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August 2008 · Bimonthly

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Swing Fiddle
taught by Paul Anastasio

In the world of “violining” and fiddle playing there are folks out there who use very different bow grips. I was taught by the great jazz violinist Joe Venuti to use what Joe called the “Russian grip.” This grip uses the bone of the index finger closest to the palm of the hand to exert downward pressure on the stick, working against the thumb, which is the fulcrum of a lever. Old video clips of Jascha Heifitz show him using this same grip. These days, however, many players use the "Franco-Belgian grip," pressing down on the stick with the second bone out from the palm, a grip popularized by the noted player and teacher Ivan Galamian.

In both of these grips the thumb is curved underneath the stick as a fulcrum. The bow is balanced on this fulcrum. The index and little fingers serve as downward pressure points against the thumb, increasing or decreasing the pressure the bow hair exerts on the strings. The index finger presses down when more pressure is needed and the little finger, which may be completely off the stick for much of the bow stroke, presses down when the bow is near the frog to counter the increased downward pressure of the bow.

As we seek to draw good tone out of the violin, we find ourselves dealing with both the force with which the bow contacts the strings and the force of gravity. In order to get an idea of the gravitational forces at work in the course of a bow stroke, try this experiment. Pinch the frog of the bow between the thumb and index fingers of your right hand. Make sure that your thumb and finger touch the inlaid circle on the frog and don’t exert any pressure, either upward or downward, on the bow stick. Now draw a full down bow stroke from the frog of the bow to the tip. You’ll find that the tone at the frog is raspy and scratchy. As you draw the bow downward the tone begins to sound pretty good starting roughly six inches from the frog. Until mid-stroke tone continues to be good, but as you get nearer the tip the tone becomes more and more thin and wispy.

What the index and little fingers of the right hand do in the course of a full bow stroke is to apply pressure to the bow. At the frog, the little finger presses down, leveraging the stick up, to counter the downward pressure of the bow. At the tip the index finger presses down, pushing the stick down to augment the natural downward pressure the bow is applying to the strings. This downward pressure can be obtained by squeezing the thumb and index finger closer together or by torquing the hand so that the thumb tips down toward the ground. It's the same torquing you would use if you were to want to unscrew the lid of a jar, if the lid was directly facing you.

If you were to attach a postal scale to the tip of the bow to measure the amount of downward and upward force necessary to draw good tone at each end of the bow you would get the following results. At the frog of the bow the little finger needs to press down sufficiently to exert upward pressure of roughly 45 grams, or 1 1/2 ounces. At the tip the index finger needs to press down sufficiently to exert downward pressure of about 60 grams, or 2 ounces. As the bow is drawn upwards, towards the frog, the force of the index finger is slowly lessened. By the time the bow is at its midpoint neither upward or downward pressure is needed. As the bow stroke nears the frog, however, the little finger needs to contact the stick, if it’s not already there, and begin to exert downward pressure to keep the bow stroke from becoming scratchy. Few people think of bowing in this manner, and often much is made of the concept of “arm weight”, but the physics of bowing is really about leverage, balance and friction. The bow balances on the thumb. Without the curved thumb as a fulcrum, no amount of arm weight will create pressure on the bow. Besides, your arm always weighs the same. We can't will our arm to get heavier or lighter.

With the thumb in place, all of the downward and upward pressure necessary for good tone, frog to tip, can be generated within the hand. You can even do this with the lower arm resting on a table. You can get a good feel for the physics involved in bowing by holding a pencil as you would hold your bow. With your lower arm resting on the table, hold one end of the pencil with your left hand. Then curve your right thumb and place it underneath the middle of the pencil. Place your index and little fingers on the pencil as you would hold your bow and let your other fingers wrap around the pencil. You’ll find that you can reproduce the forces necessary for the leverage of bowing by alternately pressing down with the index and little fingers.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Anastasio All Rights Reserved Used by permission of the copyright holder.

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About the Author

Initially classically trained, Paul Anastasio soon began exploring the world of fiddling. In the mid-1970s Paul studied and performed with Joe Venuti. Beginning in 1978, Paul toured with Merle Haggard, Asleep at the Wheel, Larry Gatlin, Loretta Lynn and many others.

Paul is the owner of a small CD label, Swing Cat, writes a regular column for Fiddler Magazine and also teaches privately. He has made thirty trips to southern Mexico, recording and studying a beautiful local fiddle style.

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