How to get better wrist flexibility?

August 31, 2018, 9:30 PM · Hi everyone! My violin teacher told me about this concept a while ago, but I’ve never really “gotten” it... and I was embarrassed to ask because he says we should already have the basics down already! (Understandable, but now I feel like I should just figure this out on my own.)

So, I need help with this bowing thing... I notice when I play, my right arm looks very stiff whenever I bow, vs. my teacher whose bowing arm is very “flowy” looking. Like, his wrist actually moves on its own instead of this robot arm thing I have going on.

I’m sorry I can’t explain this better... but if anyone managed to understand what I’m getting at, could you maybe help on where I might be going wrong and how I could fix it?

Replies (9)

August 31, 2018, 9:51 PM · One of my teachers had me spend quality time with an egg beater. I actually had difficulty turning my right wrist in a circle, and this helped. I ate a lot of eggs for a while.
August 31, 2018, 11:16 PM · Two exercises:

1) wrist or hand stroke: hold the bow in a loose fist, so the top of the stick is under the baseknuckles, and with forearm resting on a high table (filing cabinet, or someone holding your arm at elbow and wrist) flap the hand at the wrist, so that when you flex the wrist, drop the hand, the bow moves down, when you extend the wrist, raise the hand, the bow moves up, on the strings. N.B. you need the forearm/hand to be pronated on the bow, so the 'hinge' of the wrist is diagonal rather than horizontal.

This gives you a hand stroke, which is opposite an arm stroke. So to incorporate with the arm:

2) With normal bow hold, play short down stroke with the arm. Stop. Finish the down stroke by dropping the hand/flexing the wrist. Play short up bow with the arm. Stop. Finish the stroke by raising the hand/extending the wrist. The finishing stroke prepares you for the next arm stroke. Gradually reduce the stop, until you get smooth bow changes with the hand at the end of each arm stroke.

Do this in rhythms: arm stroke down bow for 3 beats, finish with hand for 1 beat; arm stroke up bow for 3 beats, finish with hand for 1 beat. Then do dotted rhythms. Use more and more bow for the arm stroke, so the hand stroke (which becomes a bow change motion) happens at the extreme ends of the bow. Start with staccato finishing, or follow-through, strokes, then legato.

Do a short detache stroke and allow the hand to finish the arm motion to get a fluid wave motion through the wrist. Eventually, you can incorporate the base knuckles and fingers with this wave motion too; allow the base knuckles to open and fingers to curl as the wrist opens; allow the base knuckles to close and fingers to straighten as the wrist flexes. Hold onto the bow or a pencil with the left hand and 'airbow' so you feel the coordination of this wave propagate from elbow through wrist to base knuckles and fingers. To isolate the finger/baseknuckle/wrist move the bow or pencil with the left hand and allow the wave to propagate from fingers to baseknuckle to wrist.

Edited: September 1, 2018, 7:34 AM · Hi,

Jeewon's advice and exercise recommendations are great.

I will add one thing in general. Many people have a stiff arm or wrist because they press the fingers into the bow (with the thumb pressing the most) which tenses the muscles and locks the joints. So, having a released hand (i.e. not pressing, but thinking positively as released works better) is important. If you find yourself tense, release the thumb. As the muscle used to press the thumb contracts the whole hand, your entire hand will release and be more relaxed which will free up the wrist, even elbow.

Also, in the upper third of the bow, many people have a habit of playing from the shoulder instead of from the elbow and continuing to open the forearm to the tip. This can also lead to the robotic thing that you describe with everything "locking" up from the elbow to the wrist in an attempt by the body to stabilize things. There are many exercises to attend to this, but the first and most important thing is the awareness of the issue.

Good luck! Cheers!

Edited: September 1, 2018, 9:19 AM · I have/had a stiff arm that had nothing to do with a stiff wrist, the issue being the elbow as Christian mentioned and the motion of the whole arm. What does your teacher tell you? (although my experience is that not all teachers will necessarily tell you the same thing). Focusing on one element without seeing what happens to the whole arm might not be the most efficient way of going about it. There are advocates of very little wrist motion around as well, keeping it to the slightest passive degree except in some cases (very fast string changes returning to the same string). My observation and experience so far as a beginner amateur.

Maybe post a video for the teachers/experienced players here to have more material to judge by.

September 1, 2018, 12:01 PM · Yes, some players use more, others less, wrist motion (sounds like OP's teacher may use more) and ultimately each player adapts to what works better under pressure. But everyone must have a responsive wrist, regardless of how much motion there is in the response. There really is no such thing as a stiff joint, that is, without our muscles making them so, by contracting opposing muscles at the same time. And so fluid motion is about alternating opposing muscles, and coordinating the whole arm as tammuz suggests. The first exercise I mentioned focuses on alternating muscles which move the hand about the wrist. The second exercise teaches coordination with the rest of the arm.

Here's a discussion from a while back, where I describe how the arm coordinates to move the bow, including what happens in the upper third as Christian mentioned, what Galamian describes as a pumping motion.
https://www.violinist.com/discussion/archive/16737/

But ultimately how everything coordinates depends on the type of stroke, where it is played in the bow, the dynamic, the speed, the articulation, the type of bow hold, and even the concept of the bow arm itself (high vs. low, 'flung' bow vs. a pushed/pulled bow, parts coordinated as a 'wave' motion vs. folded/unfolded motion, etc.)

September 1, 2018, 12:13 PM · Zoe,
Your violin teacher is coping out on you. Good bowing technique is one of the most complex physical activities the human body can perform. Your teacher has essentially said, "I won't / can't teach you excellent bowing technique. You figure it out. If you don't do it, I'll blame you."

With all due respect to the good advice above, you can't 'get it' from them. You need months of coaching and adjustments from a teacher who cares about bowing and expressive playing. Bowing technique, like everything else on the violin, has layers and layers of learning that has to be learned in sequence, coached, adjusted, and sometimes modified to take the next big step.

If you really want excellence in the right hand and arm, interview other teachers about their teaching of the bow, and pick the best one you can find. You won't regret it.

Edited: September 1, 2018, 2:38 PM · Thank you for all the advice! What this video is explaining is basically what I’m thinking of here (copy paste the link into a new tab to watch it?) https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=5TVNSRgOJIE
September 2, 2018, 2:11 PM · Hi Zoe, Simon Fischer has a sequence of wrist exercises in Basics. He begins with moving the hand up and down from the wrist while holding it with the left hand (Exercise 16, p. 10). Exercise 17 is a very simple string crossing exercise (p. 11), and then exercise 18 is a slightly more complicated string crossing exercise (p. 12). I found it very helpful. If you don't have the book, you can probably find a pdf on the web.
September 2, 2018, 8:52 PM · I think that this is one of those things that is very natural for some kids and not at all natural for others. My youngest non-serious violinist moves her wrist beautifully and never needs more than a nudge to get it going. She's also extremely flexible, with thumbs that can bend all the way back (which creates other issues). My older serious violinist has struggled with wrist tightness for years and has been working on it diligently the past six months. He is generally tight -- he's always toe walked (tight hamstrings) and is not at all flexible.

He spent an entire week doing exercises away from the violin because he literally could not move his wrist at all in any plane. Lots of pretend painting, throwing the fishing line, whipping, wrist pushups, etc. After that, he was able to slowly start incorporating it into his playing. It's still a work in progress, but it has made a tremendous difference for him.

Another exercise that has helped him is the extremely slow bow -- we are talking 2-4 minutes per bow. It really helps you identify the individual muscles you are using. Sounds awful though!

Incidentally, we had to switch teachers for him to be able to start learning proper bow technique.

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