Beginner Questions: Bow Hair Angle / Wrist

December 2, 2009 at 10:27 PM ·

First of all I would like to apologise for my bad english.I've been reading many of your posts for the past couple of weeks and I find this website very helpful. So this will be my first post: please be gentle =)

Anyway, my questions areĀ about what to do with the wrist to keep the bow hair flat on the strings. Because I tend to overbend it, if you will, when I'm playing on the frog and it hurts. Not only my wrist but also my shoulder.

Once again, sorry for my english. And thanks in advance for all your answers.


Replies (25)

December 2, 2009 at 11:21 PM ·


I suspect your problem is a slight misunderstanding.  You can change the amount of hair with the wrist,  but it is better to think of the reverse. The wrist may change just a litlt ein repsonse to the ampount of hair.  How you actually use more or less hair is to with -flexible finger- not the wrist. You should be able to roate the bow between the fingers to select the required amount of bow hair .   You could practice long bow stroks while roatatint the bow using only the fingers. Turn the stick away from you and towards you (supposedly incorrect in real playing) forwards and backward sfive of six times a storke.  Build up the number of times slowly if you find it difficult.  This exercise is called the Roulet. It is a little out of fashion now but Galamian used to prescribe it.

As for the amount of hair used,  that depends to some extent on differnet schools of violin playing.  But on the whole it is better to be un dogmatic about it and decide on the basis of the kind of sound you wnat at a given moment.  I have used both extremely tight hair (bow very tilted) style and most of the hair most of the time.  Hair is slcaker/.  I perosnally prefer the latter.



December 3, 2009 at 01:25 AM ·


A thoughtful and well-informed post (as usual). However, if I may offer a gentle suggestion: try to correct some of the typos in your post; they can be torture for a non-native English speaker to read.

December 3, 2009 at 01:57 AM ·

Concerning the roulet or roulé bowing; Galamian never mentioned this excercise to me or any other Galamian student that I know of when I was with him from 1966-74. I think it is mentioned in the book about his principles of violin playing which was actually written by Elizabeth Green. Galamian's teacher Lucien Capet advocated this excercise, but I could never figure out the point of it. Galamian did advocate using flat hair at the tip of the bow, which I later discovered was a huge mistake for my violin playing. In order to do this I had to collapse my wrist, which meant I just lost pressure at the tip of the bow. Also adding flat hair means the timbre of the sound changes at the tip. You will notice in the pictures of bow arm in Galamian's book the person posing has long arms, just like Galamian.

December 3, 2009 at 02:08 AM ·

 A critical element of bow tilt is the position of the pinkie. If you put the pinkie on the top of the bow the hair will tend to be flat, but if it is placed on the next facet toward you the bow will naturally tilt away.

December 3, 2009 at 02:49 AM ·

In her videos on Violin Virtuosity, Valerie Gardner discusses the wood being tilted away from the player while the bow hair remains flat as an essential feature of getting a thicker, richer sound. It stands to reason that if you have fewer hairs touching the bow there will be less sound than with more hair.  When the wood is tilted away it can give the impression that the hairs are also tilted but that may not in fact be the case. One can still play with flat hair and hold the bow with the little finger resting at the octagonal groove near the top of the bow but not on the top. In fact, if you keep the wood tilted as you hand the student the bow they can quite easily learn to feel the little finger resting in this place. Using flat hair with the  wood of the bow directly above the hair will not produce as vibrant a sound. The wood needs to be tilted. I think most people though do tilt the hair when starting at the frog, at least on the E string, because otherwise the thumb would tend to hit the bridge.


December 3, 2009 at 05:56 AM ·

 Hi Diana,

Your English is very good! I'm sorry I can't respond in Portuguese ;)
Much of the pain we feel while playing is a result of the body working against itself instead of working together to perform the action we're trying to do. It's hard to tell without seeing you exactly what you're doing with your hand and arm. Could you describe it in more detail, particularly what's happening when you feel pain? Are you bending your wrist so that it is lower than your fingers, your elbow? Is your wrist bent sideways, that is, if you were to leave your arm and hand exactly in playing position and opened your hand and fingers (of course without the bow), as in a salute, can you draw nearly a straight line from tip of pinky finger to elbow, or is there a sharp bend at the wrist when you look at the back of your hand? Is your elbow very high at the frog? Are you pressing down on the bow from the shoulder? These are some of the things that might cause pain.
As for your question of whether to keep the hair flat, I would agree with Buri. The more variety you have in the way you handle the bow, the more variety you will have in the sound you're able to produce. It's just that adding variety also adds complexity. You (along with your teacher, if you have one) must decide whether you should keep things simple for now or add a new way. So, in the long run, should you be able to play with flat hair at all parts of the bow? Yes. Should you always play with flat hair? No - unless you’re doing it as an exercise to be able to do it consistently.
As others have said already, the two ways to change the tilt of the bow is with the hand or with the rolling of the stick. Although some players use either one method or the other, you can learn to do both.
The advantage of being able to tilt with the thumb, independently of the hand, is that it's very fast to do - it's a very small motion, you don't have to disturb the relationship between hand and forearm - which can affect application of weight, and the tilt is not affected by whether you're pushing an up bow or pulling a down bow. Of course all of this depends on your playing style and how you use the hand in relation to your arm.
There are two ways of using the thumb in your bow hold that will interfere with the rolling of the stick: 
1) If you were taught to keep the thumb bent at all times, there's a good chance that you're holding the bow at an extreme tilt at all times (the hair may be touching your thumb nail) and your thumb has been trained to remain rigid
2) If you were taught to actually hold the bow between thumb and middle finger, you may be applying too much pressure into the bow (radially, i.e. in the direction of a bicycle spoke) for it to have enough flexibility to roll the stick.
The thumb should never be rigid and never push into the stick. It should work with the middle finger so that when it is bent it rolls the stick into the second joint (phalanx) - you should feel the skin of your second finger being pushed by the rolling of the stick, and when the thumb straightens, it rolls the stick into the top part of the fleshy pad of the fingertip. Another way to describe the relation between thumb and second finger: when the thumb is bent, as it pulls on the stick, the second finger pushes against the opposite side of the stick, extending or straightening slightly; when the thumb is straight, it pushes against the stick as the second finger pulls on the stick, flexing/ curling. Also note that when the thumb is bent, it touches the bottom of the octagon, when it is straightened, it touches the inside bottom of the octagon. In this way, the stick is always stable whether it's tilted for thin hair or thick. The rolling should never be random or loose.
Even with flat hair, there's the issue of whether you keep the stick directly over the hair, or slightly tilted as has been mentioned. They provide different sounds and so increase your palette. Also, depending on the lateral stiffness of your bow, you might need to keep the stick over the hair if you need to do a sudden accent or play spiccato in the middle of the bow.
Hope this helps,

December 3, 2009 at 06:45 AM ·

Your last point is interesting Jeewon. Would you say that a bow that does not have some lateral stiffness when letting the wood point away from the face is to be avoided in preference to  a bow that keeps its firmness when you tilt the wood away? I can see that if there is weakness in the stick that one might have to keep the wood over the hair but for a generally thicker sound I would think there is the danger of too much vertical pressure and the potential to create a duller sound.  

    When I experimented with your mention of making accents and doing spiccato in the middle of the bow, I did find that I ended up with the wood above the hair and not tilted though in the end of the accented stroke the wood was tilted away from the hair. Regarding using less hair or more hair, I found that just imagining a softer or more ethereal color change I wanted elicited a response in my arm that caused the bow hair to tilt and not be flat. In general, I found that using the back muscles to propel the arm, and with it, changes in bow speed, the flexibility to alter more or less hair on the bow seemed to happen without thinking about the role of the thumb although the thumb may very well have been moving unimpeded in this process. I certainly did not notice that attention in noticing the larger muscles' roles  caused any stiffness or tightness in the thumb.

 You may recall that one of the members here on, who had studied with Erick Friedman, was adamant about flat hair being used and advocated by Jascha Heifetz though the videos I saw of Heifetz seemed to indicate to the contrary the use of Heifetz varying the use of flat and tilted hair. It seemed especially noticable in soft, delicate passages for quite wonderful color changes in the sound. 

  There is one other thought regarding the tilt of the hair. If done carefully so as not to create an accent, one can flatten  the hair by thinking of the fingers, like a magnet, pulling the bow into the hand as one approaches the frog. This can create a very gluey, in-to-the string sound, without any harshness at the bow change near the frog. It is necessary though to have the right height to the arm for the given string one is on, otherwise the balance is not optimum and one should feel that the back muscles (near the shoulder blade) are supporting the arm in the bow change. I would even say that this movement is part of the supination process one engages in on the up bow.

December 3, 2009 at 03:40 PM ·

Hi Ronald,

I probably should have been experimenting as I posted, but it was late and I didn't want to make noise…
In my limited experience, I have avoided sticks that flex too much laterally. But thinking back I noticed that I've been using a different tilt with two bows which are both laterally stable. I have a Dodd which is very 'grippy', not stiff exactly, but very strong yet pliable. It has a lot of lateral stability. With that bow, as you suggest, I do get a duller (I used to think of it as denser, but I take your point) sound with the stick over the hair. I don't remember ever consciously placing the stick over the hair, in fact I think I do tend to keep it tilted most of the time. The Dodd is in need of a rehair so I started playing with my Voirin which demands to be handled very differently. I don't think it's possible to get a dull sound with the Voirin; even with very slow bows, the stick right over flat hair, it has a vibrant quality to the sound (more overtones?).  But I guess this is all very subjective. The Voirin doesn't like to be compressed as it collapses with much less effort than the Dodd. And yet it has a springy resilience, so characteristic of flexible French bows, which makes it almost impossible to crush the sound. I find it takes much less effort to play with such a bow, and with it I've been consciously placing the stick over the hair when playing dense passages, where doing that with the Dodd would have made it sound too tight (or maybe it's just because I don't want to risk scraping the wood as it's in very fine condition:). But I noticed that I do use a slight tilt for off the string playing with both bows because they kick back so much (although vertically for heavy sautillé.)
As Buri pointed out, and I think you concur, the use of tilt also depends greatly (mostly?) on one's style of bowing. I don't like to use a lot of tension in the hair, so I probably use a more upright stick more frequently than someone who does - but even then I would adjust tension according to the needs of the piece, or use a different bow I suppose. I haven't really thought of these issues in a while and it's intriguing thinking back that I do tilt the Dodd much more than the Voirin (what makes one bow more resonant than another?).
There are too many variables to say one way has a definite advantage over the other. But in general, being able to adjust one's handling of the bow makes it possible to adapt to various contexts and bows, making the choices in execution and gear that much greater. I was trained specifically to use the fingers and hand to the nth degree to articulate and add nuance, which is probably why I have a preference for softer sticks. I think perhaps we achieve similar effects from different perspectives. But I agree with you that in many situations the use of a vertical stick is only momentary and so I would advocate learning to roll the stick to tilt it - or, as you say, the thumb must remain flexible to respond to what happens elsewhere. I was not suggesting that focus on the hand/arm/back necessarily leads to a rigid thumb, only that many students have difficulty because their thumbs restrict motion in the hand/arm (and possibly contribute to tension all the way into the back?). I have found that learning to release the thumb in both hands immediately fixes many a problem. I think your unconscious use of the tilt, it's immediate response to your musical demands, is a testament to your bow control and is what we all aim for - an unconscious technique which serves to immediately express our musical ideas.
From a pedagogical perspective, teachers are often adamant about something, making their students hyper-aware, to correct a particular habit for that particular student. Could Friedman's student have over generalized? It could also be that both Heifetz and Friedman insisted on an ideal that they never employed in general. I like Buri's warning to not get dogmatic, especially with something as complex as bowing. But I do have a preference for variety, for variety of sound, for which I think the manipulation of the stick is in constant flux.
At the risk of being condemned to violin hell, might I suggest that Heifetz, rightfully worshipped as the violin deity that he is, did not possess the greatest variety in sound, albeit sufficient for his purposes? I came across an LP of Shumsky playing the Intro and Rondo, part of the Masters of the Bow series, and was absolutely stunned to hear the colors he created. This in no way detracts from my own worship of Heifetz' rendition, which I grew up with, but I must confess my heresy.

December 4, 2009 at 12:21 AM ·

Thank you so much for your thoughtful responses!

I will definitely take every single of your tips into consideration they'll surely be helpful. But
after reading all of them I tried to follow some of your advices and guess what: when I'm playing my finger position on the bow remains the same. There's no change. I only noticed it now. That's why it hurts. There's no flexibility and no adjustment of the fingers when I'm moving the bow. I lock my wrist and sometimes the whole arm. I also noticed that I press too hard with the thumb to compensate...

You guys helped so much! Thank you.

And Jeewon thank you for the comment about my english. Oh and about the pain: I don't feel when I'm playing so much as afterwards.


December 4, 2009 at 12:29 PM ·

There's a paper about effects of tilting here: measured with a PC-controlled bowing machine.

December 4, 2009 at 12:32 PM ·

 You're welcome Diana,

I'm glad you figured out some things about your playing. Maybe some of the aches and pains are just from fatigue, from using previously unused muscles, but it is important to listen to and learn from your pain.
Thanks for the clarification Nate.
I understand the importance of learning to project but did you mean to say, "[i]t's simply not realistic in my opinion to play on tilted hair in a concert hall and expect to be heard," over the full sound of an orchestra or piano? 
Would you agree that in light of all the different contexts violinists might find themselves in: e.g. chamber music, orchestras, unaccompanied playing, sotto voce, ppp, sul tasto, dolce (except for Brahms), fp, preference for high-strung bow hair, blending, playing with a monster of a bow, a or da niente, suggesting one play with flat hairs 99% of the time, if that is what you are doing, is an over-generalization (or at least, hyperbole), especially for 99% of violinists?
To me, a 'thin sound' is the product of an inadequate technique, or an inadequate instrument, although you can still distinguish between a thin and full tone on a thin sounding instrument, just as you can discern quality of sound whether one employs more or less hair.  
I don't mean to be pedantic, as I think these are important distinctions for someone who might look to for answers.

December 4, 2009 at 08:08 PM ·

 "It's simply not realistic in my opinion to play on tilted hair in a concert hall and expect to be heard.  I have to give Galamian credit for understanding that as well.  That is probably part of the reason why so many of his students have careers.   If a violinist uses tilted hairs in Carnegie Hall, the tone will sound thin in the back of the hall."

Nate, you're correct, but only for a very small percentage of players. Most people do NOT have to fill a concert hall with sound and don't make their living this way. And many great players I've seen don't rely on brute-force volume but articulation to project. 

For most other realistic performance situations--in a symphony or in chamber music--playing on flat hair will prevent the string player from being able to achieve all of the various shades of spicatto, and especially the softer and nuanced strokes required to play classical literature.


December 5, 2009 at 01:47 AM ·


with all due respect I really do disagree that all great players filling concert halls use da flat bow hair.  Oistrakh did not use a flat bow hair all the time and neither did Grumiaux.  For a very clear example inspite of the camera take a look at the doumentary on Ida Haendal Part six on you tbe which begins with La Folia.There is a greta player clealry using tight hair and a tilted stick.



December 5, 2009 at 05:41 AM ·


It seems to me that the "fill the hall with sound till their ears bleed"  philosophy is an American one. I've seen many well-known soloists that play extremely loudly and aggressively--personally I don't enjoy such playing. My own advice for those who bought tickets at the back of the hall: next time spring for better tickets!


December 5, 2009 at 08:28 AM ·

 How about them Red Sox?

December 5, 2009 at 07:54 PM ·

I'm a Braves fan, Buri. Too bad they haven't done well in the past few years.

I am kind of puzzled why this thread kept getting responses. Buri pretty much nailed the solution in his first response.

Also, I have to agree with Ronald Mutchnik in his first response. There are a few Valerie Gardner students at my school, so I have a pretty good idea what you are talking about.

December 5, 2009 at 08:11 PM ·

Colorado Rockies!!!! Yeeeeeoooow!

Not the greatest but still cool to me.

December 5, 2009 at 09:15 PM ·

 Don't move your wrist, just move your fingers to angle it outward more. If you have an inclination to turn the bow inward so more hair is facing you, it will feel like you're putting it out too much. Get someone to tell you when it is in the place you want it and just remember that position and make it a habit.

December 7, 2009 at 01:42 PM ·

I present my own approach to this issue in my "fundamentals of holding the violin and bow", in the "writings" section of my website.


December 7, 2009 at 03:51 PM ·

Great website, Raphael!

The Helholtz motion of the bowed string will be strongly influenced by the amount of hair that actually engages it in applying force: . You can sense this from the website demonstration. Since an instrument's response to string-vibration frequencies is not linear or uniform, spreading the range of generated overtones for any note increases the chance of hitting one of the real peaks of the instrument's response. Vibrato is also used to spread the range of generated pitches and thus overtone frequencies, which is why it enhances projection.

Therefore using "flat hair" or "skinny hair" and varying the sounding point and the force of the hair into the string are among the tools a player has to vary the overtone spectrum to change tone color and enhance sound "projection."

Knowing these things and understanding them intellectually or even mathematically is "well and good," but no substitute for making them instinctive to one's playing, and that only  comes about from intelligent practice. - and listening to one's self.


December 15, 2009 at 03:28 PM ·

For me, I use a middle chin rest and the shoulder pad allows for my wrist to be in a nice comfortable spot. I guess it's all about what kind of sound you want and what your physical limitations are. The general rule is that you use flat hair because it's a necessity for solo playing. Especially when you want to apply more pressure, it's easier with the wood directly above the hair than with a tilted bow (less pressure and less sound).

You're paying about $100 for a rehair, you might as wear and tear every single strand of hair possible.

You can avoid the limitations of sound by purchasing a louder instrument with strings that project. However, it doesn't change the fact that flat hair will give any instrument (thin sounding or loud) it's fullest capabilities.

You can also compare the flat hair and titled bow to painting. It's like you have a larger brush or a small brush. Sometimes the small brush would be useful for passages that require a long bow and less sound.

December 15, 2009 at 08:13 PM ·


Ricky- that`s what I like about the violin-  apparently good guidelines are as often true as not!.  There are simply too many greta violnists,  including Oistrakh, Ida Haendel,  Bron,  Grumiuax who simply did not use a flat bow hair most of the time.  Given the exraordianry tension of hisbow hair I seriously doubt if Kreisler used a flat hair but I have`t seen a video.Clayton Haslop said in one of hismost recent blogs that he doesn`t, to bring things up to date.  Other players have found it most effective to have the hair angled and weight fed in upn that abgle.  Some players have found that on specific instruments a falt hair actually chokes the sound.  ersonally I err very much on the flat hair sidebut one has to be able to do it all ,  irrespective of whether oyu are a soloist,  chamber music player or beginner.  Blanket statements about one way or another simply dn`t hold up to the simplest visual check.  I wonder what your opinion is of the links I posted which show other than what you are arguing?

BTW In general I wish tyhe distinction between chamber music sound and soloist didn`t continue to be so cocneptually wide.  Arnold Steinhardt complains about this in `IOndivisible By Four,` and  think he was making a crucial point.   After all,  if a quartet plays in Carnegie Hall the by the reasoning applied above the violins will be inaudabvle which tehcnically means one is attending a duet concert. (One of whom is a viola player.....)



December 16, 2009 at 12:04 AM ·

I can't understand what this thread is all about. Firstly, surely it all comes down to what Buri said near the beginning, that you start with the musical idea and sound you want, and everything else follows from there. That always seems to be the right way round.

Secondly - though perhaps I haven't read the thread carefully enough without just scanning through it - some of the discussion seems to be on an either-or, tilt or not-tilt basis. Yet surely sometimes the bow is tilted not at all, sometimes a bit, sometimes more, sometimes a lot - depending on what and where in the bow you are playing, and at what dynamic.

Playing in the lower half of the bow it is often better, when attacking from the air, to meet the string with a tilted hair to avoid scratch. Lots of strokes in the lower half work better with a tilted bow.

It is very convenient that for many players there is a slight arching of the wrist when playing in the lower part of the bow which naturally turns the hair on to the side as a matter of course. It is more a case of sometimes deciding to play with flatter hair in the lower parts of the bow - because unless you think about it, you will play tilted - rather than the other way round. 

Spiccato needs the bow tilted. Sautillé needs a flatter hair. So does ricochet.

It further depends on what position you are playing in. The higher the position, the shorter the string. The shorter the string, the wider the bow-hair is in proportion to the string-length. Playing an open string, the width of the bow-hair is naturally a small amount. But playing, say, at the top of the E or G strings, so that the strings are very short, if you play with flat hair it is the equivalent of bowing on an open string with bow hair about three inches wide.

Naturally this interferes with the pure vibration of the string, leading to that mushy, breathy sound you often hear high up there (which is usually blamed on the violin, the strings, the bow-hair, or the rosin). This sound is lessened if you tilt the bow more when playing in high positions, until in the highest positions you play on the side of the hair.

Again, of course it is not a black-or-white issue. Sometimes the situation might call for full hair in a high position. But whatever, there is no disputing the maths.

Perhaps nobody intended to imply that it was either one thing or the other, so perhaps the question should be about whether to have flat or tilted hair to play a specific stroke. Simple experiment provides the answer: you just need to try slightly higher in the bow, slightly lower; slightly more tilted, slightly less tilted; slightly more/less bow; a little nearer-to/further-from  the bridge; a little faster/slower; heavier/lighter - have I forgotten something? - ok, a little more parallel to the bridge; the  joints of the fingers and hand slightly more/less giving - until the stroke in question 'works'.

December 18, 2009 at 03:46 AM ·


Welcome to the site. Jump right in; the water's fine (if sometimes a little turbulent).


March 31, 2010 at 12:19 AM ·

Thank you all for the replies. They were very helpful indeed.

Oh and thank you David :)

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