Thumb pressure on the bow

December 3, 2018, 4:19 PM · I occasionally consult with a friend who has a virtuoso technique. He plays everything. He has introduced me to an idea that I have not heard before. He hands me a cheap bow and asks me to play. He will stand behind me and suddenly reach to knock the bow out of my hand. If it does not fall he says that my thumb is exerting too much pressure.

It probably is somewhat tight typically compared to what it is when I consciously work to minimize the thumb pressure.

In my 56 years of playing, right hand thumb pressure has never been discussed including by a teacher of mine who guided my virtuoso friend and was the reason I know him. To be sure my virtuoso friend was pretty well fully formed when he encountered my teacher. He learned this from his childhood teacher.

The "scare me" technique is not very scientific. It may only mean I have fast defensive reflexes. But my friend plays better than anyone else I know so I think his idea deserves consideration.

My question for discussion is this: Was thumb pressure on the bow a conscious part of your training? Are you aware of an pedagogical treatises that address thumb pressure on the bow?

Replies (22)

Edited: December 3, 2018, 6:02 PM · Science- or engineering-wise the bow is a simple beam. When being used it is supported vertically at two points by the strings and the the thumb. With a mass of only about 60 grams (slightly more than 2 ounces) a violin bow is too light to put enough force on the strings when playing to the left of the bow's CG and sometimes a bit too heavy when playing to the right of the CG (closer to the frog).

To compensate ONE finger must apply pressure downward on the bow (to the left of the thumb when playing nearer the tip and to the right when playing nearer the frog). Maybe more than one finger just to keep things stable!

Any more finger pressure and you are just squeezing the bow and all that squeeze is just wasted energy. Just try to find the way to balance the bow around the fulcrum of your thumb to get the right sound from the bow hair contact with the strings.

For off-string strokes things get more complicated except with "perfect bows" that have the right elasticity to read your intention and do the right thing. But those bows are pretty scarce - even more so for bows that also have perfect resonance for best sound.

December 3, 2018, 8:14 PM · your whole bow hand should be relaxed, and right thumb should not put pressure on the bow. I don't know about pushing the bow out of the hand, but that sounds like a valid test of tightness, grip issues, or stress. Also, my teacher would disagree with the poster above- you don't need a finger to put downward pressure on the bow- sure way to kill tone. You should be able to hold the bow with your thumb on one eye of the frog, and a finger on the other, and draw a pretty nice tone. If not, it's a good thing to work on!
December 3, 2018, 8:50 PM · Surely there are varying degrees of pressure required to execute the various bow strokes. The thump pressure will counteract the pronating forearm, and everything will be determined by the weight of the bow, but the pressure will never in excess to carry out these functions....
Edited: December 3, 2018, 9:22 PM · "Relax your bow hand" is not good advice. I would listen to Andrew's explanation, that's much more helpful.

Also, the balance changes depending on where you are in the bow. Generally: more weight on first finger when at the tip, more weight towards pinky finger when in the lower half.

December 3, 2018, 9:57 PM · Tom, I don't put pressure on the string and I can draw the bow with the screw between my thumb and two fingers with a reasonable sound . But thumb pressure when holding the bow does not necessarily translate to pressing on the bow. You could grip the bow very tightly and still draw is very lightly over the string.
December 3, 2018, 11:28 PM · We're wading into semantics here. We need some force from the thumb to counter balance the weight of the hand. Too much force, we call that squeezing (bad), not enough force, the thumb doesn't have enough support as fulcrum (not good either).

Historically the so-called "French" bow hold (and the French imported their technique from the Italians) in the 17th century has the thumb under the bow hair in which it is possible to regulate bow tension. For more sources, see Julie Andrijeski (2012).

December 4, 2018, 8:12 AM · The science on this is actually rather simple.

The string pushes up on the bow.

The index finger develops pressure on the bow to offset that push. Together with the string force the bow will have a tendency to rotate upwards off the string.

The thumb develops pressure on the bow to offset the tendency to rotate.

In short, the pressure on the thumb is related to how much you push the bow into the strings.

If you are playing near the fingerboard, light pressure on the strings is needed so you have light pressure on the thumb.

If you are playing near the bridge, you want more pressure on the strings, so this means more pressure on the thumb.

I am sure your friend is well intentioned, but the scientific reality is thumb pressure is a passive consequence to a variety of ways one has to control the pressure of the bow hairs on the string.

Personally, I use pressure on the index finger as my main source of feedback on how much I am digging into the strings.

December 4, 2018, 9:54 AM · Yes, it was part of my violin lessons but it was not like a separate module or something. I was not supposed to use excessive force on the bow and not on anything else either. Excessive force anywhere can hinder the movements you need to perform and it can be bad for your health.
December 4, 2018, 12:28 PM · The question is, what's "excessive force?" Well, if you take your bow out of your hand and there's a white indentation in your thumb from the corner of your frog, that's excessive force.
December 4, 2018, 12:45 PM · Indeed the thumb is active, even if we don't really think about it.

With my "cat's paw" hold, my thumb is fairly mobile, as if I were rotating a small orange in my hand using fingers and thumb. Suzuki may be the only pedagogue who insisted on this.

My French colleagues "pinch" the bow between thumb and middle finger (to stop it falling!); I don't "hold" my bow with the thumb, I "hold it up"..

Edited: December 4, 2018, 1:23 PM · "It is absolutely vital to hold it (the bow) as lightly as possible - rather as one might pick up a newborn bird."

--Yehudi Menuhin

That one single advice has transformed my tone production and technique into a whole new level. Problem is, it's too easy to come out with a few reasons to dismiss this. I found it to be a piece of priceless advice.

December 4, 2018, 3:07 PM · Great quote Casey!
Edited: December 4, 2018, 4:33 PM · Thank you Casey.

Dorian, very interesting.

December 4, 2018, 6:10 PM · I don't ever think about my right thumb while playing. For me, the only time there is appreciable force at the thumb is when applying leverage through the 1st finger while playing loud in the upper third of the bow. The rest of the time, the string holds the bow. When lifting the bow to play off-the-string techniques, the thumb only has to hold the rather light weight of the bow
December 5, 2018, 1:45 AM · Casey, Menuhin does in fact work on the thumb in the exraordinary bowing chapters of his Six Lessons. Working through his "genealogy of bow strokes" I began to sound a little like him - not bad for the written word!
December 5, 2018, 7:39 AM · About Heifetz it has been said by one of his students that when he was playing and you were standing close to him, you felt afraid of touching anything, should his violin or bow fall out of his hands, such a lightness was part of his playing.
Edited: December 6, 2018, 4:28 PM · This is tentative but I find that I squeeze less when the thumb feels more secure on the stick. A slick winding (wire) is less secure feeling to me than a leather winding. I am in the process of investigating other alternatives.

Maybe I am looking for a thumb rest. :)

December 11, 2018, 5:10 AM · An active thumb allows an almost calligraphic subtlety.
Edited: December 11, 2018, 6:06 AM · All this is fine and I agree. When great violinists play locally, in small venues where one can see their technique up-close, their bow hands invariably look very relaxed. Like the hands of corpses wagging back and forth.

The question is probably not whether this is correct technique, because obviously it is practiced and preached by the greatest players. The question seems more to be how a novice gets there. And frankly it's a difficult way for a beginner to start out, because one's primary focus is not "tone production" in the finest sense of the phrase or elegance in one's technique, but rather "making a sound" and "playing a tune."

So if y'all are wondering "how on earth" one holds one's bow "like a baby bird," the answer for the novice/student/amateur is that one learns to do this by focusing on it entirely whilst practicing stuff that's significantly easier for the left hand than your current high-octane concerto movement.

December 11, 2018, 10:04 AM · Paul, we can't expect a child learning to walk to move like a ballet dancer! Or think of handwriting..

For a student with a pinched or stiff bow-hold, I suggest that 5 minutes of each practice session could be spent picking up an imaginary baby bird, or a real ultra-ripe peach, and the trying keep the sensations while playing a simple scale; then do the usual practice the usual way.
Gradually, with luck, (and tact!), the baby bird can invest the whole session.

December 11, 2018, 11:31 AM · As a violin "returnee" I've had a bit of a vice grip with both thumbs that's easing now after 6 months back at it. This is despite knowing better since I played with considerably lighter thumbs before I quit some 25 years ago. I suspect there is something about developing the appropriate finger/hand muscles that makes it extremely difficult (impossible?) for newbies to hold the neck and bow very lightly.
December 11, 2018, 12:22 PM · I think it rather depends on what we do with our hands the rest of the time. We may need some time to retrieve lighter sensations. Gymnastics for the hand with a medium dense foam ball?

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