Nathan Milstein's quiet right wrist: how is it possible??

February 27, 2013 at 07:27 PM · I'm striving to emulate the simplicity and economy of Nathan Milstein's bow arm, as seen quite well at the start of this clip.

What is striking to me is how still Milstein's wrist is thoughout the bow stroke, maintaining almost the same natural angle from heel to tip. Heifetz too had this natural wrist position, though to a somewhat lesser degree. But how is it achieved?

For a player like myself with rather average abilities, I feel that the simpler things are, the less there is to go wrong! Plus a natural angle of the wrist surely reduces the risk of injury.

I'm using a Milstein-style bow-hold and have a similar physique. I've got quite close to his wrist position at the heel, but still have signifcantly more bend in my wrist at the tip.

Watching the great Auer students closely, they seem to be pulling the elbow a little back from straight at the tip, which helps the wrist achieve a more natural position. But still not the neutral position achieved by Milstein, for me at least.

What does seem to work is dropping the elbow a little approaching the tip and supinating the forearm slightly, but I can't see any evidence that he's doing this - the angle of his upper arm seems to remain consistent throughout the stroke. And dropping the elbow adds complication where I'm looking for simplicity.

So what am I missing?

Replies (74)

February 28, 2013 at 01:27 AM · bofore i saw this recording of the mendelsoohn with milstein the first time many years ago I was quite disappointed. Not because of milsteins playing, but because of the dry acoustics of the studio. On the other hand one can hear averything up to technical detail wich would get totally lost in a hall.

Regarding his hand/wrist: I was and still am a great admirer of milsteins playing and his spirit. But I had to admit to myself that my physics are too different to copy his style. But I tested out some elements, also the wrist thing, wich s one quite obvious thing with milstein.

I cannot really tell you how to do it right, but I once read a quote of gregor piatigorsky saying that milstein was "born for the instrument" and he meant his physics. The violin just naturally fits him. His technique is while being so unorthodoxe totally natural.

On the other hand there are in his semiautobiography and in other media hints to an injury in one of his shoulders connected with some more serious operations too. I think at that time it wasnt popular to admit that violin playing was bad for your body, so I think some things are kept secret on purpose.

What I actually think is, that milsteins technique is a combination of problems wich was given to him in his violinistic life and the research for solutions by milsteins analytical mind.

I actually think that milsteins technique wouldn't sound so good on every kind of instrument, its so special (wich brings us to the point of how much the instrument can influence ones technique, musicality and career) and objectively full of "bad habits" that to analyze all this one has to go much deeper than only the wrist position. One has to understand his instrument, his bow control, his conception of sound (wich was quite unique to my ear and very refreshing), even his stand and head position is the cause or enabling factor for his arm positions and therefore for the wrists. I could go into further detail, but its late here, so I leave it here.

I just wonder if anyone knows, if there is a complete video recording of milsteins mendelssohn from the same concert where the exerpts in "the art of violin" are from. I think that concert was in stockholm and was live and has a much more appealing accoustic to me than ths dry studio version.

at around minute 5:30 after kreislers beautiful playing:

February 28, 2013 at 01:34 AM · One part of Milstein's technique that makes his bow arm the way it is--he holds the bow more with fingertips than with the whole finger--easier to hold a quiet wrist that way.

He does make it seem very natural!

February 28, 2013 at 07:00 AM · It's how the Russian school taught them. As he said to his students, "keep your arm, hand and bow as one piece and play from your shoulder. Very simple"

It is not difficult to "copy" if you really wanna play like that.

February 28, 2013 at 08:18 AM · First of all it was a pretty fast performance.

Secondly, those damned camerapersons are not trained properly and never give us the shots we need.

To get to the nitty gritty - unlike Heifetz he has a low bow arm - even on the G string its still not that high.

Not so much here, but I often notice that the more difficult the music is the less he is involved. Maybe the Mend is a beginners' concerto for him!

I don't agree with Simon that his way of playing was unatural - in fact the opposite.

Yes, I'm told he may have described and taught the bow arm as a flipper like on a seal. Maybe that was how his students got the seal of approval...

EDIT: On further reflection I note that he plays relatively close to the bridge as do many of those on the "Art of" which Simon linked us to.

I was also surprised at the start of the DVD to note that Menuhin seems to have a Russian bow hold.

I would also agree that most of these players and Milstein in particular tend to pull the elbow back at the point of the bow and the angle at the point is not absolutely straight but the point of the bow moves towards the fingerboard.

February 28, 2013 at 09:08 AM · Thanks for the suggestions.

I think that Marjory may be close to the truth when she points to his shallow bow hold - thinking mechanically it seems the fingers are the only other thing that could "give" in order to facilitate the stillness of the wrist.

Simon, when you say that Milstein was 'objectively full of "bad habits"' what are you thinking of specifically? Though I was never fortunate enough to see him live, I've always admired what seems to me a simple, natural and efficient technique. He always seems so organised and unhurried, even when playing virtuoso show pieces. And it's clear from his interviews in "Milstein - Master of Invention" that Pinchas Zukerman regards him as an inspiration and a model of good technique. As he's one of my own inspirations I'd appreciate being alerted to anything I should be avoiding...

February 28, 2013 at 10:49 AM · I'm afraid I don't think he holds the bow with his fingertips! He has the Russian hold and uses his whole arm a lot, with virtually no finger movement at all!

February 28, 2013 at 11:07 AM · Yes, but in the context of the Russian hold he's relatively shallow - there are some album covers that give a good close-up. And the finger movements would be pretty much too small to see, according to my experiments. Something must be giving somewhere, or he couldn't keep his wrist so neutral, but as you say, it's nothing obviously visible. Perhaps it's a little supination and a little finger-give combined?

Oh well, I'll keep experimenting. Just trying to figure out what he's up to has taught me a good bit about bow mechanics - it's turning into a useful exercise.

February 28, 2013 at 11:07 AM · I wrote: "His technique is while being so unorthodoxe totally natural."

Peter wrote: "I don't agree with Simon that his way of playing was unatural"

So I think we can agree with this...

His "bad habits" are not keeping his bow straight at many times (wich doesn't work on every violin). Also I would not teach to use the whole arm from the shoulder for fast passages with stringcrossings. But again, it's Milstein. He was able to play according to his interpretation regardless of technique and second maybe we should all learn from him, since he was able to play paganini Bach and Wieniawski at the age of 84...

What seems to me close to perfect is his left hand! He keeps the fingers so close to the string, that its actually ahrd to see what finger he plays sometimes. And don't get me wrong, I love his bowing too. But this kind of bowing is enabled through other aspects. One very important may his positioning of the violin.

February 28, 2013 at 11:37 AM · "Something must be giving somewhere, or he couldn't keep his wrist so neutral, but as you say, it's nothing obviously visible. Perhaps it's a little supination and a little finger-give combined?"

Nothing is giving away, this has to do with body geometry. The more even in length the upper and fore arms are, the flatter the wrist can be. In the case of Milstein (or Szeryng too), you can tell because they play their détaché very near the middle of the bow. When someone has a longer forearm than upper arm, their détaché is higher up in the bow (like Heifetz) and the wrist seems to naturally come up a bit at the frog to balance things out.


February 28, 2013 at 12:06 PM · Sorry Simon, I think I misread you!

Yes, the bow is not straight at the point, but I think this is OK.

Christian - I think the length overall, and the length of each section of the arm, as you say, means diffrences in how and what part of the bow is used. Those of us with long arms just have to adapt. So I totally agree and have been looking at this with regard to my own bow arm recently.

February 28, 2013 at 12:39 PM · Geoff, be careful interpreting photos that you see on album covers. I'm a "collector" of bow-hold photos because a couple of years ago I thought it would be interesting and useful to study how lots of different professional players hold the bow. While it didn't help my playing as much as I had theorized, I learned a lot and I enjoyed making the collection.

Album cover photos usually are idealized poses with no actual movement. Often it will be the perfect Franco-Belgian hold with the first finger poised just so, and of course the bow must be on the string near the frog in order to have a compact image. You have to find pictures of the violinist actually playing. First of all its very difficult to get good pictures of the bow hand, which is often the part of the violinist that is moving the fastest, so it's often blurry. And second, all action pictures obviously are much more rare for violinists who would have been photographed in the days preceding digital cameras.

Two players whose photos suggest they hold the bow more with their fingertips are Joshua Bell and Eugene Ysaye. But again these are *posed* photos -- caution must be taken interpreting them.

February 28, 2013 at 12:47 PM · Paul - well observed and thought out! We can only really tell from video and film, and then its hard. I watch players close up in real time sometimes, and it can even be dificult then. And I ask people I know who have studied with (for example Milstein, and even a Heifetz pupil) what goes, but even then they may have forgotten, got hold of the wrong message, or be just hedging. Bit like bankers really ...

John, forget about SR's and get down to the nitty gritty ... I can't keep on telling you this!! (wink).

February 28, 2013 at 01:13 PM · Hi,

Peter: I know what you mean. I have spent years with my own bowing. I think that geometry is more important in producing a correct stroke as it controls the right movements than where in the bow it is produced. A great détaché for example is produced from the forearm beginning where the arm makes a "square." At that point, the shoulder is no longer active and the bowing will be straight. Where that happens in the bow is irrelevant. Knowing this, you can get anyone, regardless of height, arm ratios, gender, etc. producing a perfect natural détaché in minutes. Or, you can go based on where is theoretically supposed to be in the bow, use walls or other weird things and spend years trying to do it. I know the difference: I spent a lot of years trying that version before going with nature rather than against it (I have a very long forearm and short upper arm, though overall ironically, the length of my complete arm is actually exactly the length of the bow, go figure).

John: I think that the change of angle that you keep bringing up over and over is actually something that occurs naturally with restless playing as the balance changes on the collarbone depending on which string your fingers/arm is at. It is sort of like a pivot. It is not something that one does on purpose or thinks about, although this natural occurring does make things easier by reducing the amount of lift one has to do with the right elbow to reach. Now, depending on the shape of the collarbone (and the kind of chin rest used), the angle may be flatter or have more tilt to begin with. But it sort of ends there.


February 28, 2013 at 03:38 PM · Hi Christian - you just had me measuring my bow against my arm length and its about the same, within an inch anyway!

Yes, detache is possible at various points on the bow.

Another useful but maybe irrelevant thing I'm trying at present is a heavy and strong bow stroke but a very gentle left hand. (Especially my second finger with I put down too hard and use too much vibrato on). Not always as easy as it sounds, for me anyway.

All these admissions are going to let everyone know all of my weaknesses!

February 28, 2013 at 03:59 PM · Milstein's right arm can probably be most succinctly summed up as, "Using large muscles rather than small." The arm drops back slightly so the bow arcs at the tip on the down-bow, and on the up-bow, the motion is reversed and the whole arm is used to follow through to the frog, as one large swinging entity with momentum. String-crossings are done from the shoulder (where the forearm will move). The wrist is relaxed and simply follows along with the arm movement.

I was taught this approach previously, but my new teacher believes in string crossings from the wrist, and I'm finding that, at least for my physiology, the wrist works better for keeping the bow deep into the string during fast back-and-forth crossings, as well as for general economy of motion.

February 28, 2013 at 04:21 PM · Thanks folks - very enlightening!

Christian -

I think you've got to the heart of it - this is the point I've been missing and is what I was hoping to learn! I have a long forearm, and as you say my natural detache is highish up the bow. I haven't been aware of the mechanics of forearm/upper-arm ratios it's a valuable insight.

My wrist-break at the tip is quite moderate, (though more pronounced than Heifetz), and from what you are saying it seems as if this is pretty much as good as it will get with my body geometry.

I've been playing detache naturally from the point you describe - not being aware of any "theoretical" starting point. But being consciously aware of the natural approach can only be helpful.

So thank you again!

Simon -

Yes - his string crossings do use a lot of arm. My guess is that his nervous system was so fast that he could work this way. I agree that it's not something I should emulate 100%.

John -

Yes, his tilt can be quite extreme, and is another thing I wouldn't (couldn't) emulate. Famously, he could play Paganini da braccio so his ability to balance the instrument was from some other planet! It says a lot about his left hand that he could shift that way... I play restless, and couldn't shift with so much tilt - I need a more solid platform on my shoulder. I do get a little tilt, though, which helps reach the G - but that's a whole other topic...

February 28, 2013 at 05:07 PM · Hi,

John: I think that we misunderstood each other. Milstein knew everything that he was doing. However, the pivoting/tilting/whatever you want to call it of the violin on the collarbone as you play through the various strings is something that happens naturally on the violin when you don't use a shoulder rest (if your left arm is well positioned) and not something that you consciously work on.

Geoff: by "theoretical," I refer to the idea that some people teach a détaché as a stroke that takes place in the middle of the bow, instead of where a certain movement of the body takes place. They may marvel at someone's natural détaché in the middle when in fact it is just the idea that this individual's geometry works for that part of the bow. Then they devise weird things for fixing a détaché for someone with a different geometry. Years ago, I was giving a masterclass and two students were struggling with détaché. One was a girl a little over 5 feet tall, the other, a tall guy about 6 feet 4 inches. And yet, they both struggled because they were not at the right point for their body geometry (too low in the bow) as ratio wise, they had different but similar problems. However, after letting go of the idea that they should do the stroke in the middle of the bow, we went at it from the perspective of geometry and movements, and both were able to do a great détaché with beautiful sound almost instantly that looked, felt and sounded natural.


February 28, 2013 at 05:16 PM · Christian

From what I can see there are teachers who simply pass on what they were taught by rote, without really understanding why. And there are rarer teachers who know how to adapt technique to the individual body mechanics of their students. It seems that you are one of that precious minority!

Thanks for the very clear and useful explanation...

February 28, 2013 at 05:20 PM · Hi Geoff, another aspect which affects wrist angle is thumb placement and curl, which is to some degree determined by it's length. It's unfortunate we don't get to see what's happening 'under the hood' so to speak because producers, directors, and cinematographers aren't usually interested in showing us such details...

If you place your thumb flat with the fleshy pad, your wrist will be pulled lower (your forearm will be more pronated in general.) If you place your thumb on the stick in front of the bump of the frog with the inside tip of the thumb, your wrist will remain straighter (pronation is less in general.)

If you place the tip of your thumb under (on the bottom facet of the octagon) the 'handle' of the bow, your wrist will be pulled lower. If you place the tip of your thumb on the inside facet (adjacent to the bottom facet) your wrist can remain higher and allow you to raise the hand onto the bow.

If you maintain a curl in the joints of the thumb, your wrist will be pulled lower. If you leave your thumb straight your wrist will remain straighter.

February 28, 2013 at 06:39 PM · Hi,

Geoff: Thanks! Glad to be of help!


March 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM · Christian, I found what you said about arm proportion interesting. Though I did have teachers who talked about differences in violin hold depending on whether a violinist had long or short arms overall, I've never heard anything about proportion of the upper to lower arm and how it affects bowing.

My upper arm is longer than my forearm, and I do detache in the middle of the bow. I looked in the mirror just now and see that at this point, my arm does indeed make a square.

March 1, 2013 at 07:58 AM · Excellent example Nate, and a good lesson for us all.

Apart from the fingers on bow hand which you have pointed out, I notice that the string crossings are gentle too. He never panics. Mr Cool.

Also his left hand never shifts in a sudden or jerky way, always controlled and casual. Fingers near the strings and no time for vibrato until the last note.

March 1, 2013 at 10:05 AM · Jeewon

Yes, I should experiment more with thumb placement, to see how that affects the bowstroke.

Now that Nate has joined us, I should say that I've been influenced by his argument that a relatively straight thumb is the safest and most relaxed position. I've never understood the argument for a sharply bent thumb.

Many teachers recommend shaking out the hand and the resulting relaxed position is your bowhold. This makes sense to me. Then they say bend your thumb to touch the second finger, immediately reintroducing tension. Nate's advice gave me the confidence to follow my instincts and keep my thumb straight and quiet(but relaxed and flexible). But I'm drifting OT - well, it is my topic :-)


I don't think I ever said anything about inflexible/rigid - I said quiet. As Nate said, it's clear that Milstein was using relaxed but controlled passive movements in his wrist and fingers on big strokes. If there was any tension or rigidity in his "power train" there's surely no way he could have produced his wonderful, nuanced sound. And as Nate pointed out, he went more to the wrist and forearm when playing at speed, which is surely the only sane approach...

When you teach yourself you're faced with deciding between conflicting advice on almost every aspect of technique. When you're with a teacher you have to trust them and do what they advise. Teaching yourself you have to choose. So I'm trying to develop a set of criteria, based on what is natural, safe, efficient and tension-free. I don't have a background in violin, but I do have some understanding of body mechanics from yoga and sport, which I'm trying to make use of. And there are some things about the way violin is often taught that don't make much sense from that perspective. As I've often said here, the high levels of injury amongst working string players suggest there's little room for complacency.

I'm intrigued by Milstein becuase he seems to make everything seem so simple and unhurried, which of course is anything but simple to achieve! And once we get to the left hand, anyone who can downshift reliably with the fiddle held in the crook of their arm has to be worth studying, especially by anyone like myself who plays restless.

And by asking this question, Christian has filled in a gap in my knowlege of bow arm mechanics which I'm sure will come in useful.

March 1, 2013 at 10:25 AM · Lydia

Thanks - a thoughful contribution!

I'm going to experiment some more with the whole-arm vs wristy approaches to string changing. I suspect it's a personal thing depending on your physical abilities.

My general approach is to try the simplest method first - in this case that would be the whole arm approach - and only introduce complications if I can't get that to work for me.

Clearly someone like Milstein was gifted with an exceptionally fast central nervous system. He was able to get away with the whole arm approach. I also suspect that there's a lot of subtle positioning of the upper arm to prepare for changes.

As I was once (several lifetimes ago, it seems) a champion sprinter, it's possible I have the speed to do it this way - it's worth a try!

If I find it's just not practical, I'll have to introducing some wrist movement, as you suggest.

March 1, 2013 at 11:10 AM · This from Seidel:

"Most teachers make bowing a very complicated affair, adding to its difficulties. But Professor Auer develops a natural bowing, with an absolutely free wrist, in all his pupils; for he teaches each student along the line of his individual aptitudes. Hence the length of the fingers and the size of the hand make no difference, because in the case of each pupil they are treated as separate problems, capable of an individual solution. I have known of pupils who came to him with an absolutely stiff wrist; and yet he taught them to overcome it."

And quoting Auer:

'There must be no such thing as strings or hair in the pupil's consciousness. One must not play violin, one must sing violin!'


March 1, 2013 at 11:27 AM · Hi,

Geoff, what creates a lot of confusion is the difference between leading with the arm and leading with the hand/fingers. Again, there is a tendency to teach these days that the hand/fingers move the bow. They actually connect the arm to the bow which is lead by the arm. This gets rid of small unnecessary movements, enable the hand to be perfectly relaxed and calm, yet flexible.

Nate's video example is a great one. Here is another by a totally different player, Henryk Szeryng. He uses a FB bow hold and yet many of the same fundamental principles as with Milstein are in action.

A remark: You will notice a small space between the index and other fingers on the bow. Traditionally, the FB may have had or not a small space in order for the index to rest between the first and second joint which depends on the length of the index in relationship to the other fingers in the hand. If the index is longer (i.e. like in Szeryng's case), then the space is a little more to enable the finger to sit on the contact point. One with a short index would have it closer (Jacques Thibaud is a good example). However, NOT to be misinterpreted as that hyper-extension so often taught today. You will notice also what I mean by the fact that the other fingers are close together. They are not all over-spread.


Edit: thanks John for pointing that out!

March 1, 2013 at 11:56 AM · "Most teachers make bowing a very complicated affair, adding to its difficulties. But Professor Auer develops a natural bowing, with an absolutely free wrist, in all his pupils; for he teaches each student along the line of his individual aptitudes. Hence the length of the fingers and the size of the hand make no difference, because in the case of each pupil they are treated as separate problems, capable of an individual solution. I have known of pupils who came to him with an absolutely stiff wrist; and yet he taught them to overcome it."

And yet, although I agree with the above, Milstein and others have said that Auer never told them anything, and they simply learned from each other. Maybe hard to believe of course, and possibly not true.

My own observations for what they might or might not be worth, are that, as you say, we make it too complicated. I do think we over-react with string crossings, and going from the G or D string to the E or visa versa is not as far as we think or such a big deal.

For me, Milstein on these recordings, and when I have heard him live, was the perfect example of someone who used the least effort and found the simplest way of performing.

March 1, 2013 at 12:04 PM · John - last time I looked I thought I saw muscles in my fingers, but maybe its all fat ...

Christian - another great example with HS. He employs his arm only really for the loud bits.

I notice too that like Milstein the left hand is very calm. Maybe I'm imagining it, but I can almost make out tiny adjustments for intonation as well in those extreme close ups.

March 1, 2013 at 12:22 PM · Christian

The point you are making echos something I picked up from student accounts of the wonderful cello teacher Margaret Rowell. She emphasises a free swinging arm channeling the power of the back to the heel of hand in the same way as walking is a free swing from the hip to the heel of the foot. So you visualise the bow stroke as leading from the left bones of the wrist (upbow) or the right bones for the downbow.

If I'm understanding her right, the thinking behind this is that if you visualise the power being channeled into the fingers, the hand will tense up to bear the anticipated weight. If you feel the power being channeled into the root of the hand, the fingers remain free to create the subtle nuances that are the key to artistic playing.

She often had her students crawl on the floor on the heel of their hand, to feel how it could bear the whole weight of their body and still have the fingers free and relaxed. It seems that once she was teaching in a distinguished conservatory and a VIP visited her class to find them all on their hands and knees!

She uses the same principle to teach the left-hand shift - lead from the root of the hand.

I have found this the single most useful principle I have learned - whenever my sound stops singing it's the first thing I check, and more often or not it sorts out the problem...

March 1, 2013 at 01:59 PM · From Peter Charles

Posted on March 1, 2013 at 12:04 PM

I notice too that like Milstein the left hand is very calm. Maybe I'm imagining it, but I can almost make out tiny adjustments for intonation as well in those extreme close ups.

Peter: We must have the same imagination, as I seemed to notice the tiny adjustments as well but thought I was alone in that. It would make sense since that was part of the concept of intonation taught by Flesch. I have to say that I like the camera shots in this video which seem to offer more interesting perspectives than many of the videos we often see.

March 1, 2013 at 02:24 PM · What a great thread! Thank you all. Thank you, Christian, in particular, for the concept of body geometry which will henceforth be a part of my playing and teaching.

I would add that another key factor which relates to body geometry is how you hold the violin. Milstein holds the violin low and with a considerable tilt. Szeryng holds it high and much flatter. Both the height and the tilt of the instrument will play an important part in determining which part of the bow you use.

March 1, 2013 at 04:53 PM · Roy

Your point rather illustrates Drew Lecher's saying that "everything depends on everything else"!

As you say, optimal setup is surely determined by individual mechanics.

On left/right I feel I've found a point which gives me freedom with the bow arm and still lets me reach the G without contorting my right shoulder. Moving either side feels uncomfortable for bowing, so it seems like the "natural" position for me.

On lift, I like to keep the strings flat - I can reach them OK and this is surely the most advantageous position mechanically?

Tilt just seems a question of practicality - I play restless and if I went anywhere near as far as Milstein I wouldn't feel that the instrument was secure on my shoulder. I'm not really clear about how you would set about optimising this, so I've gone for a middle-of-the-road approach.

Any advice about refinements would be most welcome, particularly if you feel I'm off track with anything I've said!

March 1, 2013 at 05:40 PM · Hi Geoff, I've taught students who have thumbs longer than mine relative to the rest of the hand, and yet others whose thumb tips point inward toward the palm when shaken out and relaxed. Such players might tend to have a greater natural bend at the distal joint (joint closest to the tip) than others. I don't think anyone would advocate for a sharply bent thumb, anymore than for an inwardly collapsed (hyper-extended at the distal joint) thumb. Both would indicate too much pressure into the stick, and a rigid thumb. But there are those who play and teach the concept of a circle (more like an oval) in the loop between thumb and second finger. Keeping the joints of the fingers curved rather than straight brings the handle of the bow closer toward the palm, rather like a cello hold but with the tip of the pinky placed on top (or top-inside facet) of the stick. Such a hold allows for 'cushion' or 'springs' in the fingers. The less 'cushion' you have in the fingers/base-knuckles, the more you need at the wrist.

Keeping the fingers/thumb generally straighter mimics the 'natural' shape of the hand when it is shaken out and dropped from the wrist, as you pointed out.

Keeping the fingers/thumb generally curved mimics the 'natural' shape of the hand when it is level with the wrist. You can acheive this by raising the hand (extending at the wrist) after you've shaken it out as before. If you keep the fingers passive, they will curl as you extend at the wrist, and the thumb will close and touch the index finger. Where the thumb touches will depend on the natural shape of the thumb. Now the opposite but relative motion is to lower the forearm also, rather than only raising the hand. Shake out and drop the hand as before, but this time lower the forearm, extending at the wrist, keeping the fingertips at the same level. This latter action mimics loading the forearm onto the fingers/bow when playing.

I would suggest playing with curved fingers (in particular, with extendable base-knuckles) more closely approximates playing with the heel of the hand, than keeping the fingers straighter.

March 1, 2013 at 05:43 PM · are szeryng's and milstein's really operating on teh same principl?. in the milstein clip, it seems like his wrist is level with his elbow if not slightly lower and the motion seems limited to his hand. whereas szeryng's wrist looks slightly higher than his elbow that he has generally a higher arm position than milsteins. it also appears that his forearm is working more than milstein's.

also i think with milstein, it looks like string crossing from the higher strings to lower strings is wrist-led and the crossing looks more placcid than szeryng's who seems to move arm and wrist together so it looks more like a flapping wing. this does not mean i dont like szeryng's performance...just trying to notice whats happening in the clips

March 1, 2013 at 05:50 PM · Hi Tammuz, you could think of Milstein as playing with a 'dropped' hand, and Szerying as playing with a 'dropped' (or centred) forearm.

March 1, 2013 at 06:59 PM · Hi Tammuz,

The basis are the same but there are two different approaches to string crossing. One is initiated by drop of your wrist and the other is with your whole arm. Szeryng likes to keep his arm and bow at the same level.

March 1, 2013 at 06:59 PM · Hi,

Geoff, you wrote: I play restless and if I went anywhere near as far as Milstein I wouldn't feel that the instrument was secure on my shoulder.

Milstein didn't actually use the shoulder to support the violin. It sat on his collarbone and balanced or floated on his hand. He once stated in an interview in the book series The Way They Play by Samuel Applebaum that the violin was too small and light to necessitate the shoulder to hold it up.

Roy: Thanks! Glad to be of help!


March 1, 2013 at 08:01 PM · Christian's comment about Milstein's balance of the fiddle on the clavicle reminds me what a difference setup can make to the range of motion required of your bow-arm. Look at how low the strings are, with Milstein's hold, relative to the shoulder socket when the the fiddle is held to the left of the tailpiece as opposed to over the tailpiece, more in front of the body rather than over the shoulder, and sloping downward rather than held level, compared to Heifetz' in these late testaments to the two masters:

Notice how Heifetz drops the fiddle (level of the strings) to the bow arm at times so he doesn't have to reach up so much with the bow hand when playing at the frog.

With the fiddle held at tailpiece and over the shoulder, the bow hand must reach higher than when held to left of tailpiece and more in front, when playing at the frog; so to get the hand up to the level of the strings requires the necessary flexion at the wrist and some external rotation at the shoulder (which is what Heifetz seems to do generally,) or raising the level of the upper arm. A generally high level of the arm might require more extension of the wrist when playing at the tip depending on proportions. Of course Szeryng's more square bow-hold also requires more wrist extension at the tip:

Milstein's strategy minimizes range of motion at the wrist by keeping the level of the strings quite low relative to his shoulder sockets, which in turn allows the general level of the upper arm to remain quite low, in addition to his 'dropped' bow hold.

March 2, 2013 at 08:45 AM · It is interesting and notable that M's bow hand fingers have zero flexibility whereas H's fingers have some degree of give and do flex somewhat, although not as much as some players.

Both have adapted their techniques to serve their own personal physical conditions.

can't write more as in great pain.

March 2, 2013 at 09:28 AM · Well, this is a great shock : the thumb can be straight ! I have always had it drummed into me by everybody who plays, teaches or learns the violin that you MUST bend the thumb to maintain flexibility in the wrist.

Time for a rethink !

March 2, 2013 at 09:45 AM · Jeewon

Three very different players with their own unique sound.

The one think in common is the simplification of left hand and bowing. They make it simple, I make it too complicated!

I think S differs from both H and M in that his bow is slightly less tight (screw in wise, slacker hair) because he uses slightly less bow pressure. That's my take anyway - anybody want to disagree? All comments welcome.

March 2, 2013 at 10:44 AM · Flatter hair = looser hair

according to Flesch.

March 2, 2013 at 11:18 AM · Did he mean by that - looser hair means you can play with a flatter bow, i.e. more hair on the string ? (No naughty G string remarks now - there are young ladies viewing ...)

March 2, 2013 at 11:29 AM · He said specifically that the Russian hold uses more hair (flatter hair on string), therefore requiring looser hair, c.f. playing with tilted bow and Franco Belgian hold.

I've heard others say playing with the edge of the string is better. Don't know if that was related to bow hold specifically.

March 2, 2013 at 01:58 PM · Peter why are you in pain?

They certainly do have their distinctive sounds. S's high upper arm and almost flung bowing style reminds me of Flesch's description of what he attributed to the Russian hold. Clearly it ain't necessarily so... what happens in the rest of the arm isn't dictated by the hold, and vice-versa. If S's bow hair has more slack, it doesn't appear to me to be much looser than M and H. But bow tightness doesn't seem to be determined by bow hold here, as some seem to suggest. Bow hold doesn't necessarily determine bow tilt either, since tilt can be controlled between thumb and fingers (roule, as Capet called it) as well as with the wrist. As Peter says it's all about unique adaptation, and perhaps that's why it seems simple for them; they've found what works for them, rather than trying to follow some external ideal dogmatically.


Hi Brian, the thumb doesn't determine flexibility in the wrist, but it does impact flexibility in the finger joints if held fixed. But I've always found that curling and uncurling the distal and middle phalanges of the thumb destabilizes the contact between fingers and bow. I tend to keep my thumb straighter but swing it at it's trapeziometacarpal joint (TMC, where the thumb joins the wrist.) So when my fingers extend my thumb swings away from the palm, opening at the TMC joint, and when my fingers curl my thumb swings into the palm, closing at the TMC joint, rather like it's function when throwing darts or thrusting a billiard cue. Swinging the thumb allows for maximum range of motion in the fingers, if that's what you want.

March 2, 2013 at 02:07 PM · Thanks John, I forgot to add tilt angle to the list of factors which affect bow arm height. For me, I've adopted a greater tilt angle for my left shoulder, so I don't have to pull my elbow in and under the fiddle so much. I wonder if Milstein's setup is designed to save his shoulders sockets.

March 2, 2013 at 04:36 PM · First, a speculation about Auer's teaching methods.

Milstein is on record as saying Auer didn't teach him much technique, I believe, yet Seidel says:

Studying with Professor Auer was a revelation. ... He could make every least detail clear, illustrating it on his own violin

Perhaps the answer is in Seidel's statement that:

"...not until he was satisfied that I could not myself answer the question, would he show me how to answer it. ... but if the pupil could 'work out his own salvation' he always encouraged him to do so."

My speculation is that Milstein was such an effective problem solver that Auer never had to intervene once he had pointed out an issue, while perhaps Seidel needed a bit more help?

It's hard to image 3 more different physiques than Elman, Milstein & Heifetz, and while they have some commonalities it's clear that they each 'worked out their own salvation'

My personal aim is that at my own modest level I can become an effective problem solver, with the help of stimulating threads like this!

March 2, 2013 at 04:58 PM · Jeewon

Thanks for the detailed little exercises! They really just confirm that for me what feels most comfortable is Nate's relatively straight thumb (which I understand he learned from Friedman), but fairly curved fingers, as you recommend.

With my "Russian" style first finger, straight fingers feels like a strain unless I drop the hand quite sharply below the wrist, which doesn't feel natural. The most tension-free hold is a very slightly dropped wrist.

Although you say that no-one these days recommends a sharply bent thumb I've seen many examples in books and on the web. Interestingly, the great Mr Perlman himself seems to use a fairly straight thumb (see 1:10)

March 2, 2013 at 05:15 PM · Jeewon - thanks for asking - I'm much better now. I have had for the last 4 days a very bad back - or at least in my hip area with bad pain when I get out of a chair. I'm better when I stand up for an hour to practise, but getting up in the morning or sitting for more than 5 minutes causes some agony. It's getting better today, but I have an appointment with an acupuncturist who is also a physiotherapist on Monday. Unforunately painkillers and even whiskey does no good.

Maybe I should stay like this as it encourages me to spend many hours a day standing up and practising! Tomorrow I'm attending a violin makers day so will see how that goes.

Geoff - yes - you make some good points and I think your comment about Milstein being so analytical and self problem sorting out, probably meant that Aeur never needed to say much, and this was probably true of Heifetz and Elman as well. Thanks by the way for starting this fascinating and highly educational thread.

March 2, 2013 at 05:44 PM · Christian

Milstein didn't actually use the shoulder to support the violin. It sat on his collarbone and balanced or floated on his hand. He once stated in an interview in the book series The Way They Play by Samuel Applebaum that the violin was too small and light to necessitate the shoulder to hold it up.

Yes - I do sometimes wonder whether restless players need to worry so much about being able to hold the violin without left hand support. Useful for tuning, obviously, but otherwise what is gained?

I seem to remember reading somewhere that Milstein worked out how to shift while just balancing the violin without pressure on the chinrest. Tried last night and it's an interesting exercise!

March 3, 2013 at 06:02 AM · Glad to hear you're on the mend, Peter. Must've been pretty bad if even the whiskey didn't provide relief. Was it at least a good single malt? Yer makin' me thirsty...


Hi Geoff, I wasn't really making any recommendations, just providing if-then scenarios. But I'm glad you were able to confirm your current approach. As I mentioned above my thumb is also generally straight, much like Perlman's. But I do change my hold quite a bit according to context, including 'hooking' the thumb into the bump of the frog for certain situations. I interpreted 'sharp' to mean rigidly so, but I suppose it's merely a description of angle. So I'll revise by saying a sharp bend doesn't necessarily indicate a rigid thumb. Some people just have thumbs shaped like that. Others curl to bring the bow closer into the hand and suspend the stick within springs from above and underneath, especially those who use a more square, neutral hold. Such a hold is particularly good for a controlled, lengthy sautille passage, such as in the following awesome demonstration:

I know we can't clearly see Nathan Cole's thumb in the video, but I'd be willing to bet it stays generally bent in this context. I guess we could just ask him too. Note that when the bow is held more square and with almost no pronation, the thumb hooks more sideways into the bump of the frog rather than into the stick. In such a position, the thumb is more relaxed when it remains bent; straightening the thumb would cause excess tension.

The greatest cause of rigid tension in the thumb arises from excess pressure between middle finger and thumb radially into the stick (that pesky opposable thumb action,) which is why it's a good idea to add some twist between thumb and middle finger when some forceful bowing is required.

March 4, 2013 at 09:39 AM · Jeewon

I'm just taking my first steps with sautille, so your comment is timely. Can you kindly expand just a little on why you think more thumb bend is helpful in this context?

March 4, 2013 at 09:51 AM · Nate

Once again, you're giving me the the confidence to follow my instincts against the received wisdom.

Most of the introductory materials I've seen emphasise strongly the need to set the shoulder rest so the violin is held by the chin, "freeing" the left hand.

Quite apart from the health implications of putting such an unnatural strain on the neck for hours each day, I've just weighed the downforce of my violin on the hand in first position (restless), and it comes to under 150 grams / 5oz. At a guesstimate holding up the arm is generating at least a kilo of downforce, so holding the fiddle is only adding around 10-15% to the effort - not a major issue surely, as Milstein says?

I have found a position where I can hold my violin restless with my chin but it's not the optimum playing position, and I only use my chin for tuning. As you say, there's a perfectly decent alternative for that, taking away the only justification for needing a "chin-hold".

I'm going to follow your example and abandon the idea, simply holding the instrument with my hand, which is surely what nature intended, without worrying about whether the position works as a chin-hold. I find the instrument is stable and I can shift fine with just the lightest of chin pressure (when I remember not to clamp!).

So thanks again for your advice - very helpful...

March 4, 2013 at 12:08 PM · @Geoff

Kato Havas says to try this experience. Support the violin on your upturned fingers then grasp it where the chin rest is. See the big difference in effort/weight? The former makes it seem such a beautifully light instrument, the latter pretty much agony after a while.

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

March 4, 2013 at 03:55 PM · Hi Geoff, in short, it's because of the slack required for sautille at different tempos.

Keeping the thumb straight AND touching the fingers requires engaging the ball of the thumb (adductor pollicis.) For me, contracting the ball of the thumb is more likely to cause a reaction in the rest of the intrinsic muscles of the hand (I can feel the pinky-side palm wanting to flex in response.) Having tone in the hand is not such a bad thing in long strokes because of the gradual balancing forces required. But for short repeated strokes, particularly where sudden vertical forces are at play, any unneccessary tension in the muscles of the hand can easily fatigue the hand.

No matter how sharply you bend the tip of the thumb, the ball of the thumb can remain quite relaxed. This is because the muscle which controls flexion of the tip joint (distal phalanges), and curling of the thumb is located in the forearm (flexor pollicis longus.) Also, when you hook the thumb, you can reach the finger without having to adduct the thumb so much (i.e. bend the thumb in toward the palm at its middle or wrist joint,) leaving the ball of the thumb, and in turn, the muscles of the hand, quite loose.

Now the two most important factors in sautille are:

1) Even oscillation at the elbow (which implies good alternation between biceps and triceps) &

2) Matching the frequency of the stroke to the bouncing frequency of the bow

Type of bow hold doesn't really matter (though one might do well to weigh the pros and cons against one's body type) as long as you know how to compensate elsewhere in the arm.

But sautille also involves a slight rocking motion of the bow (like in a string crossing motion, along the arc of the bridge.) The more slack you have in your bow hold, the greater range of motion you have within the hand, the easier it will be to let the bow rock back and forth. The slower the tempo, the lower you are in the bow, the more you need to rock (of course at some point you can switch to a spiccato motion.) The tighter your hand, the more you have to compensate with the wrist, which is for me quite tiring (though if you've developed those muscles, it might be okay.)

So maybe in the end it's just conditioning. But keeping the thumb more bent than straight is certainly more efficient in the present context. A good exercise for sautille is to hold the bow in your fist. Make sure the top of the bow is under the base knuckles. Oscillate at the elbow evenly using very little bow (1/8" max,) while moving higher or lower in the bow to find the best bouncing point for the tempo (of course you gotta keep it even and steady.) The tighter you make your fist, the more embedded the stroke will be, which is okay for a very heavy sautille. But if you want a crisper, lighter sound, you need more vertical freedom, less compression. If you keep a tight grip on the bow with your fingers, you have to compensate with the wrist and the rest of the arm to achieve a lighter stroke. Or, you can simply loosen your grip, slacken the fingers. In a similar way, when bowing normally, you can control the slack in your grip by allowing more curl in the thumb (and fingers, provided there's no excess pressure radially into the stick, no squeezing) for a more efficient sautille stroke at medium to slower tempos.

March 4, 2013 at 04:27 PM · Kato Havas - I don't think too many people were that impressed with her methods years ago, but I could be wrong.

I don't think the leverage thing is relevant - holding the instrument up with the left hand is necessary a lot of the time.

I don't think we should discourage Geoff.

March 4, 2013 at 10:26 PM · Menuhin gave Havas a nod.

I found some of her points interesting but put somewhat oddly and I haven't looked at it in quite a while.

For me, the point about the leverage is just that while the weight of any object obviously doesn't change, there are ways of balancing it that make it feel light (specifically balancing the violin between collarbone and left hand) and ways of holding it that make it feel heavy.

I wonder what circus people would make of it?

I also like to think about "squeezing" the violin and bow together as a cooperative effort between the left and right arms, rather than as a pressing down of the bow from above.

March 5, 2013 at 01:22 AM · I think it was more that people felt Ms Havas was not really adding anything new to what the best teachers were saying, rather than her method being wrong.

March 5, 2013 at 05:38 AM · This is a very detailed thread! We all admire Milstein for his economy of motion. What you can't see very well in a video is the flexibility of the smallest joints. So even though it looks like nothing is "happening", he has just the flexibility required to navigate where he wants.

I generally like all joints to have "give" in both directions, including the thumb. That means a slight curve. Mine always contacts the corner of the ebony of the frog (I don't want to wear out the wood of the stick).

And yes, supporting the violin with the left hand is a good thing! You don't want to get into all of the jaw/neck tension that can result from clamping things there.

I do have video lessons on this and related issues at my school at ArtistWorks, where I can also answer questions with video. It really can be hard to put all of this into words!

March 5, 2013 at 08:30 AM · Jeewon

Thanks for the tutorial - one of the clearest explanations I've seen. I will be exploring your advice over the next few weeks!

March 5, 2013 at 09:46 AM · Nathan

Thanks for the confirmation of the neck-clamp vs hand-hold issue.

As Bud's demo shows, the violin is light if it's supported at both ends, but heavy if it's cantilevered out from the chin and shoulder with no support near the scroll. Commonsense mechanics, surely?

As a newcomer to the instrument with a bit of background in body mechanics, the more I experiment the more I'm baffled by the focus so many teachers have on holding the instrument with the chin. At the extreme level, there was a blog posting yesterday by Vcommer Susan Pascale describing a local teacher who makes her students hold the violin without their left hand for long periods to strengthen their neck muscles! But even Prof Sassmanshaus on his Masterclass site says "the violin needs to stay up without support from the left hand".

But as Nate points out, where's the repertoire that requires us to play without our left hand? On the shifting issue, restless and with a sub-optimal chin-rest (will someone please manufacture an ergonomic & adjustable chin rest!!) I experimented with my new position last night, with just the lightest whisper of contact with my chin to hold the fiddle in place, and had no problem at all doing a double-stop downshift of over an octave. Am I just lucky with my body-shape or is this a hugely overstated problem? I just hate to think of the number of neck injuries that are being caused by kids pressing down on their chin-rests because they've been told they mustn't use their left hands to hold up the instrument. Restless or with rest, surely we should be teaching our kids to hold up the fiddle with their left hand, for their own safety, if nothing else?

On the issue of a straight thumb, what I'm meaning is the natural position when you shake out the hand, which as others have said varies from player to player. In my case, this gives me a fair bit of gentle flex in both directions. I guess only time will tell me if this is enough, but I love Nate's playing, and it seems to work for him.

My feeling is that your point on Milstein's "micro-movements" is getting close to the heart of the matter. One of my main take-home messages from this thread is that there's no real need for the extravagant movements and technical ticks of many of the maestros - they may look impressive but they're not the basis of their sound. I'm getting a sense that the movements that actually matter are almost too small to see, and result from a clear conception of the music flowing through a fluid technique to relaxed and balanced hands which almost intuitively do what is required to produce the sound.

I remember reading once that when Milstein was asked about the bow change, he said "I move it in one direction and then I move it back in the opposite direction - after that it's all a question of touch"

March 5, 2013 at 10:14 AM · I do think that although Nate(R)(and to a lesser extent me), go on a bit about flat bow hair on the string I do think he is right. Not only does it produce, with less pressure and effort, a bigger sound, but it also makes the wrist flat(ter) giving in my opinion more control, and much less need to get involved in fancy movements. A down bow followed by and up with no fuss. It also makes me, at any rate, play a bit nearer the bridge, which can't be a bad thing.

If you can combine this sort of powerful bowing with minimim effort, with at the same time, a whispering left hand, then you could be in business.

March 5, 2013 at 11:41 AM · "On the shifting issue, restless and with a sub-optimal chin-rest (will someone please manufacture an ergonomic & adjustable chin rest!!)"

Did you see the Kréddle thread?

March 5, 2013 at 01:32 PM · Eric

Thanks for the heads up on the Kreddle. Great to see that he's funded - I'm on the mailing list. Looks like a serious attempt to fill a very big gap, in more senses than one!

John Cadd

I know what you mean about Kata Havas - I find her ideas interesting but she's not a great communicator. You have to work hard to dig out the odd gem. What's the book you have? I have the 12 Lessons one. If you have one of the others and you're genuinely not wanting it, ping me and let's do a deal - we're both in the UK, I think.

March 5, 2013 at 02:25 PM · Hey thanks for your response Nathan. Great performance of the

March 5, 2013 at 02:30 PM · Hey thanks for your response Nathan. Great performance of the Enescu!

Sorry to be so mundane in light of your brilliant performance, but is your thumb closer to your ring finger in your bow hold? Since I brought up the topic of thumb placement I thought I'd ask.


You're most welcome Geoff! Keep us posted.

March 5, 2013 at 04:25 PM · Hi Jeewon, no, I have it about even with the middle finger. If I tuck it any further down the hand than that, I feel it in my palm!

March 5, 2013 at 06:38 PM · I see, yeah I'm the same way. I know Todd Ehle recommends that configuration, with the thumb between 2nd and 3rd fingers, as an option. I've only taught one student who was more comfortable that way, 'cause of a longer thumb.

We get a peek under the hood here:

It's amazing what articulation you have at the beginning of the Schumann (and throughout.) I notice you start with a colle hand motion. Do you do that consciously? Do you teach hand motions in bowing for articulation?

Sorry to pepper you with all these questions... :)

March 5, 2013 at 08:54 PM · Hi Jeewon, I had just posted something in a colle discussion thread right now! Yes, colle is the basis for any articulated stroke, whether on or off the string. Even professional orchestras need to be reminded sometimes, "start that from the string!"

I think the motion can get exaggerated sometimes and can interfere with a solid stroke. The slow-motion video that I did (fun with gadgets) shows what looks like a lot of finger motion. But that's because it's half speed and close up. You can compare it to the "normal" video and see. None of that motion is caused by moving the fingers. It's all a reaction to the bow hair catching the string on each stroke.

It's good to practice colle, however, by consciously using the finger motion. This can be a good way to build a spiccato (or sautille, whichever you prefer). Practice a colle stroke that is very short and comes immediately off the string. The note will be formed only by finger motion. Take time to set the next stroke (alternating up and down). Gradually lessen the time between strokes. At a certain point it will be impractical to set the strokes and they will just follow one to the next. The finger motion will remain somewhat, but it will be passive rather than intentional.

March 5, 2013 at 09:11 PM · Yeah I was just there as you posted!

In mentioning the active hand motion I was thinking of the initial throw of the first stroke to set the passage in motion. But your point is well taken. I used to use a more active hand for off-the-string strokes but have had it fail me under extreme nerves a few times. What worked for solo passages became unreliable for an extended orchestral passage. Orchestral playing requires more control in general I think. Watching your Schumann video helped me switch to a more passive, relaxed hand motion, and rely more on controlling the bounce point. Thanks for your great work!

But would you say that training colle helps the hand (maybe mostly the first finger) feel just the right firmness, a slight active resistance for the desired level of articulation, 'crispness?' Or do you rely more on the weight and 'catch' of a great bow?

Anyway, I thought such a discussion would be relevant to Geoff's sautille adventures.

March 6, 2013 at 06:58 AM · Yes, I think colle trains the hand (or fingers) for just the right resistance and release. That's great for every stroke, in fact, because then the absence of that resistance equals a smooth beginning or bow change.

March 12, 2013 at 09:31 AM · Thanks, folks, for all the input. It's being put to practical use.

I'm even beginning to get a hint of articulation into my sautille, though the clarity of Nathan's stroke remains somewhat mind-boggling - I guess it's all a question of touch in the end.

And thanks, Nathan, for the insight into the value of colle practice - I'll give it more attention from now on!

September 14, 2015 at 09:30 PM · I'm changing to a more conventional FB bow-hold so returned to this old thread for inspiration and insight.

Once again I'm struck by the quality of the discussion.

This is what makes so great. Thanks again to everyone who contributed!

April 29, 2016 at 05:29 PM · Here is ann absolutly slow and quiet rendition of the Bruch G Minor Violin Concerto which Milstein develops into a driving and exciting fury and then slows down again (as in the beginning).

After a tender 2ndmovement he then becomes very driving and punctual, in charge all of the time, to a triumphant ending.

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