By Miranda Wilson
“Your bow’s not straight.” I found myself writing this comment again and again in undergraduate string juries, often for good players who had heard this criticism before. It’s become axiomatic that the bow must be pulled in a manner perpendicular (or more correctly, orthogonal) to the string and parallel to the bridge to produce a good tone. Inspired by pedagogy videos I’d watched, I rigged up props using pieces of dowel in the hopes of training beginning students’ muscle memory in “correct” bow trajectory. I made students practice long-tone exercises in the mirror for hours.
Every rule has its exceptions, however, and certain holes in my logic kept nagging at me. I’d noticed, studying videos of top violinists, violists, cellists, and bassists, that their bows weren’t consistently orthogonal to the string either. Why did it matter so much for developing players to use a “straight bow” when the rule didn’t seem to apply to those at the very top of the profession?
“The whole reason the ‘straight bow’ instruction is so common is that learners often play with markedly skewed bowing.”
The most likely explanation is the need to change the contact point. While a developing player may inadvertently change contact point because of unintentionally non-orthogonal bowing, resulting in a weak or inconsistent tone, an advanced player changes contact point frequently and deliberately for dynamic contrast.
In his fascinating research into violin technique, Hanover University scholar Erwin Schoonderwaldt demonstrates the science of what actually happens during violin bowing. He concluded that a small amount of what he terms “skewness” in the bow doesn’t affect tone. A team of students and I took Schoonderwaldt’s and Gerhard Mantel’s work, Cello Technique, a study of the physics of cello playing, into my university cello studio, and with the aid of mirrors and video cameras, we experimented with the techniques described in their research.
After years of telling everyone to straighten their bows, I was forced to acknowledge that I wasn’t always playing with a “straight bow” either. Nobody was.
If the issue isn’t so much bow trajectory as sound quality, it’s clear that all of us—beginners to professionals—should be working on certain fundamentals exercises that use sound goals, not physical motions, as the starting point. I’ve stopped using my pieces of dowel, because while there’s nothing wrong with a kinesthetic learning aid, teaching bow-arm trajectory separately from sound production seems a lot like a means to an end without the end in itself. It’s surely more logical to set a goal of producing a resonant, consistent tone, and use that as the starting point for figuring out the physical means of getting there.
The whole reason the “straight bow” instruction is so common is that learners often play with markedly skewed bowing for the simple reason that adduction and abduction of the arm at the shoulder joint make the arm move in a circular motion. Rather than issuing a set of confusing and frustrating instructions about straight bowing and what the arm “should” be doing, teachers can correct acute skewness through having a student practice long-tone exercises (Fig. 1) with the explicit instruction to fix the gaze on the contact point between the string and the bow hair, not on the bow’s or the arm’s trajectory. Players are often surprised at just how inconsistent the contact point has habitually been—and then express delight in the rapid improvements to their tone quality. Eventually, it will be possible to maintain a consistent contact point without looking, since the player will be so eager to make a good sound that he or she will automatically adjust the necessary motor skills until a new and better habit is created.
Once a player can maintain a consistent contact point and a reasonably “straight” bow at a single dynamic, he or she can then start skewing the bow to make dynamic changes. A more advanced exercise (Fig. 2) compels the cellist to produce a crescendo on a down-bow stroke by skewing the bow a little—Schoonderwaldt suggests ten degrees as the amount you can skew without negatively impacting tone quality—so that the tip points toward the bridge. Over the course of the stroke, the contact point will naturally move closer to the bridge.
To produce a decrescendo, by contrast, skew the bow so that the tip points away from the bridge. The same procedure will work for up-bow strokes, too, though the direction of the bow is reversed, so that to produce an up-bow crescendo, the tip of the bow should point upward. (These procedures are easily translatable to double bass. To use them on violin and viola, the direction of the tip should be the opposite.)
When it comes to changing the bow during periods of intentional skewness, violin professor Todd Ehle’s YouTube videos on “figure-eight” bowing are useful guides to making a kind of lateral “loop” on the string to adjust the bow’s angle when changing bow direction. (A more cello-centered version of “figure-eight” bowing is detailed in Victor Sazer’s book New Directions in Cello Playing.)
Once the dynamic change has occurred, it’s prudent to restore the bow to an orthogonal position until the next planned dynamic or color change so that the contact point stays consistent. None of this is to say that “straight bowing” isn’t a good idea: Of course we should strive for an orthogonal position, just not all the time. The rule still applies, but like all rules, we learn it so that we can break it intentionally and with good taste, and not unintentionally through unawareness.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Strings magazine.