A vast number of details need to be worked out in creating a bow arm for a young violinist -- there is no panacea, no formula for the perfect bow arm. It would be wonderful if one method or one brilliant insight cleared up all the problems. Would bow changes be any more smooth if the fingers on the bow were spaced a certain way? If the wrist were high, flat or low, depending on the teacher’s style, would the sound be any more rich, gorgeous or huge?
Bow arms are semi-conscious extensions of the violinist, especially in the youngest players. While well-trained children can play with good bow distribution and long, strong bow strokes, and play deeply into the string, in a straight path, and with no scratch, they’re usually moving their bows on a subliminal, non-thinking level. Children think and feel, but not necessarily in a linear, rational fashion.
How do they do it? How is such skill taught to young students who are basically thinking like children, without the ability to impose executive thinking on themselves? Trial and error strategies work well with adults, who are used to working out solutions without the help of others. Children require more help from the teacher in terms of molding and forming the bow arm.
Fingerprints, Bowprints and Unique Identities
After a child has studied the violin for, let’s say six months, he or she will have developed a personal, functional bow arm. Because this foundation will allow new attributes to blend in, it should feature smooth movement and good rhythm. This is an interesting development because the style and function of the bow arm depends on many factors, which often are independent of what the teacher tells the student.
Since the bow arm in children is largely unconscious, and is guided by the teacher’s instructions only to the extent possible, it becomes a tabula rasa for future growth. Since every child is different, the resulting bow mechanics and sound become identifying features of the player.
Just as a person has no control over his fingerprints, the bow arm exists within its unique identity. It could aptly be called “bowprint,” a learned technique that the young child uses intuitively. While it can be changed, this natural "bowprint" should be respected and appreciated. The teacher may not agree with how the bow arm is emerging, but it’s important to recognize that this is the child’s personal, unique bow arm, and it is creating an environment in which growth and maturity can take place.
The First Year - Greatest Potential Development
It seems that young children don’t often respond to a teacher’s points, but they do notice his or her persistence. As the bow arm develops, the tactile connection between hair and string takes on more sophistication. Bow distribution can also be imparted at an early age. The qualities that make the violin unique can be taught at any time, and the earlier the better.
If the basic bow arm develops certain innate qualities after one year of study, with less emphasis on the outward visual appearance, then the teacher can feel successful, and quite tired after a year of hard work. These traits of a good bow arm include:
Ironically, in violin training it seems that emphasis on external considerations -- like how one holds the bow, or where pressure into the string comes from -- detracts from the need to concentrate using the ear. The bow arm will perform very efficiently and elegantly if the player listens first, then allows the arm to move on its own to realize the desired sound. Even in the split-second world of violin playing, the mind has a lot of time to set up the sequence of “listen first, then follow through with the bow movement.”
The Bow Moves the Arm, Not the Other Way Around
Even though music is a language that depends so much on the subtle connection between the ear and the mind, it is usually taught with an emphasis on how things look. Therein lies the difficult paradox that shadows musicians throughout their lives.
No one can question the value of disciplining the body and learning the conventions of a good bow hold. But this type of practice cannot replace the more important lesson that is harder to teach: that the bow and the body should follow the sound. The mind needs to direct the bow in such a way that, by telling the bow what sound it should it get and how the connection between the hair and the string should feel, the other parts of the body will do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal.
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