Tone, bow arm elbow

January 29, 2013 at 08:51 PM · My teacher is constantly instructing me to drop my elbow. His reasoning is that if my elbow is lower than my hand, that will distribute the weight of my arm into the string. This seems to run counter to the more widespread theory that the elbow should be on the same plane as the bow. Will someone please clarify? What is the proper placement of the elbow relative to the bow? If the elbow is at the same plane as the bow, then how do you distribute weight in the string to achieve a beautiful and dense tone? Thank you!

Replies (46)

January 30, 2013 at 12:57 AM · If you watch famous violinists, elbow is always square or higher. A nice rule is to always play from your shoulder and keep your fingers still and in contact with your bow. It's a lot easier if there is someone there to show you

January 30, 2013 at 12:26 PM · Look for players who move the violin and tilt it for playing different strings.Itzak Perlman 3rd movement of Tchaikovsky . Tilts the violin to save raising the elbow all the time.

Aha! William Primrose says to do that too. As for having the elbow by the ribs - Leopold Mozart didn't find it so silly!

January 30, 2013 at 01:27 PM · Leoplold Mozart was not greatly appreciated even by his own son ...

EDIT: That was a typo !! But a good one (LeoPLOD!!)

January 30, 2013 at 03:46 PM ·

January 30, 2013 at 03:56 PM · To find the proper arm level simply play a couple of pizz near the bridge. Then using the same arm level you used with the pizz, bow.

January 30, 2013 at 05:01 PM · Though you see some people doing it, dropping the elbow to be lower than the hand is a really bad idea. It creates tension in the wrist and fingers, and creates a short "saw-like" motion for the arm and hand. The wrist gets cramped when the frog gets close to the strings. Don't do it.

When the bow tip is on the string (arm fully extended) the elbow should be above the hand. In this extended position, there is a pretty straight line from the elbow to the fingers - no significant bending. It stays that way until about half way through the stroke, when a natural fluid motion brings the hand level with and later above the elbow. As to weight of the arm, this occurs when the shoulder muscles (deltoid and trapezius) relax and let the weight of the entire arm "fall" into the bow and string. It has nothing to do with the hand versus elbow position. Lastly, the index finger controls "weight" on the string, particularly for short periods and pulses.

You may want to consider another teacher.

January 31, 2013 at 07:02 PM ·

January 31, 2013 at 10:53 PM · Erm ... I seem to be a little different to most of those responding - which is about par for the course in most areas of my life :)

Using my iPad as a useful camera mirror (so that's what it's for) I've looked carefully at my posture and hold. I hold my violin tilted at about 45º, pointing at about the same angle to the side, and the scroll more or less level with my face. I do not use a shoulder rest.

On no string, when using any part of the bow does my elbow get above the level of the wrist, or even anywhere near it. Most of the time my upper arm is close to my side, but never deliberately held in. It moves naturally a little way from my torso when I'm bowing near the tip, and is below wrist level.

When bowing on the G at or near the frog the elbow is still below wrist level, but the wrist is slightly raised so that the back of the hand is fairly horizontal. In fact, in this position it is easy to move my head forward and touch my wrist with my nose.

When playing at the tip with an almost straight right arm (the elbow should never lock) the back of my hand is again pretty well horizontal and the wrist is flexed the other way. Between the extreme ends of the bow my forearm is aligned with the wrist. The idea is for the back of the hand to be more or less horizontal throughout a bow stroke: think of balancing a penny flat on the back of the hand . Incidentally, a similar concept was inculcated in me by my piano teacher when I was a child.

I aim to keep my right arm between the hand and shoulder as relaxed and supple as a thick rope hawser; never any stiffness or feeling of tension. This concept was also taught to me by cello teacher. I think he used the word "hawser" because his house overlooked a busy Bristol Harbour (as it was then) and he would have been familiar with the docking of ships, as I was.

I believe another part of the bowing process which is closely related to what I have said above must be my bow hold. The thumb relaxed and bent (of course), the index finger wrapped round the stick about an inch up from the thumb. Fingers 2 and 3 don't really do anything except to droop gracefully over the stick without actually doing much in the hold most of the time. Finger 4 (the pinky) comes into action when it is necessary to control the balance of the bow when playing in the lower half near the frog; like the thumb, the fourth finger is always bent and relaxed. The index finger and thumb between them control the articulation of notes and the pressure of the bow on the string. The pinky is also used to decrease the pressure on the string exerted by the index finger, eg when playing softly but still with a full tone.

Then there is the business of keeping the bow reasonably parallel to the bridge most of the time (of course there are occasions when one needs to depart from this precept). Here is an exercise to help with this, and it needs neither bow nor violin, just a flat smooth wall - smooth plaster is ideal. Stand upright with the left shoulder against the wall, facing the wall at an angle of about 45º - which is more or less the angle many violinists hold the violin from the straight ahead position. With the knuckles of the right hand lightly touching the wall and pretending you're holding a good bow (a Pecate?), simulate a slow whole bow stroke by moving the hand up towards the face and back again, keeping it in gentle contact with the walll the whole time. Pay close attention to the points I've mentioned above - don't lock the elbow when "playing at the tip", you should be able to touch the back of your hand with your nose when "playing at the frog", try to keep the back of the hand more or less horizontal, and, above all, keep the right arm loose and relaxed with the elbow hanging like a weight. Don't forget to vary the exercise by pretending you're playing on specific strings - bowing is different on the E to on the G.

This is what I've been taught over the last few years; it works well for me.

February 1, 2013 at 05:21 AM · Playing with a low elbow actually achieves the exact opposite effect. That lowered position doesn't use the shoulder joint efficiently and it robs your arm of energy. The weight that your teacher is talking about has much more to do with your shoulder and your scapula (shoulder blade) than your elbow. You must keep your shoulder and scapula low. It can feel weird to keep your shoulder low and your elbow level with your hand but doing so maximizes the efficiency of your bow arm.

February 1, 2013 at 06:52 AM · You must keep your shoulder and scapula low.

Raising your upper arm more than a 45 degree angle from the side of the body causes the scapula to pull away from the spine and up - it also weakens your rhomboid on that side. I go with Trev on this one.

February 1, 2013 at 07:30 AM · Perhaps I didn't effectively express what I meant. I'm saying that the feeling of weight in the bow arm must be felt in the back by lowering the shoulder and pulling the scapula down the back while maintaining the normal playing level of the arm. This isn't some kind of hokum I made up, it's from my teacher who learned it from Zimbalist. Normally I hate name-dropping but I thought it was worth mentioning the source of the information.

February 1, 2013 at 08:07 AM · John - you need that notebook!! (wink).

Generally - I'm struggling to upload a damned video I've made but its not working. It's only about 4-5 minutes long but takes hours and then does not upload at the end. (I'm sure I've dun it successful like before ...)

February 1, 2013 at 12:41 PM · Hey John,

The posts are gone. You can finally give away that notebook!

February 1, 2013 at 10:05 PM · During Suzuki teacher-training in Lyon, we adopted a low elbow, with the following results:

- greater participation of the upper arm, with a slight "swing" in and out to propulse the strokes, and better use of the deeper muscles, leaving the surface muscles to their job of movement rather than posture;

- a flattish hand at all times, with rounded and very supple fingers, and a very active thumb;

- even the smallest chidren achieve an astonishing depth of sound on their tiny fiddles, and warm supple ensemble playing: no "meeowing"!

- in advanced, fast bowings, the elbow rises of its own accord.

The thumb gives both martelato attacks, and paintbrush-like tenutos.

Heros? Oistrakh and Perlman often have a relatively low elbow...And fabulous tone!

February 2, 2013 at 07:10 AM · You could be right Adrian - but as I agree with you I'm not sure, as I'm usually wrong, that you are right. Hope that makes sense, it doesn't seem to make sense when I read it back. Back to bed ...

February 2, 2013 at 02:14 PM · Peter - I took down the posts that bothered John. No need to be a jerk; that last post was unnecessary.



February 2, 2013 at 02:44 PM · I think you must be the jerk for making that comment as I hadn't realised you had removed posts when I made my joke.

I'm afraid it's also a bit stupid to put up posts that you then take down or delete, but I suppose we have probably all done it.

But it takes a jerk to recognise a jerk.

February 2, 2013 at 03:05 PM · Peter: I took down the posts because I did not realize that asking for/recommending a reference/source for an artist's statement about his/her playing technique/approach would be taken so badly and get this much out of wack. I preferred to take the posts down out of respect for offending John, then to leave them up and have this get out of control.

Now, as much as I like a good joke just as anyone else, I am not a fan of ridiculing. If it makes me a jerk calling someone on it, then so be it.

Now this said, can we let this go, please? Thanks.

February 2, 2013 at 05:21 PM · Adrian, my teacher was taught by Shinichi Suzuki personally.

February 3, 2013 at 06:25 AM · Christian

No problem, I won't be participating anymore, in this forum. Too many prima donnas.

February 3, 2013 at 01:12 PM · Peter,

Then we will be two doing the same, although my reasons are different.

February 3, 2013 at 02:15 PM · If it helps after all that (!)

The right position of the elbow is the one most consistent with a relaxed bow hold.

Watch Adolf Busch.

Everyone has different arm lengths, but we all use the same length bow.

Everything else adapts.

Got it?

February 3, 2013 at 07:21 PM · Got it? Yes: psychorigidity! May suit a genius with such amazing credentials, but not the rest of us mortals!

February 3, 2013 at 08:13 PM · Hi Adrian,

Is this comment directed at me? My reason was simply to withdraw from this thread to avoid further unnecessary disagreement, so I certainly hope not...

February 3, 2013 at 09:22 PM · No,no,no, Christian! It was directed at Mr G.Thomas!

February 4, 2013 at 06:15 AM · weird behaviour here.

The best position of the elbow & wrist is the one that affords most comfort.

Strangely enough, this is the most natural.

Why should this be otherwise?

I believe this was the single objective of both Auer & Flesch, no matter how people look for other devices like "beautiful and dense tone".

Is this no longer taught?

February 4, 2013 at 07:38 AM · The best position of the elbow & wrist is the one that affords most comfort.

Which would be upper arm hanging by the side and hand hanging from the wrist - you never see that though.

February 4, 2013 at 08:06 AM · Only one word for that.


February 4, 2013 at 08:33 AM · It affords most comfort i.e. least muscular effort.

February 4, 2013 at 08:54 AM · Muscular effort is nothing to do with it.

It's all about tone production and balance.

Everything has its own weight and balance.

This is elementary stuff, but it takes time to assimilate.

What takes least effort usually makes the best sound.

The height of the wrist and Elbow playing high at the heel on the 4th string, clearly has no comparison to playing at the point on the 1st, yet it must all fit and make sense.

Flesch Urstudien are a good exercise to integrate a lot of these elements as are Dont caprices.

February 4, 2013 at 09:01 AM · What takes least effort usually makes the best sound.

Again, I hate to labour the point but least effort to me means least muscular effort. What other effort is there?

February 4, 2013 at 10:20 AM · Thanks to Newton's laws, there is the gravity & weight balance.

To each force there being an equal and opposite force.

This hasn't to do with muscular effort, it's to do with balance of weight.

You don't need muscle to stand up and oppose the force of gravity you just stand up.

It's the balance of force between the gravitation downwards and the amount of force opposing it (or you would fall apart), that keep you standing there.

This was the reason for my silly question.

Have you tried playing in space?

I would imagine under weightless conditions it could be difficult to play stringed instruments...and that would prove the point.

February 4, 2013 at 11:41 AM · You don't need muscle to stand up and oppose the force of gravity you just stand up.

Sorry, I may know nothing about playing the violin but I sure have an idea how to stand up - and it's using muscles. I know, I practice every day! As for holding your arms in the air as you do it, well...

February 4, 2013 at 01:11 PM · Bud, despite Gareth's often embittered and sarcastic tone, he has a point, here:

- There is a basic, unconcious muscle-tone which only disappears during sleep.

- Well-integrated muscular actions become "second nature": standing, walking etc. We don't feel them unless something is wrong.

- The best postures and gestures in violin playing are those which can also become "second nature". We can play for 3 hours at a stretch, and only feel discomfort the following day; but hold up an imaginary violin, and it will be excruciating at the end of 3 minutes!

- A painful movement which ceases to be painful may not be integrated, but rather anaesthetised, which is much less healthy in the long term.

February 4, 2013 at 01:36 PM · nothing bitter, just the old adage "if commonsense were so common,how come so few people have it?"

By the same token if you had to use muscle just to stand up, all those russian orthodox priests would be Rambo by now!

So, if you are using your LH arm to hold up the violin and your RH to hold up the bow, you'll be worn out in minutes even you are Schwarzenegger build.

To prove the point again.

Ever tried to lie under a car with a pair of spanners to undo a few nuts and bolts?

I can assure you having to hold up just 2 metal tools at arms length is very hard work, and your arms ache pretty quick,- so badly in fact, you have to put them down.

February 4, 2013 at 02:09 PM · but hold up an imaginary violin, and it will be excruciating at the end of 3 minutes!

In that case I may as well start playing on a Stradivarius as my violin must be imaginary. Do you folks really not feel the consequences on your posture as you play? Not good.

February 6, 2013 at 09:55 PM · Unfounded "common sense" is only for bigots.

(perhaps I shoudn't be enjoying this..)

February 7, 2013 at 07:13 PM · And:

Some of the most common causes of stress and strain on the spine include:

* Poor posture - slouching in chairs, driving in hunched positions and standing badly

from: BBC

but let's not think about that or we're bound to fall over!

February 8, 2013 at 09:58 PM · An elbow on the same level as the bow hand is a nice ideal, and something that many fine players demonstrate. While it's true that the wrist can (and should) handle many problems of string crossing, it's not equipped to cover all 4 strings. A "chronically" low arm, though easier on the shoulder, will require more movement of the wrist to navigate string crossings. And that's only magnified when the crossings are larger or faster. Any static position with a high arm will be taxing, I agree! (I've played enough 2nd violin parts in baroque music where you never get off the G and D strings to know) But in the context of fluid violin playing, what you want is something that balances effort among shoulder, wrist and fingers.

If you look at this Heifetz video that you've all probably seen before, you'll see his elbow move in tandem with his wrist, not locked together of course, but at least in the same ballpark. This lets him use the wrist to "finish" the string crossings (which are between the E and G strings sometimes!) but not to handle them alone.

February 9, 2013 at 09:45 PM · The arm works in complicated ways.If you study throwing a cricket ball,a really long throw starts leaning back with a low hand .The shoulder leads the elbow .The elbow and hand stay behind for a bit.The the high elbow pulls forward.Then the forearm rotates forwards and a flexible wrist finishes off the uncoiling movement.

Not if you throw like a girl. :)

February 10, 2013 at 05:31 PM · "And: Some of the most common causes of stress and strain on the spine include"

Driving your kids to school in SUVs, instead of making them walk.

Sitting in traffic jams for hours in our totally out of date, obsolete way of life.

As for "The arm works in complicated ways".

No it doesn't.

That's utter rubbish.

The articulations are essentially very simple, natural & functional.

It's only doing things which are unnatural & not functional that makes things complicated.

February 10, 2013 at 05:56 PM · It's only doing things which are unnatural & not functional that makes things complicated.

Yeh, like playing the violin!

February 10, 2013 at 07:32 PM · My understanding of "unnatural" in the context of playing a musical instrument is that it is a movement that feels that way if you've never done it before, but will feel natural when you've been taught how to do it safely and efficiently, and have practiced it sufficiently.

You can have an action that for a beginner doesn't feel functional (i.e. they can't do it) because muscles and their control are under-developed and joints are too stiff. The functionality can be developed by good teaching. An obvious example is the very action for a beginner of holding a violin and bow and trying to get any sort of reasonable sound out of it.

However, if a movement is inherently "not functional" the implication to me is that it is something that is anatomically either not possible or at least will cause damage in the immediate to long term if not stopped. Some poor body postures and instrument/bow holds come to mind in this respect.

February 10, 2013 at 09:50 PM · I think the problem here may simply be one of communication. When a teacher says "drop the elbow," very often this simply means to put more weight in the bow, from the arm. The problem is, if a teacher tells a student, "Put more weight" or particularly, "Put more pressure" into the bow, that tends to make a student tense up, particularly in the shoulder area, producing a kind of digging gesture into the string. If one talks instead about weight in the elbow, the mental picture for the student, more often times than not, is a weightiness that involves the shoulder being down and relaxed, as well as the elbow being "down." But the elbow may not literally be down. It's more a feeling of the whole arm providing weight into the string.

I hope that makes at least a little bit of sense! ;)

February 10, 2013 at 10:59 PM · Laurie, it does indeed make sense; it's pretty well word-for-word what my teacher has told me.

February 11, 2013 at 07:58 AM · Same for me Trevor. When I trained with the European Suzuki Assosiation 25 years ago, sceptics would ask "Where are the Suzuki-taught soloists?" In fact very many of today's stellar violinists started this way even if their elbows have "risen", from subsequent training , or from necessity.

As Laurie says, words suggest images, but also sensations. A while back, I started a hread called "Weight vs Pressure": Laurie's post was similar to the above one, but other reactions showed the problem of having simple words that have both everyday, evocative, and scientific meanings.

In a way, I am lucky (as a teacher) to have started the violin as a teenager: not having integrated the basics at an early, more intuitive age, I must contually review them..

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