How do you hold the bow? Do you bend the thumb all the way to the hair?
"How to hold the bow" can be one of the most confusing things about playing the violin, especially in the beginning. There are certain conventions in holding the bow that have emerged over many years as most effective. Holding the bow in an effective way will allow the player to use the bow with both flexibility and strength, while also being able to advance to more complicated and interesting bow strokes. An ineffective bow hold can impede ease of playing, and it can impede progress.
Proper finger placement is an important part of attaining a highly effective bow hold. However, obsessive finger-placing can also have the opposite effect. If fingers are stubbornly glued to one certain place, in one certain formation, the hand can become rigid and unyielding. Anything that turns a "bow hold" into a "bow grip" is problematic - the hand has to be ever-flexible and yielding, taking a different shape from frog to tip.
This unfortunately can be the case in the common instruction to bend the bow thumb all the way to the hair. It's an instruction that can be easily misunderstood. So I'd like to show you a few of the ideas and concepts behind this idea, so that you can use it most effectively for yourself and/or your students.
The idea behind "bending the thumb to the hair" is primarily to keep the thumb flexible and curved, so that it never gets locked into a straight position, particularly at the frog.
But obsessive adherence to the "thumb bent all the way to the hair" idea can cause almost as much tension as the "locked-straight" thumb. At the frog, the thumb easily bends to the hair. But at the tip, depending on your hand, this can be nearly impossible and it can impede the natural movement of the hand. So at the tip, the thumb will likely still be bent at least a little bit, but it may not be bent all the way to the hair. I'm here to tell you: that is okay! (As long as it doesn't get "locked" in a straight position!)
Whether the thumb can be bent all the way to the hair also depends on the tilt of the bow. (In fact, I've often suspected that the instruction to bend the thumb to the hair is also simply a sneaky way to get students to tilt their bows.)
For normal playing, the stick of the bow is typically tilted forward, with the hair more inward. This puts the hand into a nice, natural "hanging" position, and it makes it very easy to bend the thumb to the hair. If you are having trouble bending your thumb enough to touch the hair, check your bow tilt. Particularly if you are tilting the stick backwards toward yourself (not recommended), this will affect your bow hand and thumb.
When the hair is more flat - either by mistake, or by intention for certain bow strokes, the thumb is in less of a position to bend to the hair. Depending on the size and shape of your hand, the hand may have to actually bend backwards in an unnatural way, in order to make the thumb touch the hair. That can cause unnecessary tension and angling in the wrist. In that case, a better solution - if your intention is to keep the hair flat - is to roll the stick out a bit, still keeping the thumb bent, while not insisting that the thumb be against the hair.
In the end, we're aiming for a natural and flowing movement of the hand and arm - all while holding one end of a long stick. A good "bow hold" helps maximize the possibilities for movement of the hand and arm, while keeping enough strength and security to avoid dropping the stick. A bent thumb will help, as long as it does not become its own source of unnecessary tension.
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