This is a shout out to the person who invented the greatest exercise ever devised for violinists. It may have been Leopold Mozart, Leopold Auer, or Carl Flesch. Or it may be someone none of us have heard of. Posterity and fame await you, because with this exercise, you singlehandedly captured the essence of the bow arm. (The left hand benefitted as well.)
Sometimes called the crab crawler, it was usually presented as the first fun exercise that we did while holding the bow. (No violin was necessary for this exercise.)
With our hands holding the frog, and the tip pointing straight up, our fingers would climb their way up the stick all the way to the top, then back down again. Every inch of the bow gave a different challenge to the hand’s stability because of the constant shift in the bow’s balance. Coming down was much harder than going up. And yet each of us hung in dearly and rarely dropped the bow.
What was the point of this exercise? One of the properties of the bow hold is that the fingers should have a light touch on the stick. Rather than the fingers lying like dead weight on the bow, they should fall over the stick with the lightness of bangs over a forehead. These feelings of a “light touch” are demonstrated by the crab crawler. What the fingers learn in this exercise is that they are not immobile. They respond to whatever job they are required to do. As the weight and balance of the bow changes while the hand is moving up the stick, there are subtle shifts in the way the fingers react. The muscles accompanying the fingers will flex and relax in a variety of ways.
While clinging to the stick is a no-no, it’s no surprise how easy it is to squeeze the stick until your wrist, hand, and fingers are hurting. It’s a miracle when a child holds the bow with lightness and moves it the organic way, in which the bow moves itself and the hand and fingers just go along for the ride. Instead, the usual bad habit is that the narrow stick and the child’s hand fit together awkwardly. What doesn’t fit, will fight instead. When the hand clumsily holds the weight-disproportionate stick, clinging and a misshapen hand become the child’s right-hand scourge.
The crab crawler demonstrates a hint of what a positive bow experience should feel like. The obvious benefit is that the fingers drape themselves around the stick without the type of static-cling associated with pants that stick to the body. For those of us whose thumbs press hard against the stick and squeeze the life out of it, the exercise makes it impossible for the thumb to seize up and strangle the bow.
How the Bow Creates Colors and Fabrics
There’s a hidden benefit of this exercise in the way the fingers have to constantly adjust to the varying changes in the bow’s weight and balance. Violinists know how important it is to blend with the ensemble and predict what changes are coming up. A Baroque ensemble that plays with minimum vibrato and lots of light, upper-bow sound, will require a sound unlike what the violinist produced at home. At the opposite extreme, a violinist in Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra would be required to play with a very dynamic and energetic vibrato, with the accompanying thick bow sound. What these examples impress on a musician is the awareness that he has to create the necessary sound at the precise moment. Someone with a fixed, clampy bow grip is less likely to produce a string sound that blends with everyone else. Given the subtle interplay between right fingers, momentary muscular jabs, and the hair that has a perfect, but mysterious, relationship with the string, a flexible hand that allows breathing room as it holds the stick is necessary.
The crab crawler, the exercise given to us when we didn’t even know what vibrato and third position were, simulates the hand position of a master violinist. The difference between a merely great violinist and Heifetz, Frang, and Shaham lies in an understanding of how flexible sound is, and how adaptable our hands needs to be to capture the split-second tonal and thematic changes.
The Bow Is a Beauty of Design and Engineering
While the bow and bow-arm is a multi-level machine, first and foremost it is guided by the expectations and sophistication of the ear. Whereas the beginning violinist is induced to flatten the whole apparatus, the bow begs for more understanding. Think of each level needing its independence, all the way from the fingers, through the stick, then the hair, and finally the string.
It’s no surprise that children scratch at the moment of connection with the string. Once they flatten the connection between the hair and the string, what’s to stop them from strangling the stick. What is supposed to be a four-layer devil’s food cake becomes a pancake with sticky syrup.
Use the exercise we learned in elementary school to breathe life back into the bow arm.Tweet
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