Lessons from a Mechanical Violin - The Bow Unencumbered by the Bow Arm

April 25, 2020, 3:36 PM · There is a fantastic museum in Sylmar, California, about 30 minutes from my home, called The Nethercutt Collection. While the main focus is on the historic, well-preserved cars, their music room contains one of the world’s largest connection of mechanical musical instruments. On the large scale they have an orchestrion, a massive piece of furniture from 1920, with music that soars, drums that drive, and melodies that take you back to another era. Tchaikovsky owned one. The Nethercutt owns many, and the family’s fortunes began with the owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics.

But it’s the smaller box that features the violin that got me to thinking about the clunky object that’s attached to my bow, and which is missing in the mechanical violin. My arm, with assorted attachments such as five knuckles, one elbow, a shoulder, and a bony wrist, did not have a counterpart in the box. Hmm, might I conclude from that that the arm is not necessary, or at the very least, the damage it causes should be minimized if not eliminated?

As you can see in the video from 2:20 – 3:50, a cylinder simply encircled the violin, one string at a time. Rather than invent a violin that rotated so that all four strings could be used, the problem was solved by having four violins. I envy such mechanical possibilities. So many problems were eliminated, including faulty beginnings of notes and inconsistent bow speed.

So my job was`to eliminate all the things that can go wrong with the contraption known as the arm. Rather than construct a bow arm, I needed to eliminate the hazards.

Checklist of Removable Items - Stopping the Interference of the Bow Arm

  1. The elbow should be as light as a feather. At best, it acts like the tail of a kite, simply and gracefully following the arm’s movements. It can’t do any damage if it’s flying weightlessly through the air. The worst infraction of the elbow is when it hangs with full weight below the lower arm. Don’t confuse the elbow with an anchor. If you like to play with a low elbow, however, just make it light. I like to think of marshmallows.
  2. Wrists and knuckles are like children - they should be seen but not heard. If you hear a scratch, you can thank a misuse of the numerous joints in the arm. I like to neutralize the possible movements coming from the wrist, because they shouldn’t be aggressive or invasive.
  3. When changing the bow’s direction, there may be a gentle shift in the angle, form, and direction of the wrist. In other words, it naturally moves like the fin of a fish. If it moves too much and interferes with the connection to the hair, try eliminating the “fin-ish” movement. It’s not necessary. More importantly, the hair should have a good connection to the string up to the point of the change, and the same after the point of change. That’s enough to concentrate on. If you happen to have an elegantly moving wrist, think of it as icing on the cake.

When the Arm Has Excess Baggage: How to Simplify Something So Complicated

Contraption means “a machine or device that appears strange or unnecessarily complicated, and often badly made or unsafe.” (Oxford). It’s also a fitting name for the bow arm. In discussing it, there are two techniques at issue – how it looks, the external considerations AND what happens internally, that is, the skill of finessing the movements and pressures. The latter determines beauty of sound, clarity of bow changes, and smooth string changes.

If you hear a great country fiddler with a locked wrist and an elbow down below his waist, he or she must have a darn good ear. The bow arm might look awkward, but the phrasing is natural and flowing. There might be tension here and there, but by the time the hair touches the string, the problems are kept at bay and don’t interfere with the sound. It’s as if a reduction has taken place, in which bad habits stay far away from the action on the string. The actual connection between the hair and the string, known as the playing point, is a safe haven from our heaviness and clumsiness.

The Beauty of the Bow Arm

Of course, working on a bow arm is something we do as students, and we learn by example.

This is our external phase. We place our wrist just so, we have a certain amount of distance between each finger, and we either have a low elbow or high one. Things fall into place, and we become aware of our pluses and minuses. But at some point, we start the internal process. We tell ourselves to not move the wrist so much, or not to press so hard. Does the same technique of spinning a string work whether it’s thick or thin? These are considerations we have when we’re thinking internally.

Henryk Szeryng always impressed me with his strong physical command of the instrument. There was a combination of manliness and elegance in his sound, and his bow arm is the picture of form and flexibility. I also see the arm suspended over each string with no hint of gravitational collapse, as if he’s playing the air and the string is rising us to meet the hair. No one knows absolutely where the hair is at any given moment, so the higher bow is, the more insurance you’ll have against the bow crushing the string.

A Pantograph Becomes a Conveyor Belt

My bow arm has more parts than I would like, but what choice do I have? It’s similar to a pantograph, “a jointed framework conveying a current to a train, streetcar, or other electric vehicle from overhead wires.” (Oxford). All I want from my bow arm is for it to be a conveyor belt. Something simple, so that nothing interferes with the connection between my mind and the bow hairs. So what if my bow hold looks like a pyramid sometimes, or it feels like a clothespin is holding on to the bow? My Egyptian bow hold does the job and puts the hair in spinning position.

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April 29, 2020 at 04:29 PM · Thanks again Paul.

To restate the obvious; we are not designed to play the violin, and the inventors of the violin were not concerned with ergonomics. If we made a robotic copy of the arm, it would have a ball joint at the shoulder, a swivel at the elbow that only moves in one plane, a wrist that folds at a different angle from the elbow, etc. It would then take a complex computer program to get the bow to move in a straight line. If it were easy anyone could do it, and I would be out of a job. I think that is amazing that there are so many highly skilled violinists; all those in a pro. orchestra.

Moving from a down-bow to an up-bow at the tip; Most of the time I would Not release the traction; the bow might slip sideways on the string and it will take some time to get back into the "groove". I tell students not to try to get rid of that little clicking sound (white noise) when changing bow direction. The audience will only hear it as a clean attack to a note.

April 30, 2020 at 12:06 AM · This contraption is wonderfully designed but it is not playing music. Only humans can play music because music requires emotion.

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