The Gypsy in Us All - How the Bow Finds Its Groove

July 28, 2017, 6:57 PM · Forget for a moment that Sigmund Freud never played the violin. When he wrote how our unconscious mind guides our conscious actions, and that something we’re not even aware of creates the grand design for how our lives unfold, he could have been speaking to musicians. Young, beginning students lay their fingers on a bow and wrap their left hands around a shape of air, pivoting their arms for the first time in their lives. Will the hand collapse around the fingerboard? Will the right wrist cave inwards or support the bow from above?

The violinist’s subconscious provides the answers. It is the most accurate account of how he perceives the way things actually work. Will he know that the right hand needs to hold the air space more than the bow itself? This would prevent squeezing and collapsing. Will the left fingers figure out the spaces of the fingerboard? Intonation and muscle memory are systems that can be completely defined in the players’ subconscious, but often feel vague and chaotic when simply looking at the bald fingerboard.

There is a grand design to how the parts of a violinist’s mind work together to create a technique that works logically. A good place to start is trying to understand the groove that the bow hairs make with the string. From this exploration, we learn to make the violin as reliable as the piano. To hit a piano key assures us that a beautiful pitch will be heard with proper articulation. Although it’s harder to do it on the violin, it can eventually become just as reliable.

To borrow from a myth we’ve grown up with, great gypsy violinists supposedly never study any method. Their bow movements look liquid. I believe methods can only just begin the process. They are a necessary evil, and if a player is lucky, he’s not saddled with multiple, conflicting methods. Pick your poison and start out with one. Russian, Franco-Belgian, or Egyptian (very high wrist, like a pyramid) will do. Once the outer technique is decided, now the fun begins.

Gypsy Fiddler
Gypsy Fiddler, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, 1960, The Met

A musician hears the music either from others or from his inner ear, and the goal is to get, as close as possible, the same sound and phrase out of the violin. The talented gypsy has a technique that never interferes with the process. The rest of us run into interferences all the time. Educating our musical subconscious teaches us how to override these.

In the case of the bow’s groove with the string, we can be certain of one thing: hidden within the labyrinth of obstacles is an example of musical physics at its most elegant.

The Engagement

Make sure that the moment a new string is touched, it doesn’t pass unnoticed. When the bow changes direction, the player will either create a new, full vibration, or immediately play a raspy and fuzzy sound. Nothing focuses a violinist’s mind like the need to engage the string, thousands of times a day. How many of us leave the thinness of the E string, but forget to adjust to the thickness of the G string? It only takes a moment to let the hair and the string adjust to each other. It’s so simple, but cannot be described in words. It’s like a gentle kiss, or the formation of a bubble, which is a thin sphere of liquid enclosing air or another gas. The result is as if a flower blossomed at that moment. No wonder musical sound is so beautiful.

The Groove

On first glance, the bow is unwieldy. It is usually the accomplice to the crime of pressing, slamming, leverage to the degree of critical mass, and finally, hydraulic movement into the mud of the fingerboard or the wall of the bridge.

On the other hand, what about the bow’s design is so perfect? It can make a groove that gently depresses the string, and keeps it spinning and vibrating. Once the string has been engaged, which is the process which starts the groove, the player reminds himself to avoid the pitfalls. If he needs to add pressure, there will be no problem as long as the hair remains fundamentally horizontal.

I don’t like the term “into the string” when describing the symbiotic relationship between the hair and the string. Along with the popular suggestion to add pressure with various fingers and/or the wrist, there is a powerful tendency to overcome and choke the string. One of the beauties of the bow’s design is its power to change dynamics and color with no “manufactured muscles” brought into play. A mere flick of the “mental muscles” provides all the necessary technique. This means that the arm responds to simply thinking louder or softer, and a neutral, organic arm provides exactly what is necessary, no more and no less.


Whatever loggers do when they’re in the river, competitively spinning logs, is the same as what the bow does. I would try to put it into words, but the image works alone. The word skimming comes to mind. Also, I imagine the loggers think they’re walking on a flat surface, keeping a horizontal frame of mind. The biggest obstacle for a violinist is not realizing how close the hair is to the string. It seems that the brain rests in the hand, and there’s no awareness how far down the bow goes until it reaches hair. Factor in changes of string thicknesses and lack of attention to the geography of the string changes, and before you know it, it’s pretty hard to avoid a four car pile-up.

The hair is always closer to the string than it appears. I find that the image of “playing the air” works for me. Because of years of scratching, I think of the hair actually clearing the string and staying above it, and lo-and-behold, gravity will lower the hair exactly as far as it needs to go. Just to counter-act years of bad habits, I find myself pulling away from the string. Gravity is a great thing, but sometimes it needs to be handled.

The Words That Help Our Subconscious Thrive

Water transports us, and the bow’s groove is like a boat, while the wake represents the generous width of the path. All those years of working on a straight bow paid off, but we should spend one week reminding ourselves that a tight, overly obsessive straight bow will not create a full vibration.

Our bow sometimes grinds its way up-bow, as if it’s pushing against gravity. That’s a figment of your imagination, and it’s grinding the sound as well. Let the bow move itself, and the hand will simply go for the ride. All those years of teaching yourself what the hand does to make the bow straight would have been easier if the mind simply told the bow what to do. Leave out the middle man. The neutral hand would follow the bow’s lead.

Kreisler’s Subconscious

Our subconscious mind is our collection of reminders to ourselves. There is a possibility that Freud did play the violin, and a biography of Fritz Kreisler says that Freud played chamber music with Kreisler’s father. Wikipedia doesn’t clear up the controversy of whether he did or didn’t. For once, it has failed me.

Freud would have loved Kreisler’s humility about his own talent. He said “I was born with musical feeling…Do people praise fishes for their swimming?” What a rich reservoir we possess in wondering what Kreisler’s subconscious looked like. We are so lucky that, in listening to his playing, we can continue to understand what talent looks and sounds like.


July 30, 2017 at 03:41 PM · The analogy of stroking the string and rolling a log in the river is a nice one, I'll remember that!

July 30, 2017 at 04:03 PM · I appreciate your mention of "years of scratching," something that didn't much happen to me in my 2 years of easy strings. But now 2 weeks after getting my first gut strings, I feel as if I've been set back a year or two, and especially the G sounds horrible very often. So I am encouraged that somebody (you Paul) who, presumably, can now play sweetly, also passed through a scratchy period on the long road to mastery of bowing strings.

July 31, 2017 at 03:32 PM · Your imagery is very helpful! I appreciate the way you balance technical information with real-world solutions. The most helpful line for me was: "One of the beauties of the bow’s design is its power to change dynamics and color with no “manufactured muscles” brought into play." I'm having that made into a poster for my practice room to remind me that digging "into the string" isn't helping my cause! Thank you!

August 1, 2017 at 11:46 AM · Will, I remember years of thinking that, to bow a beautiful sound, certain panaceas will make everything better. Two that come to mind are to use the whole bow all the time, and to press so hard near the bridge that you'll be sure the person in the last row will hear you. Both are damaging concepts, unless used judiciously. Nowadays I like to think what is actually happening when the string and the hair meet. Endlessly fascinating. One thing that's interesting to wrap your head around is the fact that the string is vibrating within the hair. That's a lot of activity to accommodate. The more the hair gives or breathes, the more natural vibration is produced.

You mention gut strings. I wonder if there are specific properties of those which set them apart from synthetic strings in terms of how they interact with the hair. I remember how I would fear scratching when I put on a new string, especially Dominants. For some reason Obligato strings wouldn't cause the same problem. Now I concentrate on making the string spin, as if I'm bowing around the string. Whatever unusual properties the string possesses, I ignore them and bow around them. The proof is in the pudding. If the string is vibrating, I've done my job. If it's scratching, I followed some bad advice.

August 2, 2017 at 03:10 AM · Thanks Paul, yours is practically the only advice I've gotten in the past few months, as I'm just teaching myself and haven't yet met the string-playing friends I will need in the coming years.

Therefore for me there is no "outer technique" even to guide me, but definitely I have a strong "inner ear" which is now getting much stronger from the challenge these gut strings present. Already in 2 weeks I've gone from terrible to bad, which feels great!

Your poetic writing captures the sort of sensual and instinctive and beyond-literal-words experience of engaging the strings with the bow. And just last night I got a new bow, a renaissance-style bow with a push-in frog that shapes the wood outward like a bow-and-arrow bow. It makes my ear and fingers and brain come alive to put all these new sounds and sensations in motion and try to improve it from the scratches of the start to what sounded pretty good (for me) tonight.

Regarding your technical and literal advice, I agree that bowing near the bridge is a disaster. The Dominants and Zyex strings I had been using the past 2 years were easy and now I'm so glad that by switching to gut I've forced myself to PAY ATTENTION to how the bow engages the strings. I started this gut string journey with Gamut equal tension heavy gauge gut strings, and the G is so fat like a little rope, very hard to get a good tone but challenging me and definitely educational. I'm sure my next strings will be a lighter gauge so I can learn the difference.

You write "the string is vibrating in the hair." Such an image inspires me to now turn off this computer and pick up the bow one more time tonight and see if I can open my ears and mind to feel how "the strings vibrate in the hair." Too bad I have t get up in 6 hours and work all day again on a sunny roof. But even so I'll now take some meditation time to feel those strings vibrating in the hair as I develop an instinctive liquid technique of bowing not close to the bridge and with just the right amount of gravity to let the hair breath and the strings vibrate with real tone.

August 2, 2017 at 12:28 PM · Will, When I mentioned the string vibrating within the hair, I thought of it as an added obstacle. After all, pressure from the bow would find even more interference from the string moving within it.

However, your comment made me think of the "enhanced physics" that happens when string meets hair. No wonder the violin sound is so beautiful. Imagine the fullness and increased power of the string inside the hair.

August 3, 2017 at 01:26 AM · Re: Freud and the violin, there are are some references. Here is one:

"Fritz Kreisler was born on 2 February 1875. His father Salomon, who was originally from Poland, was a medical doctor and amateur violinist. Salomon had his own quartet and organized weekly chamber music gatherings at their house where, amongst others, Sigmund Freud (also a keen violinist) often played." Taken from:

Good post.

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