High x Low Elbow

July 6, 2015 at 09:23 PM · This semester we had two visiting violin teachers in my university. I had the fortune to be chosen to play for both of them. They both wanted to talk about my sound. The first thought I was pushing the bow against the strings too much and producing a harsh sound. He adviced I should have a more relaxed, lower bow arm, more like letting the gravity pulling the bow from below. The second also thought I had to work with my sound and said that the elbow should be always at least as high as the bow, laying the bow in the strings by imposing the weight of the arm (gravity?) on it, rather than pressuring it against the strings. They both played recitals and had a fantastic, full sound. Though I personally think my sound works better with a higher bow arm, I can't fell relaxed with it. In opposition, with a lower bow arm I feel perfectly relaxed, although I can't seem to transfer all the weight of the arm into the strings. What are your thoughts?

Replies (37)

July 7, 2015 at 12:52 AM · Baroque specialists tend to play with a low elbow. I think how you hold the bow is a factor in determining where your elbow is. I cannot play with a high elbow for long or I will get shoulder pain. But there is one bow stroke that I cannot do without a high elbow: the up-bow staccato.

July 7, 2015 at 02:49 AM · The right arm works as something of a unit, so the correct height of the arm is going to be very much dependent upon your bow grip.

July 7, 2015 at 03:15 AM · Start with the shoulder and work down/out. The elbow follows what the shoulder does, just as the wrist follows what shoulder/elbow do. Look for the technique that puts least stress on your body, because that is where your best sound will emerge.

July 7, 2015 at 05:00 AM · This terminology can be a problem, because really there's no way to play "down into the string" unless you're at the very frog and your hand is right above the string. The force of the bow on the string is rotational: your thumb is the fulcrum of a lever. It's true that carrying your arm too high (that means different things to different people) can promote faulty positioning, tension, and a harsh sound. But you can get all that with a low arm too. Gravity isn't really going to help you much, unless it helps you to visualize tension-free playing.

My rule of thumb is that the arm stay about the same height as the hand. When you do this, you avoid any strange angle at the wrist.

July 7, 2015 at 06:37 AM · The "high elbow" evidently works for many great violinsts, but it uses superficial muscles "designed" for motion rather than strength. Problems in store for many of us! E.g. Menuhin.

Watch Oistrakh or Perlman: my wife spotted the videos and said "Aha! a Suzuki bowing arm!"

And these are big men..

July 7, 2015 at 10:59 AM · Strange angles at the wrist should be avoided if possible. Sometimes players have a high hand and low wrist at the point (fingers higher than wrist) and this will often cause fatigue and tension and spoil the sound.

Menuhin's bowing problems were also in his head as well. Oistrakh offered to sort it out for him but he never accepted the invitation!

Adrian - I never knew there was such a thing as a Japanese bowing hold! You learn something new every day! I will have to have some Suzuki lessons. Have to clean up the old motorbike first ...

July 7, 2015 at 12:51 PM · Even with a low bow arm you can transfer bow "weight" into the strings more easily if you tilt the right side of the violin more downward.


July 7, 2015 at 02:43 PM · Bruno,

You are at a university. Where are your own professors on this aspect of your playing?

Though lots of good advice is above, its very hard to fix harsh sounds unless a trained teacher observes and listens. As someone said, the bow arm is a unit, a system. the entire system has to be fixed - from the back, through the shoulder, and down to the fingers.

Talk with your violin professors. Get some value from them.

July 7, 2015 at 04:30 PM · Menuhin? Watching videos of him at different times in his career, I am quite sure his problems were mainly physical. His extraordinary analysis of bowing motions in his Six Lessons must come partly from an attempt to regain control of his right arm, especially at the heel.

Oistrakh could surely have helped him by showing him the benefits of a lower elbow!

Japan? Many of us, (not least Joshua Bell or Hilary Hahn!), have outgrown Suzuki-style bowing, not by rejecting it but by completing it...

July 7, 2015 at 08:18 PM · I do have a Japanese car - does this count towards a Japanese Suzuki type bow arm?

July 7, 2015 at 11:08 PM · My violin teacher was personally taught by Shinichi Suzuki, who was taught by Karl Klingler, a pupil of Joachim. Are we seeing today in the Suzuki method some sort of memory of Joachim's playing technique?

July 8, 2015 at 03:18 AM · The Suzuki bow arm is the old German-style bow arm, so the answer to that would seem to be yes.

July 8, 2015 at 05:31 AM · Suzuki experimented all his life. He often used a very low elbow, but the hand shape was nothing like the old german hold.

July 8, 2015 at 07:02 AM · Greetings,

I have a colleague who was taught for many years by Suzuki. Her elbow is a little low but nothing exagugerated. The bow hold is modern.



July 9, 2015 at 10:23 AM · I find the low elbow works well with a forearm a little less pronated than usual, and a fairly curved pinky. My ring finger just covers the mother-of-pearl circle, and the pinky is on the facet behind the top of the stick. Thus I can lift the first two fingers, and still play at the heel with full directional control (but unsteady tone!)

July 9, 2015 at 11:42 AM · Dounis method:

Put down the bow. Reach over with your right hand and without thinking touch the A string with your first finger. You will find that your brain tells your hand exactly the correct level of your elbow to accomplish this simple task. Do the same task, but this time with the bow in your hand. You will find that this is the correct elbow level for playing on the A string. It couldn't be simpler.

You will find this method works just as well on all of the strings. In fact if you want to know the correct elbow level for scratching the top of your head, do the same exercise. You will notice that when you touch your ear the elbow again finds the proper level to be on to do this efficiently.

July 9, 2015 at 06:01 PM · My method:

Brush your teeth - where's your elbow? That's where you like it (whether right or wrong). Also, doesn't work with false teeth.

July 9, 2015 at 07:36 PM · Hmm..

My method:

Write on the blackboard. Without breaking the chalk!

Now where is your elbow?

July 10, 2015 at 11:41 AM · Chalk!? What's that?

July 10, 2015 at 01:05 PM · Allright, allright, whiteboard, wthout bending the felt tip?

July 10, 2015 at 05:49 PM · Hi Bud and Adrien,

I don't think you understood my suggestion. You might wish to try it. I think I may have a bit more knowledge under my belt having studied with Josef Gingold while in high school, 8 years with Ivan Galamian, 3 years with Paul Makanovitsky, 2 years with Dorothy Delay, etc.

July 10, 2015 at 06:41 PM · Hi Bruce, I missed your post about Dounis (through not having the patience to scroll, but only using the End button..) It seems similar to my blackboard idea: letting the arm follow the initiative of the hand.

Your own playing suggests you got maximum benefit from your illustrious teachers! In my case, I learn continually from reaching for the best in my weaker students, as well as the extremely rigorous in depth teacher training from the European Suzuki Association.

My own teacher's teacher was an assitant to Carl Flesch, and referred often to Dounis' teachings.

July 10, 2015 at 07:35 PM · I thought Bruce's point about placing the finger on the A string was an excellent one. And as a very fine player and a very accomplished performer (I've heard his Brahms sonata recordings) I was personally very interested in what he had to say.

Well , I studied with an ex pupil of Carl Flesch, Adrian, but luckily I missed ot on the Sazuki training. (I have put on my steel plated armour ready for attacks form Suzuki lovers ...)

I'm not refering to you Adrian, but there is sometimes a certain dismissal of some of the very professional and accomplished players, teachers and performers on this forum, who do deserve some respect, particularly as they are sharing their valuable advice for the benefit of others. This is sometimes by people who know little or nothing about string playing.

Here ends my first lesson ...

July 10, 2015 at 09:32 PM · Yes Peter. This is why I have sometimes said I should like more biography in the profiles.

(BTW, Bruce, your interesting link no longer works.)

Apart from the fact that we Brits enjoy saying serious things in a silly way, I do find the beginner's and amateur's, queries, problems, and attempted solutions re-awaken my awareness of aspects I had come to take for granted. At 33, i knew everything; at 66 I'm still learning, (so I know more!)

July 11, 2015 at 06:05 AM · Here I am naturally touching the A, then D, then G string 'without thinking'. I can't see any difference in the elbow. In all seriousness, am I missing something?

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and here touching ear and head (not sure the significance there).

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July 11, 2015 at 08:23 AM · Bud, to start with, how about holding the violin on the collarbone!

But the whole point is not to raise the elbow more than necessary, but rather to let it rise.

Hence my blackboard image. Which was not meant to be funny.

July 11, 2015 at 08:45 AM · Hi Bud,

You are definitely using the wrong technique in touching the top of your head. The wrist must be more bent in an oblique manner. The elbow should be elevated by about 5 centimeters. The fingers should definitely be much straighter, especially the ring finger. If you work on this for several hours a day, I guarantee that within a few years you will get a satisfactory scratch of the head.

July 11, 2015 at 12:58 PM · Bud, to start with, how about holding the violin on the collarbone!

Surely if below the collarbone was fine for Geminiani?

Bruce, I assume that's an American sense of humour?

July 11, 2015 at 01:42 PM · "Surely if below the collarbone was fine for Geminiani?"

But I was referring to Bruce's advice!

(Dounis didn't do Baroque)

I don't know about American humour, but some students take a very long time to understand stuff.

July 11, 2015 at 02:08 PM · OK, assuming Bruce to be serious (I certainly am), how's this:

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July 11, 2015 at 08:52 PM · Coming back to earth, perhaps. My teacher wants me to bring my bow elbow up toward the frog, he is trying to teach me how to change bows at the frog very smoothly using a combination of this higher-elbow approach with coordinated motion of my hand and especially my fingers. It seems to work pretty well -- at least when I am in his studio receiving direct guidance. Is this approach typical?

July 12, 2015 at 06:35 AM · Typical, yes. Especially if the wrist is much higher than the stick when playing at th heel. Works for many folk.

July 12, 2015 at 01:48 PM · Elbow height can be a very contentious subject, but I like Nathan's suggestion:

"My rule of thumb is that the arm stay about the same height as the hand. When you do this, you avoid any strange angle at the wrist."

I demonstrate elbow height to students with a coffee mug: Picture your arm/hand system if you were to pick up a mug off a counter or table from an almost-extended position and raising it up to drink. With this natural motion, you only raise the elbow as much as you need--it's neither left behind nor raised too high. The elbow starts to raise as as the hand comes up level, then tracks it. We do this all the time without thinking, and it's a natural organic motion.

Personally, I think the "broken wing" aspect of baroque performance is somewhat of an affectation, one of many that are passed on from player to player, along with the strictures against vibrato or shoulder rests or chinrests. More of a schtick than anything else.

July 12, 2015 at 02:59 PM · Even with my elbow usually a little lower than my (level) hand, I adjust both wrist and elbow for certain bowings, such as saltellato or staccato.

July 12, 2015 at 06:31 PM · Surely this is the natural attitude for drinking? (sorry no mugs in the house)

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Personally, I think the "broken wing" aspect of baroque performance is somewhat of an affectation, one of many that are passed on from player to player, along with the strictures against vibrato or shoulder rests or chinrests. More of a schtick than anything else.

Again, you want to tell that to Geminiani (or Leopold Mozart for that matter - in fact he says to stand your student by a wall so they bang their elbow if they should dare raise it. That'll learn 'em!

July 12, 2015 at 07:02 PM · As a further explanation of the Dounis ideas concerning violin technique I wish to explain that the he had the idea that the more we can return to our natural instincts in approaching a physical task, the more effortless our job will be. For instance as I mentioned before, no one taught you the best method of scratching your head; your brain just told your body the best way of doing this.

This entails abandoning our conditioned reflexes and learning a way which is most natural in approaching the instrument. Our conditioned reflexes are by necessity learned from our initial instruction in playing our instrument. We are taught to hold the bow in a specific way, hold the instrument this way and that way; and because of the complexity of our job our thought process gets in the way of the attaining the most efficient way of accomplishing our physical task which is playing music.

July 12, 2015 at 07:32 PM · Exactly where I'm coming from - body image vs body schema. Did I get the head scratch right second time?

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