Why is the way you hold the bow important?
In this post, I'd like to tackle a point of technique that can stymie the most well intentioned student: the bow hold. In this case, stymie - to prevent or hinder the progress of - is exactly the right word, as there is nothing like a bow hold that is not quite there yet to, well, to prevent or hinder the progress of a fiddler. There are so many ways that the bow hold demonstrates an effect on the sound one produces, and all are important. Tone, fluidity, or the connectedness of notes, the tempo or speed we are able to achieve without sounding effortful, and your body's experiencing of creating music (are your muscles fatigued, tense and sore after practicing?), are all connected to how you hold the bow. In other words, some of the most expressive and gratifying elements of musical expression are tied to...you guessed it...the bow hold. Because of this, finessing your bow hold, regardless of your playing level, is worth a good chunk of your practice time.
But, I've already developed some habits around the way I hold the bow. It's too late to change my bow grip. Right?
Pardon me? Yes I hear you - the person in the corner drinking your third coffee of the day and juggling a busy life while waiting for that bright spot in your day or week to present itself - fiddle time. You are asking how in the world you are going to change your bow hold, since you've been holding it your way since you began playing. Don't worry, I've got you, and I've got some concrete steps that you can take to find the bow hold that works for you. The steps are:
- Developing automaticity through the use of simple exercises.
It takes a new student very little time to look around at all of the different ways and styles of playing before concluding that there are many different ways to hold the bow. Take, for example, any fiddler you admire. There are so many to choose from. As a matter of fact, when I was in high school and university, I had pictures of my favourite fiddlers in my locker and in my room, including Natalie MacMaster, Liz Carroll, Andy Leftwich, Mairi Rankin, Graham Townsend, and the list goes on. Is that weird? It seemed totally normal to me at the time. Now that I'm talking about my life out loud, perhaps its a touch strange. Or not. My point is that by looking at pictures of these and many other great fiddlers doing their thing, I could see how they stood, held their fiddle, held their bow, and even, how they were feeling their music in that moment. That was waaaay back before the internet. Today all you have to do is search for your favourite fiddlers online to see how they play. Observe how they make music. For now, look at how they hold the bow. That's the first half of observation.
The second half of observation is, you guessed it, to observe yourself. This is particularly important because we often have very little awareness about what our body is doing while we are playing. We are concentrating so hard on playing the notes - either reading them or remembering them - that there is no cognitive space left over for anything else. This is why having a good teacher is a wonderful boon - a second set of eyes as you play to point out where challenges are happening and also to make note of what you are doing well. A mirror is also a very helpful observational tool because it allows you to have good line of sight on your bow hold and other points of technique. One reason this is helpful is because the bow hold is not actually observable as we play, without a mirror. Another reason is because most of the time, you will likely ensure that your bow hold is perfect before you begin playing, but as soon as your focus has shifted to the notes, the bow hold changes, and we spend the rest of our practice session practicing a bow hold that is not ideal.
Here is an important part of the process that sometimes gets lost in pedagogy. That is, it can be very helpful to think about what a good bow hold is for you, the style of music you play, and the size of your hand and length of your fingers. Yes, there is an ideal way to hold the bow, which I cover in depth in Fiddle Fundamentals with pictures, but there are many slight variants on that hold, because we don't all have the same size hand, or length of finger. Thusly, a traditional Suzuki bow hold may require a little more thoughtful refinement on your part in order to make sure that your hand fits with the bow appropriately. For example, my pinky finger is really, really short. This affects many things about how I play the violin and also the job that my pinky has on the bow - that is, how my pinky supports the weight of the bow when I am playing at the point-of-balance or frog. It took me years to understand that because my hand size/shape is not ideal for a traditional bow hold, I might change how I use the bow to compensate for this. AND it took me years to understand that there is nothing wrong with this.
This said, there are some key aspects of the bow hold that, when employed properly, will support you to play fluidly and with less effort than otherwise. These are:
- rounded fingers and thumb without points of tension or locked joints;
- flexibility in the wrist and finger joints of the bow arm (which is why I never call it a bow grip)
Points of variability include:
- where specifically your hand sits over the frog;
- where the index finger makes contact with the stick (first joint, second joint, between joints and so on);
In another post I will cover what you will want to consider as you fine-tune your bow hold, and some exercises that can support the development of your bow hold so that you can begin to develop automaticity in this area. This frees up your brain to consider other aspects of technique as you play.
Yours in music,