James Stern: A Reason for 'Crooked' Bowing, and Why We Move When We Play

June 9, 2015, 3:04 PM · In describing the rather complex calculus of bow motion, violinist James Stern delivered some good news on a number of fronts: First, "crooked bowing" is not always a bad thing. And second, motion serves a legitimate function in playing -- though it's not necessary to move quite as much as some performers do in order to benefit from that movement.

Stern, who is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Music, talked about this and more in a fascinating lecture called "Putting the Arc in Arco" at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School in May.

James Stern
James Stern

Springs in the Bow

"The bow is a fairly simple object," Stern said, "but even simple things have complexity." For example, the stick, the hair and your arm form a rather complicated set of springs that each function differently, but all must function together. Think, for a minute, about each of these factors:

These factors are constantly at play when we use the bow. "We can say that there is a three-voice fugue in our bow that plays itself out whenever we draw the bow from the frog to the tip," Stern said.

Of course, it's one thing to understand these characteristics, but quite another to work with them. Stern suggested using some imagination: think of the bow as a series of destinations where you can travel: Midlovia (the middle, around the balance point); Tipistan (the tip) and Frogland (the frog). Each destination has a different currency: Midlovia only accepts hair spring. Tipistan, stick spring. And Frogland, body spring. As you pass through all these points, your currency is constantly changing, though you are keeping the value the same: the value being the amount of spring you need to get your ideal sound at any given moment.

Controlling the Sounding Point

Contrary to popular belief, when the bow fails to run perfectly parallel to the bridge, "this is not an example of sloppy bowing," Stern said. Angles can set up a change in the sounding point, and sometimes this is exactly what we want.

The "sounding point" is the place where the bow meets the string. This is often described as a "highway" that has about five lanes. If the bow is in the "lane" closest to the bridge, the sound is loudest. If it is traveling in the lane over by the fingerboard, the sound is quieter. But the nature of music is dynamic, and we seldom play all loudly or all quietly. Often, we change from loud to soft, or vice-versa, in the same bow. Sometimes we have a swell, all in one bow. Or a dip in sound.

If you want to play at one dynamic, then the ideal "straight bow" works well -- playing perfectly parallel to the bridge. But what about those passages where you want to change from loud to soft, or vice-versa? Then you may want to change the sounding point. To do that, you need to know how to angle the bow, in order to smoothly transition to the sounding point you want. The problem is, it's not always intuitive. So Stern showed us four different bowing patterns that help in moving the sounding point. Here is his demonstration:

The first bowing pattern, frog in and tip out, moves the sounding point to the bridge on the up-bow, and creates a "scrubby click" on the down-bow (because it starts close to the bridge). The second pattern, frog out and tip in, moves the sound point to he bridge on the down-bows, and the up-bows get that scrubby click. The third pattern, where the bow follows a curve with the concave side facing you, moves the sounding point to the bridge in the middle of the stroke. The fourth pattern, concave facing out, moves the sounding point to the bridge at the bow changes.

The purpose of all this is to learn to control the sounding point. "We make the sounding point want to move, then we let it move," Stern said. "Once you have chosen an angle, you have to let it move and follow it."

Calculated use of these principles can look like sloppy bowing, but it's anything but.

"If you let the sounding point have what it wants," Stern said, "then this is not sloppy bowing."


Another principle that Stern described was what he called, "the magical moment of freefall."

He demonstrates it here:

For example, if you do a bow change during an appropriate moment of freefall, it will be a smooth bow change. You have to set up that moment of freefall, though, for it to happen.

Some artists move quite a lot when they play, and some do not. Though this concept of "freefall" justifies movement, it doesn't actually require extreme movement, Stern said.

"Accomplished artists can create that moment of freefall with very minimal movement," Stern said. Take, for example, the late Soviet violinist, David Oistrakh.

"He's kind of solid as a rock," Stern said, "but you can see in this video, there is a lot he is doing with his feet."

Here is the video to which Stern was referring, of a 1963 performance of the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Staatskapelle Berlin; Gennadi Roshdestwenski, conductor. Watch his feet and other subtle body movements:

Hilary Hahn does the same kind of thing, he said, creating that "freefall" with subtle movements.

Using "freefall" can calm the motions of the bow, help with string crossings, smooth string changes and more.

"People do it because it creates something real," he said. Of course, the problems come if the body motion is causing straining. For that reason, "if we can accomplish it with our feet, that's much better."

The important thing, in using these concepts, is to simply experiment and find what formula of angles and curves gives you what you want.

"When we have undesired outcomes, those things are neither good nor bad, they are just a result of the curves that we chose," he said. Those outcomes can serve as prompts, to guide you in your future choices.

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June 13, 2015 at 02:16 AM · Yes! I love this and I love Stern. Studied with him at UMD and am so glad to see him at the symposium!

June 15, 2015 at 11:45 AM · I have observed Dr Stern master classes for years ( at GWSI mainly) He is the most interesting teacher, and very deep. It has taken me a long time to scratch the surface of what he knows about violin playing.

So that's it, the "free-fall"...one more piece of the puzzle!

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