Listening to My Bow and Bow Arm's Secrets

February 20, 2020, 5:48 PM · Our bows have one job to do: make a sound as reliable as the piano’s strings. The only instrument as fragile and vulnerable as the violin is the flute. Like the violin, the mechanics of the flute seem indirect. Whether you learn to blow in a non-traditional way, or figure out how the bow hairs resemble the padding of a piano’s hammer, the violinist and flutist have to learn certain secrets, or revelations, that don’t translate into short, pithy instructions.

bow angles

One of my favorite moments of discovery was eliminating the scraping of the hairs up, down, and sideways along the string. Since it doesn’t take long to skid from the fingerboard to the bridge, part of my new technique involved constant attention to my bow staying in its lane. Instead of thinking in terms of inches and seconds, I had to develop the observation of a sentry, in which a momentary lapse sends the bow careening.

The faulty nature of my arm, with all its multiple parts, was to make random, centrifugal, non-strategic movements. The secret ingredient I had been missing was that my arm needed to follow the bow, rather than vice-versa. I clearly had to change my mind’s point of departure if I wanted to stop the scraping and the slipshod movements.

However, the exercises I was given weren’t enough to turn my thinking around. I was told to think about the hand, but it was the bow that needed the primary attention.

How to Reverse a Cherished Perspective

How universal is the concept that on the down-bow we direct our wrist outward and on the up-bow we direct it inward? Certainly it helps to clarify what the bow arm does to draw the bow straight, but I have many issues with it. An organic bow movement depends on a very gradual in-and-out movement of the wrist. Any exaggeration results in skewing the bow’s direction and scraping the strings. Drawing attention to the wrist overlooks the importance of viewing the arm as a whole. The wrist at best resembles the fins of a fish, naturally changing directions when the fish turns. At worst, it hardens and moves out of sync with the other moving parts.

How did something so natural, a movement of gentle reaction to the arm itself, become a confused and misguided part?

What Do Organic Angles and Paths Feel Like on the Violin

If you focus too much on the appearance of the wrist, like whether it should be low or high, or the how the fingers should be spaced, then you’re probably not thinking about the path of the bow itself. Here’s a brief description of what that process would feel like, with no danger of the bow turning corners and aiming around your head:

The initial placement of the bow takes into consideration a few beats worth of organic path. Even though the bow is moving smoothly and rather quickly, you would be aware of where you are in the bow, with little chance of running out. Very little in-and -out may even take place in the wrist, because such a movement is subtle and, in some cases, non-existent. As the bow moves all the way to the tip, the bow follows the gentle, straight path while the arm, elbow, and wrist go for the ride, in both a passive and intelligent way.

The elbow does something unexpected; it travels behind your body. For example, playing down-bow on the D string can cause many a bow to “fan” towards the bridge, because the arm’s cumbersome apparatus doesn’t unfold naturally. The elbow stubbornly stays put and doesn’t relinquish its position from in front of the body. I wish this wasn’t the case, but describing faulty physics, as in the example of an elbow that won’t move, is helpful in identifying a problem. Therein lies the difficulty of playing the violin; an old habit is based on a very firm belief structure, but, and here’s the good news, can be undone by changing a perspective. The arm will follow a straight bow easier than trying to choreograph the hands to do the “right” thing.

To the player with the bad habit of trying not to move the elbow and upper arm, it is quite liberating to feel the natural arc of an elbow reacting to a straight bow. Of course, if you’ve always had an immobile elbow, it’s quite off-putting at first to feel the elbow behind you. The violin, and especially the bow, are very much 360-degree instruments. As your universe expands and you become adept at maneuvering through all the angles of the strings, you’ll understand how tied in knots you had been.

Sixty years of orchestra playing drove home the idea that space is limited. We don’t have the luxury to move with a fancy flourish at the tip or the frog. If we inadvertently poked the temple of our stand partner during a careless, virtuosic moment, we apologize. Our sense of space is intimate and unique, a world uniquely shaped by a bow going one direction, vibrato going another, and rhythm giving us the perfect amount of time to plan ahead.


February 21, 2020 at 05:03 PM · Paul,--well done. I detect an analytical approach ?

We want the bow to move straight, 90 o from the string, parallel to the bridge, because if it is at even a slight angle off it will pull away from the optimum point of contact. Vector forces? Our joints want our limbs to move in circles. One of my teachers gave this analogy: the drive train on a steam locomotive. A piston moves laterally, there is a loose slip-joint (forgot the name) then an arm drives the circular wheel. Same thing on a car engine, the piston drives a circular motion of the drive-shaft. But we are doing the reverse; converting circular motions of the joints into a straight motion of the bow.

A teaching item I borrowed from one of Paul Roland's books; the tube trick. Place one end of a cardboard tube on the student's string right next to the bridge and ask them to try to run the bow through the tube without scraping the sides. They start bending the wrist and moving the elbow. Like you, I also like to think of running the bow hair along a track, a lane, like a needle running along the groove in a record, with very little weight and no sideways force. (Remember those big black round things?) For me, the third finger of the right hand is my enemy. I don't need it to do anything, but since it is not completely independent of the fourth finger, it wants to pull sideways, which sends the tip out over the fingerboard. Once straight bowing is a habit there is a slight modification; a very shallow figure-8 motion, the slight angle keeps the bow hair where you want it. Another bowing warm-up exercise; hold the bow with only the thumb and second figure and bow slowly, upper half only, with zero added weight The only way to now control the bow is with the position of the elbow.

February 21, 2020 at 06:23 PM · Joel, your phrasing “... converting circular motion of the joints into a straight motion of the bow” hit the nail on the head and is quite artfully written. Understanding the pitfalls and complexities helps us understand what kind of mess we can get ourselves into. Arm motions do our bidding if we let them be neutral. They will follow a straight bow.

Thanks for all of your excellent observations.

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