Bow hold: Thumb ON leather or BELOW leather?

April 17, 2021, 11:46 AM · I have seen a lot of online instructional material that says the thumb goes below the leather, on the stick between the leather and the frog.

My normal bow hold has the thumb resting on the leather and not touching any wood at all. This seems logical to me because it allows the leather to protect the wooden stick, which is the point of having the leather there in the first place.

How do you do it? Does it make a difference due to the slight shift of the hold vs the bow's balance point?

Replies (72)

April 17, 2021, 11:54 AM · I would think that thumb placement is determined by many things such as how much weight you put on each of the other fingers and even the size of your hand.
April 17, 2021, 12:05 PM · It can also depend on the weather!
Damp weather lengthens the bow-hair and increases (or creates)
the gap between frog and leather.
Edited: April 17, 2021, 12:53 PM · And the bow. I tried an excellent bow last week that nevertheless had a slightly better feel when I choked up 1cm away from the edge of the frog. It wasn't really tip-heavy in the normal sense, but it had a better link to my arm (elbow to tip of bow) if I moved up a tad.

And I have another oddity from 19c, a non-pernambuco bow from a very good maker that is about 68g. Not quite a viola bow, but somewhat bulky by normal violin bow standards. That one also gets a fabulous sound with much less work when held away from the frog.

You could look at photographs of Joachim and Sarasate for suggestions, but I suspect that a higher grip was pretty normal for many through the 19c. Paganini's hold was probably closer to the old Baroque hold than the Galamian grip that holds us tight in the 21c.

Edited: April 17, 2021, 3:00 PM · The "thumb leather" is so named for a reason. That's where the thumb goes. It is not intended to create a notch between the frog and the thumb leather, for placement of the thumb.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any famous soloist who places their thumb in the "notch". If one needs to do that to control the bow, using double-sided tape to stick the bow to the player might be an option worth investigating. ;-)

April 17, 2021, 1:38 PM · I usually have my thumb between the edge of the frog and leather. Depending on the bow hair length my thumb may not contact the stick much if at all. Sometimes I choke up and have my thumb on the leather to alter the balance point. Depends on what I’m trying to do. I don’t believe the bow hold needs to strict and rigid. I have seen many different holds by various virtuosos past and present. If your afraid of causing damage to the stick you may need to loosen your death grip.
April 17, 2021, 3:42 PM · The leathers on my bows go up to the edge of the frog.
April 17, 2021, 3:53 PM · Greetings,
a lot of great teachers teach the thumb between leather and frog. I think there are some famous players who do this although I am willing to stand corrected. It was/is pretty much taught this way in Britain when I was a kid. I didn’t question it for decades but it finally dawned on me that pretty much all the players I watched ha ethel thumb on the leather. Although I initially felt very slightly insecure I quickly realized I got more sensitivity and flexibility in using the bow playing this way. That may not be true for everyone.
April 17, 2021, 4:01 PM · As I think about it, doing this does expand the number of fantastic bows that will get good results. I shall take care to experiment more.
April 17, 2021, 4:04 PM · It's great if you always tighten your bow under the same or close environmental conditions. But when there are extreme differences between your practice, rehearsal, teaching and performance venues it is impossible to have the thumb leather edge always the same distance from the frog. That was the condition where I lived in the desert for 33 years. Less extreme, but not much better were all the previous east coast habitats where I grew up.

It was clear that previous owners of my F.N Voirin bow played with their thumb in the frog throat wearing it down to the metal underslide.

April 17, 2021, 4:11 PM · On. It's more comfortable and it doesn't ruin the stick. I mean, why the heck would the archetier go to the trouble of installing a THUMB leather only for you to rest your thumb on the bare stick?
April 17, 2021, 4:19 PM · I never considered the possibility of significant wear to the frog or stick. Perhaps I should rethink my hold. I always imagined more risk in damaging the violin from chin-rest and fingerboard pressure. Is there any evidence to confirm that bows can become “played-out” after many years of extensive use?
April 17, 2021, 4:31 PM · I don't know if bows can become "played out", but there are many examples of bows with extreme wear, which will always diminish market value.
April 17, 2021, 4:43 PM · Indeed David. In terms of care and maintenance, what do you recommend for cleaning the bow stick? I typically give it a wipe with a clean, dry, soft cloth as I do with my instruments after use. But the bow stick always seems to have some residual rosin. I was going to try the Hill Cleaner and Polish. What do you recommend?
Edited: April 17, 2021, 5:26 PM · My thumb is on the leather, but also a bit on the stick, and that is very common placement. It's also not possible to unwind the bow if the leather is at the stick when tightened.

Nice idea to put the thumb on the leather, though. As with Buri I was always taught "in the notch." Of course, my leather has worn away where my thumb goes, so my leather IS a notch at this point!

Edited: April 17, 2021, 5:34 PM · My thumb placement is like Laurie's - half on the stick and half on the leather. The tactile feel allows me to know that I am holding my bow the same way every time I pick it up and while I am playing. The thumb leather and lapping are also there for the middle finger and index finger respectively.

In regards to worrying about wearing the wood of the bow out due to finger placement: Don't.

Enjoy your bow while you're alive and able to play it. They'll be making more bows when you're gone. YOLO

April 17, 2021, 6:56 PM · My understanding wa s that every one would stop making bows in honor of my passing...Maybe it was the bending at the waist thingy they were talking about?
April 17, 2021, 7:10 PM · I was taught to place my thumb in the notch. I do not find it at all uncomfortable but my fingertips are well padded, not bony. I agree with Laurie that I don't see how the leather can come right up to the frog because how would you loosen your bow then -- the frog would collide with the leather. During the course that I took with Nathan Cole last summer he said that he puts his thumb directly on the leather. Watching him play, he does seem to be holding his bow farther up on the stick than I was taught; obviously it works for him. I have used the same middling "pernambuco clad" CF bow for at least five years, and I do not see any sign of wear in the notch location.
April 17, 2021, 7:30 PM · My thumb is in the notch as well, where I was instructed to place it. I "choke up" on the bow, holding it relatively high up in the old Russian style. (It matches what Bronstein recommends in his "Science of Violin Playing".)
April 17, 2021, 8:09 PM · Greetings,
that’s interesting Lydia. Toss Spivakovsky used to play that way, higher actually, he had a fantastic sound.
April 17, 2021, 10:36 PM · Hey everyone! I decided to make it the weekend vote, so come on over and chime in! weekend vote: Do you put your bow thumb on the leather, or 'in the notch' below it?

April 17, 2021, 11:08 PM · To clarify, when my bow is tightened, the leather meets the frog.
April 17, 2021, 11:15 PM · How do you loosen it, Mary Ellen?
April 17, 2021, 11:32 PM · My thumb is usually placed on the leather due to my higher grip for balancing my bow better, and to mimic the lightness of a baroque bow.

Understandably this would lead to less power when playing near the frog, but I would gain significantly more control when bowing near the tip. The advantage becomes a lot more noticeable when playing with a tip-heavy (and poorly balanced) bow.

Incidentally I also choke up higher with my baroque bow, and there is no leather to indicate "correct" positions. I suppose the "correct" bow hold would be whatever works for you while not impeding techniques.

April 18, 2021, 7:38 AM · “How do you loosen it, Mary Ellen?”

Sorry, I think I said that backwards. But at any rate there should not be a thumb-sized gap between the leather and the frog. I distinctly remember a discussion on that subject here a few years ago but I can’t find it now.

Edited: April 18, 2021, 9:40 AM · In the notch, a bit of the thumb on the leather, and with a Russian hold. Drilled into me back in the old days by my teachers. How much of the thumb is on the leather depends on the bow and the weather.

April 18, 2021, 5:25 PM · Maybe not a thumb-sized gap, but certainly a gap. Otherwise you can't loosen the bow. I'd say mine's about 4-5 mm when the bow is tightened - that is very typical.
Edited: April 18, 2021, 6:26 PM · For curiosity, I just measured the gap on my three good bows with hair tightened to the normal playing position. Two of them were 5mm and the other was 3mm. That would vary a little in summer heat with high humidity when the hair is looser & inclined to stretch.
April 18, 2021, 7:20 PM · On one of my bows I had to smooth down the sharpness of the notch with a bit of sanding.
April 18, 2021, 9:25 PM · I looked at the bow I was using to teach with today and it looks like about 3 mm between leather and frog when tightened. Pretty sure my other bows are similar.
Edited: April 18, 2021, 10:57 PM · Interesting to see so many people have a fixed thumb position, wouldn't it be more prudent to change the position based on the desired balance and tone production of the bow?

For example, a higher hold makes it far easier for lighter and lively bow strokes (almost baroque-like) and a lower hold allows for more heavy strokes and power. I would imagine keeping the thumb (and other fingers) flexible based on the passage being played is the ideal technique.

I admit, it's difficult for me to describe how I hold my bow. I aim to keep my bow as flexible as possible with a very loose and natural hold. Emphasis on natural, because I hardly think about where my fingers are every time I pick up my bow and start playing.

Edited: April 19, 2021, 7:41 PM · I like to the touch the lower part of the leather. I wonder if moving the hold up even slightly reduces the flexibility of the bow. I
Edited: April 19, 2021, 8:09 PM · For me, a higher hold also helps deal with a full-sized bow being substantially too long for me. I can't even vaguely reach the tip of the bow normally, even with the higher hold.
April 19, 2021, 10:07 PM · If you look at old bows, you’ll often see the stick worn down at the edge of the thumb grip from the thumb/thumbnail over years of use. If it gets bad enough, the area can be filled in with something like optical epoxy to level it again.

I put my thumb part on the leather, part on the stick. That’s how I learned and it’s what I see most often among my customers. I replace a lot of thumb grips that are only worn at the very edge.

April 20, 2021, 8:36 AM · At my bows, there is only a small gap between the leather and the frog. But I use part of this gap for my bow hold - I place my thumb sort of on the corner of the leather. After practising, my skin appears to be a ittle pushed in.
After some time, maybe two years or so, the edge of the leather is worn out and flattened. Then, I have it replaced, along with having the bow re-haired. Just roughly guessing, every 3-4 re-hairs, I have that leather replaced, too.

I would recommend just trying things like these out. When just holding the bow only centimeters higher up, it feels completely different, already. Maybe, one certain position is really best for you, depending on the lenght of your arms, the bow itself, even the kind of literature you are playing, etc.

April 20, 2021, 8:49 AM · I wonder if people's arms are significantly longer, on average, than they were when the violin and bow were first designed. I surmise they are. Of course there is still a distribution, like there is for everything else.

TY wrote, "Wouldn't it be more prudent to change the position based on the desired balance and tone production of the bow?" I've never heard any teacher advocate suddenly choking up on your bow for a specific passage. If you've every tried doing that while holding your bow horizontally above your violin -- well at least for me it takes time to do that. I personally think it's better to have a very stable concept of your bow's balance in your hand. Speaking for myself in the second person again, sorry.

April 20, 2021, 11:44 AM · Would some people who place their thumb in the "notch", please try putting it on the thumb leather instead for a week or two, and report back? Did the bow go flying across the room or anything, or was it more like any unfamiliar technique which can't be mastered in a heartbeat?
Edited: April 20, 2021, 1:31 PM · if you bend your elbow to about 90 degrees, so your forearm is parallel to the floor, relax everything, and shake your hand and let your fingers and thumb fall naturally where they will, this gives you a good starting point for your bow grip.

Wouldn't the location of proper bow grip for your hand determine where your thumb goes, rather than the thumb leather? Shouldn't the thumb leather be placed on the bow so your thumb can then rest on it? On my main bow, the leather is close to the frog, and my thumb is pretty much in the middle of it, but that's because the leather is in the right place for my thumb, not because I try to put my thumb there. It's also rough side out, which I prefer more....

April 20, 2021, 6:39 PM · I used to place the thumb on the leather, and because I have finger nails for classical guitar playing the leather got chewed up real quick. But seriously, I have long arms and the thumb in the notch against the frog is quit comfortable. This maybe due to the angle of my thumb to the stick which touches on the edge of the thumb tip, but when in the notch the thumb touches the frog in the very middle of the thumb tip. Or maybe it just feels secure enough that I'm not going to run out of bow tip, it makes an all mighty crack when it comes off the string after an up bow.
April 21, 2021, 5:01 AM ·
Hi @David Burgess:

I used to play with my thumb on the leather before I learned the advantages about putting my thumb in the "notch."

For me, the "notch" allows me to reproducibly place my thumb and hand in the same place on any properly set-up bow. It also helps prevent my hand from creeping up the bow during playing because I can always feel to know exactly where it is located without looking.

I see a lot of fiddle players with their hands located higher up the bow, but many tend not to use the lower third of the bow anyway.

Out of 930 survey responses on the home page, 84% place their thumb in the notch, and 12% on the leather (with 4% something else). That is actually higher than I expected, but it speaks to the advantages of using the "notch."

April 21, 2021, 6:34 AM · Greetings,
George, your point is well taken. However, there isn’t any correlation between those statistics and playing in the notch being better. It is certainly better for you but how may of that majority have actually tried putting the thumb on the leather and discovered (from my equally valid position) that playing on the leather is better. Very few I would imagine. On the other hand one might note that a large number of top rank players actually do this which, using the same kinds of subjective extrapolation could lead to very inflammatory conclusions.
From the commentary it is quite clear that an awful lot of people, including myself, were taught, without question , to play in the notch. I changed because I noticed one of the top ranked teachers in America plays and teaches that way. I found immediate improvements and advantages which not only made the change highly desirable but also convinced me to teach that way. Make of it what you will, these kinds of statistics are interesting but say very little about the actual situation as a whole.
April 21, 2021, 10:09 AM · "However, there isn’t any correlation between those statistics and playing in the notch being better."

I totally agree, Stephen. And I moved to the notch at a time when I was essentially relearning my bow hand under instruction.

It is always about whatever works best for the individual player.

Edited: April 21, 2021, 10:50 AM · I use baroque bows for preference, so this isn't a problem for me. However, I have just checked out my bow hold with my modern (100 yr old) bow and it seems I automatically locate my thumb half on the leather and half on the wood; which must be a win-win.
Edited: April 21, 2021, 2:43 PM · Many fiddlers hold the bow on the leather or even higher up, probably because it shortens the stick and thereby facilitates rapid string crossings.
Edited: April 21, 2021, 4:50 PM · Once again, the thumb goes ON the thumb leather.

Needing a "notch" for the thumb is a little like needing to stretch a rubber band between the bow tip and the right ear, to aid in switching from an up-bow to a down-bow. :-)

I suspect that this notch thing mostly got started by elementary-school orchestra directors, whose main instrument was the trombone, and that many of the string players they ill-advised never fully recovered. LOL

Edited: April 21, 2021, 6:23 PM · Except, David, nearly no one plays that way. It's generally partially on the leather for most people, but it's not "on the leather" completely, which is what you seem to be describing. I guess you are saying, as a violin maker, that ideally we players should all put our thumbs "on the leather." I don't agree, though, because putting it on the edge of the leather works very well to keep the thumb from migrating up while allowing mobility in all the other fingers.

Elementary school directors like, Galamian? Do I need to brandish my "Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching" here? P. 46: "The thumb contacts the stick and the frog," and in the illustration, the thumb is contacting stick, frog and leather, ie "in the notch."

April 21, 2021, 6:47 PM · David, other than preventing wear to the stick are there other advantages to placing the thumb on the leather? Is there a pedagogical basis for this thumb placement?
April 21, 2021, 7:25 PM · I think Mr. Burgess may have learned that way, and still thinks it is the standard, and the reasoning behind the "thumb" in thumb leather. He may know plenty of players who use their bows this way.

I do prefer a small space between bow and thumb leather, especially after new rehairs. I do not like a wide gap, as I still love the feel of the leather on my thumb. So I play touching it, but not over it, as many of you do. I definitely love the leather grip, and had it replaced it last year because it was too worn for my taste. The feel of it on my thumb is near essential.

For those who prefer the constant feel of leather, and where touching the wood would feel too "dangerous", there are lots of inserts, some very minimalistic, and other quite large, that even well-known professionals use to have a "secure" grip. I have used these in the past, but now am happy with the leather grip/wood/frog combination (notch.)

No disrespect meant, everyone has a different preference, hand, bow holds, and individual training. Fingers also move a lot as we play (if they are flexible), which we may not fully realize.

April 21, 2021, 8:00 PM · Adalberto is onto something. How did the "thumb leather" come to be called that in the first place? I noticed as I was thinking about this (and writing a different response, which I deleted), that I found myself just typing "leather" and not "thumb leather."

I searched some charts showing parts of the bow, and only a fraction show this part as "thumb leather" or "thumb grip." Others just say "grip" or "pad". I wonder if it's really meant to be a pad or grip for one's index finger, which curls around the bow slightly at the point (at least for me).

I took David's suggestion and played through a couple of pieces with my thumb on the leather. I noticed:
(1) Seemed artificially more difficult to use the heel of the bow, but probably I could get used to that with more time,
(2) Now index finger is resting on the silver windings which I am concerned will cause them to wear and corrode prematurely, and my understanding is that these are more difficult and expensive to replace than the leather, moreover it wasn't particularly comfortable,
(3) Overall the bow felt less secure in my hand.

I do wonder if there is a correlation between notch and SR use. :)

April 21, 2021, 9:33 PM · Interesting point Paul. Terming it “thumb leather” does not necessitate placement of the thumb. Likewise many players do not place their chins on the chin-rest or shoulder rests on the shoulder.
April 22, 2021, 12:43 AM · Makes you wonder what they call the leather on a German bass bow. I've never seen a bass player place the thumb anywhere near
April 22, 2021, 4:02 AM · Laurie wrote:
"Elementary school directors like, Galamian?"

Didn't the young Galamian have a teacher? Who's to say that this teacher started him off right? ;-)

What should the leather on a German bass bow be called? Good point, Bo. I can't see that either the leather or the winding serve any purpose, other than ornamentation, and effecting the balance. On a German bass bow, perhaps it should be called a "leather dealy-bob"? ;-)

Paul, the solid silver wire windings are quite durable and wear-resistant if installed correctly, often lasting through decades of regular use. They are also easily replaced. The "tinsel" or thread windings, not so much.

Now, let's see how much ire I can raise by comparing "thumb-in-the-notch" to locate the bow, to using fingerboard tapes to locate the notes. (wink)

Edited: April 22, 2021, 8:51 AM · I always just called it the leather. But in French the bow leather is called "la poucette", which has something to do with the thumb (le pouce). Interesting since François Torte was the originator of the modern bow. (It's also the name in French for Thumbelina...)
April 22, 2021, 8:53 AM · David yes I'm probably thinking back to my childhood when those tinsel-wound bows were pretty common.
April 22, 2021, 2:45 PM · Hard to believe so many people may be playing with a scrunched up bow hand instead of natural hand position and flowing motion! It doesn't make sense to use a fairly random placement of the leather to dictate bow hand position. Use your own hand morphology! If your hand morphology dictates thumb in the gap, that's one thing (although you should have your leather moved!), but if it doesn't, it's taking you away from good technique. Does it produce tension? I just tried it, and feels way off balance to play in gap.
April 22, 2021, 10:05 PM · Whatever you're accustomed to is what will feel balanced.

Just another random pro who teaches "gap".

Edited: April 23, 2021, 9:59 AM · Right, Paul. I've been trying it both ways as an experiment, which is kind of fun. Playing in my usual (preferred) position, on the "gap", gives me a feeling of more control, especially for classical pieces, but for certain kinds of fiddle music, holding it fully on the leather feels somewhat freer. On the leather is a more indeterminate position, you can be closer or farther from the frog, but the bow's balance changes interestingly. The length of the leather, la poucette, varies considerably on my bows.
Edited: April 23, 2021, 11:47 AM · Changes to any playing technique will probably not be wildly successful, at first or third try. There is always a learning curve which needs to be survived, to evaluate something previously unfamiliar.
Edited: April 23, 2021, 1:24 PM · Is the stiffness of the bow greatest at the frog? By moving the grip away from the frog, is the stick itself even stiffer than it would be if the grip remained closer to the frog? I associate flexibility more with control than stiffness.
April 23, 2021, 12:31 PM · "Notch" or "throat" or whatever you call it. I was young-ish and ignorant when I inherited my F.N. Voirin violin bow and since the notch already showed signs of many, many years of someone's thumb in the notch I figured that was the way to hold it and so I did. Finally it wore through to the metal underslide.

I've since read that a large fraction of the value of a bow made by a famous maker is in the frog. So the large value of my Voirin bow is gone.

If you are going to hold a valuable bow that way, get a substitute frog installed for playing so that your heirs can have the bow put back together correctly before they sell it to buy their next car for cash.

April 23, 2021, 4:32 PM · Something like a 40% hit if you're using a new frog. Also, with old bows, you sometimes have ivory or other things that people prefer not to take across borders. I was once in a shop when a BSO violinist came in with her Pajeot to have it re-fitted for a European tour.
April 23, 2021, 4:50 PM · I agree with David that a "college try" of a new bow hold isn't going to happen in a few practice sessions. It'll take months -- months I don't really have, unfortunately. Next lesson I'll see what my teacher thinks and I'll ask him how he plays. He's not commented on my bow hold in the last five years so I'm assuming he's okay with it.
April 23, 2021, 6:33 PM · Paul, do you have your hand in a pretty static hold? Do you move the hand/fingers different ways when you play different tones? or different speeds, types of passages? Just curious. I have a pretty regular hold, but within that hold, I think the fingers and hand are free to move, although I don't do that very consciously, it just happens.

The main point to me is to figure out the best place for all fingers and thumb based on your own hand, not some rigid rule based on the structure of the bow. If that's on the gap, it's good- not cause of the gap rule, but because it's right for your hand.

April 23, 2021, 6:40 PM · To the degree that having the thumb bent (part of Zukerman's mantra)is a good thing, my experience is that putting the thumb in the notch or at the end/corner of the leather helps the thumb to naturally curve. Whereas putting it fully on the leather makes it naturally more straight. In terms of bow control the difference in position to me seems negligible but the notch variation may have a better sound.
April 24, 2021, 2:35 AM · Greetings,
well, this has been a really great discussion with lots of good points for and against floating around. I just feel it would nice to listen to some nice violin music played by the closest I have seen to a prodigy for a long while. The thumb is not in the notch but she may well change later. She’s about the same size as my wife, I think.......
April 24, 2021, 7:59 AM · Wow!!!
But isn't her chin in the wrong place? ;-)
April 24, 2021, 9:19 AM · it's right below her mouth on the bottom of her face...
April 24, 2021, 9:21 AM · Wrong place for what??
April 24, 2021, 10:11 AM · This video shows the unusual chin position better:
April 24, 2021, 10:16 AM · Mr. Brivati and Mr. Burgess,

That is funny indeed.

Too bad the second theme got edited out-was enjoying the young lady's playing, and wanted to hear how she interpreted that most beautiful section.

And to everyone, not everything expressed in these discussions is all too serious. Much of the above was stated in jest.

Have a lovely day, hopefully playing/practicing if you are able to, and whatever your favored bow hold may be.

April 24, 2021, 10:42 AM · Looks like the chin is where it needs to be, but the chin rest is in the wrong place.....
April 24, 2021, 10:47 AM · BO: Yes!
April 24, 2021, 11:14 AM · I'm half on the leather and half off, except there are times when I want my bow to be lighter for certain things like swing jazz I may go on the leather. If I'm playing sul tasto I may go up even more. Movements along the bow can be very useful for certain things. I did play some baroque music at college and would choke up on the bow to get that baroque bow feel.
Personally I think the bow has a design flaw in that there has to be a gap between the leather and frog so that the frog has a place to be when it is loose. In an ideal world that gap would be all leather. I certainly ask my re-hairer to make it tight so there is not a crazy gap between the frog and leather. Too many times the problem is hair stretching or bad re-hairing.

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