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For those of you who are just joining us, we've been discussing the mechanics of bowing.
Ideally, shorter strokes are made at least in part by the flexing of the wrist. For longer strokes, 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 diminish the pressure the bow hair exerts on the strings. 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. As I see it, the primary advantage of holding the bow in this manner is that it allows for greater wrist flexibility. I try to keep my little finger close to the stick, though, so that when necessary I can place it, curved, on the bow. A straight, locked little finger is a precursor to clumsy, heavy-handed playing, as it tends to lock the wrist.
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, the fingers, or 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 Franco-Belgian 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's absolutely vital to learn it if one wishes to become a good player. Interestingly, this elasticity 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.
For example, as the bow nears the tip, 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 frog, 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 this stroke 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, as does the well-known Mark O'Connor. 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 on the stick when the bow is near the frog to counter the downward pressure of the bow. This "thumb-under" grip, like the Russian grip, calls on the wrist to provide nearly all of the flexibility, while the Franco-Belgian 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. To approach the issue of bowing leverage while 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 player can only "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.
Copyright © 2008 by Paul Anastasio All Rights Reserved Used by permission of the copyright holder.
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.