For something as light as a bow, why does it sometimes feel so heavy? Do you want the bow to glide instead of grind? There is a technique that will help equalize the sound at the frog and the tip, as well as keep the bow balanced no matter which string it’s on. How you hold the bow and exert pressure will determine whether the bow feels light and graceful. Pressure and weight work best if they’re balanced over the entire hand. Conversely, localized and pinpointed pressure can end up feeling heavy and lopsided.
An exercise that demonstrates a balanced hand starts with playing the open D string, which lies in the purest gravitational center of the violin. Play any note or rhythm you like and keep the same volume as you approach the tip. On the D string, gravity is straight down, and the hand feels balanced without the variety of other strings' angles complicating things. This is ground zero, the example for how to play on even the steep angle of the E string. This exercise is one of discovery, in which you play on each of the strings. The gravity you discover on the E string is sideways. If you loosen the definition of gravity, sideways works similarly to downward.
Because the strings are so sensitive to weight, only very subtle changes in the hand are necessary. The purpose of the exercise is to limit the exaggeration of the hand’s movements. Constancy of the hand’s position is preferable to excessive engineering.
Blanketing the Strings
Think of how comfortable a down blanket feels when it’s uniformly resting on yourself. It’s spread out so that no part is heavier than another, and turning on your side or back doesn’t change the weight and balance of the down.
That goal of uniform weight and balance may be the same for the bow, but the difference is that a bow drops and rises with each successive string change, and twice as much when crossing two strings. How do you maintain the right depth into the string without sending the wrong pressure to the wrong place? By listening for the same quality and volume of sound from one string to the next, you can make an instant assessment of how far off you are. Call it trial and error, or appraise and improve, this system gives you control of your bow arm.
In a violinist’s world, gravity needs to be managed so that the bow doesn’t collapse. "Supported gravity" insures that the bow won’t go into free-fall, crashing onto a string. When you drop to a lower string, gravity may go too far and cause a harsh articulation. Pulling away from the new string will help you avoid the extreme pressure.
Finding the Right Amount of Gravity
To get two adjacent strings to have the same dynamic and character, the hand has a component that makes that possible. It’s a dropping mechanism, but it’s so subtle that it makes it difficult to define it. It falls in the category of instinct, because it’s guided by the ear and by knowing where things are in space. If you remind your elbow and wrist to go for the ride, rather than engineer each tiny movement, you’ll find the bow navigating as if it’s on a flotational device. I like the image of a conveyor belt, in which the movement is obvious but the design is simple and efficient. With some violinists you don’t even see their wrists move, yet their sounds are supple and warm.
The subtle movements get the hand ready for the new string, and any exaggeration of one part, such as the wrist, would throw a large wrench into the works. I think of the wrist, hand, and fingers as part of a furniture caster specially made by NASA, handling the twists and turns with precision and good timing. Everything that the hand does to maneuver around the violin’s altitudes is three-dimensional. This is why there is no rule or exercise than can describe fully how to hold and move the bow. After all, since the process starts with the ear, wouldn’t the ear be the best place to actually work out the details?
Managing the Hand’s Energy
With so many moving parts that make up the right hand, how could we ever agree on how they interact? The reason every violinist is unique in how he or she holds the bow is because it started with an instinct. Even though a teacher guided the initial set-up, the inner muscles and the feel of the gravity were guided by the student’s ear and logic. It is indeed a beautiful mystery that illustrates a violinist’s sense of keeping the arm and hand at the right level for four strings lying in distant orbits.
I tried to think of an image that illustrates the tiny changes that the bow exerts to make great changes in the music’s character without a lot of detailed maneuvering. Excessive wrist movement, both sideways and vertically, can wreak havoc and mayhem. We learn that some movement is necessary, but too much attention to such details can tie us into knots. Therefore, a simpler solution would be based on energy flowing from a balanced, steady hand.
The application of a blood pressure armband resonated with me in how it related to the bow arm and bow hold. Such a device is a perfect example of balanced energy and pressure. There’s no need to decide if the pressure needs to come from my index finger, middle finger, thumb, wrist, elbow, etc. This version of balanced energy allows the correct pressure to come from the correct place at the right time.
To be more certain of success, I need to observe which part of the bow I’m in so the energy lands in the right spot. The playing point (the part of the bow that’s touching the string at any given moment) changes all the time, but as long as I know where the bow is, the connection from the hand to the playing point will stay intact. As they say, keep your eye on the ball, or in the violin world, substitute the mind for the eye.
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