Bowing Outside the Box

July 1, 2016, 8:25 AM · Nothing that looks easy on the violin is actually easy. When you see Yehudi Menuhin play, he looks perfectly centered, in spite of the fact that the violin, which is held on the left side, tends to skew and alter the body’s balance. Menuhin’s statuesque and perfectly proportioned anatomy belies the difficulties involved. Moving the bow and vibrating with the left hand tends to weigh our body down in unpredictable ways. Menuhin makes those annoying little side effects seem to disappear.

Nor is the act of holding the violin fairly high -- or extremely high -- an easy thing to accomplish; the average orchestral violinist holds the violin in a rather routine, comfortable, medium-low position. Any stance that produces "the right notes at the right time" (in Bach’s famous description) is suitable and good enough. However, if you did want to look like you had super-posture, with your violin up really high like a magnificent virtuoso - picture Ginette Niveu or Florian Zabach – it would take a lot of skill and concentration.

The same could be said about how violinists draw a straight bow. The knowledge involved in keeping the bow parallel-ish to the bridge, and at the same time not scraping against the string, is multi-layered. The lessons we learn reveal that the right arm travels in multiple directions as it traverses four strings. The angles created by the bow crossing the four strings feel like four different universes. We shouldn’t feel like we’re in a straightjacket, but rather in a world of widely divergent angles and altitudes.

Such freedom occasionally is bequeathed at an early age to the highly gifted student whose talent lies in seeing reality. The sense that the four strings are in their own, very unique, planes escapes many of us. Those who recognize this knowledge and have no trouble moving a bow, both up and down, at different speeds, have a clear concept of what’s in their hands and in front of the their eyes. For the rest of us, discovering it is a beautiful and sometimes lengthy journey, but worth every moment.

A Natural Path Isn’t All That Straight

There’s only one thing in the world that I can think of at this moment that personifies a straight path, and that would be a circus acrobat walking on a tight rope. Drawing a straight bow is nothing like it. As the hair is spinning the string, that vibrating string benefits from a little freedom. This is also the case when changing strings and changing the bow’s direction: a little wiggle room actually makes the bow arm more natural. By "wiggle room," I mean what happens when the bow is just where it needs to be, without undo attention to having to be compulsively parallel to the bridge.

bow walker

Drawing a bow is nothing like walking a tight rope. It’s more like walking up to a door, not running into it, putting your hand on the doorknob, and turning it. It’s about your mind not losing sight of where the bow is, observing its quick and often darting movement without losing concentration. When the mind loses track of the bow, it fans over the fingerboard and veers uncontrollably towards the bridge. When you open a door, you’re not thinking about how you’re going to do it. Instead you’re observing and visualizing, which is that supreme form of thinking that happens before you get bogged down in the often-erroneous act of thinking "how something SHOULD be done."

To Spin the String, The Bow Should Not Be Too Straight

After studying violin primers and following detailed directions, eventually the true feeling of drawing the bow emerges in the player’s mind. Since the string must be spinning at all times, and the hair has a particular way of making it spin, the bow’s movement should be designed to create that effect.

What does it mean, when the string is "spinning"? The bow hair, drawn on a horizontal path across a string, has tiny elements that act like guitar picks, which simply and elegantly pluck the string thousands of times. The hair is not crushing or invasive, but has a symbiotic relationship with the string. With such a role to fulfill, it’s no wonder that the violinist needs to find his own way of moving the bow. Throw the "rules" out, and come up with your own ideas.

The result is an organic movement that follows through and continues the path in which it begins. Therefore, the hair can never make an abrupt, unconscious cut against the string. Think of shaving, when the blade is pulled in many different directions, all of which are consciously decided. However, if an inadvertent switch takes place, the jarring results are felt immediately.

The bowing path will feel different in every measure, because the music creates multiple needs and sometimes meets with multiple obstacles. The menu of angles changes as the factors change: going to a higher string with an up-bow, adding bow speed and bow distance depending on the bow distribution, etc. The possibilities are limitless, and it’s just another reason why the violin and music are fascinating. The best advice is to remember something is changing all the time, and that there is always an obvious path that the bow will find to do the job.

Finding a Basic Plan

There are several good, basic blueprints for drawing the bow that are available: Galamian’s Principles of Violin Playing, Suzuki, YouTube, etc. To enter the world of "learning the bow path on your own," just pick one to start the process with. Then refine! No description can do justice to the art form known as bowing. It can be reduced to an explanation, just as walking can, but it can never replace one’s personal knowledge.

What Vibrating Strings Need

The flow and the path of the bow need to be pure and not confined in a claustrophobic "technique box." Move the bow like a conveyor belt; smoothness and consistency are important components. The hair sits and glides in a groove, while saturating into the string. When the tendency to pull up on the bow takes the hair out of the string, let the hair feel its gravitational pull back into the string. Whatever the thickness of the string, the hair always has room for it, much like a vacuum cleaner that absorbs everything in its path.

What Goes Down Must Come Up

Pressure and weight are major components in a violinist’s technique. How these co-exist with the necessity to be free and fleeting determines the quality of the sound. Fortunately, the bow is designed with an elegant solution.

As you strive for the big, beautiful sound, with the intense weight that is required to get concert hall dynamics, remember that it’s the hair that determines what the string will sound like. Press all you like, as long as you make the hair feel absorbent and breathable. Never forget that the bow has two parallel partners, the stick and the hair. The energy, weight and pressure on the bow are more than mitigated by the mental messages given to the hair.

The bow is indeed a remarkable feat of engineering. And the mind is the perfect vehicle to juggle its needs.


July 2, 2016 at 01:05 PM · Thank you for sharing!!

July 2, 2016 at 03:44 PM · In-depth and intricate details of bowing, examples referred, comprehensive text.

July 2, 2016 at 08:47 PM · I love how the author is almost like reading my mind while I was reading this

July 2, 2016 at 10:04 PM · Your articles always make me feel more confident that there are natural, or innate, physical movements taking place that a player should not overlook. The analogy of walking up to a door and opening it, as opposed to walking a tightrope, was extremely helpful.

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