Plan Ahead to Avoid Running Out of Bow

May 31, 2020, 2:52 PM · When we chose whether to play a string, wind, or percussion instrument in elementary school, I doubt whether anyone took into account the reliability of how the instrument would work. If I had known how many pitfalls the violin would be subject to, I might have run the opposite direction. Instead I took my school-issued violin home and promptly ran out of bow. No matter how long it was, my bow came off at the tip and came to a screeching halt at the frog. All violins should come with a warning – if it can go wrong, it will go wrong.

bow distribution division

Since no two measures are alike, knowing where you are in the bow at all times is important. Since you can’t look at the bow to remind you when you’re close to the end, you need to rely on a mental/visual awareness, the sense of knowing where you are in space without actually looking. Proprioception is the sense of self-movement and body awareness. It is sometimes described as the “sixth sense”.

I like to have ways of tracking where my bow is, and the sixth sense is a good place to start. It’s helpful to have a radar system in your mind, one that predicts when the bow is picking up unnecessary speed and distance. Remembering past experiences and acting on them can keep us from running out of bow. It will take a lot of will power at first to change an old habit, but the mind loves to change something wrong with something right.

Getting to Know Your Bow

  1. Start with a straight bow, mostly parallel to the bridge. A bow that’s skidding towards the bridge or fingerboard tends to be fast and out of control.
  2. You can control the speed of your bow by dividing it into 2, 3, 4, and 6 parts. The most common mistake is using too much bow at the beginning of the stroke.
  3. A gliding, aerodynamic bow produces the most beautiful sound. However, without a plan for the next bow speed, the gliding can get out of control. You can designate “miles-per-hour” to each bow stroke so it can stand in relation with the ones that come before and after.

Keeping the Bow Straight Also Keeps the Momentum Steady

To move the bow with the right speed and distance, it’s important not to have unwanted bow detours. Also, a change of string shouldn’t result in a radically different bow angle. Here’s an exercise that would help keep the bow straight when using the whole bow:

  1. Place the bow near the frog on any string, making sure it’s parallel with the bridge. A good way to check that is to notice whether the frog and the tip are lined up with each other correctly. Think FRIP, for frog and tip. If the two are displaced from each other in a zig-zag fashion, the bow will automatically drift away from its course.
  2. From the starting point, lift and move the bow two inches, like a short bunny hop. Place it on the string, making sure it’s still parallel to the bridge. Rely on your sixth sense of knowing where the bow is in space. Repeat until you reach the tip, then travel back to the frog.
  3. This exercise reminds us that the bow has sections, each having a degree of independence. We don’t run out of bow when each part is connected to a certain rhythm or character. Our minds divide the bow in the same way it divides the fingerboard, another task that the mind loves to do. (It likes order more than it likes chaos.)

Bows are Telescopic - They Glide Easily and No Two Parts are Exactly the Same

  1. To experience the feeling of free AND measured movement, play a whole bow, down- bow and up-bow on an open string for four beats, beat = 72. Then, while keeping the same dynamic and the same full bow, play three beats, then two beats. Anticipate the ends of the bow with enough time to feel ready to change direction.
  2. Now get gradually softer on the down-bow and louder on the up-bow and notice small differences in bow speed and weight. The key here is to observe which section of the bow you’re in.
  3. Miles-per-hour is a handy way to designate the changes that the bow is experiencing. A phrase goes through many ebbs-and-flows. There can be several speed-ups in one measure, and many moments of relaxation over several measures. Our ears guide us, and the more we hear musical contours, the more obvious will be the changes of bow speed.

Checklist to Avoid Running Out of Bow

  1. If you’re getting too close to the tip, don’t make things worse by pressing harder. Keep a light touch between the hairs and the strings. A heavy leverage will interfere with a good sound and flowing movement. Neutral leverage, in which the weight is balanced, is the way to go.
  2. If you feel you’re about to go off the edge of the cliff when you’re practicing, STOP!! Think back on when you could have played with less distance or bow speed. This will help you set up a plan for the future.
  3. Remember to study your mistakes. Your mind stores them away in an organized manner. When you face similar passages later, the work back then points you in the right direction when you need it.

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June 1, 2020 at 03:59 AM · You always have good advice and this information is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

June 1, 2020 at 12:08 PM · Eventually you're supposed to play the whole first page of Schradieck in one bow.

June 1, 2020 at 01:33 PM · Thank you, Suzanne!

Paul, I bet there are a few us that are trying your idea right now. Great parlor trick! Two Set Violins could come up with a hilarious skit along those lines. Thanks for the suggestion.

June 1, 2020 at 08:24 PM · Paul S you mention a telescopic bow, such a contraption would be handy in that respect :-)

June 2, 2020 at 03:11 AM · Jean, I think you’re on to something. A telescopic bow would fit well in a backpack. Of course, there’s always the danger it will get shorter while you’re playing.

June 2, 2020 at 10:18 PM · I tried the "bunny hop" in my practice session today and it really helped! Interestingly, while I often run out of bow on sustained notes, I also often don't use enough bow in moving passages. So the bunny hop helped me feel more secure with that upper stretch toward the tip. Thank you!

June 3, 2020 at 05:02 AM · Diana, your experience adds another dimension of the bunny hop I hadn’t thought of. You bunny hopped your way into the upper part of the bow, and now that area is more welcoming. I’ll try it too. Thank you

June 4, 2020 at 10:33 PM · Calibrating a bow stroke on a long tone or phrase is something like a wind player or singer gauging the use of their air supply. We all tend to to waste the bow at the beginning of a phrase and run out of bow at the last note. The antidote is to do the opposite. Save bow at the beginning and have some reserve bow left over for the last note, then waste it if needed. For long runs on a slur the middle notes on the middle strings (A,D) tend to get swallowed. At the early stages of learning a piece, we need to choreograph, design the bowing, so that it works when up to tempo, with the extra pressure and dangers of performance. We have the advantage of bowing in both directions, while the singers and winds can only use air in one direction; they need to plan their breathing spots.

June 5, 2020 at 04:31 AM · Thanks, Joel, for excellent practical advice. Violinists benefit from having conversations with their bow. There’s no such thing as perfect behavior for the bow, but instead good guidance suffices.

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