if you have a teacher/family member/friend help you. Take the piece of piping and thread it onto the stick. With the violin on your shoulder, have someone hold the dowel stick perpendicular to the fingerboard, over the area where you would normally bow, only hold it several centimeters above the strings. (If you are doing this by yourself, you can hold the stick from behind the fiddle, but it's a little more complicated). Holding the piece of piping as you would hold your bow, move it up and down the stick. Easy as that! The idea is to memorize the feeling, so this can be accomplished through repetition and also concentration: close your eyes and really try to feel the forward motion of your hand and opening of the elbow on the down bow, and the retracting of the wrist and hand on the up-bow.
20 on the Highway
Another exercise is something I call "20 on the highway." It's extremely simple, but then so are sit-ups. The key is to do them every day. To do this exercise, play 20 straight bows on the G, then D, then A, then E strings. The bow must be "on the highway," which means that it is placed between the fingerboard and the bridge and never goes skidding up to or past either one. And you must draw the bow straight -- perpendicular to the strings -- for every bow. To make sure every bow stroke is straight, you can look straight at your bow, look at it in a mirror (the violin strings must be perfectly parallel to the mirror) or have a friend keep track. Again, the trick is that you have to do it every day until you've done it 10,000 times, and I'm not exaggerating. If you do 20 a EVERY day on each string, you will reach 10,000 for each string in 500 days, which is about a year and five months. You will reach 10,000 faster if you do more every day, but I would not necessarily recommend it unless your powers of concentration are exceptional. If you lose your concentration and accidentally play 40 crooked bows, then you've just reinforced a crooked-bow motion, and you defeat your purpose!
Setting aside a few minutes at the beginning of your practice time to cultivate a straight bow is well worth the effort. I hope you find this helpful, and happy practicing!
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