10 Bow Stroke Tips from Violinist Kelly Hall-Tompkins

For string players, gaining a command of basic bow strokes is paramount. Here are 10 tips to master bow strokes on the violin or viola.

By Greg Cahill

String players have a bevy of tips and tricks up their sleeve when it comes to adding nuance to their sound, and many of those go-to tricks are all in the bow stroke. From pizzicato to martelé and all the bow strokes in between, here are a few tips to improve your right-hand repertoire. “When you play a violin piece,” violinist Joshua Bell once said, “you are a story teller and you are telling a story.” To tell a good story, articulately, you need the right vocabulary and nuanced expression.

For string players, that means gaining a command of basic bow strokes. Your teacher will help you to learn these fundamental bow strokes, but to help you master these motions, Strings asked Kelly Hall-Tompkins—a popular concert violinist who played the title role of the fiddler on the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof—for tips on perfecting ten popular bow strokes.

1. ColléPress the bow four inches from the frog into the string, with the fingers curved, and pluck—remember that collé is the French term for “glue.” Says Hall-Tompkins: “This is a stroke for the advanced student, only after a solid bow grip and sound production are really mastered. It centers on strength and agility of the fingers, isolated from the mechanics of the complete bow arm, and is the foundation of so many other strokes. Practice collé as a fingers-only, slow-motion springing action at the frog, both down and up, achieving a super-articulate and weighty ‘K’ effect. Practice making the fingers strong enough to coil and release without coming off of the bow, without using any arm motion, and equal down and up.”

2. Martelé: This strongly hammered motion requires each successive note to be isolated with the bow stroke. “Among the many strokes that can be mastered only after mastering a strong foundation of collé, this is one,” Hall-Tompkins says. “Each stroke should have a clear, articulate start and also a weighted, fast arm drawn. For maximum clarity, it’s important that the sounding point be matched to the speed of the bow, closer to the bridge, and that the bow remains straight from frog to tip.”


3. DetachéBroad, but separate, strokes that fall midway between legato and staccato. “More easy-going than a martelé, a nice detaché can bring lightness and spirit to solo character pieces and clarity to orchestral violin section passages,” Hall-Tompkins says. “To achieve this, as always, make sure that the up-bows match the down-bows and that the stroke is generally above the middle or bounce point.”

4. StaccatoUp-bow staccato uses lots of wrist and finger action to achieve quick, short bursts. Down-bow staccato employs a flatter than normal wrist. Says Hall-Tompkins: “Similar to a martelé, I think of this stroke as a shorter version in which the full bow is not necessarily used, and it should be more facile for faster tempi and passagework. Again, a strong collé is an important foundation, so always make that part of your practice routine.” 

5. SpiccatoThe Hungarian violin pedagogue Carl Flesch noted that in spiccato, “the player is active, the bow is passive.” Says Hall-Tompkins: “This first of the strokes that allow us to fly is where collé is absolutely paramount to ever achieving liftoff. Begin by practicing a solid foundation of collé at quarter note equals 50 or 60. After producing consistent-sounding strokes, gradually progress to eighths, triplets, 16ths, quintuplets, sextuplets, and 32nds, coming off the string equally on each and including the forearm in the faster note values.”


6. LegatoA long, fluid stroke that uses more of the bow length to produce a smooth effect. “This is a stroke which, contrary to appearances, is not simply limited to an up and down mechanic,” Hall-Tompkins says. “There should be connective tissue that sounds greater than the sum of the parts, giving melodies the ability to sing beyond the bar line. There is a lot of beautiful playing that still misses this elusive ability. To practice it, make sure to lean into bow changes, without any overt surges, but without decaying either—sustain, sustain!”

7. SautilléBouncing the wood of the bow to produce fast notes—less bouncy that spiccato. Says Hall-Tompkins: “Another stroke that gives us the ability to fly and that is also built from a strong collé foundation. Though the stroke ultimately flies above the string, it is most successful when your right arm is clear about which plane each string is on. So, a great way to practice it is a slow tempo martelé across each string.”


8. RicochetRelax the bow grip and let the bow bounce off the string, using the resiliency of the string to achieve the effect. “Flying, laughing, or skipping, depending on the context, this stroke is more about physics than any foundational stroke,” Hall-Tompkins says. “Sometimes easier for students to master than the more sustained effort of spiccato, ricochet is more of a short burst of energy in the right part of the bow, typically the bounce point and above. Like bouncing a ball multiple times from one toss, this stroke is similar. Keep a concise amount of bow and stay very close to the string.”

9. TremoloNotated in sheet music as a note with three slashes through the stem. Play close to the tip and move the bow quickly. “This stroke is definitely not a one-size-fits-all situation. Depending on the period—Impressionist, Romantic, Modern, etcetera—it requires imagination in addition to mechanics,” Hall-Tompkins says. “Small, imperceptibly fast strokes closer to the fingerboard bring shimmer to impressionism, a fatter heavier approach gives life, drama—and sometimes a cimbalom effect for Brahms—to Romantic-era music, while a tighter more angular stroke can bring texture and sharpness to Modern scores.”

10. PizzicatoLiterally, plucking the string, usually with the fingers of the right hand. “Something we probably don’t practice enough, but that often occurs in a variety of tricky scenarios,” Hall-Tompkins says. “Just like bowing planes, practice under-tempo to clarify which string you are on. Bring more of the pad of the finger in contact with the string for richer tones, use the tip for faster passages.”

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