Leverage and Flexibility

The Keys to Good Bowing

by Paul Anastasio

In the world of "violining" and fiddle playing there are folks out there who use very different bow grips. The great jazz violinist Joe Venuti taught me 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 press down 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 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 near the frog to counter the weight of the bow.

As we seek to draw good tone out of the violin, we find ourselves dealing with both the weight of our bow and the force of gravity. 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, letting gravity do all the work. 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.

The tone continues to be good until mid-stroke, but as you get nearer the tip the tone becomes more and more thin and wispy. In the course of a full bow stroke the index and little fingers of the right hand apply pressure to the bow. At the frog, the little finger presses down, pushing the stick up, to counter the weight of the bow. At the tip the index finger presses down, pushing the stick down to augment the bow's weight.

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 that can be measured as roughly 1 1/2 ounces at the tip. At the tip the index finger needs to press down sufficiently to exert downward pressure of about 2 ounces, as measured at the tip.

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 counter the increasing weight of the bow.

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. 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, with the lower arm resting on the edge of 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 up against the edge of a 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.

In reality, the arm is the chief motivating force behind each bow stroke and the leverage necessary for good tone is created within the hand. The thumb is the fulcrum and the index and little fingers apply downward pressure as needed to augment or counter the weight of the bow.

In many cases the little finger is simply left off the bow and entire pieces are played without using the part of the bow nearest the frog. Old videos of Joe Venuti in action find his little finger completely off the bow as he plays near the tip and in the middle of the bow. I see it, the primary advantage of holding the bow in this manner is that it allows for greater wrist flexibility.

Whether or not the little finger contacts the stick, however, it's exceedingly important that it be curved. If the little finger is locked straight on the bow it will be next to impossible to achieve flexibility with either the wrist or the fingers. In order to bow freely there needs to be a degree of independence between the bow and the right arm. This independence can be attained by flexing the wrist, by flexing the fingers, or by flexing both. In the Russian grip, the bow is held close to the palm of the hand. Because of this, there is less opportunity for finger flexibility and more flexibility is demanded of the wrist. The Galamian grip finds the bow farther from the palm. This grip not only offers more opportunity for finger flexibility but demands it, as it angles the wrist so that in order to create part of the stroke it must move side to side in a "parade wave" fashion rather than the more natural "wave bye-bye" motion of the Russian grip.

However this flexibility is attained, though, it must be learned, as it is absolutely necessary if one wishes to become a good player. Interestingly, this flexibility is called upon to accomplish two very different things. First, a flexible wrist and/or fingers can smooth the transition from one bow stroke to the next. In order to accomplish this, the palm of the hand and the fingers briefly need to work at cross-purposes to the arm.

For example, as the bow nears the frog, the palm of the hand can continue to move in an upward direction even as the arm is beginning the down stroke. Conversely, when the bow is nearing the tip, the palm can continue in a downward direction while the arm is starting the up stroke. The best practitioners of this technique can make bow direction changes completely inaudible.

The second way in which the pros take advantage of a flexible wrist and fingers is that they create the very beginning of a downward or upward stroke with the palm and fingers of the hand. This technique is absolutely necessary in order to play what's called an uncontrolled spiccato, or bouncing bow, stroke. If you try to play spiccato with a tight wrist and fingers you'll find that it's next to impossible. However, the same technique used in spiccato playing is also used for playing bow strokes in which the bow never leaves the strings.

In the western swing idiom, the top players such as Johnny Gimble and Randy "Snuffy" Elmore have very limber wrists and draw a good deal of each bow stroke with the palms and fingers of their hands. Johnny and Snuffy are both practitioners of the Russian grip, as are most of the modern Texas style fiddle players.

According to Snuffy, however, many of the older style Texas players, including Major Franklin and Benny Thomasson, held the bow with the thumb underneath the frog, just as Mark O'Connor holds his bow today. This grip, which at first seems unorthodox, actually preserves all of the elements of conventional bow mechanics. The curved thumb under the frog acts as a fulcrum, just as it does when it contacts the stick. The index finger applies downward pressure as necessary for good tone, and the little finger, if needed, presses down at the frog to counter the weight of the bow. This "thumb-under" grip, like the Russian grip, calls on the wrist to provide nearly all of the flexibility, while the Galamian grip requires a greater degree of finger flexibility.

Regardless of how it is attained, however, all of us who aspire to good bow control need to address the twin issues of bow leverage and flexibility. Not to approach the issue of bowing leverage, laboring under the misleading notion that arm weight draws tone from the violin, will only prove to be an impediment to good bow control. Equally important, if not more so, is the issue of wrist and finger flexibility. Without this flexibility the bow can do little more than "saw" on the strings, beginner-fashion. However, if the thumb and all the fingers of the right hand are curved, visualizing the "oiling" of the wrist and finger joints can help the player attain the good flexibility in the bow hand that is so important for good playing.

-Paul Anastasio

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