Tilted bow

April 8, 2008 at 05:04 PM · I'm quite shock to find out that when I'm playing, I don't use the whole bow hair. My bow is tilted to the side , so only maybe half of the bow hair is contacting the strings, is it my bow hold? I'm still a beginner, I should be using the entire surface of the hair right?


April 8, 2008 at 08:13 PM · I agree, full contact of the hair to the string.

You'll need to discuss this with your teacher because there are too many parameters involved for us to offer targeted help here, but a few basics come to mind.

First, this suggests to me that your right arm approach causes you to 'lift' the bow too much. I imagine you're holding the bow in the air, above the string about 1 inch, and continue with that posture just as you touch the hair to the bow. This would keep the pressure too light.

The stick should be a little further away from the bridge than the hair, and if you held the bow so lightly (relative to contact with the string) that the hair doesn't 'flatten out' upon the string, then indeed, only part of the hair would contact the string. However, this would also mean you don't have a good 'grip' in the contact between the hair and the string.

Words - they fail us...grip can be used to mean the contour of the hand upon the bow, I know. Here, however, I write of the concept of the contact between the hair and the string. As you gain experience you'll realize there's a certain amount of grip between these two, and you'll need to learn just how much is required. Too much grip and the bow can't move slowly over the string without scratching and screeching. Too light, and the bow floats 'over' the string without generating much sound, but some of us tend to learn, in the early stages, that this stops the screeching, developing a bad habit of lifting the bow to avoid the screeching, rather than letting it grip the string.

You need for your teacher to suggest exercises that focus on bow control, which you CAN do on the open strings. Just focus on the bow itself as it contacts the string. Let your teacher observe if your right hand grip on the bow is correct, relaxed and flexible.

Try very slow bow motion, drawing from the frog to the tip (though some teachers may prefer the middle 3rd of the bow only if they're really focusing on the early stages here). Let the weight of your arm give good contact between the hair and the string. You don't want to push downward to increase force - the right hand doesn't need to rotate counter clockwise to 'angle' force upon the strings. There is a balance to be found here - just enough contact, no less, no more.

At first, draw the bow so slowly that all you get is a soft scratch, no actual string vibration. When taken to the extreme, from frog to tip, your target is at least 30 seconds to one down bow, 30 seconds to one up bow. The objective is three points. One, that your arm doesn't tense - that's tough for most beginners. Two, that your speed is constant (and the bow isn't 'nervously' bouncing as you try to retain control - it should be smooth and stable - which happens as you become more familiar with relaxing your arm, shoulder, let your wrist contour change gradually, keeping all forces at work even and stable). Three, that the grip of the hair to the string stays constant, the hair flat - but JUST flat. That is, just enough pressure that the hair has flattened out, but no more.

It is one of those things that is actually so simple that it seems difficult. Everyone tends to 'overcorrect', like trying to balance a bicycle at extremely slow speed. This is actually happening at normal playing speed, but hardly anyone realizes just how uncomfortable they are with every inch of the bow. As you learn to 'let it happen' - you'll stop overcorrecting, even out, stabilize, relax and remain in control of the bow WITHOUT having to correct anything - you'll eventually arrive at a bow motion that is 'already correct'.

Your mind will come to know every inch of the bow, and how your arm should move along the travel. This greatly improves tone when you return to normal playing. During these kinds of exercise, you're not creating a sound - just a soft, breathy scratch. It's more annoying to hear on an open string.

Repeat this for each string, and later (when you learn to play double stops), on two adjacent strings.

You may need to pause and stretch your arm and shoulder now and then.

Stop if you're getting tense.

Speed up to 15/10 seconds to a bow if you can't stay in control at first. As you gain experience, aim for longer and longer durations. At one time I reached 60 seconds in each direction.

Now, speed up enough to turn the scratch into a tone. Keep the speed constant, the grip between the hair and the string even, just enough to keep the hair flat and the tone full. A full frog to tip might take 1 or 2 seconds, maybe a little longer if you're getting good - great if you can do this for 4 or 5 seconds while producing constant full tone (nothing breathy). All the while the bow should be parallel to the bridge (you might watch in a mirror), and the same distance from the bridge (close, but perhaps 1/2 to 1/4 inch away depending on your strings and violin).

The opposite will eventually come into play, where you'll need to draw the bow from frog to tip in less than 1 second, or somewhere about 3/4 of the bow length for even shorter notes, to create loud tone, but that can wait until later.

Your teacher may need to check, too, that your bow isn't too tight. If the hair is too tight it will resist too much, causing only part of the leading edge to contact the string.

April 9, 2008 at 01:03 AM · Amount of hair is a variable of tone production, just like weight, speed, and contact point. You can change it according to taste. You won't go to hell for sitting in one camp or the other, either. It's in Proverbs somewhere.

April 9, 2008 at 01:44 AM · Jason, if there was a section of "must read" posts on this site I would put yours in it! Good job.

April 9, 2008 at 02:12 AM · when i read about phrases like muscle memory or bad intonation, i have no idea what exactly are being conveyed. similarly, there is a need to clarify some misnomers with tilt bow, flat hair, etc.

to start, i would like to make the assertion that a tilt bow (stick that is) does not necessarily mean it is not flat hair. the cross section of a bow hair is round, therefore, if every hair is on the string at 6 o'clock, it can be considered flat. how about if every hair is on the string at 7 o'clock? it is still flat, just at a slight angle! the only difference is that the stick has tilted a tiny bit and therefore, one can argue that the force vector directly downward into the string has changed. in other words, the force from hair to string with a tilted bow should be less than a non-tilt bow, even though in both cases full contact is maintained. here is the catch: will that tiny bit of tilt result in sound production differences? i don't know and am certainly interested to read some raw data. until then, i guess stories will do.:) when guys tell me what perfume on a nice looking lady can do to them, who am i to argue?

most people most of the time play with a tilted bow of some degree, because of a combination of wrist and forearm pronation and this is particularly true near the frog. if one observes that some players play with "flat" hair with great sound production, it is not the same as observing flat hair LEADING TO great sound production. it could be, it might be, it is suggestive, but violin players should be aware there are many other factors leading to great sound production and looking at one factor alone is iffy! :)

to go further, a player can, on purpose or not, exaggerate the tilt so that part of the hair bundle near the bridge actually lifts off the string. this tilt is very different from the tilt above, thus my point that when encountered with the phrase of a tilted bow, not getting the whole story can be hairy.

April 9, 2008 at 02:23 AM · If you were in an orchestra, I daresay tilting the hair is the only way to get sixteen people to play triple piano. Learn the "proper" way for now, but I don't think you should completely rule it out for the future.

April 9, 2008 at 02:23 AM · Great comments and, Al, your queries raised are things the string player must study.

When a student asks me: Is it a down bow or up bow? I invariably say, Yes, it is a down bow or up bow:-) After all, we only have 2 directions — learn both and you become a better player, learn one and you will be missing an arm.

So, bow hair: use 1 hair to all the hair and everything in between. Those are our choices.

1. Play on the far side (the "normal" tilt);

2. Flattened hair — where the bow still is slightly tilted;

3. Truly flat hair — where the stick is directly above the hair and it would sit totally stable without out keeping it from rolling over;

4. Near side — where the bow is rolled toward the bridge and the stick is between the hair and the bridge.

(#4 is the least used.)

To these above, add excerpts:

"Intonation is one of the primary areas of focus in all we do. This applies to the intervallic measurements set about for the left hand fingers and also the contact variables of the Bow Hair to the string — the 1) point of contact, 2) speed of bow, 3) weight of bow, 4) amount of hair, 5) string selected and 6) vibrating length of string/position number are brought together in order to accomplish the desired dynamics and character of the music."


1. Higher/nearer.

a. Higher strings are played nearer to the bridge, if all else is kept equal.

b. Higher notes on the same string are nearer to the bridge in bow placement, if all else is kept equal.

2. Lower/further.

a. Lower strings are played further from the bridge, if all else is kept equal.

b. Lower notes on the same string are further from the bridge in


Flat Hair –

Not a stroke, but a method or technique, used in virtually all but the lightest of touches. A most basic and important bow technique where the stick of the bow is directly above and perpendicular to the hair.

This enables the player to achieve the fullest tones possible and the crispest, quickest responses in all types of bouncing and springing strokes. For greater ease and technical stability, it is best when the hair is rolled out from the thumb. Note that this requires a slightly lower wrist/arm and pulled-back right arm positioning, as the rolling out action moves the hair toward the fingerboard. Its counterpart is the Side Hair. Also, see Thumbless.

Hope this helps —


April 9, 2008 at 08:19 AM · so prof drew, if we come to a tuning fork in the road, take it or not?:)

April 9, 2008 at 10:04 AM · The advice of one of my former teachers comes to mind:

"It's simple physics, really... If you play with half the bow[hair], you get only half the sound!"

April 9, 2008 at 10:35 AM · and that physics also needs to take into account the speed of the bowing which plays a big part in this seemingly simple but actually not that simple equation. ignorance is bliss as long as we can get away with it:)

can one play 50% of the bow hair without any tilt of the stick? sure.

April 9, 2008 at 12:26 PM · Thanks everyone for your response!! I'm doing the "normal tilt" per Prof Drew's description. I'll talk to my teacher and see what she has to say. She mentioned it once to me that I'm playing with a tilted bow, but she didn't tell me not to do it. Just a little confused.

April 9, 2008 at 12:40 PM · I'm no expert at all so take what I write with a grain of salt. But my bow will tilt naturally when playing mezzo-forte, piano etc... The only time all the bow hairs are in contact with the strings is when I'm playing forte. This happens as my wrist moves up or down based on how loudly I'm playing. I elevate the wrist much more to play piano and drop it a bit to play forte this causes a natural tilt in the bow hair. I've watched my instructors closely and professionals and have seen the bow tilted so I haven't become concerned.

April 9, 2008 at 01:02 PM · Al — there you go, being accurate again. You took the tuning fork in the road and ended up where you started. Can you hear it, 'ey?

So yes, one can play softly and gently with a flat hair and it is different than the side of the hair and therefore gives a different flavor/color/texture to the sound and that is modified further by the speed, weight, point of contact and that is modified by the position, note and string selected and that is modified by the dynamic and character indicated by the composer and that is modified by the interpretation, insight, skills, desire, expertise, knowledge and passion of the player………

Piece of cake!…………………… please.

If you call me prof and miss the r but hit the o, I go away:-)

(Now you see what my students have to put up with.)


April 9, 2008 at 01:35 PM · "It's simple physics, really... If you play with half the bow[hair], you get only half the sound!"

That sounds logical, but I wonder how much truth there is in that. Does it follow that if you play with a bow that is 10 times thicker, you get a sound that is ten times louder?

Personally I think it can be effective to slant the bow hair more when playing high up the fingerboard, for two reasons. One reason is that you can get more pressure, which helps when you're playing near the bridge. The other reason is because, in my opinion, you can get a uniform sound if the width of bow hairs reduce as the length of the string reduces.

April 9, 2008 at 02:32 PM · Thanks Mark Helm, I'm flattered....

About '10 time more hair/10 times more sound' and other observations about performance from the various contact/tilt theories, here's what was explained to me (years ago) by my dear professor Dr. Harold Neal (highly paraphrased).

Each violin is different, and each kind of string is different in the way it responds, which means you'll see a wide range of solutions which are 'found' through practice on a particular instrument, and experienced musicians who have played on a number of instruments generalize their solutions into 'categories' that let them quickly find what an instrument can do. For younger students with experience on only 1 or 2 violins, the search can take some time. With certain types of strings you can more easily play closer to the bridge than with others, and the adjustments you tend to make in your approach which work in one setup might need to be different for different strings or violin setups. This could explain why there are so many opinions on the subject; there are actually different results witnessed on the various instruments we play.

When you tilt the stick a little farther away than the hair, and still apply enough weight to flatten out the hair, there is still a stronger contact with the string for that hair that's farthest from the bridge. This improves string to hair 'grip' in certain kinds of stroke. Obviously, for effect like "flautando" (sp? - did I ever know how that's spelled?) - a sound that's a bit breathy and soft - you will be lightening your contact.

This extra contact strength of that hair away from the bridge can allow you to play at volume a little closer to the bridge, relative to a non-tilted stick, where the contact strength would be more evenly spread out over the surface of the hair's contact with the string. As the bow 'leaves the bridge', tone is less bright, with less volume, and 'scratch' for, say, staccato isn't going to be quite as pronounced.

As with most parameters in 'simple physics', there are optimums and likely diminished returns along a curve of performance statistics. My meaning is that while a little more hair might improve tone and volume, there is a point (increasing hair volume) where contact is spread out over larger surface areas, lessening the 'grip per square inch' and damping the string (not wet, but clamping it's vibrational characteristics), leading to diminished results.

Tourte experimented considerably before arriving at the design we now consider the modern bow. He may have naturally arrived at an optimum through careful observation, with a nod toward historical evidence of similar results stretching back a few hundred years to the lire.

In other words, less hair is probably going to produce a loss of contact/drive to the string, more hair is also likely to diminish results with too much surface area and not enough 'drive' in localized regions. The width of hair for a cello is greater because the string has so much more mass and thickness that it's appropriate. If there were precise measurements available we might find that our bow is 'tuned' to work about perfect on the D or A, a little too fat for the E and a little too thing for the G, but a balance must be found. Perhaps the averages are fine for all 4 strings with certain setups, a little weak on G for some types of strings. This might be why Paganini made his own strings (if that history is accurate).

One thing I know is that the study of the bow is deep, slightly mysterious in that there's no universal 'truth' for everyone, and the differences between instruments make it a personal study each of us must 'feel' for ourselves.

I think it was Wieniawski who was said to have a "polish grip", which Wikipedia said should be called the "Wieniawski grip". His was quite different from, say, what you see Perlman using. That worked for him, and there's an entire school of thought on that line, but it's not the 'popular' grip most of us use.

I read elsewhere, too - maybe it was Perlman - that said Heifetz used a fast bow to generate power, which he called "the Russian way" of doing it. I suppose this hints to an opposing idea of weight, hair/bridge relativity.

History records that Paganini hardly used the bottom 1/4 of the bow in performance, and in one of his own letters remarked that, in a 'contest' with another player, his own sound wasn't as full and robust, but Paganini felt he overcame that with technical feats.

There certainly are no lack of opinions! Unfortunately, for the aspiring students (which I'll be all my life), it means there are no clear answers.

April 9, 2008 at 03:13 PM · yes nate, i see your point.

i just feel that the wording "flat hair" is not as precise as "full contact" of the bow hair with the string, in order to avoid confusion with tilt, be it bow hair tilt or stick tilt.

btw, i love the description of heifetz's dynamics.

April 9, 2008 at 03:37 PM · So many great points above.


I just use "flat hair" when the stick is perpendicular (Galamian's term) above the hair and sits like a 4X4 — totally stable.

"Flattened hair" when tilting the bow, but all the hair appears to be in contact — the sound is different because it is not the same degree of contact and the weight and energy from the stick into the string via the hair is modified.

As I lighten, the tone modifies further and at a given point less hair is gripping the string.

April 9, 2008 at 03:47 PM · "I saw someone above say he only plays on the flat hairs when in the score it says "forte". The trouble with this concept is that anything except for that person's "forte" section will be heard in a concert hall."

That's a good point and I'm unequpied to answer it, I'm only an amateur and I don't play concert halls so I'm not sure what effect it would have. It may very well kill the sound in a concert hall.

April 9, 2008 at 03:48 PM · Nicole,

You are absolutely correct. In the orchestra and at other times, we are almost "air-bowing" when the violin section has to sound softer than 1 violin at ppp.

April 9, 2008 at 03:50 PM · thanks prof drew for putting into context...makes sense.

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