Thumb action - bow hand

September 27, 2010 at 01:04 AM ·

 Hi All,

I discovered something today while practicing that I think I've been missing since day one, but I had to check with you all first.  I started engaging my thumb (bow hand) more by counteracting the pressure of my index finger.  It felt comfortable and my tone became more clear. Seems like I'm automatically playing "into the string" now since my bow has more pressure applied to the string this way.  

It suddenly became clear to me that I've been only using my thumb minimally up until this point.  Do you engage your thumb all/most of the time?  I feel silly asking this if the answer is a resounding "duh! yes!" but I'm willing to risk the embarrassment just to find out.  8)

I know it's a difficult question to answer because the thumb may engage and disengage for different situations.  Any comments on this point would be appreciated.

Replies (32)

September 27, 2010 at 08:54 AM ·

 The thumb is of course absolutely essential, and should always be bent.  A straight thumb will stiffen and virtually immobilize the bowing hand.  The only occasion I can think of when the thumb leaves its normal position and configuration when playing, is when you're playing pizzicato.

 

September 27, 2010 at 09:15 AM ·

I've been working a lot on this recently.  You should be able to hold the bow with just the thumb and middle two fingers - that leaves your first and pinky free for adjusting bow angles pressure etc.  The key is to position the thumb tip on its side of the bow opposite the gap between the 2nd and third finger tips on the other side.  That generates in effect a triangle, and triangles are stable.  Can't stress what Trevor said enough too - keep the thumb bent.  It can be quite tempting to straighten and 'lock' the thumb joints as that makes it easier to hold the bow.  The trouble is you give up the natural spring action of the fingers - which is the essence of tone production.

September 27, 2010 at 10:15 AM ·

  I don't even use the 2nd and 3rd fingers. They just hang relaxed and do nothing. The 4th finger comes into play for balancing the bow when playing in the lower 3rd.  The index finger is wrapped round the stick about an inch and a half from the thumb, so those two do all the playing. 

September 27, 2010 at 11:05 AM ·

 I can't imagine not using the second or third fingers - for me they play an essential role in controlling the lateral angle of the bow, especially at the heel, and especially the third finger.

Also the thumb can go from quite bent to only slightly bent as you go towards the point. It's certainly not at a fixed bentness. It's essential that it's always as relaxed as is possible.

www.nigelkeay.com

September 27, 2010 at 12:45 PM ·

Trevor: very interesting and I can see how that might work.  However, for me the thumb/middle finger axis is a pivot about which the first and last fingers rotate the bow.  The first question that arise in my mind are: how do you get nuances of power with the first finger if it is also holding the bow? Also, can you do sautille bowing with that hold?

September 27, 2010 at 03:23 PM ·

My thumb is curved and tip is in the correct place in relation to the 2nd and 3rd finger.  What I'm still not understanding is how much the thumb pushes upward, counteracting the pressure applied by the index finger.

September 27, 2010 at 03:37 PM ·

Balance! Balance! Balance!

The thumb acts as the fulcrum for the bow and whatever fingers are applying force on the bow at that instant. There may be some kinds of strokes, that some kinds folks do with a whole hand - actually holding the bow, but except for those, the thumb is pretty much just there, under the bow allowing minimum finger work on top of the bow do what is necessary.

Whatever finger(s) is actually doing teh work at any instant, don't fight it with other fingers applying unnecessary pressure (force) on top of the bow on the opposite side of the thumb.

Andy

September 27, 2010 at 04:55 PM ·

 Elise,  just squeezing the first finger and thumb together when the bow is on the string gives the same increase in hair pressure on the string as would applying more arm or hand weight, as I can see by the way in which the stick and hairs approach each other.  The whole dynamic range is available if you include bow speed. Delicate and precise control is possible, as one would expect from finger action.  Because only the first finger and thumb are doing the work (unless the little finger is in action for balancing purposes) the hand feels quite relaxed and sautille is no problem.

With the hold I've described one should be able to rotate the bow stick in the vertical plane,  using just the first and fourth fingers without rotating the hand or wrist, and using the thumb as the fulcrum.  A very good exercise for the fingers in itself.

Tracking the bow on the string is now a lot more natural because the hand is relaxed, allowing the hairs to follow the path of least resistance, which is generally parallel to the bridge.  I find, when approaching the tip of the bow on a down stroke, that parallelity is helped by moving the right hand slightly forward and away from the body; conversely, when approaching the heel of the bow on an up stroke the right hand moves in towards the body.  The bow hairs are best flat on the strings, I find.

My teacher (a Suzuki graduate) has taught me these techniques over the last twelve months, and there is still a lot more to learn regarding bowing and left hand technique.
 

 

September 28, 2010 at 10:34 PM ·

Jack, you've just passed a milestone, allowing the weight of the bow to rest on the thumb. Wow! Now, you just have to work on perfecting it. 

All the advice given is great advice, and I learned a lot from it.

The thumb, and the ability to relax the weight onto the thumb...and then of course, to use the upper fingers (of which I use all four, depending on what I'm doing) is, in my opinion, the absolute key to allowing the bow to glide over and bite into the string...similarly.  Then, the world is open to you in how you allow the rest of your body adjust to and control this weight such that you can easily expresss yourself in your playing.  Over the years, you will just continue to be enlightened about what goes into bowing.

September 29, 2010 at 09:58 AM ·

Interesting.  If bending the thumb was inherently painful, then why do we have thumb joints?  Certainly, you mean that any fixed position will lead to stiffness and pain.  The thumb bends and straightens as needed, and we teach it to obey.

September 29, 2010 at 10:48 PM ·

Nate

Great - I love contrarian views!

Would be easy to dismiss, except a visit to your website suggests you play at a high level.

Just how unconventional is this idea? Do any of the standard pedagogues support it?

If the thumb is relaxed, is their really any down-side to keeping it flexible?

How did you end up choosing to play this way?

September 29, 2010 at 10:57 PM ·

 I suspect in Nate's case his thumb must be pretty relaxed, although straight(ish).  The problem with beginners is that if they have a straight thumb it is almost certain to be a stiff thumb, which will stiffen the hand.  They'll likely also have a stiff straight pinky perched on the end of the stick to complete the sorry picture.  This must be why teachers try to get their pupils to flex the thumb so as to provide (hopefully!) some resilience and a consequent feeling of relaxation in the hand.

September 29, 2010 at 11:29 PM ·

I'm intrigued. First impression is the (almost) straight thumb produces a relaxed and stable hold. Even Colle seems, if anything, easier and more controllable.

Intuitively, feel that we should be working towards the simplest and most efficient technique. For example, I suspect that "figure of 8 bowings", exaggerated wrist bend at the frog etc simply means there's more to go wrong. I seem to remember a quote from Milstein where he said "Look, we move the bow up, then we move it down - after that it's all a question of touch".

From an engineering perspective, every moving part in an interconnected system increases the complexity of the interactions geometrically. If we eliminate one source of movement, we get great rewards in terms of simplicity. That's just mathematics.

Balancing the bow on the thumb is pretty much the heart of string playing, so it might make sense that keeping the fulcrum stable would make it easier for the fingers to control and articulate the stroke. Which suggests that if we are going to flex the thumb, there has to be a very good reason to justify the increased complexity.

Perhaps a naive beginner's question, but if Nate can perform at such a high level without flexing the thumb, then what's the justification for promoting thumb mobility?

September 30, 2010 at 12:33 AM ·

Hi Nate

Thanks for responding!

Clearly, I understood that you meant the thumb should be relaxed but relatively straight, rather than stiff, and also that it's related to the deep bow hold. (I too use the deep hold. Partly because I have relatively short arms and it helps me reach the point without unduly breaking the wrist. And partly because I play mainly Scottish traditional music where attack is more important than legato, and experimentation suggests that the deep hold supports a vigorous style.)

But I want to check that I follow you when you say "I find the concept of countering the pressure of the index finger with the thumb rather alarming because what I think is happening by doing this is that one muscle group in the hand is fighting another rather than the whole hand working together as a unit."

Given that the thumb is the fulcrum, it must surely be bearing the weight of the index finger pressure? So are you saying that you question the active countering of the pressure with a counter-movement of the thumb? My little experiments with your ideas this evening do suggest that when index-pressure is applied and the thumb is relatively straight and passive, there is less tension in the hand. Which on the face of it must be good for safety, and to free up the expressive movements of the fingers?

Ps: With Colle, do you flex the thumb at all? Or is it all achieved by rotation of the fingers on the stick?

September 30, 2010 at 05:03 AM ·

 " I'd also like to point out I use the Russian bow hold (similar to Heifetz, Elman, Kavakos etc.) which is very different from the more conventional Belgian grip that is taught to most players and I can see how maybe my bow grip requires a different thumb position and that I might not be qualified to properly advise someone using the Belgian grip. "

You might find it interesting that Kavakos used to employ a Franco-Belgian styled bow hand before he made the switch. There is a small number of youtube videos featuring Kavakos before his switch, and even then his bow thumb was relatively straight.

Also interesting is the natural curvature of the thumb and how it varies depending on the degree of wrist extension or flexion. If I were to start with my palm facing down and then let my hand flop (resulting in about an 80* flexion), my thumb becomes almost completely straight. Curving the thumb necessarily causes my hand to rise back up. 

The converse is also true. If I hold my hand out with the palm facing up, and then let it flop, the thumb does curve slightly - meaning about a 10* bend in the joint. To straighten it out requires a little bit of effort, but it doesn't necessarily force me to straighten my wrist.

These two facts combine and may create a bit of a paradox: some violinists are taught to slightly raise(flex) the wrist near the frog, and then to extend it to reach the tip. At the same time, there are those who are taught to curve the thumb more at the frog, and to gradually straighten it out near the tip. The overlap between these two schools of thoughts may create motion that is contrary to what is natural which actually seems to be straightening the thumb near the frog a result of wrist flexion, and to slightly curve the thumb near the tip as a result of wrist extension. The other method doesn't seem quite feasible: to straighten the wrist near the frog and to flex it near the tip, since that may reduce the violinist's reach.

I personally don't think that "bend the thumb" should be a rule of thumb. I myself have "hitchhiker's" thumb, and the range that I can bend my thumb forwards (the "normal" way) is slightly less than some of my friends without hitchhiker's thumb. There are even cases with people whose hitchhiker's thumb only allows them to bend their thumb backwards, with no capability of going forward whatsoever.  Given the sheer number of people with "non-standard" thumbs, I think it's a bit myopic to say that bending the thumb as is commonly-prescribed is the way to go.

As to the original poster, I don't advocate actively engaging the thumb. True, when you dig into the bow more, the thumb is actually generating a normal force up to balance the index finger's action, but I don't advocate consciously pushing harder with the thumb. As it's been said before on this board, the thumb simply reacts to the forces exerted upon it in order to balance the bow. Think of a chair: it exerts a normal force up to counter your weight when you sit, but at the same time the chair doesn't fly up at you either.

September 30, 2010 at 07:42 AM ·

A fascinating contribution by Jiefei

As a self-taught beginner I've found it confusing that some teachers advocate the thumb bent at the frog and straighter and the tip, while others advocate the opposite. Given that many players of both schools produce wonderful music, that suggests to  me that thumb flexation is not a key component of tone production. Given my rule of trying to eliminate any movement that is not essential, I'm interested in experimenting with Nate's "straightish & passive thumb" approach.

Nate's blog led me to this YouTube video of Heifetz. There's a sequence at about 1:06 which shows clearly how his thumb is pretty straight, with very little flexation throughout the whole stroke. Which suggests, at the very least, that Nate's approach can work at the highest level.

www.youtube.com/watch

September 30, 2010 at 08:45 AM ·

Nate, I guessed you were of the Russian school the moment  I read your post.  Given the context, it makes sense. (Can't believe I didn't gather that before now.)   

As a teacher, I begin with teaching the thumb to remain curled in order to develop certain muscle groups that are not used to being used, and to avoid the tendency people have to lock the thumb joint.  We hatch out of this basic hold later on, when introduced to the world of bow strokes.  I've seen that many beginner  students have weak muscles in their hands, which need trained into service.  We develop them using many excerices, all of which encourage mobility and strength.  Then, the bow hold concept evolves into a view that sees all finger components playing as shock absorbers as well as nimble artists of articulation.  If all the hand muscles are well-balanced and capable, then the artist has a broad palette with which to work, and individual preference has room to play. 

Rules only exist to employ the means for expression.  Expression tromps rules.

September 30, 2010 at 08:18 PM ·

everyone's got their method.

I keep my thumb bent, and it acts as a fullcrum.  Because the thumb has joints, you can manipulate this fulcrum.  If you can manipulate your fingers, your wrist, your elbow, your shoulder AND your thumb, just think of the possibilities.  How important is the thumb?  It IS the fulcrum, and with the ability to manipulate it, you can exponentially increase your nuance in bowing. 

 

October 1, 2010 at 11:55 AM ·

Can I ask something Nate? If you are at the point of the bow, how do you apply bow pressure from the index (and maybe also 3rd finger depending on your bow technique) without an equal countrerpressure  from the thumb (whether that be active or passive)? I can't get my head around this! If I try it without any equivalent thumb pressure then my bow moves to a higher string.

My understanding is that, at the heel, hardly any thumb pressure is needed, because any weight can be added vertically. In any case, at the heel, one often needs to release weight rather than add it. As the bow travels towards the point, I assumed that the thumb gradually requires more pressure, to counteract any increased pressure from the 1st (and maybe 2nd) finger. 

October 1, 2010 at 01:06 PM ·

Michael

"everyone's got their method"

Surely Nate has been very careful to explain that he is describing "a" method, not "the" method. One of the most fascinating things about this unreasonable instrument is that everyone has to find their own way.

In my case, Nate, I'm very thankful that you opened up this line of enquiry. I've had the chance to explore your approach for a few hours now, and it seems to suit me well. I realise that my hand has naturally slipped into this position while playing, but as I've had this idea that the thumb should be more bent I've been "correcting" it. It's early days, but my experimental hold feels more relaxed and natural. I'm finding most bowings come more easily, and it just feels "right" for me.

Neil, looking at the mechanics of the thing, I'm pretty sure that the thumb is always acting as a fulcrum. I suspect that what is happening with Nate is he's reached a refined level of tone production where he rarely needs to use much finger pressure, so it "feels" as if the thumb is acting more as a guide. Or am I misunderstanding something?

October 1, 2010 at 03:24 PM ·

Just to note in this video

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCqv5vm2iz4&feature=fvsr

of Jascha Heifetz, with the "Russian" bow hold brilliantly playing Paganini's Caprice # 24, you can see  starting around 1:14,in the octaves section, a bend in the thumb- it's a gentle one but it's there and it seems to be a natural reaction to the flow and flexibility in his wrist and arm. If you freeze frame  at 2:14- 2:15, you can again see there is a crease in the thumb and it is allowed to naturally bend, None of this is extreme it's just a sign that the thumb  joint in his hand bends when  it needs to.

 I find the thumb bending especially helpful in colle strokes going near the frog completing an up bow.

When I rest my  hand by my side, I see gentle curves in the joints of my fingers and thumb and I allow those curves to guide me in my bow and left hand movements. Just as one opens one hand to hold a glass and preserves an arch shape for strength and stability so the bow hold can work in that way too.

 Bending does not guarantee freedom from tension- one can be tense with an inward or outward bending thumb. The idea is that the joint should be able to bend back and forth whether you use a Russian bow hold, like Heifetz, or a Galamian  or Franco-Belgian bow hold or variations thereof.

  As long as there's no tension or the very minimum of friction needed for the hand and bow to be a part of each other you should be fine.

  Remember too that the support system for the hand on the bow is in the shoulder blade muscles radiating out from the center of your back. This allows the arm to find a light, almost weightless suspended position which will greatly assist the relaxed and flexible potential of the wrist and fingers including the thumb.

   


October 1, 2010 at 03:44 PM ·

Ronald

Everything you say makes perfect sense to me. Naturally the thumb will bend a little at times - I guess it's unwise to take any principle to extremes!

That video of the Caprice is one I return to often - remarkable how his technique is so organised and unhurried even when playing at this extreme virtuoso level. It's precisely this kind of playing that has inspired me to try and strip everything inefficient from what is laughingly called my technique...

 

July 8, 2016 at 12:37 PM · Hi

I'm a new violin player , learning for last 4 months. I'm 27 years old.

For me, bent, unbent thumb is like the biggest problem in bow hold. If I keep my thumb unbent,(which somehow feels normal) my middle finger weirdly feels free, like I'm playing with just my ring, little and index finger. However that causes severe bow bouncing, so I keep my middle finger close.

The problem that I often face is my little finger straining itself. If strained, it shakes, if unstrained it relaxes my grip. Sometimes in this grip I often fear that the bow will slip away, but my teacher says that it'll stay that way.

Is this correct?

I showed my teacher and according to him, if I feel relaxed I should play that way. But I can play at fast tempo, which he says will come in due time

July 8, 2016 at 01:38 PM · In his book, "A Cellist's Life," Colin Hampton tells of observing Pablo Casals from behind (while Casals was giving Bonnie Hampton (Colin's then wife) a lesson) and noted that Casals held his bow with a straight thumb.

To me this means that people do what works for them as required by the wide variables of human physique and much narrower variables of bow geometry, weight, and balance and of instrument variables.

I've been playing the violin for 77 years and the cello for 67 years and I have to confess that I have had to change the way I do things (that is, the things I can still do) at different times during those years. I've always thought of the right-hand fingers as "springs" that have to be able to respond in any direction; that implies the nominal position of the fingers allows the tendons to allow motion in every direction that complete bow control requires.

July 8, 2016 at 02:00 PM · When the bow is on the string the little finger has no job to do and can even come away from the stick. But when playing off the string or coming in to land on the string the little finger has to be a counter-balance. When holding the bow off the string the hand is of course tense because we don't have the string as a counter balance.

I would also add that as long as the thumb is not tense and forced into the stick then all is well. This often means the thumb is slightly bent, but may look straight. I think the Russian hold may mean a slightly straighter thumb, but this varies with the player and the length of the thumb.

July 8, 2016 at 03:41 PM · I haven't (yet) read every post, but Russian-versus-Franco-Belgian apart, I find hands to be as varied as noses! I have stubby fingers, but a proprtionally longish thumb, so it tends to be curved most of the time.

I like Nate's earlier comment about the drooping hand rendering a curled thumb uncomfortable, but as I gather up the bow, with the back of the hand becoming more horizontal, both fingers and thumb curl naturally.

I like the balancing image: I don't "hold" my bow, I "hold it up"..

July 9, 2016 at 03:12 AM · "When the bow is on the string the little finger has no job to do and can even come away from the stick"

Peter your bowing must be different to mine because my pinky is engaged while bow is on string, at and towards the frog. It is the counterbalance and modulates bow pressure.

July 9, 2016 at 03:23 AM · @ Debanjan Chakraborty - the problem with keeping your thumb unbent is that you will almost certainly be adding tension to your hand. You will most likely not be able to produce the same tone and range as having a relaxed thumb, and some bowing techniques may prove more challenging eg spiccato. In general, tension in any part of your body is undesirable.

Regarding pinky, keep it always curved and soft. Pressure can be transfered through the pinky as you approach the frog, but there should be no straining at any time. Be patient with your bow hold, it can take a long time to feel natural.

July 9, 2016 at 06:22 AM · The thumb should neither be bent nor unbent. It should simply follow the action of the other fingers which alternately straighten and curve. The thumb provides counter pressure to the index finger in order to apply leverage to the bow.

January 12, 2017 at 01:44 AM · I understand what Trevor Jennings is saying - I too let my thumb just act as a pivot for the bow to follow the path of least resistance as he says! That is parallel with the bridge too, something I discovered just by accident when I decided to just pull the bow along without applying ANY pressure of the fingers - the bow just goes straight with the expected transparent sound. You can just apply first finger pressure when more sound is needed. I keep the pinkie always on the bow relaxed but always touching the bow - the bow seems to just turn like a clock around the pad of my pinkie as I move the bow. At any rate, the result is that just by 'leading' with the thumb connected to the middle finger, I can make the bow move parallel to the bridge - sometimes the thumb acts as a counterpressure to the first finger, but not that much is needed. The answer basically is a thumb which is without tension, lightly contacting the third finger, letting bow pivot in order to follow its inevitable path. I also get the feeling that the bow pivots not just in the vertical sense, but also in the horizontal plane of the bow path - if there is tension in the thumb the bow will change direction and no longer be parallel with the bridge I find. When the thumb is allowed to lightly touch the third finger, ring fashion as we have always been told, the bow doesn't do that - just goes parallel to the bridge. As a secondary result the wrist relaxes at the frog and does the opposite movement at the point - just like my first teacher told me. Instead of concentrating on the action of the wrist in order to make my bow parallel to the bridge, as I had been taught, I just make sure my thumb is lightly contacting the third finger - the wrist acts accordingly!

January 12, 2017 at 11:39 PM · The varied actions of the various fingers (not only the index) can be united in a holistic way if we "activate" the thumb. I lend soft jugglers balls (oh dear!) to my students, to encourage both rotation and extension of the fingers and thumb.

January 13, 2017 at 06:11 AM · I know the OP is long gone from this old thread, but it's pretty hard to play the violin without engaging the thumb!

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