Violin Technique: How the Left Hand Can Actually Improve the Bow Arm

July 10, 2022, 11:00 AM · If you’re busy or pre-occupied with fingerings and shifts in the left hand, it’s possible that insufficient messages are making their way to the bow arm on the right. However, there are ways you can make the left hand work to help the right. If you know what the fingers and notes are trying to communicate, the bow will respond in kind. When this energy happens in tandem, not forced but naturally, it can work as smoothly as the coordination in a pianist’s two hands.

violinist two hands

Here are some examples of how the left hand can inspire and compel the right hand to play more effectively:

  1. Shifting: When shifting positions, the bow tends to bounce because the left hand may be squeezing the neck and causing the violin to get knocked around a little. To prevent the bow from being dislodged, add gentle pressure at the playing point, which is the part of the bow that is touching the string at any given moment.
  2. Rhythmic Finger Placement: One of the lessons Kreutzer Etude No. 2 teaches is rhythmic precision of the fingers moving up and down. The left fingers need to strike the fingerboard and release without being vulnerable to rushing or slowing down. Variables such as large versus small intervals and changing strings may cause unevenness, but a strong, mathematically-spaced ear will make the finger placements architecturally sound.

    How does this transfer to the bow arm? The requirements of the left hand can cause the bow strokes to become rushed and the length narrowed. Take a moment to remind the bow to allow a tiny bit of extra length to account for each bow change. Knowing how easy it is to short-change a bow length, you’ll be happy to notice that making the bow strokes longer will actually be easier.

  3. Making a beautiful sound. It's easy to rely on left-hand vibrato for expressive sound, but the the bow bears a huge responsibility. In fact, almost 90 percent of the tone comes from the bow, and the vibrato makes up the other 10 percent. This lopsided math doesn’t mean that the left hand works less than the right hand – they just produce very different parts of the music. When you are craving that beautiful sound and vibrato isn't getting you any farther, remember the bow arm and put it to work, expanding and shaping the tone.

Focusing Attention on the Bow Arm

When your mind seems to be solely concentrating on the left hand's challenges, ask three questions to focus your attention on the bow arm as well:

  1. Is the mood and tone associated with a strong, vibrant sound, or a more intimate, quiet phrase? How can you achieve this with the bow?
  2. Are you using all the possible parts of the bow? If you’re stuck in the middle, can you suddenly make your way to the upper half?
  3. When playing in an ensemble, can you blend with the sound of the group both in terms of dynamics and texture? Allow the bow hand to make these adjustments.

Asking these questions unlocks the bow from playing in a static fashion, and spontaneously transfers the mind from the left hand to the right.

Ideally, the moment you start moving the left hand, the bow arm should step up to the plate and play with strength. However, it can take a little more prompting to make the bow live up to its potential. What makes the bow arm wake up and bring life to the music? There are ways to remind the right hand to be an equal partner to the left. This transfer of concentration is one of the most important skills that we can achieve through practice and attention to where we are placing focus.

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July 16, 2022 at 04:22 PM · Interesting, as usual. For me, I find that my bowing influences left hand fingering more often than the reverse. One specific example would be shifting. During the shift the left hand relaxes, releases. And since we only have one integrated brain, the right hand also releases the traction, causing a bounce, or the bow-hair drifts off of the optimum point of contact, over the fingerboard instead of closer to the bridge. I try to do the opposite; maintain or even increase the weight or leverage on the bow during a shift, and not worry about any shifting noise or slide. I find it slightly better to shift up on an up-bow, down on a down-bow, but half of my students don't notice any difference.

Transferring mental focus to the right arm from the complex fingering of the left hand is really difficult. Left-handed students, I have had two, will find this especially hard.

July 16, 2022 at 11:37 PM · Joel, I like your line “…we only have one integrated brain…” That explains why good actions can make bad actions occur. Independence exercises help deal with that problem. I like the expressions “think fast and flexible” and “hope for the best and prepare for the worst.”

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