High vs Low Right Elbow: how to discriminate between two schools of thought??

September 15, 2015 at 12:33 AM · I'm reviewing my bow arm from the ground up, and its surprisingly difficult to find any convincing rationale for the positioning of the right elbow, particularly towards the heel. So I searched v.com, expecting it to be a perennial issue, but found relatively little.

In The Violin Lesson Simon Fisher recommends keeping the elbow at the hight of the frog, so the forearm would remain roughly parallel with the ground. But while he normally gives a convincing rationale on controversial issues, all he says here is that this means the elbow moves at the same speed as the hand. But what does this mean? The same speed in what plane? And why is that important?

Perhaps it's my body shape, but this high elbow has never felt natural for me. Once I pass the right angle on the upbow everything goes into motion - the upper-arm lifts, the shoulder lifts, and the elbow itself describes a complex path in multiple planes.

When I follow my instinct, my upper arm remains roughly parallel to the bow throughout the stroke - or a touch higher for ff. This means that the forearm slopes up at the heel. For me, the shoulder and upper arm are much quieter, and the elbow follows a much less complex path in a single plane. It feels simpler, more natural and more energy efficient. I suffer a muscle metabolism issue and am looking to play into old age, so energy efficiency is a high priority for me.

I'm aiming for simplicity, and would happily settle for the lower approach if it wasn't for the fact that most teachers and virtuosos seem to use the high elbow. What advantage does the high elbow offer that offsets this greater complexity? I can still generate ample power with the lower arm, so that's not an issue for me.

On the other hand, it seems that the low arm is not an entirely daft idea, when you see it being used by artists such as David Oistrakh and Hilary Hahn. Of all the violinists I ever saw live, Oistrakh seemed the most unhurried, secure and organised. I would settle for that :-)

Oistrakh: https://youtu.be/Ds4XPlhgq_k?t=21m3s

Hahn: https://youtu.be/N-mA9OMP3DE?t=10m35s

I'm self=teaching so I only have myself to please. I'd appreciate your thoughts on how a player can discriminate between these two schools of thought and evolve the best approach for their particular body shape.

Replies (36)

September 15, 2015 at 03:04 AM · There have been other discussions on this. Partly I think it has to do with one's individual physique but I think there is also a tendency toward a higher right elbow when the bow-hold is more toward the Russian style. At least that correlation has been proposed elsewhere.

September 15, 2015 at 05:33 AM · Anything much more than 45 degrees of abduction of the upper arm pulls the rhomboids out of shape - not something I'd say was healthy for the body.

September 15, 2015 at 05:44 AM · Maybe this has to do with terminology... I define a neutral arm where the elbow is the same height as the hand. It sounds like you are describing this setup as high?

I call it neutral because in this position, the wrist does not have to bend and then unbend, even at the frog. The upper arm may feel higher at the frog than some people are used to, but that does not make it high per se.

September 15, 2015 at 10:24 AM · If you want to try the Oistrakh/Kogan bow hold: Franco Belgian hand setup, but your first finger contacts at about the second joint and sits in the air, instead of the first (think deeper fb hold).

I now use this hold after trying Russian, FB and a hybrid as well.

It made staccato, spiccato very easy and improved my legato and detache. It also made the motion for flying staccato easier to pull off, though Im not yet sure if I have the natural ability to do. :) Bow changes are also smooth at the frog, provided you:

1- Raise the 1st finger off as you approach the heel,

or

2- Rotate the bow onto the edge of the hair as you approach the heel.

I use number 2, but I also have smaller hands that are not very heavy, so your results may vary. :)

September 15, 2015 at 10:43 AM · Nathan, perhaps my terminology is wrong.

I am trying to understand the pros and cons of keeping the elbow level with the hand vs keeping the upper arm parallel with the bow.

We could call that the low and the neutral positions if you prefer, though to me it doesn't feel like neutral as the higher position feels quite uncomfortably high.

You say you recommend the neutral position as it promotes a more natural wrist position. Clearly you know infinitely more about this instrument, but for me, the lower position only gives me a very slightly raised wrist at the heel - the wrist is still below the knuckles. So that in itself wouldn't be a reason for me to change.

Actually, thanks to the wonders of YouTube I'm beginning to think that the lower elbow isn't as unconventional as I had thought:

Perlmann: https://youtu.be/dkipsBpOkYI?t=2m

Friedman: https://youtu.be/eBp4BvRRgzA?t=1m30s

Gitlis: https://youtu.be/bh8pKgwapSA?t=10m20s

Vengerov: https://youtu.be/lqTwSK_eZGg?t=4m20s

Hirschhorn: https://youtu.be/1Uq-fRnpcDQ?t=10m9s

etc etc.

Though all the manuals I have recommend Nate's neutral position, and Heifetz himself used it, it seems that perhaps this is one of those issues where personal choice should apply?

September 15, 2015 at 11:12 AM · A. O. - thanks for the interesting insights.

Can you explain why, specifically, you have found this hold so helpful? I'm playing with my hold just now, so any pointers would be timely.

September 15, 2015 at 02:35 PM · It hard to comment on bow arm movement without seeing and hearing. That said, here goes.

Whatever you are doing with the so-called high elbow movement is incorrect because you describe it as "the upper-arm lifts, the shoulder lifts". The right shoulder should not lift. It should remain in a relaxed, neutral position throughout the stroke. I suspect: 1. some stiffness in the wrist / hand, or 2. failure to rotate the forearm around the ulna axis is causing the need to lift the shoulder, but only seeing would confirm this.

As I try to move my bow arm as you describe (and this may or may not be your movement), I feel tension around the shoulder rotator cuff. Be very conscious about checking this - it could feel "natural" to you if you've been doing it a long time. Tension around the rotator cuff, when repeated over years of practice, risks serious injury that is painful and expensive to correct. Be very careful. If you think you may have tension around the rotator cuff, you should spend a few bucks with a good teacher to avoid spending thousands of dollars in corrective surgery a few years down the road.

September 15, 2015 at 02:50 PM · Oops!

September 15, 2015 at 02:52 PM · My elbow is usually lower than the hand: the one and only similarity between me and Oistrakh, Perlman or Hahn! The bow can sink smoothly into the string without stiffness.

For fast detaché, tremolo, or up-bow staccato,my elbow rises to the level of the hand.

For basic strokes, my hand has a horizontal "cat's paw" shape.

September 15, 2015 at 03:30 PM · You might be overthinking elbow position. In many ways, the elbow is going to go where it wants to go if you are focusing on positioning the bow parallel to the bridge and drawing it smoothly in a parallel direction.

Here is how I was taught and it provides me with a relaxed and consistent bowing motion...

1. Take up your bow and hold it over the violin with forearm parallel to the ground.

2. Let your wrist fully relax. (Gravity pulls the knuckles down below the level of the wrist in a motion called "flexion". If you bend the wrist to elevate the knuckles above the level of the wrist, it is called "extension".)

3. Place the bow hairs on the G string near the frog. Adjust the violin position so that the bow is parallel to the bridge, and adjust the elbow height so that the bow hairs comfortably clear the D string.

That's the basic starting position. As you pull the bow across the G string, your elbow height will remain basically unchanged, but your wrist should naturally change from a flex position to neutral at around mind-bow to an extension position with the bow at the tip.

For me, the secret is not to think about flexion/extension of the wrist, but to focus on pulling and pushing the hand straight away and then back towards the violin. IOW, focus on parallel bowing and the wrist and elbow will take care of themselves.

To cross from the G to the D string, I make a slight "supination" movement of the forearm. IOW, turn the hand as if you want to face your palm upwards. It takes just a very small and quick motion to shift to the next string. This will also naturally lower your elbow.

If you want to think about it in terms of elbow position, the bow hairs and the elbow all lie in a plane. The plane is tilted differently for each string so the hairs maintain a constant clearance between adjacent strings.

September 15, 2015 at 09:11 PM · @Geoff: The hold really helps because I have thin skeleton hands with long fingers that are also on the small and dainty side (Im male, BTW). Wish I could try Perlman's or Allan Speers' hands for a day or two... :)

The hold stabilizes my hand (because my fingers are unstable with the FB because the bow is being held far away from my hand-long fingers- and allows me to get power more easily because it sits deeper in. This stability to the hand also means my on and off the string strokes are better, and having the weight of most of the hand above the bow makes staccato and spiccato really easy for me.

Best of luck!

September 17, 2015 at 03:18 AM · Carmen, nice summary. The only thing I would modify is that when you talk about the wrist changing its flex over the course of a down-bow, that will apply most strongly to those with shorter arms. Those with even an average-length arm may find that the wrist doesn't need to make much adjustment even close to the tip (which is nice).

It's also affected by where the violin points: more in front of the face, or further to the left. The further left you go, the more the wrist must adjust to get to the tip with a straight bow.

September 17, 2015 at 06:22 PM · @Carmen - thanks for the thoughtful post! I agree with you about not over-thinking. Generally I try to understand the basic principles and let my own body find a way that feels "easeful" and looks natural. When I tried your interesting exercise, that's the stroke my body naturally fell into.

It's just that when you find a respected teacher recommending something different, it gives you pause for thought.

But since I posted I've taken a careful look at the great exponents, and found that many of them have ended up with a bow arm that's not wildly dissimilar to the stroke that feels right for me. This gives me the confidence I'm not too far off track.

September 17, 2015 at 06:33 PM · @Nathan - my current priority issue is the one you highlighted with wrist flexion at the tip. It's not extreme, but in the last 1/5th of the bow it feels a little strained. I'm a 5'11" guy with an average wingspan for my height, so I feel there must be potential to reduce this.

I've tried all the variables I can think of in terms of violin position, bow grip, supination etc but only made partial progress.

I would be more than grateful for any exercises I could try. Fischer recommends bowing with a "splint" on the wrist, but I didn't find this gave much extra insight.

September 17, 2015 at 06:50 PM · Menuhin in his Six Lessons, which I picked up today, makes the obvious point that 'the hands, which must be extremely flexible, strong and resilient, are employed wellnigh continually on or around shoulder level, that is above the heart'. Thankfully not me doh!

September 18, 2015 at 02:43 AM · Bud, was Menuhin talking about the bow hand?

If so that is a bit confusing. Any video of him (or any great violinist for that matter) will show the bow hand making a great many excursions well below the shoulder and the heart, especially when playing the E string.

The span of my arms, tip-to-tip, is about 6 feet. So I can pull to the tip of the bow without fully extending the bow arm. As Scott points out, I do not need an extreme extension of the wrist at the bottom of a down bow because of this. I have to be careful on a vigorous down bow not to have the tip fly past the string.

Do they make over-long bows?

September 18, 2015 at 06:33 AM · He writes hands - he's referring to how much harder the heart has to work with appendages raised.

September 18, 2015 at 11:54 AM · @A.O.

I've been trying to experiment with your "King David" bow hold, but realise that I can't be fully understanding what it is. And watching videos of his playing after he changed to the FB isn't really helping.

Can you please clarify, for a bear of little brain, how precisely your understanding of the Oistrakh hold differs from the mainstream Perlman-style FB hold?

Thanks!

September 18, 2015 at 01:17 PM · Hi,

Geoff - Oistrakh differs in that he doesn't spread the fingers as wide, which is more of an American thing (especially the hyper-extension of the index which came more from the Dorothy Delay students).

The traditional FB still has the fingers at hand width, but there is a small separation forward of the index to allow for the index to contact between the first and second joint. This separation depends on various factors such as the length of the index relative to the other fingers of the hand, hand width etc. Szeryng and Grumiaux are good examples of this hold as is Oistrakh (watch the video of the Clair de Lune by Debussy which has good shots of his bow hand).

As for the wrist, etc., some early morning thoughts. I am not sure that focusing only on the wrist is the most important. Wrist height depends on bow hold, violin position and body geometry. The more even the lengths of forearm and upper arm, the more likely one is to be able to have a "flatter" wrist, while one with a longer forearm to upper arm ratio will probably have the wrist coming up depending on the length of the arm. As for height of elbow, it also depends on other factors such as length of neck to angle of jaw and shape of the collarbone, which in turn affect the tilt of the violin which will determine the height of the elbow for a given string.

The most important in the end I believe, IMVHO, is what Pinchas Zukerman advocates for evenness of sound, namely that the elbow remains at the same height throughout the stroke from frog to tip on a given string so that the stroke is lateral and consistent. The result being, as Mr. Zukerman often says, "four strings, four levels of elbow." This simplifies things in a way around a common point of balance around which the rest of things orient themselves. If you look at great players, no matter what the styles of bow hold, violin position, etc., consistent elbow height throughout a stroke is probably the one unifying factor in all of them.

Just some thoughts...

Cheers!

P.S. Also, in response to something in your original post, the elbow or hand doesn't quite move the bow, the forearm leads in essence as the primary movement. The elbow is the joint, and the hand essentially simply connects the forearm to the bow. The "plane" refers to the elbow height which should remain constant while on one string. The speed of the bow is determined by the speed at which the forearm moves. Do this make more sense?

September 18, 2015 at 03:04 PM · @Geoff: The Oistrakh hold differs in that because the bow is held under the 2nd joint (like the Russian) but with an extended 1st finger like the FB, you basically use the FB mechanics but do not need as much bow speed or pressure because the hold adds more hand weight to the stroke. This also means that smooth bow vhanges (esp. at frog) are not pulled off in exactly the same way as FB.

September 18, 2015 at 05:19 PM · @Christian - you have a real knack for getting to the heart of an issue!

Zukerman's teaching that the elbow should stay at the same height throughout the stroke is the general principal I was groping towards. This is a much clearer way of describing the bow arm I was finding the simplest and most comfortable.

The source of my confusion was my understanding that Simon Fisher was advocating something different in The Lesson. Or perhaps it's my misunderstanding, as it's one of the rare occasions where his writing is a bit unclear.

As for the wrist, I noticed that my flexion is actually no worse than Fig 24 (e) on page 37 of Basics, so I guess it's within the acceptable range. It's not ideal but so far as I can tell it doesn't affect my tone. So I've probably reached the point where I should accept that this is simply the way I'm made...

September 18, 2015 at 05:43 PM · Just found an old blog by Christian on how issues will tend to sort themselves out if we focus on a few fundamentals.

This certainly resonates with me - it's far too easy to overcomplicate our approach to this most difficult of instruments!

I also love the idea that we should "Focus on what you want to do and how, not what you don’t want."

http://www.violinist.com/blog/dwakodai/20137/14826/

Well worth a read, I feel.

September 19, 2015 at 12:34 PM · Hi Geoff,

Thanks for the kind words, posts, etc. I am really glad it helped and the old blog as well!

I haven't read or seen Fischer's The Lesson book I have to confess, so I am not quite sure how he approaches things. I will take a look at Basics as soon as I get a chance to see the figures you are referring to.

Cheers!

September 19, 2015 at 12:53 PM · Geoff,

Check if your shoulder rest is set too high. This might be the cause of raising right shoulder or elbow.

Placing your violin on collar bone (with low SR setup or without SR) will help you find natural bow movement regarding the vertical plane.

There are 2 more factors to impact the raising elbow:

1. horizontal plane (you will have to drop the elbow if the centre of violin is moved too much toward your right)

2. the tilt - the angle your violin is making (if the angle is wrong you will have to raise the elbow to play on G string or play almost vertically on E string)

I have seen some violin players intentionally raising the elbow, but only for a brief period of time; I can only assume that they were looking for a special sound.

On the other hand, some HIP players intentionally lower the elbow (broken wing syndrome) and claim this is "natural". Others do not and their sound is as good as it gets.

Observe if you raise or lower your elbows during other activities and ask yourself: "why and why not"?

Rocky

September 19, 2015 at 07:02 PM · I'm a little surprised when many posters refer to having to raise the right arm more or less according to violin setup. Surely the difference must be an inch or so at the most, and will hardly cause problems?

September 21, 2015 at 07:34 PM · Hi Geoff,

I checked the photos in Basics (page numbers were different in my edition) and the figure you refer to. I think that it is normal for the wrist to be flexible in both directions between frog and tip as completely straight would probably be rigid. Also, if it is anything like the photo, then it should be OK - there are even major soloists who have much larger variations that!

Cheers!

September 21, 2015 at 11:10 PM · @Rocky - thanks for the input.

I must have expressed myself unclearly - I was simply meaning that when I play with a higher elbow there is more movement in the shoulder - it's just anatomy. I would prefer to avoid this unless there's a good reason.

Christian and other posters have reassured me that my instinct to keep the elbow at the same level during the stroke is a sensible approach.

I've just seen a DVD by Alexandre Brussilovsky who trained at the Moscow Conservatory where he says that modern Russian style is to position the right elbow level with the screw at the point in the stroke when the bow arm forms a right angle and keep it at that level through the stroke, as Zukerman teaches.

Turns out that this is what I've been doing instinctively - it just feels right. With authorities like Zukerman and the Moscow Conservatory promoting this style of bow arm I feel I can adopt it with some confidence :-)

September 21, 2015 at 11:35 PM · @Christian

Thanks for the feedback - very kind of you to follow up like that.

I'm afraid I'm still tinkering with this.

Although the wrist angle isn't extreme, as you say, it still doesn't feel as free and relaxed as I'd like. When you look at the bow-arms of the top pros they have this wonderful fluidity, which is something to aim for. I know that I'll never get very far with tension in my wrist, even if it's relatively subtle, so the search continues.

I'm not really getting on with my FB experiments so I've been trying the modern Russian grip as transmitted by Alexandre Brussilovsky where you hold the bow at the first crease on all 3 fingers and keep the back of the hand fairly parallel to the bow through the stroke. The idea is to promote power through speed rather than pressure, and visualise the ring finger as the power finger, rather than the first, so weight is distributed across the hand.

For some reason this hold seems to allow me to keep a much more neutral and relaxed wrist - perhaps it's just a better fit with my proportions? It's the polar opposite of the Milstein-style hold I've been using, so I'm learning a lot just trying to understand it. Perhaps I'm on to a solution at last. Time will tell!

My respect for the pros grows daily as I try to figure out how to get comfortable with this crazy instrument of ours...

September 22, 2015 at 12:04 AM · First crease of the finger being the one away from the palm or close to it?

September 22, 2015 at 10:38 AM · Hi Geoff,

If the hold you are using works, then go for it. As for tension in the wrist, etc., almost all tension comes from pressure, and pressure is the result of pressing the fingers into the bow. It is impossible to tense the hand without pressing the thumb which contracts all muscles. Therefore, in order to have more flexibility and fluidity, the best way is to never press the fingers into the bow, and release the thumb, which will release the entire hand as it is impossible to press the fingers without tensing the thumb. This will also allow more weight if one doesn't hold up the arm from the shoulder. Once the shoulder, arm and hand sit on the bow and the bow on the string (the string actually holds up the bow), then all one has to do is move the bow laterally.

I don't know if this will be clear or help, but hope it does!

Cheers!

September 22, 2015 at 11:13 AM · Hi Christian

You are, of course, right to highlight that some of my issues are coming from pressing with the thumb too much during ff, particularly when my attention is occupied by technical difficulties. It's not nearly as bad as it used to be but it's something I still have to work on.

But my bow arm issues are also to do with a sense that I haven't yet found the most "easeful" approach for my particular body - I simply don't like the feel of the dropped wrist around the tip, even if it's within an acceptable range visually. It feels a little tense and unnatural.

Hilary Hahn blogged not so long ago that her bow hold is "a work in progress". If someone at her level is still searching, I guess this will always be a journey rather than a destination...

September 22, 2015 at 11:37 AM · Hi A.O.

Yes, with this hold you use a relaxed hand in its "shaken out" position and place the bow on the three creases nearest the finger tip.

As I understand it the hold at the heel is pretty much like the Perlman style FB (the version where the first finger isn't consciously extended).

But as you approach the tip, you don't pronate so much, keeping the back of the hand pretty much parallel with the stick. My initial experiments suggest that you need very relaxed and flexible fingers.

Articulation is achieved by squeezing with the third finger rather than the first, and power is achieved with bow speed.

The whole rationale, as explained by Brussilovsky is to encourage a freely vibrating string without pressing. He calls the first finger the "tone killer".

Here's a video of the hold in action. Brussilovsky has an odd habit of dropping the scroll, but his bow arm looks quite nice and organised, I think.

November 20, 2015 at 04:04 PM · I watched a video by Drew Lecher where the upper arm was described as being in the same plane as the bow throughout the stroke. This was demonstrated on the D and G string. I believe Nathan Cole described the elbow staying at the height of the hand. Either of these are an improvement in tone for me.

If I keep my elbow at the same elevation as my hand, an up bow on the E string might look like this: Up bow from the tip, hand is of course lower than elbow in elevation ( distanced from floor): as forearm passes parallel to floor, hand and elbow are same elevation: as up bow continues to frog, elbow raises to maintain same elevation as hand. Is this realistic? I think I have this all wrong. Simon Fischer seems to describe some merits but does not depict in any pictures in Basics.

November 21, 2015 at 04:46 PM · This animation may help. https://youtu.be/ItF2cxN6HL4

(cut and paste) And, I prefer to focus on what the bow does to the string.

November 24, 2015 at 09:37 PM · Where my right elbow goes depends on which string I'm playing: high for the lower strings, low for the higher ones. One exception is when playing a 4-note broken chord - I leave the elbow low and let the wrist handle the movement of the bow across the strings in the first part of the stroke.

November 24, 2015 at 11:01 PM · Greetings,

I think Im just inclined to watch Michael Rabin playing the last movement of the Tchaikovsky on you tube then shoot myself,

Cheers

Buri

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