By James Reel
The first time a teacher hands you a stringed instrument, you figure the tricky part will be putting our left-hand fingers in the correct spots to get the right notes. How hard can moving the bow with the right hand be?
Well, as you discover the moment you first draw the bow across an open string, it’s not that simple. Then, as you try to get a decent sound, a lot of string players tighten up that right hand, use the wrong pressure in the wrong direction, and start making noises that remind you that strings used to be made of catgut.
Before you can produce the smooth sound that attracted you to strings in the first place, you have to overcome that tension in the bow hand. Florida freelance violinist and teacher Eden Vaning-Rosen has written an entire tome on the subject; it’s called The Violin Book 6a: Elements of a Tension-Free Bow Hand, with Etudes.
She says that tension sets in when a muscle’s natural motion gets halted in some way. And she’s not necessarily talking about anything as active as moving a bow or climbing stairs. As an experiment, Vaning-Rosen suggests that you sit with your feet flat on a hardwood or tile floor. Press your toes down against the floor, and hold them like this for a short while. “You’ll not only feel your feet become tight,” she points out, “but soon your calves, and then your thighs.
“What has happened? You created energy by your muscle motion against the floor. The energy could not travel freely into the hard floor, so the energy came back through the muscles following the same pathway along which it first traveled.”
If you can do that to yourself just sitting there, you know you’re in trouble if your bow hand is tense.
Right and Wrong
So how, exactly, does tension affect a violin bow hand? Here’s Vaning- Rosen’s explanation: “Think back to your first lessons, when you were learning to hold the bow correctly. At this point your hand was placed at the frog with the thumb under and the four fingers across the top. Right away you became aware, consciously or unconsciously, of a large strain on your pinky. The natural decision a student makes at this point is: ‘In order to hold this violin bow I’m going to have to hold it tightly with my pinky, because this bow is heavy!’”
That’s obvious if you’re holding the bow in the air in front of you. The bow stick works like a long lever arm, and because of the pull of gravity, the longer a lever arm is, the heavier it feels. Your thumb under the frog acts as the lever’s fulcrum, or support; your pinky literally gets the short end of the stick, supporting the actual weight of the bow, as well as the increased weight because of the length of the bow stick. Because of this, the pinky develops tension, which moves through the wrist and into the forearm.
But what happens when you place the bow down on the A string? Now the long bow is supported by the string, not your thumb, and your pinky can relax. You can even lift it up and down. Your whole hand is relaxed now, and you can focus on the front side of the hand, transferring any needed weight into the bow stick to achieve the sound you want.
“When a student doesn’t realize that the feeling in the bow hand on the string is different from the feeling in the bow hand off the string, and thus continues to keep the tension in the hand after the bow is placed on the string,” says Vaning-Rosen, “this continued tension in the pinky will equalize the weight being transferred into the other side. The bow therefore surfaces over the string, with little or no energy being transferred into the string. With little or no feeling of friction on the string, a strong, rich tone cannot be produced. A student should, therefore, be aware of how he starts each bow stroke, paying careful attention to any pinky tension.”
She advocates consciously trying a technique the wrong way as well as the right way, so you can see and feel the difference. She suggests playing a line from an etude by Franz Wohlfahrt.
The first time through, let your pinky remain tight after you place your bow on the string. Listen to the sound you produce, and feel any tension in your hand.
The motions of the bow strokes actually parallel the natural actions of body muscles.
“The motions of the bow strokes actually parallel the natural actions of body muscles,” she says. “Body muscles alternate between contracting and relaxing in order to perform all the tasks demanded of them. Similarly, each different type of bow stroke is made up of a different set of tension and relaxation steps.”Play through the example again, but this time, after placing your bow on the string, stop for a second to relax the pinky. Then transfer weight to the front side of the hand, becoming conscious of the natural cling (the weight of the bow and hand against the string). Take a deep breath, and then start the stroke. What was the difference in your bow sound?
Try again, but this time using a staccato bowing. Play through the line, keeping tension in your pinky. Notice the strained, unmusical sound of the stopped bow stroke.
Now play through the staccato line again, this time releasing any pinky tension in your hand first. Vaning-Rosen suggests: “Press your first finger (using tension) on the bow before playing the staccato note, and release it immediately when the bow stroke starts, to get a good ‘bell-tone,’ ‘ka’ sound. Continue to press and relax for each staccato note.
“It’s essential to identify and remove any negative tension from your hand to master the different bowing skills. Excess tension in the hand can even cause a bow to bounce when you start a legato stroke. Try as much as possible to not lift the bow off the string. Make sure after any small lift of the bow that you do not tense up your hand when your bow returns to the string.
“Once the initial awareness of removing unwanted tensions from the hand is accomplished,” Vaning-Rosen continues, “the next level of training involves achieving springlike bow-hand motions. Ivan Galamian, in his book The Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, describes the action and the function of bow-arm technique as ‘based on a system of springs.’ (Springlike motion is essentially gathering energy into an object and then releasing it.) In order for the body’s natural springs to work, the muscles and joints must be flexible.”
Vaning-Rosen advocates this basic exercise to demonstrate the springlike motions of the bow hand: Place your bow hand in the air in front of you and make a fist, bending back your fingers and your wrist (see Figure 1a).
Then relax your hand, straightening out your fingers (see Figure 1b).
That’s not what most people mean by the term “handspring,” but it does show you the natural springing motions of your hand—and, by the way, in its relaxed state, your hand is in a prime position for grasping the bow.
Understanding this concept of tension, relaxation, and flexibility is the hard part. Once you’ve got it, you can start a progression of drills like those in Vaning-Rosen’s book with which, in her words, “any student can master smooth bow changes and a plethora of more advanced strokes.
“Great artists appear to play effortlessly, with their music just pouring forth,” she adds. “Achieving this effortlessness starts with the bow arm’s ability to control tension and use relaxation, thus allowing the natural energy of the body’s motions to carry one’s music forth.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Strings magazine.