Arm weight question

October 20, 2018, 4:04 AM · Sorry if this is a silly question but am new to violin (been playing about five months). I’ve been struggling with the concept of arm weight. I think I get it on down bows as I simply think about a sleeping person’s arm “falling” but how does this “weight” apply on the up bow? Or am I just conceptualising this totally wrong? Do you have any other tips and tricks re: understanding arm weight for a beginner ? My teacher says I’m mostly doing fine with it but I feel like I accidentally do it right some times and not others and I want my bowing and tone to be more consistent.

Replies (14)

October 20, 2018, 4:17 AM · It's more an image than a fact. If we imagine some of the arm's weight sinking the bow into the string, our bowing will be less stiff than if we think of pressing. It's a way of "talking" to the larger muscle groups, even those around the shoulder-blades.
October 20, 2018, 7:57 AM · The answer is it depends on the bow technique you want to play and how active all your finger are in your grip.

One of the biggest challenges for me when I started playing was getting a consistent sound along the whole length of a bow stroke, both up and down bow. If you are weighting the bow on the strings mostly by lowering your arm or pushing your hand into the bow, then you will probably struggle to maintain a consistent sound along the entire stroke.

Imagine your bow hold where almost all the pressure is felt in the forefinger and thumb. The other three fingers rest lightly on the stick, and for a long, legato bow stroke are just there for the ride. The forefinger and thumb will do all the "weight" work.

Now focus on the pressure of the stick on your forefinger. As you start your down bow at the nut, you will find you need only a slight pressure on the finger to get the string to sound.

As you move the bow to the tip, you will need to increase that feeling of pressure on the forefinger to maintain the same sound level.

For an up bow, the reverse is true. You need to start with some high sense of pressure of the forefinger against the stick and have it gradually decrease as you push the bow towards the nut.

The pressure between the stick and the forefinger is a primary source of feedback to your brain on what is happening. The problem then becomes what muscle movements should one use to control the forefinger pressure as the bow moves over the string. Scientists call this setting up a feedback loop.

It turns out that using the weight of the arm, mostly by activating the shoulder muscle, makes it difficult to finely tune the feedback loop for a simple legato bow stroke. The smaller muscles of the arm, those that activate wrist and forearm motion, provide finer control for this stroke.

Through the miracle of players thinking about this problem for centuries, the modern bow grip has evolved to activate these smaller muscles almost automatically during the stroke. You just need to do two things:

1. Get the initial weight of the hairs on the string setup. This is done by "hanging" the bow arm from the shoulder to weight the bow, and then keeping this upper arm and shoulder height constant throughout the stroke.

2. Bow at a consistent speed while keeping the angle of the bow relative to the strings constant. This is done by hinging the forearm up and down at the elbow. At the extreme ends of the stroke, you might have to activate the shoulder a bit to keep the bow moving in a straight line, but you do not change the height of the upper arm during the stroke.

What you will notice during a down bow is that the forearm will naturally rotate and the wrist will bend up in such a way that will naturally increase the pressure on the forefinger. The reverse will happen during an up bow. This has to happen in order to keep the angle of the bow relative to the string constant.

If you practice long, slow strokes this way and listen carefully to the sound while focusing on the pressure of the stick against your forefinger, you will fine tune your "weight" feedback loop by ever-so-slightly exaggerating the forearm or wrist motion.

You will also start to pickup the sensation of friction between the hairs and string resisting the stroke. This will let you fine tune your "speed" feedback loop.

One more word about the shoulder controlling the height of the upper arm: as you cross to a different string, it is natural to have the upper arm raise or lower a bit, although I have seen players adjust string crossing by exaggerated changes in wrist and forearm position. Best to consult your teacher on the method they prefer.

Edited: October 20, 2018, 4:31 PM · Not a silly question, it's fundamental to playing bowed instruments. When I was learning the cello at about the age of 12 my cello teacher told me to think of my bowing arm as being like a ship's hawser. A hawser is the thick heavy rope that is used to moor a ship to the quayside and needs to be flexible.

That advice worked for me on the cello, and works for me today as a violinist.

Edited: October 20, 2018, 9:13 AM · It's a matter of applying the arm's weight to the bow through torque around the fulcrum of your thumb (the see-saw simile). This is varied by the amount of pronation of the forearm.

Thus the index finger applies bow force down on the strings for the upper portion of the bow (left of the center of gravity) and the fingers to the right of the thumb (including the pinky) apply force to the bow to apply less force on the strings closer to the frog.

Where does the nice big brother sit on the see-saw when he plays with his little sister? That's all there is too it - well, that and keeping the bow moving pretty straight across the strings!

I have always believed that this needs to be done in coordination with keeping the muscles of the arm and wrist pretty well in line to allow the forces to reach the fingers. But then I watch a virtuoso like Joshua Bell use his bow and realize there must be more to it that that - or maybe he just has better fiddles and bows!

October 20, 2018, 9:21 AM · It's fashionable for teachers these days to get hysterical whenever someone talks about "pressing," which of course is exactly what we do when we want more sound. We apply pressure through the first finger in a rotational (torquing) force. The question is how high or low the elbow is, and that varies from school to school. Often, the elbow needs to be higher to help support things (the opposite of "weight," eh?), such as in spicatto.

Frankly I wouldn't get hung up about a concept that doesn't really make a lot of sense. Here's the bottom line: Use more bow, have a good contact point, and don't press so hard that it squeaks.

Contact point, pressure, speed. The Devil's Triangle. Many get lost in it.

October 21, 2018, 8:16 PM · So THAT'S what "Devil's Triangle" means. *Phew*

Anyway I'm totally with Scott. "Weight" is the same thing as "pressure." And "pressure" means force. Remember that the definition of pressure is force per unit area, and weight is the force exerted by a fixed mass in a gravitational field. So all these concepts are basically the same.

Where "weight" is emphasized in teaching has to do with how that force is applied in relation to the other factors -- bow speed, etc. Thus, it might be a quite useful mental construct to be feeling the weight of your arm relaxing downward as your bow is drawn, because that might result in a good combination of pressure and speed.

An excellent pro told me that if his students *never* squeak or scratch, that's when he gets concerned. He says the student must learn how to play very close to that tipping point (and even move it a little), but how can you learn where it is if you never cross it?

October 21, 2018, 9:47 PM · "An excellent pro told me that if his students *never* squeak or scratch, that's when he gets concerned. He says the student must learn how to play very close to that tipping point (and even move it a little), but how can you learn where it is if you never cross it?"

Those are some good words.

I've found that it's about 90% more common to find students who press too lightly rather than too hard.

I probably say at least several dozen times a week, "play TOO hard and then back off a little"!

October 22, 2018, 3:26 AM · With certain students, who like the violin to sing rather than croak, I prefer to start with the softer sounds they like, and help them deepen and lengthen the stroke without scratching.

October 22, 2018, 7:42 AM · As a learning adult currently working on this with my teacher, even after learning how to apply the weight on the string:

1. I need to maintain that weight when changing direction of bow. Sometimes the index finger has a tendency to lift at that point of bow change and it shows in the discontinuity of sound.

2. While the issue of weight at the upper part of the bow and the role of the index finger comes up often, there is another sort of weight at the frog where the hand is more orthogonal to the string. I think martele exercises there help a bit because it sensitizes me to the amount of weight I can apply and to how much grab and release as well as controlling the bow. Also at the tip.

October 22, 2018, 7:42 AM · As a learning adult currently working on this with my teacher, even after learning how to apply the weight on the string:

1. I need to maintain that weight when changing direction of bow. Sometimes the index finger has a tendency to lift at that point of bow change and it shows in the discontinuity of sound.

2. While the issue of weight at the upper part of the bow and the role of the index finger comes up often, there is another sort of weight at the frog where the hand is more orthogonal to the string. I think martele exercises there help a bit because it sensitizes me to the amount of weight I can apply and to how much grab and release as well as controlling the bow. Also at the tip.

Edited: October 22, 2018, 10:54 AM · Hmm. When the bow changes direction, it slows, stops and speeds up over a brief instant. This implies a momentary reduction in pressure (weight?!) whatever the technique we choose (e.g. horizontal loop with the hand, or anticipatory finger motions).

I like to think of the basic stroke as a gentle curve (into and out of the string) rather than a straight line.

Edited: October 22, 2018, 1:24 PM · Adrian, according to my teacher we maintain the weight, even if slowing and reversing direction. He tells me keep index on bow without lifting/alleviating pressure). On the other hand(not literally), we might be looking at this from different degrees of subteltly.
October 22, 2018, 1:41 PM · I think of the elbow as always wanting to go away from the bow. So on a down-bow, it's like the elbow is pulling the rest of the forearm and hand, and on the up-bow, it's like the hand is pulling the elbow.

I think a heavy elbow, like a bobber, is a useful picture, but I balance that by reminding myself that it's more of a feeling or picture, and that the line of transmission of force is still on the same plane of the bow, meaning I try to not drop my elbow to a point where it doesn't make sense, like how violinists used to be taught by holding a book between their side and their arm.

Really slow bows (+10 seconds) can help you understand the feeling of moving the bow with the natural arm weight.

October 22, 2018, 3:16 PM · As a teacher, a concept that seems to work is; when playing on the G &D string, lower half of the bow, it should feel like your arm is hanging from a tree limb (the bow). The shoulder stays down, the right elbow about the same level as the right hand. Avoid the temptation to raise the elbow and push down on the bow. The upper half of the bow feels different; it is leverage felt on the first finger and thumb. When using the F.-B. bow hold there is an unstable cross-over point in the middle section of the bow. The Russian hold avoids that instability by putting the crossover point much lower on the bow. The E-string is a little different; you are pushing sideways. When changing bow direction at the tip from a down-bow to an up-bow it is perfectly natural to release the leverage; part of our brain wants to avoid making a noise. But the bow, when released, looses traction and skids off of the optimum point of contact. So -keep the first finger tight; that little clicking sound will be heard as a clean attack.


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