By Masumi Rostad | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
It snows a lot in Rochester, New York—we often get those obscene days where you can go outside and watch the little hairs on your face freeze into icicles. Of course, this encourages staying indoors and practicing, but you can only practice so much! Helped by the mantra “There’s no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothing,” I’ve learned to love this winter wonderland that I now call home.
I grew up in New York City, where snow was mostly a disappointment that quickly went from a titillating pristine blanket to a lingering filthy mess. Nonetheless, I’ve long nurtured my boyhood fantasy of embracing my Norwegian roots, strapping on a pair of classic cross-country skis, and working out my practice-room frustrations in the woods. Well, thanks to numerous pandemic cancellations, this winter I finally did it.
A healthy lifelong study of instrumental technique can benefit immensely from the exploration of many different physical disciplines. There are fundamental principles that underpin the mechanics of our bodies and guide the efficiency and effectiveness of our movement. What we know and even celebrate about technique is that there are infinite ways of doing the same thing.
I taught myself how to ski by heading out on that first snowy day, embracing life and a willingness to fall… hard. Then, I went home and scoured YouTube for instructional videos. After that, I went back out and fell down, a lot, again. Eventually, I stumbled into a rhythm and began to pick up helpful skills along the way. Having skied almost daily now for nearly two months straight, I’ve discovered some things in the frozen wilderness that have direct string-playing parallels. It turns out violists can learn a lot about bowing from a set of ski poles.
1. Keep the Arms Moving
Cross-country skiing is arguably one of the most comprehensively demanding outdoor sports, requiring full-body strength conditioning, from aerobic endurance to bursts of raw power. The repetitive action of skiing requires efficient motion. It is essential to employ fluid motion and to avoid chunky, inefficient pole movements—otherwise, you’re not going to make it home!
The same applies to bowing technique. You have to keep the bow arm moving. Your bow speed is equivalent to a singer’s breath. You can’t sing without air. You should strive to keep the bow singing and avoid hiccups through string crossings, shifts, even bow changes.
2. Don’t Grip the Poles
A few weeks into my adventures, I met Randall, a local ski guru, and made an offhand remark about the stress on my forefingers. Randall raised an eyebrow and asked how I was looping the pole straps on my wrists. Apparently, the pull stroke is transferred through the poles by the straps around your wrists, not your hands! Where the straps were previously loosely dangling around my wrists, I now have them cinched up and lean into them on the downstroke. A good practice method for this is to ski with open hands. You don’t even need to hold the poles.
Over time, I’ve settled on a pole stroke that connects lightly through my middle fingers. Optimally, I aim to do the same with my bow grip. Rather than lean on my forefinger, I’ve learned that I’ve got much more natural power through the center of my hand. So, like Sasha Schneider said, “Don’t sqveeze de bow!”
3. Pull With Core-Based, Full-Body, Torsional Movement
It can be overwhelming to break down the mechanics of how we walk but basically, we’re twisting in a controlled fall and catching ourselves. Our largest muscles originate from our core and basically diminish as they move outward. In skiing, like walking, the left arm advances with the right leg and vice versa. We’re twisting as we move forward. It is sometimes enticing to indulge with an intervention by the biceps or shoulders. However, we’re most powerful and efficient when those parts neutralize to support the cleanest and most direct action.
The same applies to bowing. Your most powerful bow strokes bypass the shoulder and other superficial muscles to stem directly from core motion. Ideally, you can feel the connection of your deepest bow strokes through the full-body torsion all the way down to your feet.
4. Control and Anticipate Your Pole Placement
Efficiency and accuracy are paramount, and endurance benefits from not wasting energy. Swinging your poles up too high and making them strike the ground hard is inefficient. Ideally, the pole tip follows the upswing of the arm and meets the ground with gentle precision. You have to maintain a sense of where the ground is, how soft and deep the snow is, and how long the pole is.
As a string player, you need to know where the string is and bring the bow to it with this same intentional accuracy and anticipation for conditions. Finding and settling into the string is one of the most important aspects of bow control. It is an unnecessarily difficult task to try to nuance your articulation from the air.
5. Follow Through
This seems obvious, right? Well, it is complicated because, shuffling along, you can actually ski without poles and it is a good thing to practice for balance and as a movement study. A kind of skiing étude. However, skiing is a stick sport just like tennis, baseball, and golf. That thrilling glide that makes me feel like I’m flying over the snow comes from the skate of the skis plus the complete stride motion of the pole.
Bowing is a stick sport just like skiing! A full open stroke that can fill a concert hall requires the same attention to follow through.
6. Remember to Look Up and Enjoy!
I often start predawn and use a headlamp to see ahead. After a short while I usually find myself hunched over, staring down at the rolling snow before me. As the sun slowly rises, the snow begins a chromatic ascent with it and glows and glistens with every color of the rainbow. It is an incredible crescendo as I transition from foreboding and forlorn darkness to discover myself floating gleefully through a full forest that is teeming with life.
It is too easy to fixate on the individual components of technique only to lose sight of the goal. Yes, practice but remember to make music!