Little finger steers the bow

October 7, 2019, 3:10 AM · Several times I have heard a particular violin teacher instruct her students how the little finger steers the bow. I followed her instruction then, and it worked for me.
But I overwhelmed my violin playing with my interest in the cello.
Now, I have found, "The little finger of the right hand plays a major part in deciding the quality of the spiccato because of its ability to steer the bow" Page 45 The Essential Warm-up routine for Cellists, Mats Lidstrom. (Mats is a virtuoso performer and faculty of the Royal Academy of Music, in the UK.)
Please help me locate further discussions of the role of the little finger of the bow hand.

Replies (28)

October 7, 2019, 7:41 AM · I use a Russian grip. I think of the role of the little finger as relatively passive. There are strokes for which it naturally has a role in balancing the bow, though. But it's never active in the sense of doing any steering that I'm conscious of.
Edited: October 8, 2019, 2:48 PM · Ever wonder why European trained violinists tend to have superior tones to many of those out of the American factory? This is why. The pinky may stabilize it a little bit, but it has such a minimal role. The index finger is responsible for the sound as it controls the speed of the bow and is where the weight is ( and should be but many people nowadays do not follow this) directed to. Can you play the violin with only the thumb and the little finger on the bow? No. Can you play the violin with only the thumb and ring finger on the bow? No. Can you play with only the thumb and the middle finger on the bow? Yes, but you can't get much of a sound. Now it is not advisable, except for tremolo, but you most certainly CAN play with only the thumb and index finger. Am I saying everyone should hold the bow like Heifetz, or the Russian grip for that matter? Not necessarily. However, I believe it is ridiculous that one must focus on the little finger being perfectly round and in control, while the index finger is hyper extend and resting on the most outer joint. When I say Franco-Belgian hold, I don't mean the Galamian-Suzuki method. Im talking about the hold that Gingold and Thibaut taught and is/was used by those such as Szeryng, Joshua Bell and David Oistrakh. I think Either hold is fine (I personally use russian as I was trained that way) but the extreme extension of the index finger and excessive weight on the little finger does not do any good. Sorry if I got a little heated, it just bugs me when teachers insist that this, and only this, is the correct way to hold the bow and then go on to bash some of the greatest violinists of all time who used the Russian hold.
Edited: October 8, 2019, 5:07 PM · Hands, unlike bows, are as varied as noses! So hear are my 2 centimes d'Euro:

My thumb is long-ish, so I bend it more than some folks; it does not "hold" the bow , it "holds it up".

Over the thumb, the weight of my bow is balanced by the ring finger overhanging the stick, combined with the curved pinky on the facet on my side of the stick. When the ring an little fingers extend, the index curls, and vice versa. In fact my middle finger only serves to keep the bow fallind off the thumb!

So yes the curved pinky contributes in steering my bow and allowing a firm flexibility in the whole hand.

Tone comes from the index when at the tip, and from all four fingers when at the heel. From Suzuki training, I have added more conscious sensations and motions in the thumb.

Russian, Franco-Belgian, Franco-Russian?
I just call it a Cat's-Paw Hold.
Works very well.

October 7, 2019, 3:33 PM · "Ever wonder why European trained violinists have superior tones to many of those out of the American factory?"

No, I have not wondered this. I don't think it's true.

I think one's overall tone depends on so many things in addition to the disposition of one's pinky finger that the most one can say is that it's a small factor. The manner in which downward force (or "pressure" or "weight") is applied while drawing the bow horizontally -- the coordination and resonance-catching sensitivity of that motion -- seems to be the main thing from what I've seen.

October 7, 2019, 9:59 PM · "Ever wonder why European trained violinists have superior tones to many of those out of the American factory?"

No, because they don't. Besides, we judge tone to a large extent by the quality of vibrato. And your characterization of the existence of some kind of monolithic "American factory" is both insulting and poorly informed. Perhaps there are some European teachers at the Manhattan pre-college who should stick to teaching instead of opining.

The most important thing about the pinkie (and other fingers and thumb) is flexibility. The major fault of many bow grips is the straight, locked pinky.

I don't agree that the quality of spicatto depends on the pinky. More important is the musician's ability to vary the angle of attack of the bow to the string, the comfort with spicatto in different areas of the bow (especially above the middle), combined with a methodical approach to developing evenness and control.

Edited: October 8, 2019, 9:40 AM · Isn't the Manhattan pre-college actually part of the "American Factory"?
October 8, 2019, 10:11 AM · "Isn't the Manhattan pre-college actually part of the "American Factory"?"

Ha!
What I was thinking.

October 8, 2019, 10:53 AM · By saying that the Europeans uniformly usually have better thumbs and passive pinkies isn’t that saying they come from a uniform training? Ie a factory
October 8, 2019, 11:55 AM · Lol I was just messing around about the superior tone, it is of course, only my opinion. My most influential teacher (from age 10-16) was the assistant to Max Rostal, assistant to Carl Flesch and teacher of many important European violinists and pedagogues. The teacher I have had for the last year studied with a Zimbalist student and a Gingold Studentl When I said "American Factory," I meant the dogmatic Galamian-Delay method. How I was taught, the ideas of the index finger controlling the bow and producing sound as well as the sounding point being used to vary the sound are the core elements to superior tone. After having lessons and briefly studying with other teachers, none of this was ever mentioned. I was expected to flop my wrist at the tip and use the pinky constantly. I was told that playing outside of a very small region between the bridge and fingerboard would cause "crunchy and airy sounds that we must avoid." When I tried to play like this and recorded myself, I was shocked to hear how boring my sound was; I heard an average sound and not my individual voice. I feel that students should be trained to find their individual sound, not just the sound that some teacher thinks is the key to greatness. I personally feel that is a waste of time and money to hear a soloist that sounds identical to 90% of other violinists.
October 8, 2019, 1:37 PM · "Ever wonder why European trained violinists have superior tones to many of those out of the American factory?"

hahahahahahaha

No.

BTW I heard a lot about sounding point from my Galamian/Delay trained teacher at Oberlin.

October 8, 2019, 2:04 PM · Ben, your words are controversial, but I feel you somewhat. I wonder if it's really more down to the individuals, because I have always liked Midori's sound, and she studied with Delay. I can't stand Sonnenberg's sound, and she studied with Delay. I like Joshua Bell's sound (though I've never seen him live) but I can't stand Josefowicz's sound, and they both studied with Gingold. I really like both Zukerman and Perlman's sound, and they both studied with Galamian. But all of these players had teachers growing up, so where did they get their bow holds from and where did they get their sounds from?

I have had some unscientific musings about the sound of American players, or the expectations (or lack thereof) of American audiences, but sometimes I'm not so sure, and I can't exactly work out a theory or even be sure that I'm not biased in a lot of ways. I think that thoughtful violinists will seek out a good sound regardless of whatever kind of claw they have holding the bow.

October 8, 2019, 3:21 PM · Christian, maybe you don't like the sound of their violins? (And their bows too ... don't forget the importance of the "sound" of the bow ... maybe if Sonnenberg played with Bell's bow you would like her sound?)

All this "American school" stuff makes me laugh. Galamian is an Armenian name; Ivan was born in Iran and trained in Russia and France. Midori was born in Osaka. It's true she moved to the US at the age of 11, but when you consider she was performing Paganini caprices at the age of 6, obviously much of her violin education must already have occurred in Japan, where her mother was a pro violinist. Likewise Gingold (born in Belarus) moved to the US at a young age but then he moved to Belgium to study with Ysaye! Josefowicz and Sonnenberg may identify as American violinists, but in fact neither was born in the US (Leila was born in Canada and Nadia in Rome).

I think it bears remembering that much of America's strength comes from the diversity of its people. Especially in these times.

October 8, 2019, 4:45 PM · Paul, I don't know if you are disagreeing with me or expanding on my point, but sure, I don't like the sound of their violins when played by them. I was trying to make the point that it can be easy to ascribe a player to a particular teacher they studied with at a particular time, when there are so many factors that go into how someone plays - I believe we are in agreement on that point.

I have heard Sonnenberg twice, and I thought I was crazy the first time, and the second time didn't answer the question of my sanity, but it did answer the question of Sonnenberg having an absolutely ugly sound. Josefowicz scraped through the first half of the program (I decided not to stick around for her playing + John Adams, but I caught it in my car on the way home and was happy with my decision), and just seemed to be battling her equipment in addition to battling the music, but as far as I'm concerned, if a professional violinist is playing on a bad instrument while gladly taking my money, then it's incumbent on them to listen to themselves and figure it out, and I'm not going to go slap it out of their hands. I don't know if the way they played was exactly what they had in mind, or if they were having off-nights, but the only way I can find to judge them on their playing is by judging what I heard.

Edited: October 8, 2019, 5:22 PM · So, to answer the original question (!!) the little finger can be important for stability and bow direction, but has minimal effect on tone (except maybe between strokes at the heel).

Together with the ring finger it can also play a role in lightening the bow just after the attack in a collé or a martelé stroke and in balancing spiccato.

October 8, 2019, 7:44 PM · Martha Gerschefski: ("The Strong and Flexible Bow For The Cello")

"When you push the bow to the right, the right hand little finger should become straight. When you pull the bow to the left, the right hand little finger should curve. Be sure that the little finger on the frog keeps a good contact point on the frog and does not slip up and down. It must straighten and curve." page 4 (More comments on role of little finger follow on this page.)

"Make a short up-bow by curving your little finger. Then make a short down-bow by straightening the little finger." page 5

The text in the following exercises, for several pages, emphatically addresses the finger action.

Of course, Gerschefski is an American teacher, and I believe she was a student of Fritz Magg, many years a professor at Indiana University.

Again, it works for me, violin and cello. I would really like to read further research into the role of the little finger in controlling the bow. If you know of any such research, please give me a link. Thanks.


October 8, 2019, 10:19 PM · I was puzzled by the opening line.
For me the right fourth finger is not involved with "steering" the bow, controlling the angle that the bow makes with the string. The wrist and elbow do that, or for a bowing school that does not have a title that I know of; the bow can pivot inside the hand. The fourth finger supports the weight of the bow near the frog, helps control the fast, light orchestral style spiccato at the middle. But for detache in the upper half, the fourth (and third) finger do very little. Some fiddlers and early music specialists can get away with not using the fourth and third fingers at all.
Cello bowing is different.
October 9, 2019, 7:26 AM · While i understand the importance of mental practices like this, it would still be best not to dive deep and avoid overthinking. This has a tendancy to promote mechanical thinking which could easily overwhelm anyone due to infinite amount of variables. It just doesn't get along well with creative businesses.

My daughter's teacher is the concertmaster of one of the top orchestras in our country. For example;

When she and my daughter pulls an open string or any random note, i really can't see a meaningful difference which can not be explained by experience or body developement.

But when they start to play the same piece...Now that is a whole different story. My daughter is considered to be a very capable student, yet the difference is crystal clear(huge) without any question. I mean even for the pieces i hate with a passion, her teacher is capable of sounding them pleasing.

This led me to think about four major elements in tone production:

- Violin is one of those instruments on which you can manipulate the velocity curve of any given note as you please. Natural and clever use of this has an enormous impact on the perceived tone.

- Vibrato. Which i believe is self explanatory.

- Ability to maintain the same amount of control, precision and consistency even when you are doing some crazy stuff with your left hand.

- Tension on both arms and hands. Which also is self explanatory.

I believe that the rest could easily be considered as a minor impact or a matter of choice, convenience etc... More truly unique to any other individual

Edited: October 12, 2019, 1:47 AM · Paul Tortelier "How I Play How I teach" 4th Edn
Chester Music page 23

"Finally, the ideal and precise command of the bow stems from the subtle performance of the little finger combined with that of the others, for its action has the greatest influence on the course of the bow, and its counter-action with the index finger is essential to obtain a substantial tone in the mp, p, mpp, and ppp, as well as in the f."

October 10, 2019, 10:49 PM · Paul Tortelier was a cellist.
October 11, 2019, 11:04 AM · " Ever wonder why European trained violinists tend to have superior tones to many of those out of the American factory?"

I haven't either. I'd be very curious to see examples that support this generalisation. I wasn't aware of such "tonal superiority" of European trained violinists.

As for the pinky. If you try flexing your fingers while keeping the pinky elevated it will become very obvious how more relaxed and flexible your fingers are with the pinky down. More flexible fingers = better play.

October 11, 2019, 11:19 AM · Two words: Lucien Capet
October 11, 2019, 1:47 PM · Lets expand on that: Wikipedia: "Capet wrote a book on "Superior Bowing Technique" which is an essential treatise on all aspects of bowing technique for the violin; reprints are available (including translations into English by Margaret Schmidt and Stephen Shipps)." Then what does mr. Capet says?
Edited: October 11, 2019, 5:40 PM · I’m not sure you can learn bowing from a book (or how to hit a tennis backhand or hit a baseball). Better to study with a teacher who can demonstrate techniques. It might however it could be a valuable supplement to lessons.

I can’t make any generalizations about European violinists but I’ve thought that the climate of the British Isles was very conducive to violins and wood furniture.

October 12, 2019, 2:02 AM · Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching Ivan Galamian Dover Publications 2013 page 46

"In placing the fourth finger, its tip rest not directly on top of the stick, but instead on the inner side of the octagon, contacting the flat surface just next to the top. … In this position the fourth finger does not slide over the frog nor off the stick. This placement is important, because it facilitates the handling of many of the active controls in the various bowings in addition to its fundamental function of counterbalancing the weight of the stick."

October 12, 2019, 3:46 AM · Raymond I quite agree, but it is unlikely that we have the same hand shape as our teacher, who must be able to convey the sensations as well as the visible forms.
October 13, 2019, 5:40 AM · Raymond, your comment about learning bowing from a book appears to me to be a distraction from advice in general, and from thoughtful discussion.

Apparently some brilliant musicians took the time to write of their craft with the belief that their words might be of some merit.

As to using the little finger in bowing (violin or cello), I am not tribal, and accept that for some people the idea might be unacceptable. For others, the idea might be new. While these folk might find it challenging to accept, the fact appears to be that some virtuoso musicians have a place for the little finger in their bowing technique.

Of course, we learn bowing by bowing. It helps, I suggest, to have some insight into what other skilled musicians offer as advice. Take it or leave it.

(Similarly, when working with a teacher in person, do students actually produce the same vibrato, the same tone, the same phrasing, etc as their teachers demonstrate? Very seldom, I hear you say: but this does not undermine the place of teachers in teaching. And if the teacher writes a book...?)

In short, some people who do not use their little finger in bowing might feel encouraged to understand what other excellent musicians have achieved with this element of technique. And I am interested to see just how widely this technique has been written about.

October 13, 2019, 7:30 AM · I use the Russian bow hold. I learned it by mimicking Milstein's hold from youtube videos. The little finger has almost no effect, and many times isn't even touching the bow. It's all about the index finger and the thumb, while the 2nd and 3rd stabilize the bow by pressing on its side.

Of course, I'm far from an authority on this matter, but this video of Kavakos (who also uses a form of the Russian hold) validates my point in the first 3 minutes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWuxQyZHHEE

October 13, 2019, 11:05 PM · Graeme, I think you make some good points above. I think it is valuable to ask why someone uses a particular bow hold or bowing technique - and well produced books and videos can provide some valuable insights. After all, technique evolves and musicians, like athletes, are looking to continually improve. For example, I've seen many violinists on YouTube use an extended index finger in their bow hold; I suspect there are some players that gravitated towards that hold over time because it worked better for them.


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