What are the advantages of making students hold the bow with their thumb under the frog?

September 14, 2022, 9:34 AM · Hi all,

I recently started teaching younger children. Some of them came to me on the first lesson with this bow hold I've never seen before. The thumb is UNDER the frog, and the other four fingers barely touch the stick with only fingertips. Is there any purpose to this? Is this a pedagogical technique of some kind? I assumed it better to start them with the correct bow hold on day 1... but seeing so many children come in with this bow hold made me think there must be more to this.

One girl (14yo) has been taking lessons with her previous teacher for a year and a half and still never drawn a full bow. She has tape on her bow that ranges from mid bow to upper mid bow. That's all the bow she used for as long as she began studying the violin. Is this common practice? I thought full bow on open strings exercise is basic to beginners, but she advanced halfway through Suzuki book 1 never using more than a quarter of the bow. I was shocked but also curious if I'm missing anything.

Replies (26)

Edited: September 14, 2022, 12:21 PM · I'm going to imagine the thought processes behind these things (because I love to opine), but I'm not a teacher:

-I would have thought that the thumb under the bow would be some kind of concession to a very young child's lack of coordination, and that this is seen as some kind of crutch that eventually gets shifted to a proper bowhold. My teacher just teaches a normal bowhold for young children, and I recall her being critical of such a practice as being a copout for teachers that don't want to engage in the arduous process of constantly correcting the bowhold (I hope she forgives me if I just put words in her mouth). I will guess that teachers that do this will argue that it's somehow developmentally more appropriate for very young children.

-I imagine that the teacher limiting the bow movement range wants to really reinforce the feeling of straight bowing without getting other parts of the arm involved, and that the pedagogical idea is that once this pattern is really ingrained, then the range is expanded so that motor pattern in this middle area reinforces the straight bow as the range is extended, until the whole bow can be drawn straight. It strikes me as a very "technological" approach to a problem that could also be approached more holistically by emphasizing sound and relaxation, and focusing on specific parts of the bow when the student seems to need it.

September 14, 2022, 10:28 AM · It's the Suzuki beginner bow-hold for tiny, immature hands.
Like giving tiny children fat pens to draw with, it avoids the terrible (and invisible but audible) cramping pinch of a straight or in-curved thumb. "Like holding a tiny bird" (Menuhin).

Short scooped bow-strokes can develop depth of tone without scratchy bow changes before spreading the "scoop" to either end of the bow. "There are no straight lines in nature, only very flat curves" (me!)

Edited: September 14, 2022, 12:45 PM · I'm an amateur player with two kids learning violin. I agree with the other responses about the thumb under the frog, and I think this approach makes sense or can make sense depending on the kid. My son transitioned from it quite nicely and easily. I do not agree with the fingers just touching at the fingertips. I would assume that's not pedagogical but simply the student approaching it incorrectly. There is a device called a pinky house, which you can either make or buy, that might help a young student's bow hold. But aside from these accommodations the bow hold should look more or less normal. Suzuki does emphasize the shorter bow strokes for young kids but I think unnecessarily. My daughter is 5 and can only play a few things, but she can do very nice long bows, after a lot of focus on this.
September 14, 2022, 12:51 PM · I think the main idea behind the cro magnon bow hold and the tapes restricting bow travel and even fingerboard tapes is to avoid agonizing too much over the details of any particular aspect of violin-playing so that the student can just get to the point, as quickly as possible, where they can grind out a tune.
Edited: September 14, 2022, 1:01 PM · I agree with the previous respondents. However I think it is time (well past time) to try to retrain your 14 year old student - but - I have heard that O'Connor may play with his thumb under the frog and lots of "country fiddlers" do too.

And worst of all I (myself) having played violin for nearly 84 years, now find I often (usually) have to start a session with my thumb under the frog to calm the effects of old-age essential tremor when my thumb and fingers get too close together - I can usually get my thumb in the right place after 10 - 15 minutes. I have less tremor problem with a slightly thicker viola bow and no problem with a cello bow (on the appropriate instrument types). (Answer to the obvious question - Yes, I have thickened the thumb leather wrap on some of my violin bows one or 2 millimeters!)

So I would say be gentle with your 14 yo student until you find out if she has some coordination problem and don't force her too fast.

September 14, 2022, 1:18 PM · I don't start off with long bows right away. I use tapes. There are about 100 other things that are a priority in those first lessons, a half hour and a students attention span goes very quickly, and a long now can easily be learned later. By the "Twinkle Theme" in Suzuki they are not staying within those short tapes. Between "O Come Little Children" and "Long Long Ago", they are using the whole bow. Every teacher has their own method though. I don't think their's one right way.

After a few weeks, you may be able to figure out why the 14yr old is playing how she is. You notice her practice and attendence habits, and she may tell you her other teacher's methods.

September 14, 2022, 1:33 PM · This is very normal early Suzuki pedagogy. In my experience, thumb under frog is used to start for any kid who is not of easy writing age (like under 7 or so) for approximately the first few pieces in the book. Kids transition by Allegro or so to a regular bow hold, if not earlier. Most Suzuki teachers I know don’t use this bow hold for older beginners, who usually have the dexterity to start with the thumb inside.

The bow restriction is also intentional. It’s actually quite hard to bow at the frog and tip, and so at the very beginning kids play from roughly the middle to close (but not all the way) to the tip. This teaches them to open the elbow without worrying about use of wrist or fingers right away. Most kids are using most of the bow by Twinkle theme and all of the bow by the time they get to Book 2. The first piece of Book 2 was always explained as specifically placed to review and encourage long bows.

September 14, 2022, 1:47 PM · I recently played an entire orchestral concert with my thumb under the bow. I was able to do some off-the-string strokes, alter dynamics, although my the coordination between l and r hands was just a bit off from usual (probably because I don't normally play this way, not for any other reason). The day before I had sliced off the top of my thumb with a knife. Three stitches to reattach the flap.
September 14, 2022, 1:55 PM · What Adrian and Gabriel said.

This summer, I had met a young prospective transfer student who played Twinkle A with very fluid arm motion, not the shoulder-sawing you typically see at this level. (Twinkle level - not even playing Lightly Row but with an older sister violinist, he has an advantage over a first/only child player.) My "homegrown" student after the same length of study time was still unaware/unable to attend to changing shoulder-sawing to forearm motion (mid tape to tip tape on the bow), and certainly not from lack of my trying. It can be done, with a lot of focus, but the younger the student, the more it has to be parent-driven.

Personally, I want bow hair usage lengthening to be well on the way by O Come Little Children (5th piece out of 17) because they need to be leaving enough room to take an up bow pickup after an up bow phrase ending. The prep for this includes: gradually lengthening bow usage in Twinkle theme, slow bow endings in Twinkle theme (and Song of the Wind to a lesser extent), and bow distribution in Twinkle C and Go Tell Aunt Rhody, which have the rhythmic elements of O Come. I do not like teaching that bowing as "up, up" or in general memorization of bowings as information, and in order to feel the phrase transition musically, you must be using appropriate bow distribution. If you ran out of bow because of inattention, you won't take the second up regardless of knowledge - hence needing long enough bows by that point in the repertoire. Other than that, I think Long Long Ago is the "intended" piece for long bows although in the Suzuki tradition, you might have done long bows with review pieces already.

September 14, 2022, 2:38 PM · I guess Cro Magnon bow hold means "Early Anatomically Modern Bow Hold." Or something. I've seen some fine fiddlers play this way. Michael Cleveland comes to mind.
September 14, 2022, 2:55 PM · I started with this bow hold in a Suzuki class at age 5.

On occasion when I get an older transfer student with a years’ long habit of banana thumb, I will ask them to move their thumb under the frog temporarily to reset the hand. I find it can be easier to fix the thumb position if we do an intermediate step than if we simply try to work from the incorrect position that is imprinted on their brains.

Edited: September 14, 2022, 4:20 PM · These days, I teach literally every beginner with the thumb under the slide of the frog (doesn't matter their age).

Tension is the enemy in a beginner, and putting the thumb on the stick is a surefire way to get more of it, due to lack of security in the feeling of the grip (note: obviously, this applies to *beginners*).

It's important, though, that this is done in such a way that the bow hold still feels very similar to the "proper" eventual grip. For example, I constantly watch for tension and "banana thumb" (as mary ellen put it), and make sure to address it consistently. I randomly grab students' bow hands and make sure that I can easily remove any of the fingers (including the thumb). By closely approximating the feeling of the eventual proper hold, we can easily evolve into that hold later on when the student has enough security to put the thumb on the stick.

I've taught more beginners than you can imagine. When I was newer to teaching, I used to always teach the "correct" way from day one, and honestly it just doesn't work very well for the average beginner. I find it's way better to just start with the "frog grip" and then if the student is doing well, we can evolve it in a matter of weeks. For slower learners, sometimes we may keep this grip for months, or even beyond a year.

Also, regarding full open bows from day one, I don't recommend those for beginners. Once again, this is something that, as a newer teacher, I used to do all the time. In my head I thought "well, if they eventually have to use the whole bow, we may as well learn it now."

However, the result was that we get what I might call "floating" bows. Basically, by playing close to the frog, the pinky has to work extra hard to keep the tip up, and beginners don't know how to release this tension once they get away from the frog. So the bow grip ends up just having constant tension (which often leads to the pinky slipping off). So the bow ends up look like "air bows" would, rather than relying on the violin itself to support the bow's weight. In addition, playing close to the frog too early encourages "arm bowing", rather than using elbow/wrist.

It's far superior to start beginners in the middle of the bow (the actual middle, not the balance point), and gradually learn to expand the bows outward from there, equally in bow directions.

From that point on, I usually try to limit students to the upper 2/3 of the bow (basically anything above the balance point is fine) for at least the first half of Suzuki, sometimes longer. I don't have any hard rules about this sort of thing; it really depends on the motor skills of the student. However, towards the end of Suzuki book 1, being able to play at the frog becomes somewhat more necessary (for a variety of reasons I don't want to detail right now).

One last point I want to make, based on my own experience/mistakes:

When a student comes from another teacher and you're confused why they're doing things a specific way (for example, they're only using 1/4 bows), try to work with that way for a couple weeks before making any huge changes. You may find that they're making that compromise due to a deficiency in ability. Not every student is naturally good at the violin, even if they're very disciplined. It's easy to take good motor skills for granted, but not everyone has them. Same thing with a sense of rhythm, pitch, etc.... These attributes can be trained, to some extent, but some students will just never get very far even though they're trying their best and they have the best teacher.

Anyways, if I'm allowed to keep talking about how to teach beginners, I will literally not stop typing for days, so I'm going to cut myself off here.

September 14, 2022, 6:15 PM · I'm glad I decided to ask. The comments are all really insightful. Erik's description of his early teaching days are so relatable.

As a newer teacher sometimes I have a hard time gauging what is "good enough". Or when to move on to the next piece/technique, especially when the student has been stuck on something for weeks. I don't want to give up, but there is also much to learn. One example is keeping a steady contact point (and a straight bow). I keep trying to find different ways to make them understand what they need to do to improve - be it practice with a mirror, listen to your own sound quality, or break down exactly which muscles to use - but short of guiding their bow with my hand nothing really sticks. So I move on to the next piece and watch their bow drift into the depths of the fingerboard again.

September 14, 2022, 6:43 PM · Clara, the "good enough?" problem is a classic one that every teacher has (I assume at every level of playing).

Although there are literally dozens of different ideas I utilize to solve the problem you're mentioning (being stuck on a song, and wondering if you should just move them forward to avoid stagnation, even though they haven't received the full benefit of the song/exercise).

However, the main ones I have found are these

1) Is the student ACTUALLY practicing? Have them or their parent log the practice. And if they are practicing, how much? And what is the quality like? Ask them to explain how to learn something new. Make them explain their strategy. At home, people are their own teachers, so they need to think like a teacher does.

I often found it useful to have them split practice into different levels, and then put those levels together.

For example, take a section of the music (let's just say 1 measure), and have them hum the rhythm. This confirms that they know how it's supposed to go.

Then have them bow the rhythm on an open string. This confirms that their bow can match what's in their head.

Then have them bow the rhythm AND add string changes, but still only using open strings.

Then have them "sing" the part, using the numbers of the fingers as the "lyrics."

Sing them again, but this time pressing the fingers of the left hand against the tip of the thumb. This creates a link between what we're singing and what the left hand should be feeling.

Now, either pluck the song, or just go straight into bowing it.

There are many other intermediary steps you can add depending on the proficiency of the student, or you can only do a couple of the steps and it will still work. It must be tailored to the individual. Slow students need more intermediary steps. Very slow students may need more time between each step, perhaps a week or more just to get the "Singing" portion."

As for the bow, I can't give you super specific advice because I'd have to see the student in question and know their level of playing. And I'd have to know exactly what they're doing wrong (for example, are they not bowing parallel as they approach the frog, due to a lack of wrist-bend? Or is the bow wandering out over the fingerboard? etc...)

But I will say that as a general piece of advice, it's better to manipulate the hand/arm/wrist to show them how to bow better, rather than grabbing the bow itself. It's also useful to have them make YOU bow correctly. Let them manipulate your arm/wrist. This gives them 3rd-person perspective on exactly what we're trying to change.

Another thing I've found very useful is making them aware of where the TIP of their bow is.

Anyways, if you can describe the specific problem, I could probably give you a specific solution. It sounds like the issue is the soundpoint isn't steady, but you didn't describe why that's happening. If you can add a bit more color regarding the cause of the issue (for example, the wrist isn't bending, or their violin is pointing down causing the bow to wander), then it would be helpful.

Edited: September 14, 2022, 7:12 PM · Erik: I am definitely not stealing your ideas and not grabbing a notebook to write down all the intermediary steps. They are AMAZING.

Frankly, I already foresee the concept of breaking down a piece into different "levels" making a tremendous difference. I wish I had done that sooner. I even do that in my own practice, it just never occurred to me to encourage them to do the same. Opes.

The student in question drifts when she approaches tip of the bow. From my observation that's the natural trajectory of her arm. It probably feels comfortable and natural for her upper arm to swing out to the right on a down bow, in turn causing the bow to drift towards fingerboard. I tried instilling in her the idea that upper arm stays put in upper half of the bow but that's difficult for her. Mainly because she has to strain to reach the tip. My fix for this (and I want to pick your brain on this) is to adjust the position of the violin on her shoulder to the left, even just a quarter of an inch left. That way her bow tip is more within reach. I was hesitant to make drastic changes, but I also feel like if I don't change her basics now it'll be like kicking the can down the road. She's also a new student that I inherited just recently.

September 14, 2022, 8:58 PM · "So I move on to the next piece and watch their bow drift into the depths of the fingerboard again."
Typical because the mind is now preoccupied with the new note learning. If they have separate, intentional practice on the skill, it's not a big deal if it slips on a new piece.

I assume at 14, the student is mostly full-grown. With smaller children, especially at the beginning of a size change, the only way to reach the last few inches of the bow is to go crooked. Where the violin sits on the shoulder/collarbone does matter but also, based on arm length and bow path, I put a tip tape and in general, they are not to use the rest of the bow.

September 14, 2022, 9:12 PM · Holding the bow with the thumb under the frog is very much like the old French grip circa 1600. The thumb was used to tighten the slack in the bow hair.
Edited: September 15, 2022, 1:37 AM · Haha Clara, I'm glad you found it helpful :)

While it's hard to say exactly what's happening with your student just from the description alone, I have a few speculative points:

It sounds like her arm may just not be long enough to effectively use the very upper portion of the bow. If she's a beginner-beginner, as in Suzuki book 1, I would just put a tape marker on her bow at the maximum point that she can extend to without the bow going off-parallel, and discourage her from bowing beyond that point (if necessary, you can make it so the tape extends a "tail" that physically prevents her from playing beyond that point).

As she gets more experienced, either her arm will have grown longer, or she will learn to use the upper portion by letting the bow slide within her fingers, and perhaps even letting the pinky release off the bow when necessary. It's also possible that since she's new, she's holding the bow too tightly, causing tension which is reducing the ROM of her joints, and thus shortening the effective ROM of her bow.

Another option - if short arms are indeed the problem - is that she may have to bow off-parallel in the last few inches of bow. Some good players with short arms have to do this.

But it's worth re-iterating that if she's a beginner-beginner, I would just avoid using the last few inches of bow for now. It's not worth spending tons of effort just to get the last few inches of bow working, when the student is still struggling with other basic concepts. If we do, we risk burning them out by focusing too much on technical perfection too early in the game. If you've tried to fix it and it's just not working, there are most likely other concepts which are more worthy of your time. It's not a "giving up" moment as much as it is a "detour," where we visit things like intonation, phrasing, rhythm, etc.... and then come back to the bow technique in a couple of months.

However, if we're talking about the bow starting to drift as soon as soon as she goes above middle and it doesn't have to do with the length limitation of her arms, there are some different suggestions I have. A couple of inches from the tip is one thing, but if she's going off parallel way sooner than that, it may be a technique error that's worth spending some more time on.

For this, the main recommendation I have is that you should encourage her to "push the hand away" while simultaneously "pulling the tip in" on downbows.

Have her try this:

(before starting, make sure that her violin strings are level, and not drooping down)

1) With the bow placed slightly above middle and a bit over the fingerboard, have her slide the tip back towards the bridge. For this step, she should *not* be bowing. Just sliding. Make sure she can repeat this. The idea here isn't to slide the whole bow back, but simply pulling the tip back while the frog remains stationary. This will mainly be felt in her fingers. The arm shouldn't be involved.

2) Now, have her start a downbow from around the middle, and AS she is bowing, have her do that same sliding motion from step #1. The idea here is we're trying to train a muscle memory where, on a downbow, we are simultaneously pulling the tip towards us. We don't want to start the sliding motion until we're at about the middle, though. So be careful the sliding isn't started from the frog.

3) Depending on how the bow looks after step #2, you may also add the cue of "pushing the hand away from her" at the same time that the tip is being pulled towards her. Note that when I say "away", I mean "in front of". Obviously, we are already going "Away" with the hand on a downbow, so it's important to specify this. Anyways, sometimes step #3 isn't necessary, as it's already somewhat natural on downbows to push the hand away. It's just another cue to help prevent the whole arm from swooping back, since that will inevitably cause the tip to go over the fingerboard.

Another thing I've found very helpful is analyzing WHEN the joints need to activate during a downbow.

For example, (you should try this yourself to see what I mean), if we start from the very frog, and ONLY use our shoulder joint to bow, how far can we go before the bow becomes noticeably off-parallel?

Let's say that gets us about 1/3 from the frog.

Then, let's only bow with our elbow joint. That should get us about 2/3 from the frog.

Then, we finish off the last 1/3 by outwardly bending the wrist and continuing to bend the elbow.

So, in a very basic sense, the downbow consists of 1/3 shoulder, 1/3 elbow, and 1/3 wrist..

Have her do that sequence several times (making sure to demonstrate with your own arm as well), and then try to put all 3 steps together in one organic motion.

This alone won't fix everything, but it can help provide perspective of *when* in the bow each specific joint must move.

Another thing: as Mengwei noted above, it's important that she practices her bows separately from the music. If her bows are good when she's just doing open strings, then you know the variable that is causing the issue: the multitasking from the music itself. If this is the problem, then think of a linear progression to fix it.

Example (in each step, the bows should be quite good before moving to the next step):

1) Open bows

2) 00 11 22 33 22 11 00

3) 1-octave Scale, 2-octave if applicable

4) Simple music, far below her normal level of "challenge piece" (lots of these in books such as "Simply strings, String Builder, etc... or you can just use an earlier Suzuki song)

5) Challenge piece, but only sections at a time, and playing much slower than usual. In this phase, try to be aware of any special techniques that are causing bow problems (such as martele.... it could be causing tension in the elbow, which leads to the bow drifting out).

6) Finally, the Challenge piece.

It's also possible that she doesn't realize how bad her bow arm actually is. Mirrors don't really work for showing the student the depth of an issue, because they automatically correct the bow as soon as they see it in the mirror. The solution to this is to videotape her (with permission) from the side while she's playing. Don't tell her specifically WHY you're videotaping, otherwise it will change what her bow arm does. You want a "natural" example of what it does on its own. Then you can show her the video, and it may give her a deeper understanding of exactly how far off the bow is. Most people are surprised when they see videos of themselves from the side.

Oh and one more thing: If you really think the bows are worth fixing, don't be afraid to use an entire lesson to just focus on bows. Back when I was new to teaching, I always had this idea in my head that some of the lesson needed to be used to play music. While that is usually how a lesson goes, don't get stuck in the idea that you "must" spend a certain portion on "X, Y, and Z". Sometimes, even if the problem doesn't get fixed within that lesson, the acute experience of spending an entire lesson on bowing will sometimes "jolt" the student into remembering the bowing over the next few weeks. Ideally, they should be thinking about their bows even when they're practicing alone, and if we only mention it a couple times per lesson, it's just not enough stimulus for their brains to really hold onto the idea.

September 15, 2022, 2:39 AM · Regarding taking video of a student during a lesson…

This is a very good suggestion and I do it myself when it seems necessary to get a point across. Once I have shown the video to the student, I make a point of deleting it in front of the student, immediately. I don’t ever want to be vulnerable to accusations of collecting inappropriate videos/violating a student’s privacy, nor do I want any student to worry about where a video of them might end up.

September 15, 2022, 9:54 AM · With beginners I like to use a device from "Things for Strings" (https://www.things4strings.com/for-string-teachers) that is a plastic Frog and fish that you put on the bow. It is designed so that all your fingers find the right place.

It is very temporary because the musician in training usually gets the idea pretty fast. However, it does assure that all the fingers are in the right place.

For the cello teachers, they also make a "Cellophant"

September 15, 2022, 4:06 PM · Mary Ellen, another good idea is to just use the student's phone (or their parent's) instead of yours (when applicable).
September 15, 2022, 5:38 PM · Erik, I would be very uncomfortable using a device belonging to anyone else due to privacy reasons.
September 16, 2022, 8:07 AM · When I took piano lessons in the mid-1990s in Evanston, my teacher's rule was that I had to bring a blank cassette tape with me to the lesson. At the start of the lesson, the tape went into a tape recorder on top of the piano and he pressed "record." At the end of the lesson, he pressed "stop" and handed me the tape. The sound quality is fairly crappy, but really, the education is there. And I still have the tapes!

The same thing is possible today, actually using the same equipment if you really want to, but these days you would set up a video camera in the corner of the room, and the student or parent would need to bring their own flash memory chip to insert into the camera. Then there is really not a question of whose device (it's the teacher's camera) or whose chip (it's the student's chip). You might want to have the rule that the lesson can never be copied, shared, or posted online, in whole or in part. I'm betting that you can claim the lesson itself as protected intellectual property. If the parent wants to save all the chips for posterity and keep buying more, or transfer the data to their personal cloud or whatever, it's their money.

September 16, 2022, 1:18 PM · Paul, that’s a great idea for the truly dedicated but it’s not very helpful when you want to make a quick point in the middle of a lesson. I find that after futile requests to a student regarding a posture issue, taking 30 seconds to show them what they are doing in the middle of the lesson is extremely helpful.
Edited: September 16, 2022, 5:35 PM · Paul, did you ever actually listen to those at home? How much did you use the recordings?
September 16, 2022, 9:59 PM · Erik, when I was taking the lessons I did listen to them. But Mary Ellen's point is well taken, too. Usually I wanted to review a certain thing from my lesson, and then I'd have to find that part of the lesson on the cassette, which is quite tedious if you recall that technology. Why I still have them now is beyond me. There were a couple of lessons where I felt I had learned a whole new concept and those would be fun to find and listen to again. Someday.

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