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BASICS

The essentials of string technique

Bow hold How to find the bow hold best suited to your unique natural hand

Bow hold

How to find the bow hold best suited to your unique natural hand shape

BY SIMON FISCHER

PROFESSOR AT THE GUILDHALL AND MENUHIN SCHOOLS

FISCHER PROFESSOR AT THE GUILDHALL AND MENUHIN SCHOOLS The first finger is at a normal distance

The first finger is at a normal distance from the second

The first finger is at a normal distance from the second Exaggerate the spread of the

Exaggerate the spread of the fingers as an experiment

second Exaggerate the spread of the fingers as an experiment The fourth finger naturally curves when

The fourth finger naturally curves when it is positioned on its tip

finger naturally curves when it is positioned on its tip The finger automatically straightens when it

The finger automatically straightens when it is placed on its pad

94 THESTRAD SEPTEMBER 2013

HOW EXACTLY SHOULD YOU HOLD THE BOW? There are many different schools and approaches, but in the end the answer depends on your unique hands. Think of all the variations you could have: the length and thickness of the fingers, which could have pointed or rounded ends; the width of the hand at the base knuckle joints; the length of the thumb and little finger relative to the other fingers; the degree of general flexibility between the fingers and in the hand, and so on. Because of this, naturalness must always win over theory. I often remember the final of an international violin competition I saw when I was a student. The winner was a very good violinist, and a particularly fresh and interesting musician. But if you looked at her bow hand, you'd think she had never had a violin lesson in her life. She was doing something odd with her wrist all the time, pushing it down below the level of the bow, and her right-hand finger placement seemed haphazard and undisciplined. It was all entirely natural and unconscious - she just played. As a student hungry to develop technique, I saw this as a wake-up call: it made me realize that you can have a 'textbook' bow hold and not be an interesting player or musician. You can also develop your own, less conventional bow hold and win competitions with the compelling qualities of your music making.

BASIC PRINCIPLES Whether your bow hold is textbook or more individual, there are some basic principles that can be very helpful when used as a framework. Different approaches to technique around the world are all united by the natural laws of cause and effect, proportion, leverage and balance. These must always apply, whatever the philosophy of playing. For example, how far away from the thumb should the first finger sit on the bow? The laws of leverage dictate that the further away the first finger is from the thumb, the more it adds to the weight of the bow into the string. The closer to the thumb you place the first finger, the more it needs to do to achieve the same result. Think of how a door handle is positioned opposite the hinges, and how hard you would have to pull if the handle were positioned close to the hinges. Or try pressing a piano key down right at the back end of the key, where it feels stiff and heavy. There may be different ways of holding the bow, but this principle of leverage remains the same.

Try playing strongly in the upper half of the bow, with a normal bow hold (figure 1). Then play the same strokes with the first finger exaggeratedly further from the thumb (figure 2), and notice how far less effort is needed to achieve the same result.

BASIC FINGER PLACEMENT The tip of the thumb contacts the bow at two points: one side leans against the raised black thumb-piece, and the other side leans on the stick or thumb leather. The placement of the thumb is diagonal, and its contact point changes depending on where in the bow you are playing.

Place the bow on the A string at the heel. Note how the tip of the thumb is in contact with the bow: is it more to the left of the tip, in the centre, or more to the right?

Play to the point. Notice how the thumb's contact point moves to a slightly different place.

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Do not position your second finger opposite, or to the right of, your thumb Rest

Do not position your second finger opposite, or to the right of, your thumb

your second finger opposite, or to the right of, your thumb Rest your second finger slightly

Rest your second finger slightly to the left of centre of your thumb

second finger slightly to the left of centre of your thumb Basics, Practice, Scales and The

Basics, Practice, Scales and The Violin Lesson are available from The Strad Library. To order call +44(0)1371 851800 or visit www.thestradlibrary.com.

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BASICS

This is a movement that you would rarely do deliberately: you would normally let it happen naturally on its own. Equally, you must not prevent It from happening. One of the most frequent causes of problems In the right hand comes from placing too much of the pad of the thumb on the bow. It is very easy to prove that it should be placed on its tip: place the fourth finger of the left hand on the string on its tip and see how the finger naturally curves (figure 3). Place it on the string on the pad and see how it naturally straightens (figure 4). It Is exactly the same on the bow: if you place the pad of the fourth finger on the stick, the finger wants to straighten completely. Similarly, if the thumb is placed too much on the pad, it automatically straightens and becomes stiff. When it is placed on its tip, it naturally bends and retains its flexibility. There should be an imperceptible bending-and-straightening movement of the thumb in just about every bow stroke we play. If this flexibility is lost, the whole hand will lose its give. The teacher Raphael Bronstein recommended that players with very short arms using a full-size bow should position the thumb higher up the bow, a centimeter or so away from the curve of the thumb-piece. The rest of the bow hold is the same, relative to the thumb, as when holding the bow normally.

WITH THE MODERN BOW HOLD, the first finger has two contact points: on top of the stick (sometimes on the middle joint of the finger, sometimes between the middle joint and the nail joint) and on the side of the stick. With the old Leopold Auer bow hold - as seen in the playing of Heifetz, Milstein and many other great players of the past - the first finger contacts the stick between the base knuckle joint and the middle joint. This hold has not entirely gone away. A rather less extreme version of it is still used by great modern players, for example the Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos. The second finger's only contact point is at the crease near the nail joint. The circle made with the thumb is the centre and basis of the bow hold. The nail joint of the second finger is entirely redundant when playing the violin. Children often try to touch the tip of their thumb with the tip of the second finger, but this is an unnecessary action that leads to a loss of freedom in the entire hand. It is important that the second finger lies not directly opposite the thumb (figure 5) but instead slightly left of its centre (figure 6) otherwise you end up with a feeling of three fingers on one side of the thumb and one finger on the other, instead of two and two with the thumb in the middle. However, this placing of the second finger to the left of the thumb must only be very slight: placing it too far to the left immediately causes tension in the base of the thumb. If it is not far enough, however, you will lose power in the leverage of the bow into the string. There should often be a strong contact between the pad of the third finger and the side of the frog, with the finger sitting between the round part of the thumb-piece and the centre of the frog. At the point, the contact between the third finger and the bow is at the crease near the nail joint, not the pad. When I was twelve years old, a new teacher changed my bow hold to one where the second and third fingers were very low, so that the tips of my fingers were almost off the lower edge of the frog. It felt cramped and I didn’t like it at all. A couple of years later another teacher asked me to do the opposite: his approach was all about feeling the bow in the tips of the fingers. My hand then seemed too high above the bow. If you exaggerate that approach only slightly, it feels as though you are using your fingers like pincers. The right approach has to be a middle course between those two extremes. The tip of the fourth finger sits on top of the bow - or on the upper inside edge, depending on the level of tilt. For most hands, a simple guide is to keep the line of the right edge of the frog continuing up the right side of the finger.

CONTACT WITH THE BOW To answer the question of how firmly you should hold the bow, think of how you would hold a spade. How far apart should your hands be? How high or low should they be positioned, and how far apart? The answer is simply that it depends on what and how you are digging. Similarly, in powerful playing, and when playing chords or strong martelé strokes, the fingers naturally hold the bow more firmly. When playing soft, delicate strokes, the fingers might barely contact the bow at all.

SEPTEMBER 2013 THE STRAD 95