Learning Russian bow hold

Edited: October 24, 2017, 10:18 AM · Hi everyone!

I am currently reading Simon Fischer’s ‘Basics’, and the book has been of invaluable help for me. I’ve been playing the violin for almost 12 years now, but no one ever really taught me the mechanics of the Franco-Belgian/Galamian grip, so getting a handle on the theory really gave me an edge in being able to consistently produce the sounds I wanted. Things that would make me go bang my head against the wall due to lack of knowledge, I can now easily fix. So props to Mr.Fischer for writing his book.

This led me to wonder if there are other books such as ‘Basics’, but geared toward a more Russian school type of grip. You may ask why I want to learn the Russian grip as well, and that’s for versatility’s sake, and because the hold has its own advantages..
So could anyone recommend books or resources as good as ‘Basics’, for learning the Russian bow hold?


Replies (49)

October 24, 2017, 4:29 AM · There is a section on how to approach and make the switch to a Russian bow hold in Carl Flesch's Art of Violin Playing. I don't know if it is still in the new edition, but in the original one, there is some discussion about it, and some exercises as well if my memory is good.


October 24, 2017, 7:57 AM · The notion of versatility is a good objective. David Oistrakh switched back and forth between "Russian hold" and "Franco-Belgian" - sometimes from one bow stroke to the next bow stroke. Closely watch Youtube performances that give a side view. You can see his hand changing at the bottom of the stroke, and different tonal qualities on the next bow stroke or two.

This may open up the perennial debate on this site about which hold is "better", (I'm sorry about that.) but the best of the Russian virtuosos switched between different holds to get different sounding results.

October 24, 2017, 9:17 AM · Is the "Art of Violin Playing" the same as Flesch's "Urstudien für Violine", which is the only work by Flesch in IMSLP's collection? The Urstudien mentions the Russian and Franco-Belgian holds.
October 24, 2017, 9:19 AM · Look up "Christiaan van Hemert Russian Bow Hold" on Youtube. He's made the only video that I could find (at least in English) that talks about the Russian bow hold in detail
October 24, 2017, 9:57 AM · Trevor: It is not the same. The Urstudien is a set of exercises, while the Art of Violin Playing is a massive two volume work. I think that in the modern era there is a retranslated first volume of the Art of Violin Playing, but I noticed that many passages/sections from the original have been omitted in the retranslated version.


Edited: October 25, 2017, 7:02 AM · Denis, many thanks for the link to Christiaan van Hemert's video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEKbVVZjMm0.

Very illuminating!

Edited: October 25, 2017, 10:57 AM · This magazine-size book by Harold Berkley was a big help to me when I worked on changing my bow hold 50 or so years ago: https://www.amazon.com/modern-technique-violin-bowing-interpretation/dp/B0007DX5CK
Then the book was a lot cheaper.

These days (and probably forever after) I think you can find EVERYTHING VIOLIN in Simon Fischer's book, "The Violin Lesson," which urges students to find the bow hold that natural for them. It would be a real blessing to have a teacher with that liberal an outlook rather than one who attempts to force all students into a single mold. Fischer's book also gives logical and demonstrable reasons for every bit of advice. His book "Basics" covers much of the same material from the very first page.

October 25, 2017, 11:22 AM · I second Andrew's opinion of _The Violin Lesson_. It's fairly comprehensive to every question of technique you may have, as he references all of the great works and opinions of the great masters of violin pedagogy and even frequently tries to resolve disputes between their advice when possible.

After reading _The Violin Lesson_, Simon Fischer's other books make more sense too, especially _Basics_, which you can think of as a comprehensive set of exercises with which to learn everything he discusses in _The Violin Lesson_ (and _Warming Up is just an excerpt of some of the best, most core exercises in _Basics_; I recommend getting _Warming Up_ and memorizing it--I did so and do about 25-33% of it every day, and my technique has gotten much, much better because of that). I highly recommend his _Scales_ book too if you have the other three I mention above, as following his suggestions will lead rapidly to wonderful intonation.

Edited: October 26, 2017, 6:03 AM · What about his latest 2 books, ‘Tone: Experimenting with Proportions’ and ‘Double Stops’? Did anybody get those, and knows what they consist of?
October 26, 2017, 7:27 AM · I have the book Tone, it is more of a booklet actually, if you have Basics you don't really need it. In Basics there are various great tone production exercises. In there, the author then writes something like "do this in all positions, in all places of the bow, on all soundpoints", now in the booklet Tone he has written this all out explicitly. But implicitly it is all in Basics already.
Edited: October 26, 2017, 8:35 AM · "Christiaan van Hemert Russian Bow Hold" on Youtube (Denis Chang's suggestion) has useful information. However, Christiaan's hands are huge, with long fingers. You may not be able to copy the way his hand looks in the video - unless you also have hands suitable for NBA basketball. His comments about finger placement and function are useful.

Edited: October 26, 2017, 8:32 AM · I am just reading Masha Lankovsky's "The Russian Violin School: the Legacy of Yuri Yankelevich". Despite the bow holds of Elman, Heifetz, etc, "Auer himself seems to have used the Franco-Belgian grip" with no dogma about elbow or wrist height, nor about finger joints.
October 26, 2017, 11:54 PM · Well in his book ‘Violin playing as I teach it’, Auer does say that there is no ‘right’ way to hold the bow, and that the ‘best’ hold is highly personal and dependant on the physical predispositions of the player.
The only indicator I personally use to describe the Russian grip, compared to the Franco-Belgian, is the deeper index finger position.

There is a very interesting interview of Kavakos online, where he explains some of the reasoning behind choosing to switch to a Russian bowhold. Here’s an extract:

‘That means that my sound production is more homogenous, and what happens—I don’t know if this happens with other people this way, but for me definitely—is that with the conventional bow hold, my sound is more harsh. With this bow hold, it’s equally big, but more round. [...]

So there’s less interruption between the elbow and the shoulder and the finger, where you actually hold the bow. I feel this creates a more natural position for the bow, and the sound production is also more homogenous. It is more difficult, technically, with the conventional hold, because you need to work more with the fingers, whereas here not so much.’

Based on what he says in the interview, here are the advantages of a Russian hold over a more modern grip:
-Much les finger movement needed for great sound production,
-Greater sound homogeneity from frog to tip, without any adjustments needed in the right hand,
-More natural feel overall,
-Rounder, less harsh sound than with à modern grip.

I suggest you check out the whole interview, or at least the whole section where he talks about right hand technique, it’s worth a read!

Edited: October 27, 2017, 3:22 AM · Having been "brought up" on the F-B hold ever since I started playing the violin I had a go at the Russian hold yesterday as demonstrated in Christiaan van Hemert's video (supra). I was surprised at how easy and natural it felt, and I'm certainly going to give it an extended try out in my next couple of rehearsals and concert this weekend. How much of the natural feeling of the Russian hold is due to my previous life as a cellist I don't know, but is a possibility.

I've just been carrying out an experiment (admittedly not very scientific) to test for any detectable difference in dB output between F-B and Russian. I did the experiment on both my violins, #1 the 18th c strung with 4 gut strings, and #2 the Jay Haide student model strung with 2 steel and 2 gut. I used the same bow (my best permanbuco) throughout the test. I observed the sound output on the dB meter app on my smartphone placed on my music stand at arm's length from me and violin.

In the experiment I played the D-A open string chord as strongly as I could with good tone and looked for the maximum dB reading.

#1 violin Franco-Belgian 78dB Russian 80dB
#2 violin Franco-Belgian 76dB Russian 78dB

Conclusion: The Russian hold produces about 2dB more than the Franco-Belgian hold as measured by a dB meter. The effect was also apparent to my ear.

Of course, another violinist may well get different figures, depending on the instrument and better playing skills, but I would expect the dB difference between the two holds to be observable nevertheless.

October 27, 2017, 3:34 AM · 2 dB is not a big amount of difference ..... :)
October 27, 2017, 4:10 AM · The decibel is a logarithmic measure, not linear, so 2 dB is certainly observable to the ear.
October 27, 2017, 6:11 AM · Very barely, and only in almost ideal conditions.
Edited: October 27, 2017, 7:36 AM · That's an interesting experiment Trevor. Would you mind trying a followup experiment?

Make note of where your forefinger touches the bow with your Russian hold. Slide the finger so that you are in a FB hold, but make sure the finger slides along the Russian contact point, allowing your first finger to spread away from the second finger. Apply similar torque. Repeat your readings.

Hypothesis: your volume reading has more to do with increased leverage (increase in length of moment arm measured from fulcrum, contact point of forefinger on bow from the thumb's contact--I believe Kavakos also holds the thumb near his ring finger if I remember correctly,) rather than bow hold per se.

October 27, 2017, 7:35 AM · 2 dB is roughly 35% more sound energy, and roughly a 15% increase in perceived sound level. It is noticeable to anyone with normal hearing. Here is a website that plays 440 A with 2 dB changes - up and down in dB level. Check it out.


Its just physics.

October 27, 2017, 8:13 AM · It's physics that a mixed sound source has to be increased by 10dB in order to perceive an impression of "doubling the sound".
In the case of an acoustic violin (we're not talking about loud PAs and power amps), 2dB can be heard..... if you play always the same note as before, etc. But it's not all this difference, and bringing the example of 15% volume increase, etc, is something that our ear don't catch so easily.

By playing normally, with various material, i doubt that anyone could notice it (speaking only of pure sound pressure, not harmonic content due to a different hold, etc).

October 27, 2017, 8:30 AM · Trevor, yes, decibel is logarithmically related to energy, but so is our perception of loudness (that is why decibel is defined as a logarithmic measure in the first place).
October 27, 2017, 10:31 AM · I wouldn't trust a smartphone dB meter. In my experience over several smartphones, they saturate at sound pressure levels that are way too low for the reading to be of use.

Various dB apps won't display readings above 80 dB on my phone. If I recall correctly, My student-grade violin actually produces up to 92 dB(A) near the ear and 81 dB(A) at 1 m distance, as measured by an actual dB meter that I bought for that purpose.

(Ever since that measurement, I do almost all of my practice with a rubber mute. For occupational noise exposure, hearing protection is recommended above 80 dB(A).)

Anyway, I also found it impossible to reproduce dB levels within 2 dB accuracy. Too sensitive to the exact distance and angle beyween violin and microphone and too sensitive to my (rather immature) bowing technique.

October 27, 2017, 11:45 AM · Han, what meter did you buy?
Edited: October 27, 2017, 2:30 PM · I used this: Velleman AVM2050 analog sound level meter. The US price seems rather high compared to the €35 that I spent; there are probably cheaper alternatives on the US market. If you consider buying one (analog or digital), make sure it's one that supports A-weighting. Some cheap models only support C-weighting, which is not useful for assessing violin loudness. I'd hesitate to buy a $12 one from ebay; it could be a VSO-equivalent among measurement tools.
October 27, 2017, 4:07 PM · Thanks Han! Do you know of a model that can record levels over a period of time?
October 27, 2017, 4:38 PM · I don't have personal experience with them, but they do exist (I saw one for €115). You may wish to look for a"data logging" feature. I suppose your interest is not related to the violin?
October 27, 2017, 5:46 PM · Cool thanks! Will look for data logging. I want to keep track of decibel levels in the pit while we're playing. Levels are theoretically set by opening night, but as the season wears on, sound 'engineers' sure like to tinker. There were these fill monitors right above our heads last season that just killed us.
October 28, 2017, 7:12 AM · In the light of the preceding useful comments about the inadequacies of smartphone dB meters when any real work needs to be done, I don't think I'll proceed any further along that particular smartphone road. Suffice to say that I gained enough data from my experiments to indicate that there is a difference in the dB output due to change in bow hold, and that it is audible to my ear as well. So I've learnt something.
Edited: October 28, 2017, 7:58 AM · I think the difference is more in terms of quality of sound rather than loudness. I find the Russian hold sound is rounder.
Edited: October 30, 2017, 7:25 PM · Endre Granat gave a presentation at an American String Teachers Assn. conference in which he made a very thought provoking comment about the difference between the Russian and Franco-Belgian bow holds. He suggested that the Russian bow hold is designed to accommodate the "scroll to the left" position of the violin that was used by the Leopold Auer school. Positioning the bow along the index finger closer to the palm of the hand enables the violinist to play parallel to the bridge. With the Franco-Belgian hold, the violin is positioned to accommodate the bow hold, thus, the scroll is not directed so far to the left in order to bow parallel to the bridge.

At another ASTA conference, Mr. Granat said that the Russian bow hold evolved over time. As I recall, the early hold involved having the fingers of the right hand relatively close together, much like how the fingers are positioned when your hands are hanging at your side. Later, the hold involved having the first finger positioned further away from the other fingers, making the hand more pronated. Also, over time, the tension on the bow hair increased, making the long curve in the bow become straighter. I suspect that this might have be related to the use of a more muscular, into-the-string bow stroke that was popular in the Soviet era.

October 28, 2017, 1:45 PM · Just tried this Russian bow hold. First word that comes to mind is "ham fisted" . Well I guess i should give myself at least 3 days solid with the Russian method, and not rely on first impressions. Maybe its' not so good
yet because i omitted the vodka!
Edited: October 29, 2017, 7:08 AM · Just got back home from a concert in which I used the Russian hold (courtesy of Christiaan van Hemert's video) for the first time, and for the entire programme. No problems and it worked fine and felt natural. Main items in the programmme were Mozart Pft Conc #21 (no, we didn't play #20 by mistake, in case anyone's wondering!), and Beethoven Sym #4, for both which the Russian hold was ok.

I'm going to see how the Russian hold works out with a Baroque programme. I've always got the Franco-Belgian there if the Russian doesn't fit.

Edited: October 28, 2017, 8:47 PM · Great Trevor! Christiaan is a friend of mine. If you ever need to get in touch with him for more info , let me know. He s a big violin nerd so he knows quite a lot about different violin schools and approaches... that said, he is quite an opinionated person and sometimes his opinions seem a bit strong. We often have debates about that haha

@mike laird! Yes very true, he is a pretty big guy! In fact regarding strong opinions, this issue has often come up with our debates.. christiaan has certain beliefs about how to hold the violin, and i always point out that he s quite a big guy, and his approach may not work for others

Edited: October 28, 2017, 9:45 PM · This is fascinating.

Using a smartphone app (SPLnFFT) on my iPad Mini, I measured a volume of about 81 dB when playing at a volume I would consider "piano", and just shy of 89 dB playing fortissimo. Readings taken with the meter right near my ear were basically no different than readings taken with the meter on the stand in front of me.

Going as far as I could from the stand where I'd placed my meter, while still being able to read the meter (call it 10 feet away or so) had the interesting effect of dropping the piano volume to 78 dB, but the fortissimo volume was only slightly less, at nearly 88 dB.

My grip is Russian. Switching grips to Franco-Belgian, the piano volume didn't change, but the maximum volume dropped significantly, to just shy of 84 dB.

Maybe I should wear hearing protection. Even when I'm playing softly, the meter is showing more than 80 dB.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 7:47 AM · That's a fascinating experiment Lydia!

I personally always put an earplug in my left ear when playing. I used to play without one, but then I got a violin with a much bigger sound, and I could feel it in my left ear, so I started using cotton. But that wasn't very practical, and it wasn't strong enough, so I then switched to the earplug.

People always ask me: "Why do you put that in your ear?".
My answer is always the same:
"I just don't want to become deaf!" :)

October 29, 2017, 1:19 AM · The maximum reading of 88-89 dB regardless of distance indicates that your dB app (or rather, the microphone) isn't capable of measuring higher than that for a typical violin spectrum. At the ear, it's probably way louder than that.

Moreover, for measuring absolute sound levels (rather than differences), you need to calibrate the app against a trusted dB meter. But if you have access to one, you'd better use that one rather than an app. IMO any musician who cares about hearing damage should have access to a dB meter - maybe shared among colleagues.

Edited: October 29, 2017, 7:09 AM · Well , trying the russian hold a bit longer now- even without vodka, I am noticing it can be a little less "ham-fisted" than my first impression suggested.
More power is there, definitely, and not all the subtlety has to be compromised.
If you think of the hands being wired up to the brain through touch - these sensors providing sensory imaging brain-wise of what is going on with the bows subtle movements - my impression is that, yes certain of those image-places are cut off with the Russian vis a vis the Belgian hold - just no longer there almost, but actually certain other are now brought into play ..... so indeed all subtlety may not be lost.
Russian may be good for spicatto too as cutting out excessive pneumatic vorsprung durch technik reactivity in the right hand . I wrote all that without vodka too..... just orange juice.
October 29, 2017, 7:45 AM · I have many problems with using the Russian bow hold. I tend to lift my pinkie up for some unknown reason each time I use it.
Edited: October 30, 2017, 1:23 PM · A further thought about the Russian hold. The bow now feels that it is much more part of my hand and therefore more immediately under control by the forearm and upper arm than by the intermediary of the fingers, which bring another neuro-muscular step into the process. Another thought that comes to mind is that if you want to throw a ball accurately and strongly you use your hand rather than the fingers.

There are occasions in violin playing when right hand finger action is important and should be used. It's just that over the last few days those occasions have not arisen in my orchestral playing. If one does, then it would be easy enough to use the Franco-Belgian.

Edited: October 30, 2017, 11:33 AM · I totally agree with Trevor. I was taught the Russian bow hold when I began studying violin as a boy in the 1950s. Heifetz and David Oistrakh were then my violin heroes, and I wanted to imitate them closely. More recently I tried the F-B grip as an experiment for a short period of time, but never found it as comfortable, fluent, or natural feeling as the Russian. It was probably too late for me to make a change, anyway, even if I'd wanted to. Nowadays I don't give it much thought -- best to stay with the hold that seems to flow from the fingers in the easiest way.
Edited: October 30, 2017, 1:53 PM · If your hold is Russian, it's fine to let the pinkie float off the bow.

Han, which inexpensive dB meter do you recommend? In theory, the iPhone should be fine to 100 dB, which this did not exceed.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 1:02 AM · Lydia, I posted about dB meters earlier in this thread. I would get one that can do A-weighted messurements from a reputable shop that sells measuring equipment. The cheap no-name $12 ones may be OK or may be 10 dB off and you have no way to know unless you compare against a known good one. (I have plenty of experience with noname thermometers that show water boiling at 70 °C rather than 100 °C and David Burgess has shown how unreliable hygrometers are.) I don't the reputable shops in the US.

There is a (free access) paper, http://asa.scitation.org/doi/full/10.1121/1.4865269 , on smartphone dB apps. Although the paper says that there are iphone apps that are not so bad (Android is worse), the plot in fig. 2 shows otherwise: readings can be up to 10 dB off in either direction.

P.S. Some of the bigger reputable sellers in Europe: Farnell, RS components, Distrelec. But they may not be the best choice for US customers.

October 31, 2017, 4:13 AM · Just a word. dB-A meaurements are "weighted" to have a frequency respnse similar to that of the "average" (!) ear; dB-C is less corrected and is closer to "real" sound levels. For a more technical explanation, use Google!
October 31, 2017, 7:42 AM · Yeah, I saw your earlier post, Han, but I was hoping you'd have another inexpensive recommendation. :-)

I figure that $20 or $30 for a small, pocketable meter is a reasonable sum of money to spend.

Edited: October 31, 2017, 10:48 AM · Actually youtube gazing a bit over the last days _ Julia Fischer, Janine Jensen, Hilary Hahn, Pinchas Zukerman and others - it seems to me that many people seem to use something between the Belgium and the Russian bow hold.
For instance Hilary Hahn appears to have a bit of a cyborg claw - not quite as svelte as a completely Beligian hold would be - which indeed gives her a lot of power on tap, but also is possibly responsible for a slight lack of smoothness in say Bachs' Allegro in C , from the 3rd sonata, which perhaps is fine - perhaps you want that bright spanking clarity with each note echoing slightly like an axe in a wood,- but is definitely THERE.

or is it?

November 3, 2017, 2:23 AM · Trevor, how is your Russian hold experiment going?
I am specifically interested how the Russian hold does for springing bow techniques (spicatto, ricochet) and playing at the frog.
Kavakos seems to have very good control of the bow at the frog. I wonder wether it can be trained, or if he just has a special kind of technique.

For those of you who have been playing the Russian bow hold for a while, what do you think are the specific challenges presented by this hold, in comparison with other styles?

Edited: November 3, 2017, 11:58 AM · @Roman, I've been using the Russian hold for about a week, entirely in an orchestral environment with different orchestra ensembles (1 concert and 4 rehearsals in that time), and spicatto and ricochet opportunities have not yet arisen. So far everything is natural and comfortable, with an interesting feel of security, presumably because the bow is more under the direct control of the hand rather than the fingers with hand. No problems playing close to the frog. It's fair to say I'm a convert!
November 3, 2017, 8:07 AM · Hahn has the most remarkably, completely inaudible bow changes of any violinist that has ever been recorded. If you hear her make a bow change, it's because she wanted you to hear it. I've been amazed seeing the utter seamlessness of her bowing live -- if I had my eyes closed, I would never have realized that she was taking three bows rather than one on a long note, for instance.

I think the Russian hold results in a little less flexibility in the hand, but as long as your bowing technique is adapted for it, it works as well as anything else. I've cycled through all four major grips thanks to my varying teachers (German, Franco-Belgian, Galamian, Russian), and I personally find the Russian the most comfortable.

November 4, 2017, 10:14 AM · A suitable spot for this link about the history of the bow hold:

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

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