What Can Go Wrong in 25 Inches? The Taming of the Bow

December 14, 2017, 9:07 AM · If you’re a violinist and this doesn’t make you mad, you’re not paying attention. Pianists merely have to strike a key and release it to produce a perfectly articulated tone. There is no scratch, unevenness, whistle or offensive loud shriek. Nor is there a wimpy, apologetic sliver of a sound. The crumbs and bubbles that exist in some violin tones are nowhere to be heard on the piano.

Let’s move on from the joys associated with starting a piano tone. Release the key, sit back, and enjoy the perfect ending to the perfect tone. A felt pad drops, demanding no technique from the pianist. There’s nothing jarring. The perfect note has a perfect beginning, ending and middle.

Violinists have the daunting task of making the vague apparatus known as the bow produce perfect, reliable tones. Not Heifetz perfect, just simple, acceptable, true tones. The ear demands no less. Even those who are tone deaf can hear scratch.

Whereas the pianist mindlessly creates the miracle of tone by depressing and releasing a key, the violinist has to think, anticipate, fend off impending disaster, elevate the bow, and finally, join together the most unlikely soul mates, the hair and the string.

How our minds do this is endlessly fascinating.

bow balance

The "Playing Point"

Nothing good happens on the violin without the player finessing several thoughts. To create sounds as reliable and beautiful as a piano, a violinist needs to be focused on the part of the bow that is touching the string, no matter how far away it is from the hand. A typical short detache stroke is about an inch long, and in that short span of time and distance, much debris can accumulate: scratch, scrape and a horrifying texture of cottage cheese. They don’t call the bow a "mistake machine" for nothing.

Yet a few dovetailed thoughts can turn the bow into a miraculous musical tool.

Identify the area touching the string as the main focal point. Observe how this area is constantly changing. While it’s far more important than how you actually hold the bow, it doesn’t have a name. I call this moving part - which is constantly dealing with changing strings and varying arm balance issues - the "playing point." This is not to be confused with the sounding point, which is the particular area between the fingerboard and the bridge on which your bow is placed.

Since the "playing point" is far from the hand, think about the similar efforts made by a golfer. The foundation of his technique rests on his awareness of where the ball is and where the base of the golf club (the head) is at all times. If he concentrates too much about how he holds the club, he misses out on the more vital elements, such as the angle of the head, the desired trajectory of the ball, and the trajectory of the moving club.

The "displacement" issue, in which all the energy is focused so far from the hand and even farther from the mind, is the ultimate cause of most problems for violinists and golfers.

When the "playing point," which is literally the farthest thing from the mind, is totally ignored, then the goal of a beautiful, focused sound becomes impossible to achieve. But before all hope is given up, the player needs to shift his thoughts to where the bow hair is actually touching the string. If you do this simple but meaningful thing, all the other parts of the bow arm "swing into action" and do all that’s necessary, nothing more nothing less. Of course, a little tweaking may be necessary. One or two repeats with the necessary adjustments, and you’ll have a very thorough muscle-memory of the passage.

Shedding Technique: Bowing Without Scaffolds

As a beginner, it is necessary to measure the bow exactly so one doesn't run out of it. And to give more pressure with the index finger to get more sound. And to make a concerted effort to play with a straight bow: out with the wrist on the down bow, and in with the wrist on the up bow. And when changing direction, making sure our wrist and fingers don’t cramp and resist.

But the technique can become an end in itself, keeping the bow itself in a state of limbo, unable to become an extension of the arm, much less of the mind.

The bow reveals itself in its simplicity, power and glory when one can finally shed "technique" and its side effects of too much of the wrong kinds of effort. You realize that the index finger doesn’t have to "press," that the string needs to breathe. And that a "straight" bow is not as productive as one that is moving in a natural path. And that bow speed and distance are not only mathematical, but are synonymous with the ebb and flow of the phrase.


December 14, 2017 at 10:17 PM · Thanks for a well written and thoughtful description of one of the many aspects of playing a bowed string instrument. Those of us who have chosen to keep playing have learned that one never ever masters the entire instrument, even Maestro Heifetz learned that he had to keep working on his technique and skills if he was going to make a living a playing the violin.

I wouldn't say that Pianists have it easy. However non-bowed string instruments (notably guitars) have fans who like to hear the musician's fingers squeaking as they move on the strings. Violinists don't have fans that like anything but well played notes in precise pitch, tone and volume.

The pursuit of perfection, the journey itself is what it is all about.Knowing that one can never master the instrument makes it a lifetime obsession where many give up but the few continue to work a little bit every day to make better music with our violins, violas, celli, and basses.

December 15, 2017 at 05:31 PM · I think my pianist friends would argue there is nothing mindless about playing piano.

December 15, 2017 at 07:33 PM · I have incredible respect for pianists and their talents. In fact, it's awesome to imagine the expertise involved in producing warm, rich tones, while balancing the voices of the chord.

When I used the word "mindless", I was referring to the fact that a non-pianist can play a note on the piano and get a decent sound, without thinking about it. He couldn't do that on the violin.

Itzhak Perlman speaks very eloquently about this as well, in the DVD "The Art of the Violin".

December 15, 2017 at 07:51 PM · George, Thank you for expressing so well the love and obsession (the good kind) musicians have to keep striving for perfection and just plain getting better. The fact that we can do it alone is the icing on the cake. There's no one trying to tackle us, and no need to find 3 other players like in bridge. In fact, with the invention of the practice mute, we can practice in the middle of the night.

Now about that swiping sound that guitarists make when they're sliding, what's that about? There must be a technique that goes with that. I sort of like it, but I bet it could be overdone.

December 16, 2017 at 01:29 AM · Piano ain't-that-easy....try to make a crescendo !

December 16, 2017 at 02:57 PM · Thanks for another great article! I feel as if I'm getting "virtual lessons" from you each time you're published. Quick questions (perhaps): Any tips on how much to tighten the bow? Do you vary the tautness based on the piece you're playing?

December 16, 2017 at 09:00 PM · I think the tightening of the bow hairs is a very personal choice. I noticed Gil Shaham had tightened his very much the last time I saw him at the Hollywood Bowl, even appearing extreme when compared to the norm. I led this discussion with this example because, when a great violinist does something a certain way, there's often an interesting reason why. Beyond that, I don't know what his reason is.

I sometimes tighten my bow a lot because it builds in a greater margin of safety in which I'm less likely to inadvertently scrape the string with the wood.

I don't believe there is any difference in sound between less and more tightening. Just as a singer can make a variety of interpretations depending on his or her imagination and technique palette, a violinist can be a poet or a virtuoso depending on his musical decisions.

What are your thoughts about tightening the bow?

December 17, 2017 at 01:20 AM · I'm fascinated by the Gil Shaham story! It's very helpful to know that bow tightening is a personal preference and there is no right or wrong way. Yet another anxiety you've alleviated. Thanks!

December 17, 2017 at 04:20 PM · One more thought about bow tightening. This is from the Quirk Department that violinists have experienced. I noticed one of my stand partners would quite often look at his/her bow when he/she had a few measures rest. It was a quick look to see if the bow was at the right tension. And then, if no action was necessary, he would sit there and do nothing. Or else he would adjust it. No big deal.

Then two minutes later during another rest, he did the same thing. So unless a malfunction could occur in that short interval, I had to assume this behavior was a quirk/reflex/badhabit/OCD.

On further observation, I realized I do the same thing. This is not an easy thing to correct. Now during rests, all I think about is not looking at the bow. One more thing to think about??

December 19, 2017 at 02:49 AM · I congratulate Paul Stein on the article! Particularly

the comment at the end about the limitations

of perceived rules such as “ straight bow “ being rather allowed in its natural path or index finger”pressing “ making allowances for string

breathing and I may add, natural harmonics , free string vibration

and resonance.

As far as the tightening of the bow, I know from

personal concert experience that a lot needs to

be factored in, according to music character, desired texture

of sound, and of course not to forget the stick’s own

characteristics, and camber, either very flexible, medium, or

very strong.

Above all, it is up to our constant awareness and inner

ear to differentiate between run of the mill sound production versus

artistic and individual imagination such as the representative

work of the Golden generation of violinists!

Sergiu Schwartz

December 19, 2017 at 02:00 PM · Thanks, Sergio, for expressing so well our individual abilities to create sound. In music, the idea of "one size fits all" doesn't take us very far. The stories and explanations about how each of us creates order out of chaos are fascinating. The most interesting are those involving our ears and our resulting sounds. Sometimes how we tighten our bow can make a difference.

December 19, 2017 at 04:55 PM · Great article. The difficulty that my beginning orchestra students have when trying to produce a clear tone is often a source of frustration and discouragement. Your article really helps clarify the problem and provides some very helpful insights. Thank you!

Rob Folsom

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