The case for a tighter bow?

April 2, 2011 at 02:10 AM ·

Hi folks

Been watching an interesting series of videos on string technique by the respected chamber cellist David Finckel.

In this video he makes a case for playing with a tighter bow than average:

Essentially, his argument is that a tighter bow enables:

1) More volume as it enables more pressure near to the bridge

2) Quicker response as it grabs the string more immediately

3) By stiffening the weak middle part of the bow, it creates a more consistent response throughout the full length of the bow.

I'm only a beginner, but practical experimentation seems to bear out his claims: everything has become easier both on and off the string, including the Fischer tone exercises.

I have a pretty decent CF bow - one that has been used by a top soloist in public performance and I've just had it re-haired by a Hill trained bow-maker, so I don't think that this is an artefact of a poor bow or setup.

But clearly, given that most people play with a looser bow, there must be counter-arguments.

If there's been a thread on this before I can't find it, so I'd appreciate feedback from more experienced players...

Replies (21)

April 2, 2011 at 02:24 AM ·

I was a kid when I had a 1:1 session with a retired member of one of America's major symphony orchestras.  He recommended that I tighten the bow only enough to take up the slack -- maybe a little beyond this point but no more.  One of my teachers, in particular, strongly emphasized this method, too.

The symphony player demonstrated what he meant by playing some arpeggiated chords across all four strings.  He showed how an over-taut bow can cause loss of flexibility and lightness in passages like this and can aggravate the problem of unwanted bounce.

I tried out the different tightnesses myself and was convinced.  I've played his way ever since.

I agree with Finckel that a tighter bow allows more volume and quicker response.  This is especially true for players like me, who prefer low-tension gut strings.  If the bow is too slack, the tone is more apt to break or be crushed -- although you can alleviate the problem, up to a point, with quicker bow travel.

So I constantly monitor the tightness.  Then, too, the repertoire I'm playing will make a difference -- as will the time of year and weather conditions.  When the cooler, drier season sets in -- usually not till October here -- then I find myself loosening the hair periodically throughout a practice session to prevent unwanted bounce and loss of flexibility.

April 2, 2011 at 10:57 AM ·


Thanks for that.

For some reason I seem to be experiencing the opposite of what you describe. With the tighter bow, I experience much less bow-shake in the middle of the bow with long, slow strokes. Or am I misunderstanding what you mean by "unwanted bounce"?

Off the string, I get more bounce at the same point of the bow, or the same  bounce if I move towards the centre of the bow, as you'd expect.

Perhaps the best tension depends on the playing qualities of the bow? On YouTube, I notice that Milstein sometimes has his bow very tight, at other times much looser - even when playing similar pieces. Hard to explain this unless he was using different bows?

Also, as you say, it would make sense to adjust the tension depending on the qualities required by the repertoire in hand.

April 2, 2011 at 11:45 AM ·

 perhaps there is also a component due to the quality of the bow.

some bows are weaker, so there is no choice but to tighten a bit more for certain pieces.  

my kid's bow is bad enough:)  the more advanced stuff she plays, the more she asks to have the bow tightened more to keep up with the demand mentioned by the cello teacher.  

if we get a better, stronger bow one day, the need to tighten will probably be not that obvious.


April 2, 2011 at 12:11 PM ·

It may be different with a cello and a cello bow, but for the violin and a violin bow, I'm a strong advocate for a relatively loose bow. I would say that if an average pinky could just about get through in the middle, between the stick and the hair, that's plenty. It's healthier for the bow, as too much tightening can warp it - though with a cf bow that may not be as much of a concern. Also, a tight bow is kind of a great leveler: it obscures the qualities of different individual fine bows. You're playing with the hair in a sense, more than with the bow. You get your strength from the tautness, true. But subtlty, elasticity, felxibilty, etc. are lost With a looser bow, you get your strength in a different way - by working with the camber, the internal curvature of the bow, that should still be very much in evidence when the bow is tightened for playing. It lends itself to a more subtle, eliptical bowing technique.

I only know of one great violinist who played with a rather tight bow - Kreisler. But he was never comfortable in the lower half of the bow, so the upper half, with extra tightening, had to do assume all the burden. He also used mainly Hill bows, as he did not want to warp Tourtes, Pecattes, Voirins, etc. Heifetz used an average tightness. Elman used a looser bow, as does Rosand, a strong advocate of same. Nothing wrong with their sounds, qualitatively and quantitatively! And I just reviewed several different sections from my Milstein DVD, which includes a lot of clear close ups - and I saw nothing but a pretty loose bow.

April 2, 2011 at 12:27 PM ·

Observe Gil Shaham's bow in this performance of Sarasate's "Zapateado":

Also this excerpt from the Barber Violin Concerto in a BBC Prom concert 2010:


April 2, 2011 at 01:00 PM ·

Pretty tight bow with Gil - nice sound, fluid playing. Funny how he smiles a lot, must be pleased he's passed Grade VIII at last ...

Did you notice that in the up bow staccato he let the bow go to the wrong angle on the string! Must try that, maybe its the secret.

Also, his fiddle has a lot of gashes and marks on the belly.

April 2, 2011 at 03:00 PM ·

Rats, the Barber video is not available in this country.

April 2, 2011 at 03:14 PM ·

Thank you, BBC, for your (non)-contribution to international culture!  As it happens, Gil appears to be using the same bow with an almost straight stick as in the Sarasate video which was recorded in Japan in 2007.

April 2, 2011 at 03:20 PM ·

"in the up bow staccato he let the bow go to the wrong angle on the string! Must try that, maybe its the secret."

Peter, I've tried it. It doesn't work. Teacher shouts at me :)

[Edit added] For the avoidance of doubt, "Teacher" doesn't actually shout at me. She makes a note of the issue and it's quietly discussed later on in the lesson. 

April 2, 2011 at 04:10 PM ·

I believe the model of bow may also figure into the decision.  Bows which have the curve of the bow come closest to the hair at the midpoint generally will respond better with relatively loose hair.  Models based on older bows where the curve of the bow is closest to the hair nearer the tip can take much greater tightening well.

April 2, 2011 at 04:27 PM ·

Interesting Ray: then does anyone know what kind of bow Shahan uses?

April 2, 2011 at 04:37 PM ·

"Also, his fiddle has a lot of gashes and marks on the belly."

He sounds like a violent violinist! :-0

I couldn't get the video either. But I've seen him play live and on tv, and never  noticed a really tight bow. Another issue is the controversy about whether or how much to tilt the bow towards the fingerboard. Many great violinists such as Rosand and Stern have been adamant that the bow should be at a right angle, and that the flat of the hair should be used - at least on the down-bow. Other greats, like Nadien, rather tilt their bows. Still others are somewhere in-between. If you tilt your bow markedly, you'll need to tighten it a bit more. Otherwise you could end up with unintentional col legno playing! I go into the tilt issue at greater length in my website in the "writings" section, in the basics of the bow.

April 2, 2011 at 09:56 PM ·

<Observe Gil Shaham's bow in this performance of Sarasate's "Zapateado":>

Yes, it strikes me that he plays with an extremely tilted bow (toward the fingerboard).

April 3, 2011 at 02:14 AM ·

 A tighter bow will be better for some things and not for others, a looser bow will be better for some things and not for others!!!


April 3, 2011 at 08:55 AM ·

I'm glad I saw this thread.

I used to be a cellist, and as Raphael guessed it is indeed different with cello.  I guess cellists can get away with a tighter bow because gravity helps your arm control bounce, etc.  Also, the thicker strings probably require more pressure, so a tighter bow also helps with that.  I kept that mind-set when I took up violin.

I am now experimenting with a very loose violin bow.  Not only is there (sllghtly) better control, but there is also a definite change in tonality. Tighter hair produces a slightly brighter, more strident sound. That might be useful for certain styles, but overall I'm thrilled with my instant new sound.

The effect is subtle, but definitely there.

What could cause this?  Maybe the scales in the horsehair open wider with extra tension? Maybe they stick-out from the core more?


April 3, 2011 at 09:02 AM ·

Of course, if you tighten your bow too much it becomes a baroque bow and that would indeed be unfortunate. Or you could use it with a set of arrows ... (wink)

April 3, 2011 at 09:43 AM ·

Thanks for the thoughtful responses.

Intuition suggests that with questions like this the extreme approach is rarely the wisest. I did get some interesting results with the tight bow, but I don't have the background yet to really evaluate what I'm experiencing, so for now I'll stick to a more conventional tension, as a baseline at least!

I guess the ultimate answer is to keep experimenting from time to time as my experience increases...

April 3, 2011 at 05:04 PM ·

I think also that, at least for a beginner / intermediate player, a looser bow kind of forces you to think more about bow-speed rather than bow pressure, in order to get various tones & feels.  

That's a very good thing.


And two more minor pluses for a loose bow:

1:  Changing the angle of the bow (top of stick angled towards you) seems to have a little more effect on timbre, or is easier to control, or something.

2:  I find it slightly easier to "feather" bow-direction changes, especially at the tip.  That may say more about my lack of skill than anything else, but there's definitely a difference.

April 3, 2011 at 09:48 PM ·

I'm a beginning violinist with two bows, one significantly stiffer than the other.  My problem is shake in the upper half of the bow.  Should I loosen it as mentioned earlier for cellos, or keep it tight which seems to be more sensible given the stiffness of it.  FWIW, it is pernambuco.

Thanks for any suggestions.

April 3, 2011 at 10:30 PM ·

Brooke: I think the simple answer is that its probably not your bow.  Your teacher should have the answer to this but one thing you can try is to move your index finger slightly up the bow.  This gives you a bit more stability - but not to the point where you compromise the other fingers. 

I'm not an expert but it did help me.  The other thing is to just play a lot!  Funny how things settle down - for me the big change was putting some weight into the bow - I did this for tone development but it also resulted in a large improvement in control.

April 6, 2011 at 02:24 PM ·

 it really depends on the piece.

for me i would tighten my bow more for pieces that deal with baroque style. Eg grade 6 ABRSM piece vivace but will loosen my bow for the other smoother pieces :)

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