What is wrong with my bowing technique (bowing arm)?

September 25, 2019, 9:59 AM · Hi,
I have some issues with my bowing arm. My bow shakes, it does not feel natural, I somehow feel restraint in my arm (my hand feels relaxed).
I have checked my bow with a luthier - it is OK.
I have some issues with my shoulder but my doctor says it is not a big problem.
I have light essential tremor (genetics - not kind of tremor that you get when you are nervous) so my bow shakes even when my hand is "still". I don't think this is the issue because my upbow does not shake that much. Main problem is down bow and a general "feeling that sth is not right / I don't have control over my bowing arm / it feels awkward".
Please share your thoughts based on the posted video (not general exercises because I have tried a lot of them and probably I do each and every one
unconsciously making the same mistake).

Replies (29)

Edited: September 25, 2019, 10:36 AM · I have had the same problem for the past 4 years (of 80 years of violin playing). I have had some degree of essential tremor all my life (it shows in my penmanship over the years too) but it has only affected my bowing of violin and viola the past 4 years.

For me, holding the bow by putting my thumb under the frog is a big help when troubles start. I have less problem with a viola bow, but since the thumb-leather diameter is the same as my violin bows I assume it must be the 10 gram greater total weight of the bow OR the weight distribution. And, I do not have the problem when playing cello (with a cello bow).

Using a tip-heavier bow might help as might a more "robust" rosin. I hesitate to suggest using more index finger pressure because it might make the problem worse. Being sure to not squeeze the bow with your thumb could help; just let the bow rest on your thumb. (Ultimately, you might have to find a less conventional/acceptable way to hold the bow.)

The #1 medical way of alleviating this is with a beta blocker such as Propranolol and it does work for me - even using as little as 2.5 mg, which is 1/4 of a very low-dose pill - that combined with "thumb-under-the frog" will get me through every time. There are some other medical recommendations; my internist prescribed Gabapentin 4 years ago, but I did not find it helped enough. There is an over-the-counter product called Tremanol, but it did not seem to work for me.

Some of these ideas might be worth a try.

September 25, 2019, 10:40 AM · @Andrew: I have same observation when it comes to more first finger pressure = more shaking

I have seen your advice about thumb in a different thread and unfortunately it didn't work for me :<

What really surprises me it that even if I put my whole arm till wrist on a table (I sit on the floor) and I try to relax my shoulder and arm my bow still feels strange and it shakes.

I went to a music store and tried heavier bows - always the same issue. :< I changed my rosin to one that gives more friction and it is easier to play with but does not resolve the problem.

Propranolol will be my last resort :) I am still hoping that this is just an issue with my shoulder. Otherwise I would expect up-bows to shake which is not that much the case.

September 25, 2019, 12:26 PM · Personally, Ido find a difference in shakes between upbow and downbow. I too believe a lot of this is linked to the shoulder nerves and muscles, but also to having a "clear path" through the wrist. So minimizing wrist angles may be important for some of us.
Edited: September 25, 2019, 12:35 PM · It sounds like you get a trailing-off in your sound after the frog portion in your downbow, and it seems to me like you aren't letting the weight of your arm and elbow do the work. I might try some even slower bows, really trying to keep the depth of sound at all moments in the stroke, which means letting your arm relax and letting the whole weight of your elbow keep your arm heavy throughout the stroke.

When you are doing a son file exercise, you have the chance to observe a lot of minute details of little hitches in your movement and little tensings in your arm.

But your bowing is straight, which is a good start.

Edited: September 26, 2019, 11:00 AM · That looks very good, with a version of the Russian bow hold, which should track better, with less shaking than the F.-B. But we cannot see How you are using it, in the hand. I'll give the opposite opinion from Andrew: use More first-finger leverage when playing in the upper half, above the balance point, not less. Do Not try a heavier or tip-heavy bow until you solve this. The bow wants to bounce, it is a spring. It is designed to bounce. Some students try to apply weight through the third finger while playing long tones, which lifts the weight of the bow because it is on the other side of the thumb, and it looses traction, bounces. Others have a straight, locked fourth finger, which reduces control, and prevents it from bouncing when we want it to.
Edited: September 26, 2019, 5:34 AM · Just from the looks of it you seem a bit tense in the shoulder.
The minute moves of the shoulder up and down might (but not necessarily) show tension.
This tension translates into muscle fatigue throughout your entire right arm.
Joel gave you sound advice on more pressure on the index finger (palm rotation), but if you have a tense arm, you will not solve the problem.

Suggestion: lower your right shoulder and elbow a bit and let both of them kind of rest on the bow. You will only be able to do that if you apply proper rotation to your wrist and index finger pressure on the bow.
Be careful that you actually lift that weight when playing on the lower half of the bow, but do not change the geometry of the shoulder posture.
And do not think of bow pressure as a factor. You need to “pull” the sound out of the violin, rather than push it in. Pressure is secondary to “pull”.

September 25, 2019, 3:16 PM · continued,--
Agree with Tony; The right shoulder stays down, the right elbow slightly lower than than the hand. It should feel like the string is holding the bow as much as your hand, and you push or pull sideways against the friction of the rosin.
Edited: September 26, 2019, 10:37 AM · I don't know if this would help, but many years ago my cello teacher taught me to think of my bowing arm as a flexible thick rope. "A ship's hawser" was the expression he used, and, living in a city with a thriving maritime heritage, that resonated and worked with me. Decades later when I took up the violin I applied the concept successfully to my violin playing.
Edited: September 25, 2019, 5:44 PM · Honestly, the number one thing you can do to help yourself is to point your violin significantly higher. The strings should be *level*, which means that the body of the violin will be slightly *up*. To be more specific, when I say "level", I mean along the length of the violin. I don't mean that the E string should be the same height as the G. Basically, bring your scroll higher using your left arm.

And get rid of the mute, if possible.

September 25, 2019, 7:22 PM · More knuckles, less shoulder.

Actually, your shoulder is pretty good. But more knuckles! Your hand and fingers should flow with your wrist.

September 26, 2019, 1:48 AM · Tony, what did you mean by: "but donot change the geometry of the pressure."
Edited: September 26, 2019, 5:40 AM · Sorry. I actually meant geometry of your shoulder posture. Correcting.

Now I listened to the sound and - yes I can hear that the weight of the arm is not resting on the bow, but is supported by the shoulder. This is especially noticeable at the tip of the bow, where the sound power sort of dwindles...

By gradually rotating the forearm inwards as you approach the tip you will give more support to your arm (through pressure of index finger to the stick). That way you can alleviate the shoulder.

The result will be tamer bow and more consistent sound production throughout the entire length of the bow.

I will try to record a demo today (time permitting).

Edited: September 26, 2019, 8:31 AM · @Andrew - what do you mean by writs angles? That some ppl should not bend wrist too much?

@Joel - do you mean that I have Russian bow hold? :) I ask because I have always though that I have F-B which is a standard I guess?
Yes, unfortunately you cannot see how my wrist works but in this video I wanted to concentrate on shoulder movement because my teacher was really happy (he is a perfectionist) with my hand/wrist movements so I just figured out this cannot be main problem
As far as the weight of the bow is concerned I have same approach for now - this won't solve the problem but will only reduce the bouncing and my technique will still be defective and plus I really prefer light bows :)

@Tony I have tried this "gradually rotating the forearm inwards as you approach the tip" - and it still shakes a bit but feels much more comfortable. I add now index finger pressure gradually (it happened naturally when I started to rotate my forearm).
What makes it even more interesting is that when I was doing upbows I was somehow naturally doing this "inward" movement and maybe this is why my upbows feel better for me. I am kind of person who does everything too light - so in my case "index finger pressure" means a very light pressure :) For someone else my pressure could be "zero pressure".
You also mentioned that "It should feel like the string is holding the bow " - this is the thing that is not happening yet for me :) I barely can keep my bow from sliding to a crooked position on long bows

@Trevor thank you for this visualization tip - I will try to incorporate it

@Erik I will try to change position of the violin

@Cotton it may be that my shoulder looks OK but it really doesn't feel this way :/

September 26, 2019, 11:01 AM · continued:-- Paulina - I called that bow hold "Russian" because the stick is between the base of the first finger and the first joint, while the F.B. hold has it between the first and second joints. Your fourth finger is long enough to stay curved, on the stick all the the time, which is great. I would change Nothing about your form and posture, it looks good, only the internal , invisible mechanics need improvements. I am puzzled about "shoulder movement". The shoulder does not move. it stays down, relaxed. Of course there are unseen movements inside the joint.
Here is an exercise that works for me and some students, that I submitted on a previous thread;
Mentally divide the bow into three parts. The upper third is about leverage, the middle third is balance, and the lower third is arm weight. On the low strings, G or D, start at the tip, lift both the third and fourth finger (!) or tuck them behind the stick, lean on the first finger, do a slow up bow for about a third of the bow, stop, put all the fingers on the stick (balance)continue for the middle third, stop, lift the first finger (!)which puts the perceived weight on the second finger or back of the hand. That part is clumsy, and is where you will really feel that the string is holding the bow. For the down bow reverse the process. When you get a feel for all that put all the fingers back on the stick, for control. The cross-over point varies with the bow hold and which string we are playing. On the E string, with the Russian hold, the bow is almost vertical, and the cross-over point is very low, it is almost all first-finger leverage. Some of the undesired bow bouncing can happen when we switch between leverage and arm weight weight too soon in the bow stroke.
I hope that makes sense. Bowing is very difficult and mysterious to describe in words, that's why we have private teachers. I suspect you have a good one.
I do not think that you need to raise the violin very much. Having the strings completely level means that you have to constantly push up with the left arm. Ideally the violin is level and the strings are sloped slightly down. You are OK. It is different topic not directly involved with bowing.
September 27, 2019, 7:03 AM · @Joel I will try this exercise out and share my results :) Thank you for a detailed description
By cross-over you mean the point when leverage/balance/arm weight part changes? Sorry for asking but as you have probably noticed English is a foreign language for me :)
Vertical bow position -> "vertical" plane referring to strings plane?
September 27, 2019, 10:26 AM · continued-- Thanks Paulina,
Vertical bow means; if you are playing long tones on the E string the bow looks almost vertical, there is less help from gravity and the cross over point is much lower on the bow.
Yes, the cross over point is where you switch from leverage to arm weight and the reverse. It is not necessarily the same as the balance point or the exact middle of the bow, and it moves, changes, depending on your bow hold, down or up bow, and which string you playing. Some people switch too soon, and the bow becomes unstable in the middle. One advantage of your "Russian" bow hold is that the cross over point is lower, closer to the frog, away from that unstable middle.
And of course, there is more than one way to bow effectively, different schools of thought, and I would never say that I am right, while so many, better than I, are wrong. For a contrary example, look at some you tube clip of Milstein playing Bach. It is mysterious, magical, you can't tell how he can do that just by watching.
Your English is excellent. Most impressive.
September 27, 2019, 11:15 AM · managing the bow is always an obstacle at any level, so realize that even professionals have great difficulty getting their ideal sound and eliminating tremors in the bow.

With that being said here are my observations. Before focusing on a natural feel, fix any technical issues and get a great sound. At that point experiment with ways to lessen the effort to produce that sound. I would suggest three small things:

1.keep a consistent point of contact with the string. (experiment with getting more in between the bridge and fingerboard)
2.pronate more, especially in the upper half of the bow consistently. I noticed occasionally you add pressure just after the bow stroke instead of the moment the stroke starts
3. keep the bow parallel to the bridge at all times (good to practice in front of the mirror, and pause in between each bow stroke fixing your bow geometry and making sure you are catching the string)

As far as everything looks mechanically I think it all looks great! hold the violin more parallel to the floor and that will also help with the drifting sounding point, but it is not the end of the world if this is not adjusted.

One final note is a thought about the thumb. The thumb may be pressing up against the bow more than necessary. When a bow is bouncing, I think "why is it doing this?". All of my weight from my arm and fingers are keeping it down, gravity is keeping it down, and if I am keeping pressure consistent the bounce should not happen. I then think about my thumb, especially at the frog. At the frog it should almost feel as if the thumb is uninvolved. As you draw the bow towards the tip, the thumb slowly starts to take counter pressure and give you pronation. The thumb is nothing more than a fulcrum and as such should not be adding any of it's own force. If the thumb is pushing up with undue force (especially on down bows) I find that will often cause the bow tremors.

look up violin masterclass detache for more and keep up the stellar work! :)

September 27, 2019, 1:13 PM · Watched the video, actually it's not bad, you obviously are really working hard at being correct. Rather than nitpick what could be better form-wise I would encourage you to actually take a break from worrying about how your bowing looks and think about how it sounds.

What you have now is something you can work with and it will evolve.

Put a finger down on your A string and try to make a beautiful sounding whole note (mezzo forte) that has four beats of consistent sound from frog to tip. Then make it 8 beats. Then 16. Always maintain a really nice round tone. Then try to make it 30 seconds.

Now try mezzo piano -- softer but consistent. Then piano (which will be very hard).

do this (or something similar to this) every day for a couple of months. You will just naturally be more comfortable holding the bow at the frog and sustaining a strong sound at the tip -- which is one of the hallmarks of someone who can bow a violin.

I would further suggest you work on this with a violin teacher (online is fine). Try playwithapro.com where you can get half-hour video lessons very inxpensively from really good people.

Nice post and good work!

September 28, 2019, 7:08 AM · Try practising open strings. It will help a lot.
September 28, 2019, 10:24 AM · continued, agree with A. N. about the right thumb. I rarely feel anything or consciously do anything with the thumb. Its primary job is;-- to prevent the bow from falling out of the hand.
Edited: September 29, 2019, 6:37 AM · @Joel Thank you for further explanation. I have watched recommended recordings on youtube to observe bow movement and it is magical indeed :)

@Allan Thank you for the encouragement. Sometimes I just feel that my bowing is below average progress and it makes me want to quit but then I realize that there must be a way to fix it and I just need more time and more practice.
1. yes, this is an issue with my bowing - recording this video made me realize that I tend to play closer to the bridge on G and closer to fingerboard on E.
About thumb - I don't feel any tension there but it is possible that I make some other mistake.
Thank you for the tip about detache masterclass. What I have noticed (maybe this is just coincidence) is that they practice detache only used max. ¾ of the bow. Does it mean that we never play detache with whole bow?

When I practice long slow bows I have more control than when I play fast bows.
The most difficult combination is for me: fast and long down-bow. Is there any standard of progress that I should be able to complete with regards to this type of bowing? In other words: How much of the bow should I be able to use comfortably when bowing fast as a beginner?
About playing mezzo forte - this is my problem :) I always worry that my neighbors could hear me even with my metal mute. I guess this is a mistake since the correct way of learning bowing would be as you describe louder -> quieter.

@Daniel Thank you, I agree this is a very good exercise

Thank you all for taking your time and sharing advices.

To sum this up: should I practice slow and long bowing incorporating different exercises and SEPARATELY shorter (I mean like 1/2 to 3/4 of the bow) faster bowing? Does this make any sense?

If you are getting annoyed with my too many question please feel free to ignore this thread :)

I was just watching some videos on correct bowing technique to try different approaches and I stumbled across this one:
I tried no to touch the strings with bow and I found out that (surprisingly ;)) I do some strange movement in upper 3/4 part of the bow up and down. So maybe its not my arm but bow grip / incorrect weight balancing?

I also tried to record my thumb but it might be not visible enough:

September 29, 2019, 11:07 AM · I think the set up looks good! The bow movements seem to be caused by your thumb and pinky relationship. I would suggest two things:

1. Turn the thumb so your point of contact with the bow is the meat to the right of the nail, and not the pad of the thumb it's self. This will further allow your thumb to remain bent with even less tension (a Simon Fischer trick). I feel as though your thumb is not bent due to relaxation, but more so because you have willed it to be bent.

2. Relax that big muscle between your thumb and pointer finger in your bow hand, Especially at the frog (A good visual to look for at the frog is a bigger "ring"between the thumb and fingers). You have to feel the muscle in between those two joints as "squishy" at the frog. naturally as you pronate towards the tip it will tighten up. Conversely that big muscle between your pinky's base joint and wrist should always feel soft and "squishy".

September 29, 2019, 11:33 AM · @allan nelson , Could you please define what you mean by pronate? I don't want to hijack the thread, but I'm trying to follow the details of the helpful info. Are you talking about allowing the wrist to bend when the bow is at the tip? Thanks.
September 29, 2019, 11:58 AM · @ beverly harris. Pronation is the motion of turning the bow wrist in, or clockwise (similar motion to turning a key) to increase pressure on the bow.
October 1, 2019, 7:33 AM · Once again thank you for all of your tips and explanations. I will keep it in mind while practicing and share my results (hopefully) but I assume it will take a couple of months. :)
October 1, 2019, 10:31 AM · continued--
Detache -- is a french word frequently misunderstood by english language violinists. It is almost a false cognate. The first meaning is separated. But the second dictionary meaning, in both languages, is indifferent, ordinary. Detache is our ordinary on-the-string bowing, Without accents or rests. So, full-bow or lower -half detache is common. It is sometimes confused with Martele, the hammer-stroke, which does have accents and stops. I have done full-bow Martele as an exercise, but never in real music.
Last piece of advice; if you make a major change in your bowing mechanics, your technique might break down for a few weeks before the new habits get established. This has happened several times to me. Definitely be under the supervision of your teacher and don't do this immediately before a concert.
October 1, 2019, 10:46 AM · @Joel, thank you so much for explanation. Unfortunately I cannot have regular lessons right now. I think that the changes will be rather subtle and I will focus on weight distribution and potential tension in my body and just open strings exercises with more awareness.
Anyway my bowing technique feels already broken :) It can only get better.
Edited: October 6, 2019, 11:44 AM · Hi Paulina,
I am a violin teacher of 30 years and from looking at your video would just like to make a suggestion. When you start the down-bow, especially at the beginning of the video, it seems you push the wrist down quite immediately which can squash the sound and cause juddering (this is only an observation from looking as I wasn’t picking up the sound much on my IPad). If you let the wrist follow the bow and stay over the bow more it might make a difference. The up-bow looks good. You could practise this with long bows just allowing the weight of the bow to be on the string and not applying pressure from wrist or hand ( you won’t make much sound at all) and see the natural level of wrist and arm. Then, gradually for more sound, think of pulling and pushing string sideways, without exerting downward pressure, maybe just a little weight.... I don’t know if I’ve explained this very well but there you go!
Good luck with it all . I’m sure you will find an answer to improve things.
October 9, 2019, 6:46 AM · @Juliet
Thank you for taking your time to watch my video and share your tips.
I think that I understand what you mean. The approach that you describe is the only way that I am able to stop bouncing. Very slow movements, everything totally relaxed and at first there was no sound but gradually there are moments when I finally feel the weight of the bow and of my arm... my bow also paradoxically has more contact with the strings when all I do is trying to do is as little as possible - just keep my hand on the bow, bow straight and on the strings and change movement from shoulder to lower arm to avoid crocked bow position.

Before I was trying to force pressure somehow and even force "relaxed" position (this is what Allan has also pointed out). The harder I tried to be "relaxed and feel the natural weight of the arm and bow" the more pressure I produced in my arm and my bow bounced. It seems like violin teaches me to be more humble - if I try to force anything it just goes wrong.
I can do this movement only very slowly and only on open strings but maybe if I practice after couple of months it will improve.

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