Franco-Belgian vs Russian bow hold

June 22, 2020, 1:29 AM · Hi there! I have been following the discussions on V.com, and I have great respect for those of you who share your valuable opinion and advice.

I'm an adult beginner currently taking violin lessons. I use the Franco-Belgian bow hold. After practicing for about half an hour, I have to take breaks every 10-15 minutes due to the following issues I experience mainly related to my bow hand: pain in the middle of the tip of my thumb and sometimes numbness. Strain, fatigue, and weakness in overall grip and pinky. My hand also gets a bit sweaty and the pinky tends to slip. I just keep pushing through and tend to grip the bow tighter which makes my hand tense and ruins bow movement.

A couple of days ago I started experimenting with the Russian bow hold, and to my surprise, the above issues disappeared. I think that even my tone improved although I'm not 100% certain.
During my violin lesson today, I explained all of this to my teacher and asked if she would be ok with me switching the grip. She said that she isn't familiar with the Russian bow hold and won't be able to teach me advanced wrist/bow movements later. She suggested that we work to improve my Franco-Belgian bow hold. She dedicated most of the lesson analyzing my grip and helping me understand what I was doing wrong and how to make small adjustments. I immediately started implementing her suggestions and should know pretty soon if they work. In the meantime, I would love to hear your opinion and advice. Thanks a lot!

Replies (23)

June 22, 2020, 2:24 AM · One of the things I notice is that you use the word "grip" four times in your post. I think one of the immediate changes you could make is to try and stop thinking in terms of gripping, and start thinking in terms of holding the bow. I know this perhaps sounds like semantics but what you describe suggests that you have a huge amount of tension in your bow hand, and this is likely because you are really gripping hard. Try instead to concentrate on just holding it - no more than stopping it from falling, and when you have the bow on the string, you can relax even further as the string will provide support to the bow (as a beginner, you're perhaps a little way off needing to do anything more complex).

The way you hold the bow, irrespective of what hold you use, should be without any tension at all. Perhaps you have a fear of dropping the bow, but I think you need to tackle your mental approach to your hold.

One of the 20th century's great pedagogues, Ivan Galamian, wrote a book called Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching which is readily available on Amazon. In there, he has a step by step description with pictures of how to hold the bow (his method is very close to the Franco-Belgian hold your teacher favours) - it might be worth you trying to work through this section very slowly and carefully - there is a lot of detail contained within it but he is economic with words so you have to concentrate on what he's saying. I am hopeful this will help you understand how to hold a bow with all your fingers (and thumb) bent and no tension in your hand.

June 22, 2020, 3:19 AM · To Tony's great response I would add that perhaps your bow needs to be replaced. I had never heard of the "Russian" bow hold but I just watched a video on it and tried to hold my bow that way and I can't picture actually using it. The weight distribution in my hand changed drastically and immediately felt better when I resumed my normal "Franco-Belgian" hold.

If you can't hold your bow with a relaxed hand in the much more prevalent "Franco-Belgian" bow hold, then the weight distribution in your bow may be not so great. Perhaps your teacher will let you hold her bow and compare it to your bow.

The particular video I watched said that the "Russian" bow hold actually isn't used all that much in Russia (she is a native Russian who now lives in the U.S.) but rather is used mainly by people studying with teachers who have descended from the teaching of Leopold Auer and she suggested that it should actually be called the "Auer Bow Hold."

I agree with Tony that you should stop thinking of it as a "grip" and wrap your mind around the concept that it's only a "hold" which frees up your hand and wrist from tension.

Please keep us posted about what progress you make with your teacher's suggested changes and exercises.

June 22, 2020, 5:18 AM · My two centimes d'Euro..

Between notes and phrases, I don't "hold" the bow, I "hold it up"!..
- a curled thumb under the stick, which is balanced (and steered) by the ring finger over the stick and the little finger on the opposite facet;
- the middle finger over the thumb actually does very little!
"Like picking up a baby bird" (Menuhin)
Then the index and thumb collaborate to produce tone.

Franco-Russian?!

If the bow is very chunky or ill balanced, (or it is just a bad day!) we can hold the stick further from the frog.

June 22, 2020, 9:54 AM · None of those bow holds are wrong, but tension in both is inappropriate. An improper Russian hold may also give you problems later on. Make sure the tension problems are solved before you advance further, so whichever bow hold you use five years from now helps you, rather than hinder your progress.

Violin playing is hard, and hardest at the right arm and hand,so do not lose heart. Once your brain gets it through observant and careful practice, things will be better. Best of luck with your endeavors.

Edited: June 22, 2020, 3:44 PM · This little article summarizes several ways of holding a violin bow:
https://www.masterclass.com/articles/learn-how-to-perfect-the-russian-bow-hold-in-violin#what-is-the-russian-bow-hold .
It will not teach one how to execute each stroke, but what I take away from it is that what works for you is OK and a good teacher should be able to work with students whose physical characteristics (hand size, finger length, arm dimensions, shoulder slope, neck length, etc., etc.) differ from their own.

Take your pick and vary what you choose to be comfortable FOR YOU!!

After playing violin for 81 years I can tell you it is likely that as time takes its toll on your body (your joints, your muscles and your bones) you will likely find that however you use the bow now will become uncomfortable and you will need to make changes.

Therefore it is important to learn now to handle the bow to make possible as many types of strokes as you can so that as you are forced to change things in the future you have an "instinctive" understanding of the basics. That,at least, is my experience with violin and viola bows.

My cello experience during the latter 7/8ths of the same many years is that if you picked the right cello-bow hold at the beginning, it will last for you (and it will not be the same as that for the chin instruments).

June 22, 2020, 4:14 PM · I suspect that the best grip and right-arm geometry is individual, and that one hold may be more comfortable and natural for a player than another.
Edited: June 22, 2020, 5:32 PM · Hi Ted. I would provisionally advise you to do as your teacher recommends. A bowhold needs to be relaxed no matter what. I can think of countless examples from my own lessons where I insisted that my teacher's way of doing things was uncomfortable, but after trying them, I almost invariably came around. I have one hold-out issue that I am not convinced on, but I've been with my teacher for 8 years.

I very much doubt that you have the experience to be able to know what is going to work for you, and you may not even learn anything close to a Russian bowhold by attempting to teach yourself.

My bet is that regardless of your bowhold, you are both squeezing the entire time, and that you are practicing too fast. If you choose to follow your teacher with the Franco-Belgian hold, you can still switch to the Russian hold later. Your alternative would be to change teachers to someone that is comfortable teaching the Russian hold - This is fine, but adult students often have trouble with submitting to the advice of a teacher, because as adults, we are really comfy with our own autonomy, and that's really not how you get better at violin.

Perhaps you should be taking even more frequent breaks than you have been.

June 22, 2020, 9:04 PM · Good advice above already. I’d just add that this might be a good opportunity for you to try both holds. Follow your teacher’s advice and see if you can sort out the issues you’re having with the Franco-Belgian hold. Eventually you can compare the two and see which works best for your style.
June 22, 2020, 9:56 PM · There are no "holds" really. If the bow is deep in your hand and the angle with your fingers is steep, we call it Russian. If the bow is nearer the middle joint of the fingers and the hand more parallel with the stick, we call it Franco-Belgian. Personally my hand is in some sort of limbo between the two—tight fingers but not too steep an angle.

The most important thing in how you hold the bow is that your hand is flexible—and doesn't hurt!

June 23, 2020, 12:49 AM · I think there is already a lot said about this above. I like to add just one warning: be sure you don't mix up a russian bow grip with a straight pinky and stiff fingers. Because that is what I see happening around me. People say they prefere a russian bow grip because it is easier for their hands. But in the meantime they have trouble to bend there pinky and keep it straight, also with the other fingers a bit stiff. That is not the russian bow grip, but a stiff bow grip that gives trouble when you advance. I don't say that this is what happens with you right now, but just a little warning to give some attention to.
June 23, 2020, 12:43 PM · @ T. B.,-- My experience has been similar. The Russian hold is better for on-the-string sostenuto, slightly better tone quality, easier on the joints when playing loud. But the F.B. hold has better over-all control. I have not been able to do spiccato with the Russian hold. Whichever way you hold the bow, you should not feel very much at the thumb. It's only job is to prevent the bow from falling out of the hand! When playing loud, you should only feel tension in two spots; the first finger, and where the hair grabs the string. What is not mentioned often enough in this continuing debate is that the choice depends a lot on the horizontal angle of the violin. Those that hold the violin far to the left, for easier playing in high positions, are more likely to use the Russian hold. A quick and easy way to find your personal version; with the aid of a mirror or teacher, set the bow on the D-string, at the middle of the bow, where the elbow makes a 90 o angle, the wrist straight. Then place the first finger in front of the thumb.
June 23, 2020, 5:18 PM · If you've got a Russian grip, you should be able to easily play without the pinky at all.
Edited: June 23, 2020, 6:10 PM · I've always used the Russian hold, since it was the prevailing method taught when I was learning violin as a youngster and we all looked to Heifetz and Oistrakh. I tried the Franco-Belgian grip for a short time about 20 years ago to see if it might improve my control over the bow, but it had quite the opposite effect, so I quickly went back to the Russian. It feels more fluid and I can get a warmer tone. And as Lydia says, you can easily play without the pinky. Most of the younger violinists seem to have been taught Franco-Belgian, or something like it, but to my eyes it looks rather claw-like and awkward.
June 23, 2020, 6:23 PM · You're still better off learning what your teacher teaches than self-teaching a bowhold as a total beginner.
June 23, 2020, 6:44 PM · I agree with Christian on this. Yes, your bow hold will evolve. But for now, what seems to work best as a beginner may just reinforce bad habits. Better to learn one bow hold with expert instruction now, and let it evolve to fit your needs once you have a more complete range of bowing technique.

Fixing a bad self-taught bow hold after years of using it is not fun. I know from experience -- I literally practiced nothing but open strings and scales for three months.

Edited: June 24, 2020, 7:44 AM · Strange that in videos David Oistrakh has a rather Franco-Belgian hold: four curved fingers and a lowish wrist and elbow. Quite unlike Heifetz. Most of the time..

When my wife saw him on TV, she said "Oh! A Suzuki bowing arm!"

June 24, 2020, 8:09 AM · "I literally practiced nothing but open strings and scales for three months."
I used a new bow-hold for 10 minutes a day, then played as usual.
One day the new hold took over as in fact it made things easier!

We can always build on what is there.

June 24, 2020, 8:29 AM · I found this video very helpful. At 2:59 he explains the bow hold very clearly on video. Hope this helps.

https://youtu.be/BkxllbsINJg

Edited: June 24, 2020, 9:32 AM · Adrian I just had a look at those Oistrakh videos, and you're certainly right about that. At times he's playing with only thumb and two middle fingers on the bow! Incredibly fluid motion wrist & finger motion.
June 24, 2020, 9:14 AM · "When playing loud, you should only feel tension in two spots; the first finger, and where the hair grabs the string..."

This is somewhat misleading. If one is playing loudly mostly by increasing bow speed, then fair enough.

But if the contact point is closer to the bridge and one is digging into the strings with more downward bow pressure, then physics dictates that the thumb must oppose the added downward force, with a resulting increase in tension in the thumb.

If one's bow grip includes a decent curve in the thumb, it might not feel as dramatic as the tension increase in the index finger.

June 24, 2020, 9:17 AM · I read about the Russian bow hold on this forum a few years ago. I tried it and it worked instantly, feeling perfectly natural as if I had used it all my life. I have never felt the need to return to the F-B hold or experiment with any other. I do wonder if my lifetime of cello playing has been an influence.
June 24, 2020, 10:33 AM · @Carmen,--Yes, you are right about that. I was thinking of playing loud at the upper half of the bow. At the frog, the arm weight is transferred through the middle fingers, not the first. The thumb is still not stressed there, the string opposes the force.
June 25, 2020, 12:42 AM · Thank you everyone for the great tips!
For the last several days, I have managed to improve my F-B bow hold by relaxing the hand and by moving the tip of the thumb just a bit further away from the frog, toward the leather wrap. This way, the tip of my thumb doesn't get pressed right into the edge of the frog, and I don't feel any pain or numbness anymore! I still have a bit of getting used to this new way of holding the bow, but I think I'm on the right track. Years down the road I may try experimenting with the Russian hold, but for now I'm going to stick with what my teacher and you recommended.


Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Silent Violin
Yamaha Silent Violin

Find an Online Music Camp
Find an Online Music Camp

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases

Fiddlerman.com

Fiddlershop

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Violin-Strings.com

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine

Subscribe