Before you can get to the double-stops and harmonics, you’ll need to learn how to develop your bow hand. Without this foundation, other techniques may be compromised. Read on for a tutorial and bowing exercise from Portland, OR violin teacher Greg A...
It can be mesmerizing to watch the fingers of a fiddler run up and down and across the strings, fast as lightning. But the motor that’s doing the bulk of the work and producing the beautiful tone is actually in the bow hand. Before picking up the instrument in a first lesson with any student, I work with the right hand and with the bow. Here is what I do to help my students form good right hand habits:
Before picking up the violin or the bow, made a claw shape with your right hand that resembles a backward letter “C,” and notice how all three knuckles on each finger and two on your thumb are bent. This is your “go to” or “ready” bow hold position. This position does not stay static while the bow goes across the strings; it is merely your starting point and a place to come back to while working out your bow grip. Also notice that the palm is not flat and plane-like, but concave, like it could nest a bouncy ball or a racquetball (depending on the size of your hand).
With your left hand holding the bow somewhere in the middle, slide the frog (the place at the end of the bow where your hand goes) into your claw-shaped hand. Start with the pinky and thumb: both should make contact on their tips. The pinky is placed near the screw (the tightening knob on the end of the bow) and the thumb is wedged between the end of the frog and the leather wrap. Remember to keep the knuckles bent, as the tendency is to let the thumb curl backward into what I call a “hitchhiker’s thumb.” Imagine balancing the bow on these two fingers alone: the thumb acting as the fulcrum and the pinky acting as the counterbalance. The tip of the thumb should be facing straight up toward the ceiling and the tip of the pinky should be facing straight down toward the floor.
With the heavy lifting of the thumb and the pinky out of the way, the index, middle, and ring fingers lay down on the bow for support and balance. Ring and middle finger should nearly cover (or cover if your fingers are long like mine) the “eye” of the frog, making contact across the whole pad of the finger as if you were fingerprinting the frog. The index finger lies down on its side, knuckles angled towards the tip of the bow. Maximize the surface area contact with these three fingers at all times. All four fingers should be evenly spaced and slightly angled toward the tip of the bow. The claw shape compresses a little bit, but remember to keep those knuckles bent. If you’re having trouble holding the weight of the bow, try moving your hand up about nine inches to the balance point and work on your grip there.
My favorite exercise for good tone (I do a variation of this as a warm up every day): Section your bow into thirds and place your bow on any string at the lower third position (closer to the frog). Put a little pressure into the bow by rotating your hand counterclockwise so you feel pressure on your index finger and the wooden stick approaches the hair on the bow (the motion is similar to that of holding a glass of water and pouring it out to the left). Then, quickly draw the bow and release pressure simultaneously for a short and quick “pop” sound. It may be very gritty and ugly sounding, but this is OK. Do these short little bursts until you reach the upper third, then go back and do the same thing with up bows. Remember these three steps before making each sound: “Ready” means bow on the string, “set” means pressure into the bow and “go” means a quick snap with the hand to make a sound. A few minutes of this exercise daily will yield positive results in tone very quickly.
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Greg A. teaches violin, mandolin, music theory and fiddle lessons to students of all ages in Portland, OR. He received his degree in Mandolin and Composition from Berklee College of Music, and he joined the TakeLessons team in January 2013. Learn more about Greg, or search for a teacher near you!
Photo by joeannenah