Violin technique: Taking the Scratch Out of the Bow Hairs

July 28, 2021, 11:42 PM · If you could wave a magic wand, then all the bow’s scratches would disappear after a few months of playing the violin. Unfortunately, they don’t usually go away that soon. What's more, concentrating on holding the stick in a conventional way doesn’t necessarily fix the problem. Instead, focusing on how the hairs intertwine with the string can make more of a difference. If the hairs find a groove within the string’s vibrations, the sound will be fuller and warmer. The role of the bow hold is to insure stability so that the bow hairs can do their jobs.

bow balance

Sometimes I’ll add a little pressure to the stick to keep the bow from losing control during a shift or a string change. This might mean that the "conventional" bow hold gets a little altered. When I’m concentrating on keeping the hair at a consistent depth into the string, I’ll do whatever is necessary with my bow hold, and interesting results occur. If I’m digging into the string and, at the same time, balancing the string’s vibrations by pulling up from the strings, my knuckles may be pointing up, pyramid style. If I’m getting the sound I want, then I’ll gladly accept whatever I’m doing. There’s a freedom in letting the hand find its own shape and feel. Not worrying about my bow hold gives my mind a rest and an opportunity to think about the hairs, the strings, and the sound.

A Checklist for Warm, Velvety Sound

What does it take to make sure that the hairs remain fully connected to the string? With a checklist of goals, the appropriate technical details will more likely fall in place. The concept of “form follows function” is a significant part of music-making and skill-building. If you know how the hairs and strings interact, the hand and arm will act accordingly.

Here are ways to make the sounds that come out of your violin match the ones you hear in your head:

  1. Keep the path of the hair on a straight course. The bow itself doesn’t have to be perfectly parallel to the bridge, but pay attention so that the hairs remain in the groove it started in. Of course, a new groove and angle may begin after a bow change. The freedom of the bow requires careful awareness so that you don’t slice the string. Know your bow’s path and remember that no two paths are exactly the same. The hairs travel through their groove much like the way a light beam shines through one path at a time.

  2. In order for the hairs to maintain the proper height above the string and into the string, they need to maintain a state of equilibrium. That is, they shouldn’t be forced into the string, nor elevated to the point that they lose contact. Think of an organic connection in which the string is vibrating fully and is absorbed within a bunch of flat hairs. That such a symbiosis takes place is one of the miracles of music. It has the stability of a zipper and the properties of a vacuum cleaner absorbing everything in its path.
  3. The visual image of a tightrope walker holding a balancing bar works for the bow arm as well. The walker gently squeezes the stick to maintain its stability and levelness. A violinist will tighten his grip on the frog momentarily to keep the bow from losing control, then relax the tension, and then repeat the process. The bow arm travels over numerous changes in altitude, velocity, and impact. Learning how to squeeze and release is a vital technique that goes with the territory.

Balance is an integral part of the bow arm, and it keeps the tip and the frog connected to the string. One of the key ingredients is steadying the bow so it doesn’t make a sudden, jerky movement. You may have to change your bow hold if the bow feels slippery and you’re in danger of losing control. Keeping a bow balanced means being ready for anything that may happen – changes of bow speed, variations of how far the bow gets into the string, and new articulations.

When all is said and done, the bow maintains itself on many planes and resides on several thicknesses of strings. With so many opportunities to collapse, violinists do a marvelous job of keeping it afloat. I think of a hydraulic system, employing water or other liquids in motion. A state of mind keeps the bow where it needs to be to have just the right clearance for the hairs to gel with the strings.

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Replies

July 30, 2021 at 04:34 PM · Thanks again Paul.

Staying Connected and Staying in the Groove are important concepts. Even when changing bow direction do not release all of the force; the hair will pop out of that imaginary groove and it takes time to get back into the groove. The tilt of the bow also helps. It smashes a lot of hair into a narrow ribbon, resulting in a clearer tone. Deliberately flattening the bow hair results in, not louder (!), but fuzzy, soto-voce timbre. Keeping the bow parallel to the bridge not only looks better, but prevents the hair from drifting off of the optimum point of contact- what physicists call vector forces.

Most of us are too sensitive to the scratch, the bow hiss, the white noise component of the violin tone. Our left ear is only a few inches away from it. What the audience hears, at a distance, is a clean attack on the note. Using some kind of plug in the left ear helps.

I used to think that Heifetz's sound on recordings (only heard him once live) was noisier, edgier than other soloists. I learned later that he used a closer mike, and those bare gut strings are noisier.

And there is a difference between playing acoustic in a large hall, and the recording studio. For recordings (I have only done background parts) you want to pay extra clean and don't have to play loud.

July 30, 2021 at 09:57 PM · Joel, your thoughts about Heifetz’s sound made me think about how deep the bow can get into the string. It’s easier to go really deep when others are playing with you. To do it when you’re alone is really an accomplishment.

August 2, 2021 at 04:00 AM · continued,-- "Staying in the Groove" is not just an imaginary, subjective imaging trick, but is partly real. Physics experiments show that the hair and rosin pulls the string sideways into a wedge shaped kink. At some point that releases, the kink travels up the string and is reflected back from the nut.

Another time to Not release the force of the bow on the string is when shifting, changing positions. It is one of the many paradoxical, counter-intuitive things about this instrument. It is natural to release the tension in the right hand when we release release the left hand for a shift. But better results happen when we maintain the connection with the hair during a shift. Accidental noises, at least for me, are not a problem. Hope that makes sense.

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