Shaking Whole Bow

Edited: February 20, 2021, 6:44 AM · Greetings,
just watched a video from Murphy Music Academy talking about the bow shaking on rapid or not so rapid whole bows. I agreed with everything the presenter said about it being a very widespread problem. I have met professionals who angst over it. According to Mr Murphy (?) the fundamental cause is almost always tension in the trapezius muscle (the huge shrugging muscle of the upper back, neck area) on the right side. i’m curious if there is a consensus on this?
His proposed cure was good I thought. To start in the middle of the bow and draw a down and then up bows to the point using only the weight of the bow . Prior to this one very consciously relaxes the right trapezius , even going as far as tilting the head over to the left to stretch the right side of the neck. Once the pure stroke is ok then start two inches further down the bow and so on until whole bows are being played without any weight added at all. The exercise seems fine to me except I think Alexander technique is probably superior to what might be over active stretching.
I practiced this for a few minutes today but it was kind of boring because i dont really have a bow shake problem. But I also though the exercise was not proactive enough for an advanced player. I figured if I was teaching this to someone at intermediate level I would stick some kind of chord sequence in front of them (Sammons or sevcik) and have them release tension prior to the stroke on one string; be on the adjacent string after finishing the stroke. (a la Galamian...) and then repeat the relaxation process before drawing the next stroke. My point is that by stopping between strokes for as long as it takes to ensure complete freedom in the upper back, shoulder or whatever, then drawing the bow, between -each- bow stroke, one is being much more rigorous about integrating the relaxation into ones playing.
Does anyone have any different approaches to dealing with the shake problem?

Replies (24)

Edited: February 20, 2021, 8:44 AM · Other than the "stage fright" problem that caused my shaking bow in solo performance from age 17 to 45 (when I finally discovered Inderal, a beta blocker) the essential (familial) tremor I had had to a minor degree much of my life became serious enough by age 75 to affect my bowing whenever my thumb got within 1 cm of my other fingers. That this has nothing to do with my back muscles (as far as I can tell) seems apparent, because it occurs even if I'm just sitting in a chair with my elbow resting on the chair arm. But then again, because it less of a problem when I play cello there is obviously a postural relationship.

I have found three ways to alleviate this problem:
1. tiny dose of Inderal (or other beta blocker)
2. thicken the thumb leather of my bows - this works sometimes
3. hold the bow with fingers on top of stick and thumb below the frog, keeping my fingers and thumb well separated.

But I will try what you suggest.
Thanks for posting it.

February 20, 2021, 1:21 PM · I would certainly agree that that muscle (didn't know it by name) needs to be relaxed and that I sometimes need to explicitly remind myself to relax it.
February 20, 2021, 3:30 PM · For me the main culprit is the transition of weight bearing between the anterior and middle deltoid muscles during a down bow. At certain speeds and amounts of weight my anterior deltoid wants to release tension in very coarse increments.
February 20, 2021, 4:03 PM · Hi Andrew,
do you have the same trouble as me with thumb leather? :)
So many violin shops seem to think you need something paper thin which are not only useless but wear out in two weeks. Usually I have to build up my own with stuff like surgical tape.
February 20, 2021, 4:10 PM · Try surgical tubing. It has almost the perfect inside diameter, and adds a very pleasant reinforcement.
Edited: February 20, 2021, 4:14 PM · What I've found helpful with the "shaking bow" nuisance in the past was to practice exercises similar to those Buri described, but with my eyes shut. This made me use my ears as "eyes", and to be more aware of what my musculature was, or wasn't, doing.

My theory is that if you remove one data source (vision), which may not be necessary for the task in hand, then that is less data for the brain to process, so that it can concentrate on just two data sources, hearing and what the muscles are doing (in the shaking bow case). I use this "eyes shut" technique when working on other aspects of violin playing, such as intonation, shifting, optimum sounding spot on the string, fingering.

February 20, 2021, 4:36 PM · Trevor, I will try your idea. I'm a beginner who is having trouble hearing myself.
Edited: February 20, 2021, 8:33 PM · Thumb leather pieces are available for sale on ebay. Even fancy lizard leather - but that one isv ery expensive - I mostly go for the cheaper stuff - In the past I have I tried building up electrical tape, but it is really too thin.

UGU, available from Amazon is really great for fastening the thumb leather.

I know there are people who like rubber tubing but it does not give me enough feel of the stick - too squishy!

February 20, 2021, 8:47 PM · For increasing the diameter of your thumb leather, how about the overgrip material they sell for tennis racquets.
Edited: February 21, 2021, 7:56 AM · Paul, for me, it would be too much - I still have to be able to get my thumb between the stick and the hair. I think the thumb leathers I've bought allow me to grow the diameter about 1mm at at time. My "trigger" diameter is very sensitive and once I get past it I can be OK in most circumstances. I never know exactly when it will happen so I always have the backup choice to "grab" the whole frog - I can do most things holding a bow that way - and fake the rest.
Edited: February 21, 2021, 9:12 AM · I tried to visualize the bow travelling across a flat plane in space. I use that visual key in my mind and try to replicate it when drawing the bow across the strings. I ahve found that stretching before hand (a full body stretch with arms and legs, lying flat on the ground,is a good way to loosen before playing).

I use these three visual references or keys:

Triangle: Heel/frog of the bow
Square shape: middle of the bow
Triangle: Tip of the bow

Edited: February 21, 2021, 3:08 PM · Bow shake; the topic comes up often so I will repeat myself.
What worked for me;
first mentally recognize that the bow wants to bounce. The stick, the hair, and the string all act like springs. It naturally is most noticed at the middle where the crossover between muscle groups and technique happen, and that is of course also where we do the spicatto. So it is not really a problem, but a natural response of the bow. To prevent it we need to do something specific and deliberate.
What I do on an up-bow is to continue the first-finger leverage until well past the middle before adding 4th finger support. A down-bow is sort of the opposite; continue the feeling of arm-weight until well past the middle, before adding 1st finger leverage. I practice that on slow scales. Those cross-over points will vary depending on which string you are on, your bow-hold, and how far you spread the fingers. And different bows will have different cross-over points.
Also: Keep the right elbow low; don't push down on the bow, but let the string hold the bow and push/pull against the friction of the rosin.
The third finger can cause problems; if you use it for anything it puts leverage on the wrong side of the bow-hold. Apply arm weight through the second finger, not the third.
The thumb does two things; control the tilt of the bow, and prevent the bow from falling out of the hand.
Hope that helps someone, everyone is different.
February 21, 2021, 7:13 PM · Greetings?
the thumb also has the role of applying counter pressure when approaching the point of the bow. Failure to release this pressure 100% at the heel of the bow is one of the most common and difficult problems around to spot.
February 21, 2021, 8:07 PM · Joel, that sounds like it would help me. Thank you.
February 21, 2021, 8:34 PM · btw,
to support Joel’s comments about the second finger usage I would recommend the following two exercises. First, place the bow on a chair with the hair on the chair surface. Pick up the bow using only the thumb and second finger. This is a very powerful exercise for strengthening the thumb and second finger connection with the bow. Do it in moderation. Once you are comfortable with this exercise and can keep the bow parallel to the floor very easily move onto the second part of the exercise which is to practice which is to practice whole bows using only the first and second finger.
Edited: February 22, 2021, 12:14 AM · Perhaps this is wishy-washy of me, but I tend to prefer a more holistic approach, which maybe is a convenient way of saying that I forgot how I got here.

I would just work with whole bows on open strings, and try and watch when I have a shake, and try and pay attention to where in the entirety of my arm do I have some tension, which could well be in the shoulder. I might then watch to see if my thumb is indeed providing too much upward pressure, which probably means that my hand is not providing its natural weight, and just work with the overall sensations.

That sort of presupposes that I can have that level of awareness, and that is likely where Alexander Technique has been helpful for me. If I start thinking too anatomically, it takes me out of my awareness when practicing - A little paralysis by analysis in my case. The sound can also be a guide, in terms of trying to really point the ear to the most minute deviations from total smoothness, which can then be fine-tuned in a very individual, feeling-lead way.

I know the French call it push and pull, but I like to think of a dragging relationship between the bow and elbow, like oxen dragging a plow, with the oxen representing the hand/bow on the upbow and the elbow on the downbow. How dead of a weight can I really make that elbow?

Of course, it's all just imagery and metaphor, and we don't need to go back to the good old book-under-the-arm days.

February 22, 2021, 3:15 AM · yes.
i cant think of a better way of inhibiting tension in the trapezius than AT. in AT terminology, my original suggestion of stopping de tweet bow strokes could well be referred to as a ‘choice point’
Edited: February 23, 2021, 7:46 AM · I have 4 bows, two of standard Tourte design, and two of baroque design. Of the Tourtes, one is a very pleasing 100-year old German bow, and the other is about 20 years old, not as good as the old one but otherwise perfectly adequate for most purposes. Of the two baroque bows, one is snakewood and gives an excellent tone and response. The other is less expensive but also otherwise adequate for most purposes.

The two standard bows are susceptible to shaking under some circumstances, but I control it. On the other hand my baroque bows do not shake. Why should this be? Is it an indication that there is an inherent shakiness in modern bows, but not in the baroque design?

February 22, 2021, 7:10 PM · Greetings,
yes. As Joel pointed out, the modern bow is designed to bounce. The baroque bow is not. A more staid and down to earth era. Prior to the concept of the ‘Cheque’ perhaps?
Edited: February 22, 2021, 8:22 PM · It's been a few years since I've done any AT, so forgive my mixing of the terminology, but I like to think of the allowing the forearm to lengthen to the elbow, and the upper arm to lengthen to the elbow, which doesn't get at the trapezius, but I would want the trapezius to be relatively quiet and lengthen as much as possible from the jaw to the shoulder - I'm not sure if a lot of people with shaking bows are lifting their shoulders without realizing it, but I wouldn't be surprised.
Edited: February 23, 2021, 1:18 PM · Buri, a posited equivalence of bouncing bow and bouncing cheque? I like it, especially if the bow is at the top end of the market!
Edited: February 23, 2021, 9:15 AM · I have often found that the issue of bow shaking is tied to a deeper problem, one with both physical and psychological components.

While bow shaking can be due to an essential tremor or something of the like, it is more often a symptom of a tense upper arm/shoulder or a misuse of the middle/ring fingers on the bow to "force" the bow into the string. What both of these things have in common is that they result in the player failing to truly balance the bow, meaning that the point of application of the bow's weight is in several places rather than directly under the index finger. This gives a less focused and coarser sound, and the shaking is due to the bow not being balanced. I'd advise a focus on the third and fourth fingers, ensuring that they loosely adhere to the bow rather than gripping it. This would prohibit you from using upper arm/shoulder tension to play into the string and give a purer sound.

The psychological component at play here (no pun intended) is that a continual use of tension to play very loudly and very softly (both of which will result in bow shaking) becomes a self-fulfilling cycle. When you come to associate loud playing with lots of physical force and soft playing with lots of physical restraint, it becomes very difficult to simply relax for all of it and let the small muscle of the hand/fingers take care of it. It takes of lot of time and patience to re-train your arm and muscles to not react to dynamics in such a visceral way, but doing so really frees up your playing to be so much more musical and creative. My advice on this: record yourself and listen to your sound. You'll be surprised by just how much sound/volume you're actually producing, even if your brain is telling you "I'm not trying hard, so it must not be that loud". The turning point for me and my playing was learning to listen rather than focusing so much on the kinesthetics of playing.

Best of luck to you! If I could do it, you certainly can :)

February 23, 2021, 10:22 AM · It's the mind that's the problem.
Edited: February 23, 2021, 4:44 PM · Greetings?
exactly as you say Evan. Alexander Technique doesn’t not make a strong distinction between mind and body. Everything is preceded by the understanding that it is the conscious control that leads to the whole organism operating in its optimum state. Thus, although Christian is talking about a quite specific area, in Alexander Technique we always ultimately return to what is referred to as ‘the Primary Control,’ which is what Alexander called the relationship between the head and the top of the spine. By consciously focusing on the release of the muscles in the back of the neck so the head goes forward and up while the chest and back release (I always enjoy saying that...) the inappropriate use of muscular tension that you so eloquently describe will automatically be inhibited.

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