Viola Bowing

October 4, 2022, 11:29 AM · Do viola players often start on the edge of the hair when at the frog, progressing to flat on the hair by the time they reach the tip? I do on violin, should I do it on viola too? What about cello? Thanks folks.

Replies (25)

Edited: October 4, 2022, 12:04 PM · I see no reason to try to angle the bow any differently on the different instruments. Obviously on cello this means the stick is angled toward the player (away from the bridge)) rather than away from the player on violin and viola (also away from the bridge). However there are also times when you may want to have the flat of the hair on the strings or angle the bow the other way. I think how much of this you do can also depend on your instrument, your bow and the music. I think it is more important to be using the bow on the right "track" relative to the bridge and fingerboard (or to the C bout) for the characteristics of the music you are playing.

The "flat of the hair" will tend to touch the strings in the middle of the bow whatever you do. (It seems obvious to me that the sound produced by a centimeter wide "ribbon" of hair driving the strings will have different sonic effects than a narrower ribbon.)

I think whatever you do you should not do uncomfortable things to keep the bow on some "3-D track" that does not seem natural for you. However if you have a teacher and are on a "virtuoso track" you may have to pass through some uncomfortable things.

October 4, 2022, 11:59 AM · I agree with the poster above. I don't really see a reason to angle the hair when you're at the frog on either violin or viola.
Edited: October 4, 2022, 12:10 PM · Thanks for the replies. Victor is saying don't do anything different on viola than you do on violin - which answers my question. On cello I angle the opposite to what Victor says though.

'I don't really see a reason to angle the hair when you're at the frog on either violin or viola.' Leopold Mozart would agree with you.

October 4, 2022, 12:24 PM · There is some logic to keeping the hair flat more for the viola, which also goes along with a slower overall bow speed. More weight (not pressure...) is needed to get the viola to speak readily, or at least to get notes started. I spend a fair amount of time working on articulation for the viola when it is generally far easier on the violin.
Edited: October 4, 2022, 1:02 PM · Bud, you said:
"On cello I angle the opposite to what Victor says though."

Did I say it wrong? I mean that on cello the hair is further from the player than the stick and on violin the stick is further from the player than the hair. (probably a cm or less in either case)

I don't see how I could really hold a cello bow with the stick further from me than the hair and still play - not what my cello teacher taught me.

October 4, 2022, 1:08 PM · I never got a cello teacher so I'm playing like violin - stick further. I'll have to try your advice!
October 4, 2022, 2:09 PM · Yeah, I do agree with Karl too that there are bowing technique differences between violin and viola. That being said, my initial intention was just to answer the question on bow angle, which isn't really different between the two, although playing with flatter hair is certainly more critical on viola.
October 4, 2022, 2:59 PM · Viola isn't quite the same as violin, but there is much the same process to figure out optimal angle, balance point, speed, weight. So it will be familiar but slightly different.
October 4, 2022, 3:42 PM · Bud, I recommend Victor Sazer's book "New Directions in Cello Playing." My lessons were 73 to 70 years ago and then I did not play cello much for about almost 30 years so I bought Sazer's book about 20 years ago to see if I was still doing things right. I was.

I went to my first cello lesson in 1949 with left and right hand postures like a violinist (which I had been for 11 years by then) - my teacher solved those problems with a couple of wacks with his bow.

October 4, 2022, 4:44 PM · I definitely bow slightly differently on viola than violin, but I wouldn't say it is exactly about the tilt alone. Viola is harder to get the sound to speak, so you kind of need to initially grab the string a bit to get the sound spinning.
October 4, 2022, 6:50 PM · Karl, Please distinguish between weight and pressure.
October 4, 2022, 8:13 PM · This is a good question, and one that is kinda hard to explain. Although weight / pressure are often used interchangeably, when we talk about weight vs pressure, we're usually talking about how the player approaches playing into the strings to get a big sound. We're talking about the difference between literally pressing/pushing the bow into the strings and letting the arm relax and sort of leaning on the bow with the fingers. It's kinda the difference between squishing a pillow by pressing into it with muscle and leaning on it with a relaxed arm.
October 4, 2022, 8:36 PM · I see. Thank you.
October 4, 2022, 9:13 PM · I play violin, viola and cello. I have always tried to bow (and vibrato) my instruments for "the sound" as I hear it. I choose what bow(s) I use and the strings I have used for that as well. As my age passed the mid-70s it did become difficult to continue vibrato for the same effect, but bowing and selecting strings for effect has continued.

It takes different implements for my different instruments (obviously) and a somewhat different approach, but it has seemed to me that once you feel secure bowing one of those three instrument types the others come pretty naturally.

Edited: October 4, 2022, 11:09 PM · Weight vs. Pressure. Weight is the arm-weight felt when the string catches the the bow-hair and the arm feels like it is hanging on to the stick. Pressure is less desirable; the hand pushing down on the stick. Whatever you call it, you need to pump more energy into the viola, compared to the violin. the Viola has more inertia and is smaller than its optimum size. I will respectfully disagree on one item; I think it is a misconception that flat hair is naturally louder than having the bow tilted, on edge. The tilted bow smashes the hair into a much narrower ribbon, and it is easier to find the optimum point of contact and get a clear tone. It can feel like the bow hair is tracking in an imaginary groove in the string. Flat hair gives a less centered tone, it suppresses some of the overtones and increases the rosin/hair white noise. Sul Tasto is that fuzzy, soft tone, with flat hair, upper half, over the fingerboard.
If you have a stable bow hold and start with flat hair at the frog, the stick will flop over on a down-bow, leaning in the wrong direction, towards the bridge when you get to the upper half.
That was a lot of jargon. That would be totally incomprehensible to a non-string player.
Edited: October 5, 2022, 3:06 AM · Thanks Joel, that's really helpful. I'm looking at The Trout at the moment. It has some fast articulation/crossing that can only be done with the wrist so you're on the edge of the hair for some of that. Most I suppose would just do it in 3rd position but I think the triplets are too difficult at that speed. The string crossing is easier and sounds 'Schubert'.

from bar 34, 1st mov, crotchet = 150

Unfortunately the Sazar's a bit expensive over here Victor.

edit: having looked at some on youtube the great and the good obviously disagree with me - they're all in 3rd.

October 5, 2022, 10:23 AM · Joel, The only jargon words there are "frog" and "sul tasto," both of which are easily defined.
October 5, 2022, 10:53 AM · Ella - great description of weight vs. pressure - thanks! Primrose talks a lot about it in "Playing the Viola" as well - he describes "having a rope attached to your right elbow that goes through a hole in the floor then has a weight on the end" or something like that.
October 5, 2022, 11:09 AM · I did search my Primrose for clues.
Edited: October 9, 2022, 9:30 PM · Force, pressure, and weight are all basically equivalent in this context, from the standpoint of simple mechanics. This question has been asked and answered previously on, several times. Since the hand is on the bow, then downward force/pressure/weight on the point of contact between string and bow must come from the hand. If it is coming from your arm, it is doing so indirectly, by way of your hand.

Besides downward pressure, the other two factors, as we all know, are sound point and bow speed. So the question is really not whether someone is applying pressure, but *how* that is done, i.e., how pressure is combined with bow speed (holding contact point constant for the moment). My own guess is that pedagogues of yore found that the artificial mental concept of "arm weight" leads a student more readily and reliably to a desirable combination of pressure and bow speed. Which seems perfectly fine as long as it works. But it's still just a mental trick. That's my perception of it, anyway.

I do agree that my viola seems, in general, to favor a slower bow speed with slightly more pressure than my violin. To this end, it helps that the viola bow is itself heavier.

October 10, 2022, 2:18 AM · Paul is right, "weight" is a mental trick to use best our muscles and avoid stiffening. Force with freedom!

Primrose writes/reminds us that on viola even a pp note must start with a slight pseudo-martelé attack to get the string moving.
And soft slurred passages need a more vigorous left finger-fall.

October 10, 2022, 12:10 PM · Thanks for that, Paul, and I agree. I do think the additional element is whether or not there is muscle tension from actively "pressing down" on the strings vs. keeping the hand supple, which is certainly important. Galamian called it a "system of springs" with the idea of everything staying in motion and balancing the various parts of the arm, hand and bow, but without anything being "locked". Perhaps this is part of goal of the mental image of "weight" vs. "pressure".
October 18, 2022, 2:00 PM · If I have to play a passage softly on my viola, I often tilt the bow. That way I can apply the weight that a viola string needs to start vibrating, while not producing an overly-loud tone.

On the other hand, given our shortage of violas, I tend to play up a dynamic just to be heard at all...

October 25, 2022, 10:06 AM · I employ the Russian bow hold, and for me, angling the bow occurs naturally as I bow.

This is advantageous, because I've found that angling the bow helps prevent whistling on the E string.

October 25, 2022, 11:43 AM · E string?! On a different note how would you do a fast ostinato from middle C to C below? How fast can you do it?

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