right arm magic

January 29, 2020, 7:44 PM · I am here to ask a very poor question. Maybe I will be able to refine the question in the coming days, but as of now, it's not a very good one!

I've seen a lot of progress in various aspects of my playing over the last year, but I have the impression that my bow arm is still holding me back quite a bit, especially in terms of being able to play as expressively as I would like. For example, when I try to produce a singing, sound-spinning legato, I invariably choke the sound with inappropriate pressure or what have you. Or it sounds sloppy, somehow.

I don't know how to work to improve this! Perhaps no one can diagnose this without seeing my bow arm at work (and I can post a video, if that would help), but I am hoping that suggestions will flow and magic will happen...

Thank you all!

Replies (37)

Edited: January 29, 2020, 8:47 PM · At some point you will need a toolkit from your teacher. Elbow height, distance from bridge, speed, pressure, angles, etc.

But once you have that and need reminders or encouragement, take the opportunity to try a really good bow. Some top-quality sticks will make everything easier, but some will be twitchy and punish you for not being perfect at all times. Those can raise your game, even if you only play on them for a short time.

January 29, 2020, 9:57 PM · I agree with both of Stephen's points. Sometimes it's also about your left hand. If you're struggling with left hand issues with a piece, it can affect the ease, freedom, and relaxation that you feel in your right shoulder and upper arm, such that your bowing will tighten up and your tone will become pinched or muted or muffled. To test whether that's the case, you just have to give yourself permission to make mistakes with your left hand while you focus more bandwidth on right-arm relaxation and general tone production.
Edited: January 30, 2020, 2:16 AM · Anita doing "son filé" every day for a few minutes, but probably you already do that? Also playing detache etudes with full (and I mean full) bows is quite a workout to do regularly, in a tempo as fast as you can make it still sound clean (though it will be very loud, wear earplugs). Third suggestion, daily collé exercises. Although these three suggestions I make seem to have nothing to do with the legato problem you describe, it is simply the more you control your bow in different ways, you also control it in other ways, strange as that may sound. Wish you succes.
January 30, 2020, 2:19 AM · Anita I forgot to add but you are aware of the fundamental tone production exercises in Simon Fischer Basics aren't you, you must be but just to make sure.
Edited: January 30, 2020, 3:09 AM · A few tips to add to the above advice..

Radically (and temporarily) change your bow-hold:
- hold the stick at its balance point to make it seem weightless: all tone will come from arm, wrist and fingers; or
- hold the stick and frog in a closed fist: tone will come from the arm only.

Or 2 Suzuki tricks to awaken the fingers:
- turn round the bow and hold it near the tip: the thumb and 3rd & 4th fingers will learn to lighten the bow! or
- hold the bow-hair instead of the stick, to feel the vibrations in all fingers.

Remember that while short strokes in the middle of the bow are forearm-only strokes, those at the heel use the whole arm in a "V" shape, and those at the tip stretch the whole arm forwards.

I would find the tone I want in the middle third, then try and copy it at the tip (index & thumb for tone) and heel (thumb, ring finger & pinky compensating the bow's weight), before trying to link these three "mechanisms".

January 30, 2020, 3:10 AM · In addition to the excellent advice already given, I'd also add that a correct bow hold is essential for good tone. So I'd consider either asking your teacher to verify your hold, or if you don't have a teacher, then look at Simon Fischer's The Violin Lesson or Ivan Galamian's Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching.

I changed my hold last year with my teachers help to the way described by Galamian and I found nearly everything easier, including producing a nice tone.

January 30, 2020, 6:23 AM · Open strings. Lots of them, lots of tempos for a extended period of time daily. This is what I did with my first teacher to correct my grip and posture and everything about playing my instrument has been made easier from this very Intensive open string work.
January 30, 2020, 10:15 AM · Poor right-hand setup is one of the most common problems: Straight, locked thumb or pinkie. Poor placement of pinkie (most people assume it should go on top of the stick when it really shouldn't). Hard to tell without seeing you.

As my students get more advanced and into regular scales, I tell them that scale practice should be 50% bow use. Try scales only at the frog, which is what most students avoid.

Edited: January 31, 2020, 1:25 PM · All smashing thoughts and suggestions, thank you! Now I have a lot of material to start with instead of feeling a bit stuck!!
January 30, 2020, 1:00 PM · Open-string practice. Concentrate on the tactile feeling of the string beneath the bow. Think about spinning the string beneath the bow (my current teacher likes to use a lumberjack log-rolling -- look up log-rolling contests on YouTube -- as the analogy). If you're going to spin something, using a lot of pressure actually stops its ability to rotate freely. Make sure that you catch the string at the start of a stroke to get that articulation and a little bit of momentum for starting the sound of the note, which helps give a little pop to projection without needing to focus on making sure the sound is loud, per se.
January 31, 2020, 11:10 AM · "choke the sound,--getting stuck,--inappropriate pressure"-- You might be relying too much on weight/leverage/pressure instead of bow speed. Antidote, which I sometimes use as a bowing warm-up: Do slow scales on the lower 3 strings, upper half only, holding the bow with only the thumb and second finger (!). This prevents you from adding any weight at all, and the only way to control the angle and point of contact is with the position, motion, of the right elbow. After you can do that, add the first finger, but do Not add any weight. Then all four fingers on the stick, full bow, again with zero added weight. You will discover that you can get a quality mp--mf tone with bow speed alone. Then, for a louder, focused, more expressive tone carefully add weight or leverage.
The level of the right elbow makes a difference. If the elbow is higher than the hand we are tempted to push down on the bow. If the elbow is slightly lower than the hand it feels like the string is holding the bow, the arm is hanging on the stick, and we push-pull sideways against the friction of the rosin.
January 31, 2020, 1:27 PM · Some specific responses:

I do have a teacher! a fabulous one. I haven't seen her since mid December, though, and knew there would be a wealth of info here. :) One of the first things she did was adjust my bow hold, but we have since been focusing quite a bit on the left hand, which needed a lot of work. I mean, everything needs a lot of work... :)

I do have a great stick, too! I purchased one last May, and got lucky enough to find an excellent one on a (relatively) low budget. Also tried a few around 6 times the price, and the one I eventually bought was very comparable. This has helped a ton. Folks always said my old bow was "weird", and now I totally get what they mean. It wasn't doing me any favors.

I want to post a video, if it's ok, of some of my issues while playing scales/arpeggios. Perhaps there will be some very specific feedback (though the general responses have already proven very helpful - thank you all).

January 31, 2020, 2:09 PM · There are already many excellent suggestions here, but I wanted to add just a few more thoughts:

1. The Galamian "24 note scale" is a good way to make the left & right hands independent. The best illustration of this is in a video I saw some years ago of Zuckerman giving a viola lesson. Look for that.

2. One exercise is to do absolutely no vibrato with your left hand, and try to have all expression come from the bow. This is more difficult than it sounds!

3. As others have already said, the sounding point/bow speed/bow pressure exercises in Simon Fisher's book "Basics" is great foundation work for the right arm.

And, don't worry - the bow arm is a lifelong challenge for most of us - there are always new things to learn!

February 3, 2020, 10:19 AM · Anita - I am working through similar issues as you, and am exploring some things that are not mentioned here. If you want to discuss off-v.com, send me an email. (Email should be in my profile.)
February 3, 2020, 1:33 PM · Pamela you are making us very curious!
February 3, 2020, 6:27 PM · I will send you a message, Pamela! :) thank you (unless you are wanting to say things here)

Ok, I made a video today. I did a scale in the middle, tip, and frog, as well as with long bows. Then arpeggios. (At the end, a trumpet player begins to play...it was a bit distracting :) I hope it will show some of the issues I have - please feel free to comment!


February 3, 2020, 8:57 PM · Hi Anita,
Nice video - shows lots of discipline, and I disagree that you are choking your sound - I think you are too hard on yourself. What I notice from the video is that your contact point is the same on all four strings (and shouldn't be) and your bow speed is similar too (shouldn't be) - experimenting with the above suggestions from my colleagues should do a lot in that regard. In addition, here are some resources:

Robert Gerle's The Art of Bowing Practice is amazing and can be really helpful.

Also, if you are looking for different ways bowing distribution practice, I have a "how to" playlist on my website: https://www.practizma.com/youtube

I also love Max Baille's tutorials on bow hand and sound: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnX86Ef0PYY&list=PLBX1VwTZaWq987l3GWB7voQTuAOSMwojJ

Edited: February 4, 2020, 7:50 AM · I found Simon Fischer's DVD on tone production very helpful for the sort of thing. Nothing beats actually watching a master teacher methodically show you exactly how to control all the variables.

Everything else above is also good advice. Oh, and don't assume your tone is crunching until you check with a listener twenty feet away. Some surface noise is only audible to the player, not the audience.

February 4, 2020, 7:57 AM · A ball of cotton wool in the ear will filter some of the scratchy sounds, to hear what others hear.
Edited: February 4, 2020, 5:30 PM · Thank you, Susanna, for the encouragement and for the resources! They look like they will be quite helpful!

Yes, I need to get my hands on the Simon Fischer DVD - it helps me to see things in practice. It was on a Christmas wish list. :) But I might have to gift it to myself...

I think there are often some sounds in my playing that are undesirable - one that I've recognised is the habit of playing too close to the bridge, and another is the habit of using too much pointer finger instead of pinkie at the frog.

I just had a lesson today - the main problem (incredibly frustrating to me) that we focussed on is my tendency to punch/accent notes with my bow that do not musically make sense. I have the feeling that this tendency is a symptom of not really knowing how to control the bow or do a successful legato/bow changes, but I can't tell the source of the problem exactly. I do often "stop" the bow, though, instead of creating a long line of sound. Sigh. But perhaps working on all of these very helpful tips and suggestions would do the trick. Thank you again, all, for your input.

February 4, 2020, 7:28 PM · Take a piece you like that is beautiful and lyrical but not technically challenging. Even if you are not a trained singer, sing the piece with the expression you want, and then play it on the violin exactly the way that you sang it. Just assume that you will be able to do this. Keep in mind that of course technique is necessary, but in the end it is not your right arm that can make a beautiful sound, it is your ear (i.e., complete focus when listening to and creating the sound you want) and your musical imagination.
February 4, 2020, 10:52 PM · Anita, I see that both of your hands have stabilized somewhat since your video of a few months ago -- that's great!

I don't think you're choking the sound. But can you hear that you're not getting the same catch at the beginning of each up-bow that you're getting with the down-bows? I assume that the consonantal catch and relatively heavy traction are deliberate? If so they should be the same on both down and up; if not deliberate, you should try to smooth it out.

i would consider adding fast frog-to-tip tip-to-frog martele scales to your practice, as well as ultra-smooth legato scales (slurring doubles then quads then eight notes to a bow).

When you are playing repertoire, what's causing the stops? Are you carrying the line continuously in your head, with a mental "aim" into an arrival note? Or is the phrase broken up in your head, and your playing reflects that? Are you conscious of the accents, and do they still occur when you are deliberate about smoothing out the phrase in your consciousness? (i.e. when you are thinking about a smooth line, can you play one, or are you getting accents anyway, which suggests a physical control problem rather than a conceptual problem)

February 5, 2020, 7:10 AM · I agree the mechanics don't look quite right - are you pronating enough? or too much? When you're in the lower half you seem to be mostly using the shoulder and very little forearm or wrist - you might try going through the bowing section of Flesch urstudien and see if isolating the various parts of the bow arm in that manner help.
February 5, 2020, 9:11 AM · Anita why so little bow? And why so slow? The two may be related. To gain looseness and confidence I believe it is important to practice fast bow speed and also playing at sufficiently high tempo. Seeing your video I would certainly dare to repeat my suggestion made above to work on suitable Kreutzer etudes with full bows at good tempo.
February 5, 2020, 11:19 AM · continued - The video looks mostly good to me. If the bow hair is too close to the bridge it automatically forces you play louder, to avoid the ponticello sound. Start closer to the fingerboard with a lighter touch, then pull it towards the bridge when you Want to be louder.
February 6, 2020, 2:24 AM · It's been so incredibly helpful to read your questions and feedback and suggestions! Thank you again!

Yes, I was deliberately trying to use short amounts of bow at the frog, tip, and middle with consonantal catches at the starts of both up and down bows. I must figure out why the up bow catch isn't working...

I started doing full, very fast martelé bow scales yesterday (and with Kreutzer!). It is a big challenge for me. Is it hard for everyone? My wrist gets very tired, and it is very difficult to enjoy the sound I produce. I have the feeling that it should ring clearly and loudly, but mine don't sound clean or clear. Perhaps this is an issue of sound close to the fiddle vs. away from the fiddle...but I am not sure. I also wonder if I am successfully keeping my bow straight all the time...

I think the problem with playing lines of music expressively is two-fold. I think one problem is that I am used to hearing it the way I play it, so I don't notice until my teacher points it out to me that the line is so ineffective. (Another factor here could be that my teacher is, rightfully so, incredibly critical during lessons...so maybe it might not sound so obviously ineffective to the casual listener...but in short, she is absolutely right...). As soon as I realize it and attempt to change it, I can't seem to do so immediately, even if I am focussing and literally copying a phrase she has just played. I hear the differences between the two when she plays the line, I try to imitate it, and I still have these accents and so forth. But perhaps if I had a clearer imagination of the lines from the start, it wouldn't be so difficult. I think it is really both.

Silly questions that I am sure I should know: should the contact point be closer to the fingerboard on the G string and closer to the bridge on the E string? When pressure is increased, one moves further away from the bridge? What about when speed is increased? I am not totally sure how all the factors work together...

Also, what do you mean by the "bowing section" of the Urstudien? :)

February 6, 2020, 7:04 AM · first half is LH exercises, second half is scales to be played with specific parts of the bow arm.
February 6, 2020, 10:33 AM · "contact point"-- is not a silly question. The point of contact, where the hair meets the string, is variable, and is one of the three factors in quality sound production. Violin bowing is difficult to master because we need to balance 3 independent variables, while we can't see what we are doing, and usually thinking about the left hand. That point is closer to the fingerboard on the G string, closer to the bridge on the E string. Closer to the bridge when playing loud, closer to the fingerboard when playing soft. There is a zone system, spots # 1--5 that I have never bothered to learn. I have a demonstration that I show to beginners that I call the "creaky door". On the open G start at the frog, right at the end of the fingerboard, play loud, and the sound will be an awful crack. Then gradually pull the bow towards the bridge and at some point the sound clears. So- the best spot is right next to the worst spot. A similar demonstration of playing wrong would be to try to play soft near the bridge - you get the glassy ponticello sound. I had a stand partner who would play loud on the E string with the bow near the fingerboard. He was constantly breaking E strings..
February 6, 2020, 10:05 PM · Yes, that full-bow martele is quite a hard skill. In my head it is the "iajitsu" skill -- the Japanese art of the sword-draw, which has to be done with perfect control and blinding speed. Down is very much easier than up, usually.

To Joel's point, response differs for different violins. Some violins have very distinct "lanes" that you have to learn, where the sound is optimal. Others have fewer distinctions or more of a smooth transition. Some don't behave in some locations.

For instance, on my violin, I can do the open-G manuever that Joel describes without the sound cracking.

February 7, 2020, 10:13 AM · Anita why the focus on martele?
February 7, 2020, 5:04 PM · Is there a good way to practice it? I mean, going slowly kind of doesn't help...but doing it fast, it seems like either you can or you can't...I don't know how one would work on getting better at it.

I'm doing martele because I was encouraged to practice with faster bow speed! :) Am I missing something?

I don't know, I feel very out of my depth with these bow arm "problems"...

February 8, 2020, 1:58 AM · Hi,there,I have found that using a metronome is quite good for helping even out bow speed.For example you could set the metronome to a 'medium speed' and do a full bow to say,3 clicks of the metronome.There are many variations of this exercise,as you may find.
Good luck .
February 8, 2020, 6:24 AM · Martele and bow speed are two independent concepts, aren't they? Playing a detache etude with whole bows is one of the ways to develop command of your bow. Using whole bows at a not too slow tempo is quite a workout, but the etude is still detache (meaning that the notes should sound well connected) the opposite of martele.
February 8, 2020, 7:26 AM · Anita, something you wrote: "either you can or you can't", come on, you know better than that, you know that things need practice!
February 8, 2020, 7:37 AM · Ahh...ok. That makes sense.

Yes, just not sure HOW one would go about practicing it!

Does this look to be on the right track in terms of wrist movement and elbow flexibility and all?

February 9, 2020, 4:10 AM · looks OK to me Anita. the faster you go make sure to wear earplugs as this gets really loud. A classic one for this type of work is Kreutzer 30 but also 2 and 6 of course. by the way this is just one exercise, others are collé, son filé, and the many suggestions given by others.

by the way I now see where your martele comes from, it was suggested by Lydia, sorry for my confusion.

keep up the good work!

February 10, 2020, 11:09 AM · ? Full-bow Martele' ? -that might not be a good exercise for someone struggling with a too heavy bowing style. I also did some of that as a student, but I have Never used it in real music. What is very useful is the upper-half martele'. A less violent version, a "soft martele" (is there a french word for this?) becomes the standard tapered detache stroke for baroque and classical style.

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