Finding, Not Forcing, the Bow’s Path

July 2, 2022, 6:02 PM · When it comes to guiding the movement of the bow, it's not necessary to exaggerate the bending of the wrist to allow the bow to travel freely.

bow path

Teachers often advise violin students to turn the wrist out on the down-bow and in on the up-bow. That can be good advice, but it also can easily be overdone. I’ve noticed that students who concentrate on the stick instead of the hand will do a better job of keeping the bow straight. Advice such as the wrist turning in and out should be used only to modify the more natural approach.

So how can you learn to keep your mind on the bow, without looking at it?

First, begin by actually looking at it. Start with just a few inches of bow and a moderate tempo, and observe the movement of the stick. The arm, hand, wrist, and fingers are designed to follow the lead of the bow; the path will unfold as long as you don’t bog them down with exaggerated instructions. Looking at the bow’s movement focuses your mind away from thinking, "What am I supposed to do?"

Watching the bow move is the first step towards being able to "see" the bow in the mind’s eye. As you visualize and imagine the bow movement, remember what it felt like when you actually watched it move. Your arm will begin to remember how it corrected faulty movement with unconscious thinking. The detailed know-how of exact wrist placement will be replaced by the arm going for the ride. This is similar to reaching for something on a shelf -- the arm does exactly what it needs to do, no more or no less.

When you’re looking at the bow, rather than concentrating on the mechanics of your bodily motions, the arm and hand move instinctively, without specific instruction. The bow is now moving in a more organic manner, and this freedom allows the bow to move into new areas it has never experienced. For example, simply moving the bow from the G string to the E string will bring the elbow down. Going to the D string will raise the arm quite high, and the trip from the frog to the tip will alter the lower arm to keep up with the mild leverage that is taking place.

When the arm is respecting the bow’s leadership and following its tail wind, a lovely synergy is taking place. Any direction works because every possibility must always be available. The movement of the bow across four strings and along its up-bow and down-bow trajectories can inform a lot about bow technique, without having to over-analyze the movements.

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July 3, 2022 at 06:00 PM · It took me a long time to learn that "off the string" doesn't mean inches. It often means less than a millimeter. This has helped me a lot in chamber music.

July 4, 2022 at 10:56 AM · Interesting article, thanks. Would "following the bow's movement" best done playing p mp mf f ? or maybe all of them, starting mp to keep the arm and hand supple ? plus starting with slow bows (maybe not too slow) and moving onto natural / average bow speed, and fast too.... and contact point from "average" to close / far from bridge ?

July 4, 2022 at 12:35 PM · Roland, trying two different dynamics side by side will bring out differences in what the hand feels like. The exercise you mention would help the violinist adapt to any bow speed, dynamic, and the music’s tempo. There’s a tendency to lose the hand’s structure and firmness in a passage that is soft and slow.

Paul, there’s a real skill involved in playing spiccato close to the string without the hair muddying the stroke with inadvertent and unwanted connections. After all, the string is constantly vibrating, which tends to invade the space of the hovering bow. Because of this, I like to keep the bow a little higher above the string. But it definitely can be done close to the string as well. The brush stroke is a good example. That is when the bow is almost on the string, but with a subtle bounce.

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