Bow Physics Ain't Rocket Science

November 16, 2017, 6:03 AM · For each strength that you may possess as a musician, you can count on at least two weaknesses. Before you think that sounds like negativity talking, consider that I didn’t say ten weaknesses. (Much closer to the truth.) One common characteristic of a weakness is that it’s simply not even thought about, much less actually worked on. On the other hand, the good news is that certain skills may be strong because they come naturally to the player. The best advice is to constantly strive to improve, which will help mitigate the feeling that is common to many musicians, that we don’t understand what we’re doing.

The student’s morale and confidence improve when all the technical parts are level with each other. If the bow arm is stronger, work on the left hand. However, most of the time the left hand is far more developed. The bow arm is, at best, merely an after-thought. More likely it is, for all intent and purposes, ignored.

violin and bow

Horse Before the Cart

It takes a very directed and determined musician to dig him or herself out of a technical hole. The development of the bow arm should proceed from a clear understanding of the concepts, followed by exercises. Usually it’s the other way around. Consider the bow that is virtually unable to stay in the general area between the bridge and fingerboard. To borrow a term from tennis, let’s call it the sweet spot. (Is there a term we use for that area, other than sounding point?)

Teachers understand how difficult it is to address this issue, and it’s even more frustrating when the student is adept at far more difficult techniques. This is one of the examples of fuzzy logic when addressing musical development. If a student is good at conveying musical feeling without having to work at it, but slow when it comes to fixing something that doesn’t come natural, the two opposite extremes need to come together.

The Hydraulic Drifter

Left to its own devices, the bow resists being where it needs to be. A simple explanation based on physics should start the discovery process. I use the term “simple” advisedly, since natural, common sense often flies in the face of bad habits “mastered” over a lifetime.

The body’s natural placement of the arm does not necessarily take into account the change of planes inhabited by each string. Place the bow on the A string at a customary 90 degree angle, then place it on the D string. If your body and mind haven’t been re-wired to a violinist’s specifications, the mind will still be on the A string, but not on the D. (Love it or hate it, the language of physics is clear but annoyingly pervasive.)

The solution starts with “cleansing your palate” in order to quit thinking about the A string. Be prepared for the difficulty of feeling the new plane of the D string, so that you’re primed for the change. The body is more than happy to accommodate change when the mind is ready. Easier said than done. The mind will put up a huge, but not heroic, resistance before it changes its perception.

As you change from the A to the E string, allow your elbow to feel like it’s moving backwards, traveling further behind your body as you move towards the tip. With so much freedom of the arm, you would think that the bow tip would drift towards the fingerboard. What keeps that from happening is that the bow itself is led by its own compartment within the mind. By concentrating on the actual part of the bow that’s touching the string at any given moment (known as the playing point), the bow will remain independent of the arm movements. These compartments keep techniques interdependent, which ensures a solid, flexible approach to playing.

Unless this natural movement happens, a very unfortunate side-effect takes place: the bow is at the mercy of a hydraulic movement forwards, towards the fingerboard. And with each string change, the chaotic drift brings the bow dangerously close to the edges of the violin.

Planes, Performers and Perception

The most important quality of a straight bow and natural, flowing arm is that the mind is on the bow and not on the arm. (Think about the intricate movements involved in simply picking up a salt shaker and turning it upside down. The arm, fingers and wrist react naturally.). Necessity dictates that our first bowing lessons instruct us on how to move the arm, not the bow. Of course, that type of lesson is practically unavoidable.

There is a common tendency in which the arm becomes fixed, and does not move to the new position that the changing planes of the string require. There is an exercise to ensure that the bow will start out at the correct angle on each string.

It depends on the student thinking only of the bow, and letting the arm follow naturally. The downbow and upbow movements should not be included at this time because of the complications that would happen immediately. Just think of this as an exercise to isolate how the mind perceives the change of planes of the strings.

The object of the exercise is to show that if the player visualizes the planes of the strings, the arm movements will unfold naturally, without a conscious, learned effort. Any bow hold will be suitable, because the various parts like the wrist and fingers will move correctly to accommodate the changing planes.

While staying in the same part of the bow without moving down or up, place the bow perpendicular to the string. (Don’t look at the fingerboard or the bow, because the view will mislead you. Improve your ability to know where they are without looking.)

Now move to a different string, making subtle but important changes in wrist angle and elbow placement. Notice that the bow’s position is the dominant thought; the hand, wrist and elbow just go along for the ride.

Change to different strings, sometimes skipping one or two strings. Allow free passage of all the moving parts of the arm.

The reason not to move the bow up or down is because every tiny movement alters how the arm accomodates the bow. Once you learn how passive this process is, the arm is ready for any movement of the bow to any position.

Convince Yourself That Change Feels Good

Considering that many of us started playing with the violin directly in front of our bodies, with the bow zig-zagging at 45 degrees, it’s a testament to the perseverance of our teachers and ourselves that we could transform such a limiting technique. With any change comes the nagging feeling that we’re doing something completely wrong and uncomfortable. Say what you will about an old bad habit, it’s still as comfortable as an old, worn slipper. So when you are making good changes, tell yourself and remind yourself that it feels natural. Fake it until you make it!


November 18, 2017 at 01:19 AM · I always seem to be drifting in towards the bridge. If I understand the exercise right, you’re just placing the bow across the string but not moving it back and forth? And simply changing from one string to another noticing the subtle changes in hand and wrist as the bow changes planes, correct?

November 18, 2017 at 01:33 AM · I absolutely agree that the body follows the mind, and that improving control of the bow arm depends on improving ones mental concept of positioning and movement. The body will follow. From experience as a left-handed person, exerting mental effort to concentrate on the bow arm is even more important, as the natural default tendency is to think of technical issues as pertaining more to the left hand. MJW

November 18, 2017 at 02:05 AM · That's correct, Suzanne. The reason I don't include the actual movement of the bow from tip to frog is to give us the opportunity to really learn the different planes of the strings. I think the reason most bows veer uncontrollably towards the fingerboard or bridge is because the mind still perceives all the strings in the same plane. It takes a couple of weeks to change your perception, but when you succeed you're strengthening and unleashing the elements of natural talent.

Mr. Suzuki recognized this issue of the fixed, incorrect perception that there was only one plane on the fingerboard. He published a workbook called Quints, exploring why bad intonation occurred due to a misunderstanding of 5ths. This same perceptual deficiency can easily be fixed, but it involves the difficulty of changing a perception.

Once we recognize the huge change of planes, then the next part of the exercise is to actually move the bow. That presents a few other problems, but knowing the planes should help.

November 18, 2017 at 11:30 PM · Nice article! The angle between string planes is also an issue. The smaller the angle the more difficult it becomes do keep accuracy. The larger the angle them more difficult it is to articulate gestures fast enough. The "middle" point is a quest.

November 19, 2017 at 10:31 PM · Hi #191. Thanks for your insightful comment. The key ingredient that makes the violin accessible to people of all levels and ability is that we don't have to analyze in mind numbing detail all the variables. But what we do is something different: we observe, either consciously or unconsciously.

You bring up the different angles between the planes ( or between the strings, if you prefer.) When you add the variables of where you are in the bow, and whether you're downbow or upbow, you could let yourself get quite confused. But that's not how musicians operate. We "just play" and much of the music comes out pretty good. When we try to make it a little better, we instinctively do a little more or a little less. We rarely need a "makeover," or a new teacher to start us from the beginning. What a teacher can do is help us observe and make a few changes within our existing technique.

The ear bridges every musical mistake, whether it be misjudging the angle and distance between strings or the distances between notes in a high position. A good teacher can serve as the aural mirror for the student.

For me, one of the most damaging pieces of advice was about changing strings. I was told to let the bow touch both strings at the same time during the transition between the strings. It tries to simplify how the arm instinctively, through rhythm and knowing where the strings are, comes to the new string like an acrobat flying through the air. Only an over-analytical teacher would say something that sounds good but bogs the student down.

November 20, 2017 at 03:51 PM · This is a great article and I can't wait to try the exercise you outlined when I practice later today! Further, the following sentence is a real game-changer for me: "The most important quality of a straight bow and natural, flowing arm is that the mind is on the bow and not on the arm." As someone who has come back to the violin after a long hiatus, I am constantly focused on my right arm! (Does it hurt? Is my shoulder too high? Etc!) I will now shift that focus to the bow and, I suspect, be a lot happier. Thank you.

November 20, 2017 at 10:57 PM · Hi #76.18, I know the feeling of being too aware of the various details of the bow arm. It can drive a person crazy, if it's overdone. Now I prefer to make sure that the hair is spinning the string just the way I want it. Or that it's into the string in the same way as the other members of my ensemble. Trying to satisfy what my inner ear wants makes me focus on my bow. Then I just have to trust my arm will do what it needs to do.

November 21, 2017 at 11:24 AM · Dear Mr. Stein ~ As Nathan Milstein's first private artist pupil in London at his Chester Square home, being managed by the same concert artist management in London, Madrid, & all of South America, I've some serious thoughts vis a vie some of your ideas re Bowing, but will return to address specific's asap ~ in the meantime, accept my best greetings for a Special Thanksgiving, November 23, 2017!

(I had Milstein invited private 'tutorial's' for nearly 4 years, twice a week for 3 to 4 hours each day over a most blessed "Blue Period of 'Milsteinianna' " ~

Yours musically for now ...

Elisabeth Matesky / Chicago *

* int'l concert performing-

recording/ artist teaching/ film-television career

(Elisabeth Matesky)


*Facebook (under Elisabeth Anne Matesky)

*UTube: Heifetz Violin Master Classes, USC - Khachaturian,

JH-7, Elisabeth Matesky

*Russian version best quality which shows my earlier Before

Milstein, Franco-Belgium bowing ~ )

November 21, 2017 at 01:52 PM · Elizabeth, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about bowing and also what it was like to study with Milstein. What he did with the bow and sound were magical.

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