How do you achieve a great sound without much strain?

Edited: September 26, 2018, 9:10 PM · I currently use the Russian bow hold as Heifetz does. However, when I use great force in order to pull out a great sound (I don't use my arm for force, just my fingers), my fingers strain and are bent or straightened unnaturally (greatest of all my ring finger becomes straight and uncomfortable). When I observe Heifetz playing he seems so effortless, even at age 70 playing the Chaconne. Does anyone know the reason for this (even though he was a great master of the violin and was born several aspects of his playing)?

Replies (43)

September 26, 2018, 11:11 PM · Have you *tried* the other grip?
September 27, 2018, 4:23 AM · In my experience, Russian grip actually allows more leverage to be able to push down than the typical bow hold (Franco Belgian).

I would first suspect your right elbow position being too high, disallowing you from using the dangling weight of your arm to easily add pressure. The other thing of concern is that you mention you only use fingers to add force, which may be why it feels harder than it should.

It may also be your violin. Or your bow. Or a lack of rosin.

And lastly, it could be that what *appears* effortless actually involves a lot more force than you might think. It's just done with such skill and refinement that it appears fluid and light, when in fact quite a bit of downward force is being applied.

Edited: September 27, 2018, 6:50 AM · Thank you for your response. I will try what you have said about the elbow position during my practice session tonight. I knew that the effortless looking bow strokes did indeed need great force, but I was wondering if there was a way for me to apply great force to my bow strokes more naturally (fluidly).
September 27, 2018, 6:52 AM · You should never "strain". You're less likely to get the desired result and the possibility of injury is greatly increased. The secret of avoiding "strain" is relaxation, and the best way to achieve this is from a good teacher who will pay attention not only to the local muscles but the whole body.
September 27, 2018, 9:14 AM · If you are using "force", something is wrong. Your bow hand should be relaxed even when playing at maximum volume. (I also use a Russian hold.)

Edited: September 27, 2018, 6:19 PM · Thank you for your responses. It feels fine to bow regularly, as my bow strokes are fluid, relaxed, and natural (even when a strong tone is needed). The strain only occurs when I play extremely emotionally intense passages where great force is used.
September 27, 2018, 6:39 PM · You should use whatever bow hold is nost comfortable and effective, and not just copy what Heifetz did.
Edited: September 27, 2018, 7:58 PM · Yes, I understand that. I am a great admirer of Heifetz and I know that he greatly encouraged individuality. He disliked imitators and stated that it was no way to succeed. I was just wondering what he did to make his playing seem so effortless. I only mentioned Heifetz as an example of what I might be looking for.

Also, I was wondering if could find something that works out for me (in playing intense passages)

September 27, 2018, 11:12 PM · One starting point is; Let the string hold the bow more than hand. Push and pull against the natural friction of the rosin. Don't push down on the bow, it might skid sideways off of the optimum point of contact.
September 28, 2018, 5:29 AM · Nicely put, Joel.
September 28, 2018, 7:50 AM · Yes indeed nicely put. Thank you Joel. I will think of this when I play. Do you have any suggestions on what to do if I need a sound that is supposed to be very “dug in” and pressured.
September 28, 2018, 9:04 AM · do what all the great violinists do- learn how to play the best way for you by developing your technique and style to the fullest! Let others set a guide for your own taste, but you have to develop your own technique inch-by-inch and incorporate it into your own hands and ears.

" 'dug in' and pressured" sounds painful...have you discussed this with your teacher? Learn to develop bow speed and quick pulse in your bowing, with a complete lack of tension anywhere. It took H. years of practice, great teachers, precise listening, and tons of talent for him to play like himself!

September 28, 2018, 11:38 AM · Most modern set-ups work on the assumption that using force is a necessary part of technique. I don't believe that this should be the case. A 'son filé' approach might give better results with more scope for colour, dynamic etc. Of course heifetz was playing a great violin...
September 28, 2018, 12:49 PM · continued-- yes, good equipment is part of the solution; violin, bow, string, rosin, in that order. To get that "dug in", full sound, depends in part on the bow hold, which changes the mechanics. The Franco-Belgian-American hold is easier to describe in words. For a G-string note, near the frog, catch the string with the hair at a flexible spot on the string, about half-way between the bridge and fingerboard. Then let your arm hang down, as if you were hanging on a tree-limb. With that arm weight, start a down-bow, you will be surprised how loud and full it can be. The upper half of the bow is about forearm leverage, and the E string is different because you are pushing sideways, and it's a topic big enough for a small book. In general, don't Try to play louder. Instead go for the best quality sound, then, like a good singer, let it blossom, add energy in the form of bow speed.....
September 28, 2018, 1:26 PM · Not site if this helps, but I've had to give up playing viola and now violin seriously for the moment due to back pain (compressed discs, pinched nerves).

The interesting thing I've discovered as a result is that bowing comes from the entire back. I'd have assumed just the right shoulder, but actually it uses the deep muscles under the left shoulder blade. I'm trying to learn to hold my bow with complete relaxation from both shoulder blades to the wrist so I can stop the spasming. When I do get it right for a couple of moments, gravity really does do all the work. (Well and bow speed and all the other technical details others have mentioned).

Maybe someone who knows about physio or alexander technique can explain it better. ..

September 28, 2018, 2:03 PM · When I made the comment a few posts back about the "whole body" I did have in mind the back muscles. They give the power that drives the muscles of arms and hands.

Experiment: play something in a round shoulder slumped stance (which sadly we see only too often around us) and repeat but this time standing (or sitting) upright with a straight back. The difference in sound should be immediately apparent. I think the straight back also affects your mental attitude.

Pianists are (or should be) aware that power and control come ultimately from the big back muscles.

I'm not a physio or Alexander Technique specialist but I was aware that AT underpinned my violin teacher's teaching, although she didn't often refer to it as such.

September 28, 2018, 2:49 PM · When I did physical therapy for a different problem, I brought the violin in once, played with the shirt off. He pointed to a spot between my scapula and spine and said "O my god, you use that muscle ALL the time!" I re-read the Erik's original post. Using force mostly from the hand is asking those small muscles to do too much of the work. The third finger of the right hand is the least useful of the 5 and can cause problems if you try to use it for anything other than on-the-string staccato or ricochet. Best to just let it go along for the ride.
September 28, 2018, 2:59 PM · Wow, the conversation is so deep! By a dug in or pressured tone I meant a very strong, robust, but sustained bow (requiring pressure on the bow). I tend to focus on using my fingers, hand weight, and arm weight to produce the tone. Sometimes when I try to play with a passage in a piece requiring very strong bow strokes, I feel some pain in my lower arm. However, when I bow strongly on open strings, random notes, or scales I feel quite natural and fluid. Could it be that I build too much emotion in the passage of the piece and in turn my playing becomes tense?
September 28, 2018, 3:03 PM · Eric, the way you describe your bow hold suggests a great deal of stiffness and strain. Whether you're Russian or Franco-Belgian or something in between, the goal is to have flexible, relaxed fingers and not be clenching when you hold the bow.

For me at least, there has been a relationship between strength and flexibility. If your right hand fingers are very strong, you will be more likely to hold the bow softly like you would hold an eggshell and not worry about losing control when you dig in. So look for exercises that can make your left hand stronger and more flexible.

I'm not really crazy about using Heifetz as a model -- there was a lot of tension in his playing and it caught up to him late in life.

If you want to look at videos about bow technique, there are so many wonderful resources on youtube -- Kurt Sassmannshaus, Nathan Cole, Ray Chen, Julian Rachlin, good teachers like Tood Ehle and Laurel Thompson...

September 28, 2018, 3:07 PM · Erik,

Be careful about the comparisons. Heifetz was unique. Even his teacher in the Russian Conservatory claimed that his real teacher was: GOD!

Getting the sound you want is a lifelong pursuit and if we are to believe what Heifetz said of himself - you never quite get there.

September 28, 2018, 3:15 PM · You never want a sound that is pressured. You are more likely to crush the sound's resonance than anything else if you use too much force. You want resonance and projection. You want the bow to catch the string and spin it. That's more horizontal than it is vertical; too much vertical weight upon the string and you don't get a free vibration.

Don't forget the role of vibrato in amplifying the sound, either.

September 28, 2018, 5:01 PM · I do understand that the sound should not ever be pressured, I’m just saying that I would like to know the correct way to put pressure into the bow in order to get a strong, robust , rich sound. And as much as I am of an admirer of Heifetz, of course I know that there is no possible way that I could be a fraction of Heifetz, I just set him as an example of fluid and natural playing.
September 28, 2018, 5:04 PM · Oh, by the way I do feel great while bowing regularly (including strong bowing), but if I play an intense passage (emotional) I seem to strain a bit.
September 28, 2018, 6:36 PM · Be aware that stiffness or straining in the left hand will manifest as stiffness in the bowing arm and hand. And vice versa.

Conversely, a tension-free left-hand will help with acquiring tension-free bowing.

September 28, 2018, 8:20 PM · I was getting really upset at all the responses to my name until I realized OP is also Erik. Lol.
Edited: September 29, 2018, 5:38 PM · What a coincidence! Haha. Your response was very helpful and insightful.
Edited: October 5, 2018, 7:03 AM · Hey Erik, I meant to post here, before I fell down that rabbit hole on your other thread.

If your fingers are collapsing, it means there is too much pressure into the stick from the thumb, and simultaneous pressure from the fingers (i.e. thumb and 1 and 4, or in your case 3, if you're bowing like Heifetz, are pressing simultaneously.) If your fingers are always pivoting when not neutral, they won't collapse.

You have to map out the finger function according to the balance of the bow. Find the balance point of your bow, roughly the lower third. Here your fingers can be fairly neutral. You must get to know that point, because there, and in the middle third, you can use the weight of the bow to generate decent tone. From lower third to frog, your fingers have the feeling of flipping the bow clockwise, to counter balance the tip. From lower third to tip, and especially in the upper third, your fingers lean counterclockwise to add leverage. Without the violin, without the strings holding up the bow, then, at the frog the bow is more or less horizontal, but as you airbow downbow to the tip, the tip should drop counterclockwise. A good exercise is to have someone hold the fiddle at around your belly button while you place the bow at the tip, and have your partner slowly raise the fiddle to playing position while you leave the arm pronated. This will help gauge how much rotation you actually need for a big sound at the tip.

Practice bow division exercises in thirds of the bow, feeling this pivoting within the hand, even if there's no actual pivoting, until it becomes a fluid, seamless, single motion from frog to tip. In F-B hold, many players supinate more at the frog, but with Russian, most people maintain the same rotation throughout, although I believe Heifetz does supinate in certain contexts.

To play more forte, imagine the surface of the string is actually below the strings. Or imagine playing the bottom of the round string. Digging in usually happens on the G-string or when you soar on the E-string. To help with playing into the string, angle the bow into the c-bouts, i.e. sulG, angle the bow toward an imaginary C-string, sulE bow on an imaginary B-string.

There's a good Sammons exercise for sinking into the strings. Play quarters of the bow, quarter notes. Play D, then double stop D-G, D, D-G, and also up bow. Do this with other pairs, also lower string, double stop with upper string. Keep in mind the weight transfer from above. At first you can stop the bow at each quarter to coordinate the catching of the double stop. But ultimately you want a continuous, deep, round sound on the first string, as you rhythmically 'dip' or 'scoop' into the other string.

Next, note how your thumb makes contact with the stick. If you're already touching with the whole pad of the thumb, your hand is already maxed out in its leaning rotation. So if that's your default rotation and you try to add leverage from there, you don't have much further room to rotate, and that might be causing the strain in your forearm. Of course you can internally rotate at the shoulder, but depending on the shape of your shoulder complex, you might then strain your shoulder.

So, it's good to have a more neutral rotation for most playing, which means your thumb touches more on the inside corner, then when you want to pour it on, you have further room to rotate the hand into the bow.

Hope that's useful.

Edit: Joel gives a good description of how the arm coordinates with the FB hold. But with Russian hold the elbow rises more with the hand, because of the pronated hand at the frog. In general you need a more active upper arm with Russian hold. For vigorous full bows, Flesch describes the bow being flung from the shoulder, though Szeryng also played like that with a more FB like hold.

Edit 2: Mimi Zweig has a great exercise for sinking into the string. Strings are 3D, not just a surface to glide across. On down bows pull the left edge of the string, on up bows push the right edge. You can actually pivot the bow (like bowing into the bouts) toward the lower string on downbow and toward the upper string on upbow.

Edited: October 5, 2018, 7:31 AM · On pressure, there is the opinion that distinction should be made between arm weight and applying pressure. The idea behind arm weight I think is that this encourage a good alignment of arm parts with the bow on its journey. But also pointed out is that pressure or arm weight here is in the application of a force on the string...not the idea of pressure in terms of sound coming across as too pressed. The latter is a related to how much digging in one is doing in relation to the sound point and speed.

A really good exercise Joel has suggested previously and I thank him for. Divide bow in thirds. Lower third :index off, middle third: all fingers on the bow,upper third: pinkie off. This will encourage a good alignement of arm parts because you will be working out the balance between the parts while exerting an appropriate amount of weight to result in a constant sound. You need not think of a spatial division of the bow . It helps me more to think of dividing a beat into three (triolet)..index off-all on-pinkie off, up and down bow (provided constant speed)

October 5, 2018, 7:47 AM · Something I find insightful is to look at a spectrum analyser app on my phone while playing, which gives visual feedback on how resonant you are actually being.
October 5, 2018, 8:01 AM · There are many ways to apply "pressure" to the bow. The method you select depends on the sound you want to create.

Let's make sure we are talking about the same bow hold. By "Russian" hold, I mean the stick touching the index finger somewhere between the second and third/base joint. Position of the thumb and other fingers may vary depending on the shape of your hand.

For this hold, sustained pressure is easily controlled by subtle wrist/forearm rotation while holding the elevation of the elbow constant. The technical term is pronation/supination. Think of the motion you use to turn a door knob. It takes very little effort to sink the bow hairs forcefully into the strings.

If you are applying bow pressure primarily by pinching the bow between your index finger and thumb, this is going to cause stress throughout your hand. With wrist/forearm rotation, the stress is felt primarily in the index finger and all the other fingers can remain relaxed.

October 5, 2018, 9:19 AM · Carmen, I second your remarks. I moved over from the F-B hold to the Russian early this year. It couldn't have been easier, or more obvious in retrospect. The change in tone and control was immediate.
October 5, 2018, 9:27 AM · OK..but the fact remains that there are plenty of great players with great tone who have or are closer to FB. That alone would questiin the idea that the Russian hold is implicitly any better than the FB, minus consideration of individual technique and physical makeup
October 5, 2018, 11:38 AM · Tammuz, it seems like with the greater leverage that the Russian hold gives you, people that maybe didn't get enough weight transmission from their arm might find an improvement in sound by switching. Maybe the exponents find that it helps them stick closer to the string. I use more of a FB, but that's my conjecture. I find the Russian hold sort of uncomfortable, like the bow is too deep in my hand to really have control, but I haven't put any significant time into "getting it".

I find it interesting that Flesch thought that no one would be using FB in the future.

October 5, 2018, 10:56 PM · I've always found that curious too, Christian. Reading between the lines, I suspect Flesch didn't really understand the FB hold. I think he must've used a German hold in his early years and switched to a 'Russian', which I suspect was derived from a pre-Belgian influenced French style of bowing. Flesch, who seems to have been the first to coin the terms, or at least was the first to write about it, defined the Russian hold as making contact with the stick *at* the second joint. The deeper Wieniawski-Auer-Heifetz hold he considered too extreme, though I can't remember the source for that.

The FB hold varies quite a lot, but is ultimately more versatile, which, if used with more versatility, has a steeper learning curve. The Russian has the virtue of being simpler.

I think the versatility made FB more prevalent today. Because of the extra mobility and independence of the forefinger, the FB hold is generally more articulate than the Russian, which limits the action of the forefinger.

FB players can have the same leverage as a Russian hold by spreading the forefinger away from the middle finger, and/or by moving the thumb toward the ring finger (increasing lever arm and/or moving the fulcrum.) Flesch disapproved of that spreading.

October 6, 2018, 8:36 AM · Hey Jeewon, nice to see you again! Thank you so much for the exercises. I just have one question: when you state in your first paragraph about pivoting, in what ways should my fingers pivot? And another thing, I have a hitchhiker’s thumb, and so my thumb tends to bend back at the joint under the pad at a 90 degree angle. Should I ignore this and proceed, or should I do something else about it?

October 6, 2018, 9:57 AM · I started out with the FB hold but found it uncomfortable due to the shape of my hands. They are shaped more like stubby clubs than long, elegant webs. It forced me to do odd things with my wrist and elbow positions to bow perpendicular to the strings.

Once I moved the index finger contact point just beyond the middle join, I was able to assume a natural, stress-free position for my fingers, wrist and elbow. The bow naturally aligned perpendicular to the strings.

My feeling is that the shape of the hand should dictate the bow hold. As long as the fingers are naturally curved and relaxed, practice will make all the bowing techniques available to you.

October 6, 2018, 11:16 AM · Hey Erik. You're most welcome! I was going to write "pronate," but I suspect you're quite pronated already. (Any chance you wanna post a video?) As Carmen suggested, slight turns can make a difference. But my main point is that you need to vary the leverage according to where you are in the bow to achieve a fluid stroke, even in loud dynamics, and even if there's actually no visible rotation. What's important is the 'force' transferred through the fingers. Many students underestimate the strength and firmness required of the pinky+ring-finger to balance the bow at the frog, and the leverage required at the tip, to generate a big tone. Making contact with the stick more towards the inside tip of the thumb will give you a slight release in the rotation of the hand (to a slight supination) on the stick, and leave you room for that extra rotation when you need to lean into the tip. Also, it's important to remember that any force through the fingers should act to move the bow, not to hold it, which is why I say you don't want to apply simultaneous pressure, but rather alternating pressure, a twisting action applied to the bow, clockwise at the frog and counterclockwise at the tip, even when there's no actual rotation happening. We learn the 'windshield wiper' early on to practice this, but it's often taught only with arm rotation. It should also be done within the hand, flipping with only the fingers to teach them how to twist. You can twist or flip with the pinky and add leverage with forefinger, but you can also help the pinky with the ring-finger (I think you're already doing this) and twist between middle finger and thumb (in both directions.)

There is another pivot though that may be preventing you from a more flexible hand, and that is through the curling and uncurling of the fingers themselves, which involves flexibility through the baseknuckles. The fingers coordinate by curling as the baseknuckles open, and straightening as the baseknuckles close. You can pivot the hand over the bow (look at a line drawn through your knuckles) by curling the pinky and ringfinger (baseknuckles open) and allowing the wrist to respond (as the fingers curl and baseknuckles open, the wrist opens, and vice-versa.) Note that as the fingers curl, the baseknuckle-line becomes slightly more parallel with the stick; as the fingers straighten, the baseknuckle-line become more oblique. This pivot is more pronounced with a FB hold, the forefinger making contact more towards the finger tip. If there is no flexibility in the baseknuckles, it's easy to squeeze the stick with the fingers and thumb, clamping from their baseknuckles. This clamping, simultaneous squeezing into the stick, kills tone and creates a 'pressed' sound.

To give your hyperextended thumb some relief, you can curl it's tip when the fingers curl, as they pivot over the stick. So on down bows the fingers and thumb curl, even if only very slightly, and on up bows straighten. Note this action does not affect rotation in the forearm at all, but you do need the wrist to open on down bows in response to the finger/thumb action and viceversa on up bows.

How the arm reacts to all this is a whole other thing. If you have any further questions I can try and address that in the next post. But a video would be very helpful in giving you more specific suggestions :)

Edited: October 6, 2018, 12:51 PM · P.S. dunno if what I wrote above made this clear, but another way to think of it is that you should never hold the bow with 'static stability' in your hand and move it through the air (you don't want stability like in a table) but rather you need a dynamic stability, like in a seesaw. Of course the seesaw is unbalanced, because the fulcrum, your thumb, is way over to one side. But when balancing at the frog, you don't need any pressure from the forefinger or thumb, just counter balance from the pinky and ring fingers. Similarly, as you lean into the tip, pour it on like Carmen said, pronating toward the tip, but simply resist with the thumb, or conversely, pull up with the thumb and simply resist with the leaning fingers, but don't do both. You want to prevent the baseknuckles of the fingers and thumb (the thumb's baseknuckle is near the wrist) and the second joint of the thumb from becoming rigid. So to address your question about your hitchhiker thumb, it's OK to let it cave in as long as it's reversible, as long as it's never stuck like that. Notice that as you move your thumb closer and closer to the pinky across the palm, the thumb rotates so that it's pad faces the palm. Also the muscle of the ball of the thumb contracts, and if you press into the palm with thumb rotated like that, it's easy to lock the thumb's baseknuckle at the wrist. The less rotated the thumb, the more flexible it's baseknuckle. I don't know for sure, but suspect people who use a Russian hold have the thumb opposite the left side of the middle finger, or even closer to the forefinger, because of the added leverage the contact at the forefinger provides and also the ball of the thumb remains more relaxed.
October 7, 2018, 12:49 PM · Jeewon, thank you so much for your detailed responses! After reading your posts, I tried bowing based on what you said, and I feel more fluid now. I think my thumb and fingers clamped together at the stick too much before. Now it feels much better. Thanks.
Edited: October 7, 2018, 1:14 PM · Give a set of gut strings a try Erik. I’m not saying you’ll sound like Heifetz right away but they will teach you about sound and bow technique. You’ll be able to draw sounds that are more similar to what you have in my mind. Of course that might be ‘irresponsible’ for me to suggest on here...

Josef Gingold once said, part of the ‘secret’ to a beautiful sound full of overtones like Heifetz’s or Elman’s is great intonation. He felt a good sound and intonation go hand in hand.

As far as bow holds go, the Russian bow hold is a very broad term. I was having dinner the other night with my good friend who is Concertmaster of the NYC Ballet Orchestra. He studied with both Milstein and Heifetz and we talked about this very topic. He said Heifetz and Milstein had completely different bow holds. Oscar Shumsky was another great violinist from the Auer class who had his own unique bow hold and technique which I’ve learned about from his son, who is a wonderful violist. So even within the ‘Russian School’ there are many different approaches. It’s not so black and white. The ‘Russian bow hold’ is more of a thing made up by other pedagogues and writers.

October 7, 2018, 2:06 PM · Glad it helped Erik!
October 8, 2018, 11:03 PM · Nate- I’ll look into gut strings. I had been wondering a bit about them in the past.
Edited: October 16, 2018, 4:36 AM · My two centimes d'Euro.

I have adopted a somewhat "hanging" elbow, which gives me all the power and depth I need with zero strain!

The upper arm takes some part in all broad strokes, and allows a slight pendular motion of the whole arm, thus avoiding pressure between notes at moderate tempi.

My index presses a short distance from the base knuckle (Russian?) but without excessive pronation, since the pinky is quite curved (FB?)

Accents and fine shading come from the index together with a very active (bent) thumb, which is more than a simple fulcrum.

My ring finger is active too: having it on the far side of the stick, and the pinky on the first facet of the near side, this pair of fingers steer and balance the bow. Indeed, it is the middle finger which is often redundant!

I contrast to many of us, my wrist is often a little lower than the knuckles when playing at the heel, and a little higher when at the tip.

(I prefer to say what works for me, in case it helps, rather than lay down any absolute "truths"!)

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