Work your shoulder weight to gain speed, accuracy, and power
by Laurel Thomsen
The Problem: You’re not getting power in your strokes after sloppy string crossings.
The Solution: Sharpen your awareness of bowing arm dynamics.
When you want to move to different strings and power your longer strokes, the shoulder is the area of the arm that does the job. “The major source of power for all string players is the big back muscles,” says Sally O’Reilly, violin professor at the University of Minnesota. “We function like baseball pitchers and it’s [always] baseball season.”
Watch a good baseball pitcher and you’ll see what full, fluid bow strokes need as well: power, efficiency, coordination, and follow-through. First, the muscles of the shoulder (not to mention the rest of the body) are used to “wind up” the energy needed for the pitch. In a split second, you’ll see the upper arm move. The rest of the motion, though equally important, is the follow-through.
Begin by isolating the motion required to change strings.
Fig. 1: Your elbow should be at a right angle, forming a square when you include the bow and an imaginary line traced from the shoulder joint to the point where the bow hair contacts the string.
Stand in front of a mirror and tuck your violin or viola comfortably under your chin. Place the middle of your bow parallel to the bridge on the A string. Your elbow should be at a right angle, forming a square when you include the bow and an imaginary line traced from the shoulder joint to the point where the bow hair contacts the string (Fig. 1).
Fig. 2a: Rock the bow to each string. Keep the arm and bow in the same plane and find the feeling of natural arm weight at each string level.
Fig. 2b: Note how the upper arm is moving vertically. This is the active upper-arm motion that allows a player to change strings.
Now, rock the bow to each string. Keep the arm and bow in the same plane and find the feeling of natural arm weight at each string level. Note how the upper arm is moving vertically (Figs. 2a, 2b). This is the active upper-arm motion that allows you to change strings.
Kathryn Plummer, professor of viola at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, has her students imagine a plate of glass under the arm and bow—all parts of the arm are in the same plane, and the natural weight of the arm is resting into the bow, held up in part by the instrument. The arm should feel relaxed, yet buoyant. With your arm and bow in the same plane, rock the bow on each string and practice long bow strokes.
With this configuration, your string crossings will be nimble and your long bow strokes will be powerful.
This is the second of a 12-part series on improving bowing fundamentals.