There are two things that happen with a bow that cannot be taught. When we first learn to hold the bow, we are told that pressure is exerted with one of the five fingers. (Even the thumb pressing up is sometimes recommended.) The wrist and/or the shoulder has been suggested as well. The back is sometimes mentioned as a source of strength and a foundation on which the bow arm’s structure is built. Sometimes the words “weight” and “energy” are substituted for the harsher sounding “pressure.” Enough choices for you?
Ever feel like learning technique is a game of roulette? Spin the wheel in Texas and your bow weight comes from the wrist. Spin it in Illinois and the index finger becomes the anointed one. There is no shortage of strategies, but very little consensus. One thing that becomes obvious when it comes to the bow arm, is that we have an abundance of hints and opinions, but no real facts.
How do you describe the relationship between the hairs and the string? Why does the bow arm have trouble finding the angles and planes of the strings? Even if a student follows the teacher’s verbal instruction, what are the traps and pratfalls that await so many violinists?
The Before Picture
The forensics on my bow arm from around grade 4 until college degree are not pretty. Let’s not mince words. Instead of fingers beautifully draped over the stick (picture freshly shampooed bangs cascading artfully over a forehead), my fingers were fixated on the stick with no cushion, margin or springs. (Picture very thin beached sea lions.)
This state of affairs was what I was dealing with years after I had come to the realization that music was going to be my profession. That was when I was sixteen, sitting in the orchestra at a Midwest music camp, and blissfully unaware of my semi-paralyzed bow hold.
My practice sessions were impervious to the numerous exercises for relaxing tension. I was at that awkward stage when you think you know everything, and learning a lot of notes kept my mind off of more important things like correcting bad habits. My unspoken attitude was “It is what it is.”
I remember being a student at a festival north of Philadelphia and playing one piece on a student recital. For all intent and purposes, my left hand was paralyzed and my fourth finger was useless. Forget the emotions I should have experienced with the music. All I knew was that I was scared to death. My teacher was at the performance and I told her afterwards what my hand had felt like. She said the performance sounded fine and my bow looked fine.
That brief exchange says it all. While she was a good (oops, I almost used the word “fine”) teacher who was always encouraging, there is a point where we are all on our own. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of published histories of how each of us got through these very personal moments of technical frailty and paralysis.
Revealing My Bow Arm’s Inner Lightness
What helped my bow arm from getting worse, and what reversed the damage that had already been done, was paying attention to each thing I was doing wrong. There was no panacea. There was no exercise. And most importantly, I was not a candidate for being given a new way to hold my bow. The work I needed to do included, for example, minimizing the pressure from my thumb, while replacing it with a healthier use of finger support.
This is easier said than done. All those pressure points and dead weight from the fingers, along with hardness from the wrist, were sustaining my bow arm, albeit dysfunctionally. When you’re trying to exorcise bow demons, you appreciate the power of the ear to guide you. As I removed the strain of my hand, one part at a time, I willed my newer bow hold to produce the same sound that was in my ear. As my bow arm was evolving, it felt organic for the first time, not manufactured from a set of instructions.
Supple and Simple
What does a bow hold feel like when it’s not full of pressure points? The shape of the hand gets its strength and structure predominately from holding air, and just touching lightly the bow at a few points. The hand cannot collapse on and around the bow because it’s much easier to hold air than to hold a bow. The only thing that is difficult is wrapping your mind around such a thought. This is a good example of why music and violin playing are exercises in counter-intuitive thinking.
My current bow arm will always remind me of the old days. You can eliminate old habits, but you can’t forget them. The cosmetics of how my arm looked were deceiving. As my teacher had said at the camp near Philadelphia, everything looked fine. What slowly dawned on me was that change happens from within.Tweet
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