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December 2008 · Bimonthly

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Swing Fiddle
taught by Paul Anastasio

When I was studying the violin many years ago one of my teachers told me a great way to visualize the correct positioning of my right arm. It is a terrific idea, and I’d like to share it with you here. Imagine a plane in space. Actually, all you need to envision is a square, or a floating LP (long-playing) record jacket, in space. Hold your bow on the violin in mid-stroke. Pretend that one corner of the plane is touching your right shoulder. We don’t want that shoulder to be hunched, as this will increase tension and fatigue throughout your body. Relax your shoulder. This will be one corner of the square.

Now examine your right elbow. This will be the second point on our plane. We don’t want your elbow to be pointing up into space, nor do we want it pointed down at the ground. What we want is a nice relaxed elbow. As we locate the other points on our plane the correct position of the elbow will become obvious. Now draw an imaginary line between your shoulder and elbow.

Let’s think about where the other two corners of our record jacket will be. How about the right wrist? It certainly looks to be a logical candidate for inclusion on our square. As with the elbow, it should be nice and relaxed. In midpoint, the wrist should be neither goose-necked nor curved back. In the course of drawing a full bow stroke the wrist has to fold back a little at the very tip of the bow and goose-neck a little at the frog. If in the middle of the stroke the wrist is pretty much flat this keeps our options open.

We have reserved some range of motion in both directions, allowing us to goose-neck at the frog and fold back at the tip as needed. The maintenance of a flat wrist in mid-stroke is also important because, as we become better players and achieve flexibility in our wrists, we will want to be able to use this flexibility. With a flexible wrist we can smooth changes of bow direction by moving the palm of the hand at cross-purposes to the arm. This is done by flexing the wrist to continue an up stroke while the arm is beginning its downward motion and vice versa. A loose wrist also allows us to make all of a short stroke or part of a longer stroke with the wrist, making fast playing and spiccato much easier.

We now have located three points in space - the shoulder, the elbow and the wrist. The fourth point on this LP jacket plane is where the bow contacts the string. There actually are seven different contact points for the bow. It can hit the G string alone, the G and D strings together, the D string alone, and so forth. The hair of the bow, of course, shouldn't touch the strings we don’t want it to play. This means that, for the bow to contact the correct string or strings, the two most flexible other points on the plane, which are the elbow and wrist, must move up or down to ensure contact with only the desired string or strings.

A good way to envision this motion is to imagine a piano hinge running from the shoulder to the point of contact of bow on string. As if there were an old LP record mounted on that hinge, the elbow and wrist move in concert to provide sufficient clearance to avoid hitting the wrong strings.

I think if you’ll observe the best players on the scene today, or revisit masters from the past through the magic of video, you’ll find that the four corners of a square in space would neatly touch their shoulders, elbows, wrists and bow on string contact points. It’s just good basic technique, regardless of style. Try it yourself! I’ll bet it helps you, just as it has helped me since I was told it so long ago.

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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