December 12, 2013 at 03:48 AM · My favourites are "you should play completely tension free" and "fingers should drop on the string by gravity alone". What about you?

Replies (58)

December 12, 2013 at 05:43 AM · Greetings,

good questions. One of my favorites I was exhorted to do at college was 'balance your bow arm.'

I still don't get it.



December 12, 2013 at 05:54 AM · I have a few but the one I'm still trying to eliminate from my playing 32 years later is not keeping my thumb in the "thumb spot" at the end of the fingerboard. If only someone had told me years ago that doing that causes tension, and a myriad of other issues.

Interesting topic!

December 12, 2013 at 02:33 PM · "There is only arm weight, there is no pressure."

December 12, 2013 at 02:35 PM · "Practice makes perfect".

December 12, 2013 at 03:17 PM · I'm with Shawn. I never have been able to figure out "The weight of the arm."

December 12, 2013 at 04:04 PM · Good One David! "Practice Makes Permanent not Perfect"

Laura M.

Suzuki Violin

December 12, 2013 at 04:17 PM · myth of the perfectly straight bow

December 12, 2013 at 05:01 PM · Laura, re:- ""Practice Makes Permanent not Perfect""...

Yes, it's all too easy to practise until your MISTAKES are perfect.

December 12, 2013 at 06:49 PM · "don't press down on the strings, let your arms weight hold the string down"

i always thought "using the weight of your bow arm" meant dont push the bow down hard enough where youre making an effort to do so.

December 12, 2013 at 07:49 PM · "There are microscopic hairs on the bow's hairs, and when rosin is applied they are lifted up. Over time the microscopic hairs break off, that's when you need a bow re-hair."

"Muscle memory" an absolute myth, yet still taught by many teachers.

"Train your ears"

'Ear training' is a good metaphor, but we can't 'train our ears'.

"Bang your fingers on the fingerboard, and then release. This builds speed and muscle strength."

I'm sure I have a few more.

What we need is a "thanks for not teaching that, because that would of save me a lot of practice time" discussion.

December 13, 2013 at 02:43 PM · It has to do with the fact that many teachers don't know much about playing..or are taught false information. I was always told to "practice til you are perfect" That is literally impossible on the violin since everything is always changing...the key is to adjust not to be perfect. But o well

December 13, 2013 at 08:54 PM · You guys have had some pretty badly trained teachers, I thank my lucky stars that at least I've never heard this stuff from my first or my third (current) teacher. The second person I attended and paid as a teacher, I will admit, did not teach, but as she didn't give any instruction she also didn't perpetuate any myths either. The constant encouragement was to go home and keep practising.

My first teacher said - first lesson first statement- the pedagogy for violin instruction is well developed and simon fisher is making it better.

December 15, 2013 at 05:16 AM · Re; Weight vs pressure- I heard this a lot too, and the best I can figure is that my teachers meant that I should engage a larger muscle group to put pressure/weight into the string and in drawing the bow, rather than just fingers/hand/lower arm.

December 15, 2013 at 12:07 PM ·

December 15, 2013 at 12:13 PM · As I see it, the problem usually is not the idea but the lack of correlation to human biology. Perhaps pedagogy training should have an anatomy/physiology taught by an appropriate expert (best a kinesthesiologist or physiologist).

Thus, 'muscle memory' is actually a very useful (if inaccurate) term for an action that no longer requires conscious thought - as if the muscles now knew what to do (I had one teacher that insisted that this was the case - even though he knew that I'm a physiology prof).

Weight vs pressure. This is a less-useful verbal analogy that I also found totally confusing. However, I think I did figure it out. What it means is that you use only your extensors (so the deltoid muscle that holds in your arm for example) to hold the bow and relax all your flexors (that would be he muscles under the arm that you push down with). Thus, your arm is held up only by minimal use of the essential extensor muscles while the flexor ones - that make bowing controlled but jerky (think beginner) are relaxed. This is a crucial element for good bowing but it is never taught this way. I should make a video!

Edit: hehe - istn't that typical; Liz posted while I was writing - apparently some teachers do!

December 16, 2013 at 04:36 AM · Elise-about the pedagogy training-YES!!! and Yes, and yes again-can't even tell you how many times I have thought the same things and even got books out of the library to study it for myself, but it's not the same trying to wade through all the terminology and charts with no guidance, thoug i ahve learned a lot. And totally, by a kinesthesiologist or something. Should be required, along with business practices class, in every music major but especially the teaching ones!

December 16, 2013 at 05:22 AM · Hmmm... maybe a post-retirement career option...

December 16, 2013 at 12:21 PM · I think Elise is right, generally, in the sense that there might not be a physics difference between weight and pressure at the contact point, but there can be worlds of difference in how the pressure is applied. The debate is as poorly named as muscle memory and ear training.

December 16, 2013 at 12:23 PM · I think matching bows to specific violins is b.s.

December 16, 2013 at 01:25 PM · Pressure is force per unit area applied perpendicular to the surface. Weight is the effect of gravity's pull on a mass.

In terms of violin playing, pressure is what the string feels from the hair of the bow, the additive force from the tension of the hair and the flexibility of the stick (which affects transmission of force to the string,) the weight of the bow (at it's various parts,) the weight of the parts of the arm, plus the forces which act on those constants, i.e. the forces generated by the muscles of the arm and leveraged through various postures and motions, whether those forces are used to add to or take away from the constants.

I think confusion arises from equivocating the above definition with the act of 'pressing' another fuzzy notion (which has mostly to do with squeezing the stick, simultaneous pressure from opposing fingers, especially index and pinky, and other rigid use of the arm.) As others have mentioned, when teachers talk about using weight of the arm, we're talking about regulating the weight. The difficulty of course is in relaying the feeling of this action. The most difficult thing to 'get' about regulating weight is in its transmission to the finger tips (the dead weight of the average arm yields too much pressure at the frog, but not enough at the tip.)

Another way to think of pressure is the additive force transmitted to the finger tips (hence Dounis' notion of playing with the finger tips.) To be able to play with a big sound we need to learn to suspend the weight of the upper arm at the frog (somewhat,) but then gradually release that weight onto the bow, which requires quite a bit of tension through the wrist (flexion at the wrist) as we approach the tip. In a similar fashion, students often lose tone when crossing to the G string because in an effort to reach higher they tend to simply raise the arm, when they need to lift the arm onto the higher string, in fact releasing more weight onto the thicker string. Can't properly talk about weight without discussing leverage. And on top of it all, the manner in which we regulate all this depends upon the bow hold and how we coordinate the various parts of the arm.

As for the effect of various bows on the same fiddle, that's pure magic and must be heard and experienced to be believed :)

December 16, 2013 at 02:40 PM · Re: matching bows, and effect of different bows on the same fiddle. Paul and Jeewon, no, it's certainly not b.s., and neither is it magic. It's just the extremely complicated interaction between three intimately related vibrating structures - the string, the bow stick and the bow hair under tension. If there's any magic involved that's going to be in devising - and solving - the differential equations describing those interactions. I don't known, off-hand, whether this mathematical analysis has been ever been done; as they say, only three people are capable of doing it - one's dead, one's mad, and I've forgotten :)

I have, and use regularly, a number of bows that I have acquired over the years. I can assure you that each has its individual characteristics, both in tone production and playability - the latter including how it interacts with the player's bowing arm. For instance, my replica late-Baroque snakewood bow (possibly my favorite) gives a very different sound and response when compared with one of the pernambuco bows; it is ideal for any music from Late Baroque up to the early 19th century, but I wouldn't use it for Dvorak, Brahms, or later. One of my pernambuco bows produces the best tone of the lot, but it is very sensitive to any stiffness in the bowing arm, and this shows up straight away in the tone and also in a tendency to unwanted bouncing, so it needs a lot of relaxed control. Another pernambuco bow is a pretty good general workhorse for most music, but not quartet or solo playing. One of my bows is quite good at spiccato; another isn't.

I also have an anonymous cheapo CF bow which produces by far the biggest tone of the lot, but that's the best I can say about it. I'd never use it for orchestra but it's ideal for playing folk music in a pub session.

One test I have for a bow is the quality of tone it can produce in the highest reaches of the E string, from the D to the A (beyond the end of the fingerboard). Two of my bows pass it easily, with a clear good tone; the others can produce something just about or almost acceptable, but the cheapo CF bow just can't.

December 16, 2013 at 02:43 PM · Ok Trevor, I will concede it probably has more to do with art than the dark arts (I agree it certainly is not a science! Google will build a sentient Android before anybody comes close to reliably duplicating a Tourte), but the results are certainly magical. The most vivid demonstration I remember was on a Rocca, with a Grand Adam v. a Eury. The Eury pulled colours out of that fiddle which the Adam just couldn't elicit. It took the violinist at least half an hour of fiddling around before letting the Eury do its... magic, but it was definitely a better match with that fiddle than the Adam, her current bow at the time, which already sounded great.


Maintaining pressure with no weight:


As for another myth: the fiddle must be held with the strings parallel or close to parallel to the ground (which the above video and countless violinists demonstrably refute.)

December 16, 2013 at 05:47 PM · It might be worth noting that not all of these "myths" are intrinsically harmful-IF they are presented as analogy or helpful imagery rather than fact, and if the teacher makes sure the analogy is communicating what it's meant to. The weight vs. pressure one is a ready example: for some students, thinking of it in that wording and imagery helps them to release extra tension. For others, it's just confusing!

December 16, 2013 at 06:37 PM · "the fiddle must be held with the strings parallel or close to parallel to the ground"

Ok, that is a widely broken "rule" neither set in stone nor (yet!) enforced by the violin police; but there are good reasons for it. I'll mention some:

1) If the strings are not more or less parallel to the ground, usually with the scroll end lower than the other, there will a tendency for the bow to slide towards the fingerboard, and this will always adversely affect the tone. The player will try to counteract this by applying an opposing force to the bow. Bow control is already quite difficult enough without this added complication.

2) A significant part of the violin's sound comes from its back plate. If the violin is sloping down then the sound from the back of the instrument will be directed towards and absorbed by the player's torso, rather than into free space.

3) Holding the violin sloping downwards for long periods may flatten and compress the chest, affecting the player's breathing to some extent. Not a good idea.

4) Holding the violin sloping downwards will transfer more of its weight to the left hand instead of having most of it supported on the collar and by the chin. This will affect the relaxation of the left hand and make shifting and fingering more difficult. Possible skeletal and muscular problems down the line.

December 16, 2013 at 07:04 PM · Trevor, however did you play the cello, with the bow sliding into the bridge all the time and all that sound being totally absorbed by your whole body? ;)

"...slide towards the bridge." You mean towards the fingerboard. Lateral force of gravity on the bow can be easily countered with negligible effort by keeping the fingers slightly curled and allowing the stick to rest on the pads of the fingers. A problem might arise if the bow were actually held between fingers and thumb, in a vice-like manner, in which case the vice-like grip would be of much more concern than the lateral force.

I would argue flexing the thoracic spine is responsible for flattening and compressing the chest. Learning to coordinate spinal flexion/extension is far more effective at aiding breathing than holding the scroll high (of course I'm implying the latter is totally ineffective at training thoracic extension and aiding breathing.)

It's possible to learn how to shift with the neck resting on the left hand (a skill many non-resters promote, and something I used to do more of when I used a cosmetic sponge.) I would argue the 'relaxation' of the left hand is affected more by learning how to coordinate tension and release of certain parts of the hand/fingers than having part of the weight of the violin resting on the hand (again something playing restless makes one more aware of.) Also, grab the fiddle by it's butt end with thumb and a couple of fingers with scroll pointing down. Slowly raise the scroll and see how much tension is required to keep the scroll high, and how much pressure is exerted on the chin-side. Not very comfortable for the chin and neck unless the scroll-end is balanced by the left-hand, or there is support to keep the fiddle raised (whether due to the shape of the shoulder complex, or the use of a shoulder rest.)

I don't object to the violin held level (I hold mine quite level in general using a shoulder rest, but dip the scroll quite often in different contexts) only to it being held level as a rule. There are greater priorities.

December 16, 2013 at 07:20 PM · Jeewon, oops! Yes, "towards the fingerboard" was obviously what I meant (perhaps I was subconsciously thinking cello). I've corrected it.

December 16, 2013 at 07:35 PM · Hi Trevor, Spiro's a great band! But to me your teacher holds her scroll quite low. So if that's what you mean by 'more or less parallel' I have no qualms. Notice her wrist/palm is at the level of her shoulder socket. For me that's a high priority because it leads to greater comfort, my top priority.

December 16, 2013 at 10:42 PM · I'm afwaid that the "weight of the violin back on the collarbone by holding it high" is another myth. The difficult part is not holding the violin itself up, but our own arm's weight. I somewhat agree with the strings paralel to the floor in order to avoid the bow gowing up the fingerboard, but the severity of this is overblown.

December 17, 2013 at 01:11 AM · "the violin must be held without an SR"

heheheheh (evil laugh). Can't believe I got that in first...

OK, that's the end of this topic....

December 17, 2013 at 01:41 AM · I wish to suggest that this topic go in a slightly different direction. Rather than suggest what does not work, perhaps what DOES work.

I have found in my teaching that certain things click with a student, but other suggestions do not. What generally does work is that a student will make a change if he/she feels more comfortable. If it sounds better as well then you can expect an immediate change. No matter how hard you try to make a student to change something, they will not if at least one of these 2 criteria apply.

Therefore, especially with older students, it is important to make the caveat that if it doesn't work, then talk to me the teacher, and we will come up with a different solution.

December 17, 2013 at 02:24 AM ·

December 17, 2013 at 02:24 AM ·

December 17, 2013 at 02:39 AM · "If you rosin your bow with someone else's rosin and it's different rosin your bow will need rehairing."

December 17, 2013 at 03:28 AM · "women can't play violin", "women can't play the fiddle". I heard this a couple of times when I was younger, not from teachers, but from musicians.

Elise, fluent would be a better choice than 'muscle memory'. Fluent doesn't put focus on any specific, or the wrong body part.

Than there is the idea behind muscle memory- repeat something over and over until the muscles learn the movement. The 'Karate Kid' movie, wax on wax off for 12 hours, was based on the muscle memory concept. Muscle movement is not learned by excessive repetition, but by the mind's processing of information, and we need to focus on that. For instance, people with Dementia are unable to learn new skills, and this is because their minds have stopped processing information.

Holding the strings parallel to the floor so the bow stays in place is definitely a myth.

December 17, 2013 at 04:11 AM · Elise,

so people who use shoulder rests are suffering from dementia!

I knew there was a reason.......

hehehehehe(moderately evil laugh)



December 17, 2013 at 10:01 AM · Buri - dementia could be defined as the inability to use tools...

HEHEHEHEHE even more malicious and evil laugh...


December 17, 2013 at 11:06 AM · Elise and Buri = pure evil. Lulz. Shoulder rests rock! Asa youth, my mistake was believing what my teachers told me, that those hard rubber pads with the ugly elastic were necessary. Never felt comfortable until years later I went to a modern shoulder rest - Wolf, initially. I think Burp and Stanley had to use those hard rubber pads as kids, so probably still resent that. ;-)

"Muscle memory" is more about training muscles to respond without conscious thought, so response time and accuracy improves. One of the leading kinesiologists proved that a typical action needs to be repeated accurately at least 20 -24 times in order to have a reasonable chance of repeating that action without panic in times of great stress. His thing was "SAID" principle - specific adaptations to imposed demands... What he found for SCUBA diving also applies to learning any skill. Karatekas practice (repetitions) hundreds of times every session. So my favorite mistruth was that hours of practicing were necessary...Better is teaching that repetition provides fluency, so that response becomes quicker, as well as increasing mucle strength/endurance. Not practice makes perfect, but "perfect practice makes perfect." Better is teaching that engaging mind while practicing is much better than simply hours or numbers of repetition. You aren't training your ear, but your brain to distinguish subtleties. All that was lost on me as a kid.

That, and the fact that "prunes are good for you." Blech! *Especially* prune juice. As bad as castor oil. I prefer to obtain any necessary roughage via dark chocolate. Preferably after practicing. lulz. Or that physiologists know anything about violin pedagogy. ;-)

December 17, 2013 at 01:30 PM · "Playing scales will help you play your pieces more in tune."

Goes against the SAID principle. Though there is some carry over I suspect it's not anywhere near as much as proposed by traditional pedagogy. Practicing scales will improve ability to perform scales.

To play a piece in tune, you gotta practice the shifts, patterns, passages in that piece. Scale-like practice remains very useful in practicing those passages, but better to do them using the fingerings and contexts (down-shift/up-shift, specific positions and string crossings, harmonic progressions) of the piece being tuned.

Also, "static stretching prevents injury." Better to do warm-ups using the same motions about to be used: shifting, sliding, trilling, detache, spiccato, etc.

December 17, 2013 at 02:48 PM · Maybe scale practice is as much about training your ears as your hands. Think of them as studies containing exactly two intervals -- two very important and commonly employed intervals!

December 17, 2013 at 03:25 PM · But Paul, my point is that those two very common intervals are context dependent with respect to how they feel in a given passage (e.g. sometimes the same note pattern will feel different depending on whether you shift to them from above or below; the same interval pattern feels different as you go up the fingerboard, but for some reason some positions like 2nd feel very different from 1st and 3rd,) but also how they sound (their harmonic function, e.g. tendency tones.) The fingerboard is much trickier than learning on a keyboard for that reason. Which is probably why learning keyboard is a must for any non-keyboard musician (i.e. to help train the brain conceptually.)

December 17, 2013 at 03:55 PM · Jeewon--

Thanks for the link to that website! GREAT!!

December 17, 2013 at 04:20 PM · Yes!! Todd Hargrove is awesome! The articles surrounding the SAID post are well worth the read. Actually the whole blog is worth perusing. Check out his articles on pain. Sadly existing literature on musicians and injury is outdated and doesn't address the latest research on chronic pain.

December 17, 2013 at 08:50 PM · As far as weight vs. pressure goes, I think it deals with a psychological effect. The mental model might not correspond exactly to physical reality, but it sets up your mind in such a way as to get the desired result. When I think of "pressure", I think of pressing down with the hand and forearm, and pronating the wrist. But this can result in the hand and wrist becoming tense and rigid, causing uneven bowing. On the other hand, when I think of "weight", I imagine my arm hanging down; its weight is transferred to the strings via my wrist, which can remain supple.

On the bow vs. instrument front, a friend and I once tried swapping several bows across several violins. There were significant differences. In fact in one combination the bow and violin totally rejected each other; it was almost impossible to get a sound, and we had to fight them every inch of the way.

The other myth I'm trying to dispel is that I don't have time to practise...

December 17, 2013 at 08:59 PM · Jeewon I see your point, but scale practice provides a baseline for what the small intervals (minor and major second) should SOUND like. ALL intervals must be adjusted to context. Maybe that is why books like Flesch Scale Studies also have scales in broken thirds.

December 17, 2013 at 09:05 PM · I fell for the "expressive intonation" myth a while back. Never felt right to me. I go for purity now.

I think the shoulder rest is a myth too. As is the chinrest ;) Illustrated by the long necked and great violinist Andrew Fouts (Hey, if Paganini could play without one then why should we?)

December 17, 2013 at 09:51 PM · Marina:

Answer: Because we are not Paganini(s) (whats the plural of Paganini anyway?).

At least I'm not.

December 18, 2013 at 12:43 AM ·

December 18, 2013 at 12:45 AM ·

December 19, 2013 at 06:29 AM · A very large proportion of these "myths" have some basis; the problem comes from using factual physical terms to describe sensations and impressions. (See my old thread on "weight vs pressure" in bowing.)

The other problem is that very many teachers don't seem to realise that hands and minds (not to mention collar bones, shoulders, jaw bones etc) are as different as faces. (See the zillion threads on shoulder rests.."Heifetz didn't need one" etc )

December 19, 2013 at 01:56 PM · "(See my old thread on "weight vs pressure" in bowing.)"

Sorry I missed that great thread you started there, Adrian. Thought I'd add a link.

In addition to your "everyone is shaped the same and think alike" I'll add "the setup that works for me can work for everyone." I witnessed it happening just last night before a performance!

December 20, 2013 at 02:25 AM · The Talent equation or recipe

Talent = 90% practice and 10% talent.

I'm not sure what the right talent equation is, but I am pretty sure it isn't that.


Playing the violin is 90% mind and 10% other, as a guess. We should be listening to what neurologist say.

December 20, 2013 at 04:12 AM · Talent = 90% practice and 10% talent

This is either highly profound or, more likely , someone isn't a mathematician..

this resolves to

90% talent = 90% practice.




December 20, 2013 at 10:30 AM · When I was a kid, well-meaning adults - not my teacher - told me the left elbow should always be held as far to the right as possible. I hope no-one believes that anymore.

December 20, 2013 at 11:15 AM · Jeewon - that is *exactly* the point: Playing scales makes you better at playing scales; the "carry-over" is sub-opttimal, as you pointed out. It's like swimming laps: makes you better at swimming laps, but only perhaps some endurance and some streamlining technique carries over to scuba. But if you make it more like scuba, there is more carry-over. So you might add weights, fins, and mask and snorkel. Same with musical practice - you might add an exercise that consists of certain difficult passages broken down to repeat, perhaps in a few measures at a time, in different octaves. That is indeed the SAID principle.

December 20, 2013 at 11:25 AM · "The right way is..."

The biggest myth of all. :P

December 20, 2013 at 12:28 PM · Dave - yup. Or you might take a passage and fill in the missing degrees of the scale so you use the exact fingerings, positions and string crosses you need for that passage, instead of using Flesch's terrible fingerings, playing in irrelevant positions and string crossings. Apply such an exercise to a large section (especially developments) to identify the changing scales relative to the key. I'm not saying there's no place for general scale practice, just that there's much less benefit with respect to tuning a piece (and understanding the piece) than most of us were led to believe.


Talent=Practice, that's what research (by Carol Dweck and Benjamin Bloom) would suggest.

December 21, 2013 at 11:41 AM · Jeewon, you have touched on another myth: the "right" fingering. Right for whom?

There was an intriguing discussion a while back, comparing the fingering habits of Flesch and Galamian. (I can't find the link to the thesis pdf).

In a nutshell, Galamian's longer fingers prefered extensions and crab-like shifts along each string, while Flesch's stubbier hands prefered frequent shifts and closer fingers across the strings. Flesch was also more allergic to the steel E.

So, Flesch for my viola, Galamian on my violin...

December 22, 2013 at 01:25 PM · Hi Adrian. I should probably retract my hyperbole regarding terrible fingerings, but I was referring to Flesch's scales and the specificity of tuning a passage with actual fingerings, to clarify a bit. But your point is well taken.

In truth I'm not very familiar with Flesch's editions. I've been meaning to study his Violin Fingering but it always gets put on the back burner. But I think he was in agreement with you. From The Art of Violin Playing:

Are there any hard and fast rules according to which we can decide which are the most favorable sequences of fingers--the "right" fingering? Certainly not--as long as we subordinate the choice to our personal taste and the strengths and weaknesses of our technical equipment. However, as soon as we focus on the thought that the fingering which is best will demand the least effort and energy, we have a vantage point from which it is possible for us to objectively evaluate the quality of the fingering, uninfluenced by the violinistic peculiarities of the player. The fingering which is objectively best, in other words from a general point of view is the most valid fingering, is however by far not necessarily the best subjectively or the most suitable for a particular player.
Eminently logical. He is probably the original violin myth buster.

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