Bowing variations

September 30, 2011 at 08:51 PM ·

Here's a question I don't think I've seen addressed on this site before:

You know the ubiquitous bowing variations in etudes? Like Kreutzer 2 or various Wolhfahrts or the Dounis Daily Dozen exercises seven through ten? Yeah. I've played twelve years and I still can't do them for more than a few measures without messing up. I can do them fine if they're written out all the way, but I'm not particularly keen on the idea of making thirty-plus copies of Kreutzer 2 and painstakingly filling in each bowing. I've tried trying to feel a pattern (say, one separate bow, three slurred, one separate, one slurred) - going extremely slowly - counting out loud while playing. But nothing so far has worked. I especially get thrown for a loop when the beats are on up-bows. It's like my subconscious switches to a down-bow on the beat before my conscious mind can tell it to stop, and then I get all messed up. But once again, if it's written out, I don't have a problem at all, especially if I can mark in a quick bowing in a particular problem area. It's just like I need a constant visual reminder of where I'm at.

I'm not sure if this is a memory problem, a perception problem, a problem with envisioning what I'm about to play, or what... Any advice? Does anyone else have this problem, or is it just me?

Replies (27)

September 30, 2011 at 10:23 PM ·

Emily - I hear your frustration. There are a number of things you need to sort out. You are using your visuals to keep track when you have it all written out. My guess is you are a visual learner. From here we could go 2 different directions - use your strongpoint - visual - or work on developing the kinesthetic & aural (feeling & hearing). Ultimately we use all three as violinists. I notice that most folks are strong in one of the three - but over the course of time and focus - all three can be developed.

I'll try to give you some ideas to approach practicing.

Visual - Instead of seeing the music - take the pattern and see your bow doing it, or see your hand doing it.

Kinesthetic ( muscle memory) - Do the bowing in the air without a bow or violin. Work on feeling those up bows on down beats! Count how many times the pattern is done throughout the etude. Turn on the metronome and repeat in the air that number of times.

Aural - Sing the etude with the bowing. If it's a 2 note down bow slur sing down down.

Incorporating - Combine 2 of the above and do them at the same time.

Go back to your instrument and try the new skills.

Sometimes when you're really blocked you have to hunker down, dig deep, and really work on it. Usually it's worth the effort because it will pave the path for a whole new level of violin playing.

You Go Girl!

Smiles! Diane

September 30, 2011 at 11:28 PM ·

"Be the bow, Grasshopper."

October 1, 2011 at 02:26 AM ·

I know the feeling!  What helped me was memorizing the left hand (notes, shifts).  That way I could put my focus on the bowings when looking at the short 1-2 measure example when practicing them.  

I must admit though, until I had #2 memorized, I just played the first few measures over and over again with the bowing variations.

October 1, 2011 at 03:03 AM ·

 Like Mendy, I memorize.  It lets me concentrate, and frees me to watch what I'm doing in different ways.  Besides, Kreutzer 2 is so important, one might as well learn it!

October 1, 2011 at 11:32 AM ·

Now if my name was Simon Fischer, Emily, which it is not, he would probably say that it is a case of command/response. Maybe you should read up on what he has said on this subject.

Also, he quotes D de Lay in asking, "what went through your mind a millisecond before you messed up?"

October 1, 2011 at 12:23 PM ·

I just wanted to say me too. And it's strangely comforting to know I'm not the only one! I have tried the innumerable copies tactic.

I'm very much "monkey see, monkey do". If it's written I'm OK, if I have to do something different from what's on the page my mind gets shredded and I fall to pieces. I can however just about manage that test where a colour is written out in letters of a different colour and you have to say one or the other.

October 1, 2011 at 01:38 PM ·

Probably some will see heresy here, but is being able to do the kind of etudes that require relatively-complicated bow patterns a necessary skill for you? How do you do with bowings in literature? Imo, etudes are meant to help us integrate various kinds of bowing patterns, fingering patterns, string crossings, etc., etc., If you don't have issues in pieces, maybe you are worrying over something that doesn't make that big a difference. Sue   

October 1, 2011 at 03:28 PM ·

 After 12 years of playing I would doubt that you are physically unable to do these variations.  The problem, then is a mental one.  A teacher of mine told me once that physical problems are best solved by physical practice and mental problems are best solved by mental practice.  I don't know if that's always true as I admit that I don't give equal time to mental practice, but here are some suggestions:

1) Sit (or stand) in a quiet room and think through the etude in question including the bowing variation.  Remember, you need several repetitions to actually accomplish something this way.  It's sometimes a leap of faith that this isn't a waste of time, but I'll tell you I've seen results on a personal level.  I once learned a piece and memorized it entirely through score study and mental practice.  It took a couple of weeks of 20 minutes a day (and the piece was a couple of levels below my ability at the time), but I then played through it from memory without having ever played a note of the piece!  Full disclosure - this was a marimba, not violin, but the concept is the same.

2) Sometimes "correct" bowings can become so ingrained that it's awkward/difficult to do anything that your body sees as incorrect.  You might try building some new brain synapses by bowing EVERYTHING backwards for a few days.  It will feel all wrong, but that's always what habit breaking feels like.  When you are able to do this, my guess is that your bowing variations will fall into place as well.

October 1, 2011 at 05:21 PM ·

 I am not an expert at all, but have you ever been tested for dyspraxia.  I have a pupil who is the brightest boy.  He understands every concept of music and plays well, accept he cannot co-ordinate bowing.  I put it down to perhaps not following the correct bowing at home.  Well after quite a few years of teaching him he has recently been diagnosed as dyspraxic, and after his parents telling me the details it would appear that this was the cause of his bowing errors (not poor practice technique.....ooops)

October 1, 2011 at 09:49 PM ·

 References have been made to memorizing Kreutzer #2. It may help to do what I've done (still "work in progress", actually!), and that is to learn the first 8 bars as a repeatable section, the next 10 bars also as a repeatable section, and the final section as not repeated.  The repeats work well and help with memorizing and learning the technical bits, especially the shifts in the second section.
In my orchestral playing I've come across a wide variety of bowings (as one also does in Irish folk fiddle), and so far I haven't found it necessary to delve deeply into the Kreutzer #2 variations, but I have no doubt the time will come!  

October 2, 2011 at 04:46 AM ·


I don't agree that memorizing the material is what's needed. Here's a question: why were we made to do all those different bowings, and why do we make our students do them? Is it to learn those particular bowings? Actually, the bowings themselves are secondary. What is important is the development of the ability to concentrate. And applying different bowings to an unmemorized passage is part of the deal. It's something we do all the time as orchestral professionals, when we are required to change a bowing. What can we say? "Sorry, I didn't memorize the passage.." Or worse yet, "sorry, I just can't focus..."

In order to work on your ability to concentrate consistently, I'd recommend starting a new bowing and playing only 1 bar at a time. Later, you can expand to 2, 3, 4, and etc. until your concentration will allow you to play the entire etude. One of the most basic mistakes that students make is to NOT break down pieces into small parts but to attempt to play the entire thing. And that always leads to mistakes and frustration.


October 2, 2011 at 07:35 AM ·

Bowing variations are a wonderful journey , a discovery of musical nuance.Everytime the bowing is changed the musical sense and character of the etude changes.When approaching a new bowing play the first two phrases or first four bars or so quite a few times and try to feel the new musical direction.The accents will be on different notes, there maybe slight crescendos and decrecendos within the phrase.If this is firmly fixed muscle memory will help you repeat the next phrase in the same way.All these studies help build a musical encyclopedia so that when faced with an urtext Bach just open the book and see what the possibilities are.

October 2, 2011 at 07:49 AM ·

October 2, 2011 at 07:59 AM ·


Scott Cole is talking a lot of good sense here and you should rely on his experience and level of playing to realise that this is important.

You may get a lot of advice on this forum,  but you have to really choose who to listen to, and who you should take seriously.

October 3, 2011 at 01:16 AM ·

Scott's advice is good- and to take it a step further, just do the bowing on an open string to really isolate.  whatever you can do comfortably, then quit. Keep repeating...  Also, there's a lot of new brain studies, etc. that are helpful for learning styles.  Motion is controlled by an non-intellectual part of the brain, so if you're approaching it on an intellectual level as you would a scholastic study, or "thinking" about your arm moving, it won't work.  Do it enough times exactly the same way to program the "motion" part of brain, and it will be automatic- as long as you don't think about it.

October 3, 2011 at 05:13 PM ·

 Tom (and others),

Thanks for the endorsement, but if you look at Emily's post, her problem seems not to be her ability to actually do the strokes, her ability to keep doing the strokes for long periods. This is not a bowing problem, but a simple problem of maintaining focus. I see in my students varying levels of ability to focus, even from the start, so when I start a 6-year-old, one of my primary goals is to simply get them to pay attention to the page and to what they're doing. For most of us, concentration is a muscle that has to be slowly pumped up, a little at a time. 

The question is, Emily, why do you eventually stop being able to do the bowing patterns? Do you find your attention wandering? Do you stop looking ahead in the music? Do you always start at the beginning of the passage. Passages often get more difficult in the middle of an etude, before the return. Have you tried beginning your practice in the middle of an etude instead of always at the start? Perhaps the difficulty of these middle measures (which often explore different keys) is what causes your focus to fail.

October 3, 2011 at 09:20 PM · Scott, we're working from the same premise, but I'm suggesting it's possible that the opposite might be the cause- i.e., too much concentration from the intellectual part of the brain, not enough imprinting on the motion control part of the brain. Obviously no way to tell without knowing someone well & seeing in person, but sometimes people try so hard to do something with their intellect they freeze up their motions after a short spell. Some players have to build up concentration, some need to learn to let go and let it happen. The really good teachers can tell which are which... I'm only tossing it as a possibility.

October 3, 2011 at 09:56 PM ·

October 4, 2011 at 04:54 PM ·

Prepare for a long disjointed post.

This is awesome, I go away for a bit on vacation and come back to this wealth of knowledge...

I'm going to keep an eye out on the dyspraxia idea. Interesting. I hadn't made the connection between these things and violin playing, but I hold my pencil in an odd way, tie my shoes by knotting two loops, have difficulty with buttons and snaps, have a hard time manipulating silverware and cooking utensils, have never been able to catch or throw a ball with any degree of reliability, and, although I don't drive, people I ride with have taken to telling me "it's okay" when turning in front of oncoming traffic because I'm convinced they're closer than they really are and about to smash into us. Those are some weird symptoms that are all mentioned online that it never occurred to me might be connected. Hmm. Something to think about, leastways. Thanks for the information.

I like the idea of using my visual learning style to see my hand or bow doing the variations. I can definitely see that helping. Thanks, Diane.

I'm glad you've all brought up the idea - why are you learning the bowing variations? Embarrassingly I hadn't even thought of this. That's an integral question moving forward, I think. So yes, I probably could memorize them. But I'm kind of leaning toward what Mr. Cole says, that their purpose is actually to promote learning how to concentrate, rather than learning how to play the bowings memorized. I do think it's a good idea to go back and work on one measure - heck, one note - at a time and try to break down a little bit more what's happening.

I'm not sure why I'm losing focus. I guess now that I think about it I am, but I don't know why. I have noticed in recent weeks that there are often (at least) two narratives going on in my head at any one time while I play. One afternoon I found myself practicing relatively difficult orchestral music with a metronome and simultaneously plotting a short story. But the music part wasn't on auto-pilot, because I caught myself when I was making mistakes, and I actually polished the part up pretty quickly. And the plotting part of my brain was working well, too; the ideas I came up with while playing were actually pretty good (I actually just finished up the story in question). It was a very odd experience, like having two brains on at once. But thinking about it, I'm assuming this probably shouldn't be happening on a regular basis (which, unfortunately, it does - and ninety-nine percent of the time, I'm not thinking about useful stuff like short stories, I'm thinking about what I should wear to rehearsal, or a news story I just read, or how much I enjoyed playing through this piece with a friend last month). There's one section of the Bruch concerto that I was learning when The Social Network came out, and in the other room I heard Jessie Eisenberg being interviewed. Every single time I play that passage, I think of Mark Zuckerberg. Now that I think about it, I'm assuming this means I'm not shutting down something that needs to be shut down. Maybe if I can foster concentration a bit more and turn off that second part of my brain (or re-direct it to violin-playing, anyway) it will help with those variations.

I love the idea of starting in the middle, or not at the beginning. I think this could help a lot, too.

"sometimes people try so hard to do something with their intellect they freeze up their motions after a short spell."

Heh. Yeah. I overthink and overanalyze all the time (ORLY?), and not just in music. Not quite sure how to change this way of thinking, either. It's one thing to say "just go with it! just do it!" and then actually turning off or re-directing or re-wiring or whatever that intellect part.

I do think that this is a problem that largely needs to be solved in the head away from the instrument. I'll try that and see what happens.

Thanks for the ideas, everyone. Very thought-provoking stuff. I think this is actually about much more than bowing variations; it's about a state of mind... Wasn't expecting that, but it's a good direction to head in, I think. Thank you thank you.

October 4, 2011 at 09:54 PM ·

October 5, 2011 at 01:35 AM ·

Heh. You're right.

For anyone who is interested... I practiced bowing variations today. I went fairly slowly (although not TOO slowly; I find that that makes my attention drift just as much as going too quickly) and only took on one variation - one single note, two slurred note, one single note. I focused on clusters of four notes and envisioned the slur above it. I also, since I sort of have this etude half-memorized, jumped from four-note segment to four-note segment and only really focused on the center two notes, remembering to slur the two I was focused on, and to give separate bows to the ones I wasn't focused on. (If that makes any sense.) That helped. There were some hiccups halfway through, but I'd been expecting that. It definitely went much better than previous attempts. After a while I really began to feel the rhythm; I could definitely feel what Janet Griffiths was discussing, especially the slight crescendos and decrescendos in the phrases. This is obviously something else that these bowing variations are supposed to help with, and the idea hadn't ever occurred to me. I'm looking forward to exploring this facet of etudes, as I often struggle with making them sound musical when I'm just doing up-down-up-down bowing. Next on the docket is a more complicated bowing pattern, and eventually I'll get to one where the beat falls on an up-bow... And I'd like to try out what I've learned with the Dounis Daily Dozen bow exercises. I'll report back with results.

October 5, 2011 at 03:57 AM ·


you might try using the approach advocated by Clayton haslop in which you count aloud.  That really forces one to concentrate.  I also think the Doiunis Daily Dozen bowing exercises are rather poor.  You woud be much bette roff just doing Kreutzer or Sevcik.   The left hand aspect of the Dounis is brilliant.



October 5, 2011 at 01:29 PM ·

isn't being able to glide effortlessly into bowing patterns the essential distinction between violin players and fiddlers?

October 5, 2011 at 02:39 PM ·

Don't worry Emily, you seem a very sweet person, and you shouldn't think there is a fundamental issue. As witnessed by the many "me too" reactions to your question, loosing track during a bowing variation of an etude is very typical, I have it too. We are not robots. Look at it differently: I'm sure that if you would have to study to actually perform a specific etude with a specific bowing variation, you would be able to practice it focused and achieve it in the end. Indeed you write that yourself that if the bowing is written out then there is no problem. Conclusion, there is no problem.

October 5, 2011 at 04:18 PM ·

Hey Buri - now that you mention it...I suppose Kreutzer is much better. Maybe I'll stick to him from now on...

And Jean, that's so sweet, but I do think there's a problem. I think it would help both my expression and my bow control if I could do these better...if only just for the fact that I'm never going to photocopy forty Kreutzer 2s and fill in the bowings! So if I'm going to do those variations at all, I'm going to have to do them in my head.

October 5, 2011 at 07:30 PM ·

There was a lot of discussion of memorization, but instead of theorizing whether it's the main issue or not, why not test this experimentally?  I think memorizing Kreutzer No. 2 is not a very stiff challenge.  Why not memorize it and then see if Mendy's suggestion of looking at the bowing chart while you are playing the etude from memory will help.  And memorizing a shorter (but not too short) "repeatable" section is certainly a viable way to test the hypothesis more quickly.

October 6, 2011 at 07:25 PM · Liz, instead of thinking about upstrokes and downstrokes, after you get the basic pattern, focus on experiencing the feelings involved- arm moving, the bow, hair on strings, and the sound. Experiencing these should not be intellectual- so this should promote involving the other parts of the brain.

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