From the moment the bow leaves its starting point, it runs into interesting obstacles. Every time it changes direction, string, or speed, there may be a surprising bump or scratch. As you begin to examine the most annoying of string player’s problems—the bow bouncing out of control—remind yourself that everyone has experienced it at one time or another. It’s also not a problem you can throw money at, since you’re as likely to bounce with a pricey Peccatte as you are with a really cheap bow.
Even though the most common cause of “nervous bow” is stage fright, a helpful strategy for solving the problem is to anticipate the bow’s movements and its variable speeds. The bow’s potential for chaos and unpredictability is great because weight and balance change constantly.
Dealing directly with bow technique while practicing addresses the problem squarely, and teaches that, while concert nerves may come and go, strong and knowledgeable technique stays forever. It’s not surprising that the bow becomes more vulnerable when a player feels nervous, since multiple accents, different strings, and changes of articulations cause quite a few jolts. What a tribute to the human mind that we can maneuver so well around the strings most of the time.
Divisions and Subdivisions
The eminent leader of the Yale and New Music Quartets, Broadus Erle, taught a bowing technique called parlando that makes use of the full bow while making ever-so-gentle accents along the way. Literally meaning “speaking” or “articulating,” parlando translates into a bow arm that ebbs and flows with the string. (It’s often associated with Fritz Kreisler’s style of playing.)
Try it yourself: as you move the bow from frog to tip and make slight accents along the way, keep a steady momentum so that the bow doesn’t waver at any point. A passive, vague bow speed will give the bow a moment of doubt, and bouncing and trembling may become its only outlet.
The most likely place for the bow to bounce is in the middle, because it’s the transition point as the arm transfers its weight from the frog to the tip. A simple remedy is to slightly increase the momentum before any moment of wavering. This will make up for the loss of speed during the wavering and keep the contact consistent between the hair and the string.
To avoid a bouncing bow, rethink your bow-arm mechanics so that the frog, middle, and tip are connected in a seamless path.
Parlando is a wonderful exercise for knowing where the bow is at any given moment. The moment you lose “bow consciousness,” the bow may bounce, scratch, or veer off course. This technique can help synchronize rhythm, dynamics, and the art of anticipation.
While the bow arm can be endlessly analyzed, both by teachers and physiologists, the most successful bow arms look remarkably simple. They depend on the musician’s personal awareness of how the hand and arm work.
If there is a unified arm movement with a natural transfer of weight over the four strings, there won’t be any sudden conflicting movements. Make sure all the movements of the hand cooperate in tandem with the wrist.
Son filé, a bow exercise from the late 18th century, highlights both a spinning sound and the bow moving at various speeds. It develops the relationship between a fully vibrating string and the steady movement of the arm. It is usually practiced at a very slow speed, but you can play it with various speeds and dynamics (my apologies to all son filé purists) to simulate what actually happens in music.
To practice the son filé bow stroke, try playing long sustained notes slowly on open strings, and then on scales. Work on slowing the bow speed down more and more, and pay attention to the tone and quality of the sound you are producing.
Try to adjust your right hand and fingers as necessary to continue producing an even, resonant, connected sound.
By following four guidelines, you’ll avoid the pitfalls that cause the bow to bounce.
- Allow your fingers to be flexible so they cushion the contact between the hair and the string. Remind yourself that a bow moving on a vibrating string needs shock absorbers.
- The bow speed should be fast enough to catch the momentum of the moving phrase. Anticipating the next movement of the bow is a good sign that you will anticipate the next bump.
- As you vary the bow speed and weight, make the changes in an obvious and forthright manner. A bow change that’s too subtle and tentative may give mixed messages to the bow. As a result, the bow kicks away from the string.
- When you change strings, make sure the whole bow arm, including the fingers, is at the correct angle to engage the string. If part of the bow arm is still balanced on the preceding string, there will be some temporary confusion for the bow.
After all is said and done, there’s no question that a well-balanced bow is a lot easier to maneuver. There’s no reason to use a bow that’s awkwardly weighted in one direction and that has a mind of its own. By developing a more secure bow technique, however, you can make any bow stay on a steady course.
Learn to perfect your practice through expert advice from top string players and educators with the insightful e-book A Practice Primer.