The Secrets of Violin Bowing

Posted by | April 30, 2021 | Education | No Comments


How does an aspiring violinist learn the art of violin bowing? I always suggest to my students that they go to as many concerts as they can. More importantly, and in the case of violin concertos especially, I advise that they try at least once to get as close as possible to the solo violinist. Seeing and hearing the student’s reactions when they experience a great player like Pinchas Zuckerman or Maxim Vengerov at close quarters is always very telling, because every time it causes a major change in perception.   None of them can believe how big the sound is, but most interestingly, they all report that they hear a huge amount of extra noise or grit in the sound.  The students, listening in close proximity to great violinists, are experiencing how much articulation of the bow is required to make a soloistic sound.

Intuitively one might think there ought to be one correct bow hold, with only minor variations dictated by hand shape.  I encourage my students to compare the bow holds of the great masters.  You tube is an excellent resource for seeing the greatest players up close. David Oistrakh and Itzhak Perlman can be seen often to lift the little finger completely off the stick, but both always replace it in time for a down bow change.  By contrast Leonidas Kavakos and Alexander Markov maintain a remarkably flexed right wrist throughout the bow stroke. These extreme observations might be confusing to students, but the important thing to realise is that nonetheless there are principles which we can teach, while allowing students a degree of individuality. No matter how the great players actually hold the bow, they are free in the shoulder, elbow and wrist, using weight of arm rather than pressure to create the big sound.

Zuckerman himself insists that great attention is given to the bow technique. In his classes, he can often be heard drawing a student’s attention back to the bow. “This is where you make your money”, he jokes. “Bank account!  Bank account!”  Being at close quarters at a Zuckerman concert is a violin lesson in itself. I am always struck by how effortless he makes everything look. Is there an easier technique out there? How can he generate so much sound and with such detailed articulation? He has, of course, mastered the simple: the least physical effort for the maximum sound and effect. He talks about pulling and pushing with the bow arm, but also about ‘releasing’ the sound.

To start any bow stroke, there has to be a moment where the hair of the bow is touching the string but is not moving. The bow must grip the string before it pushes or pulls it, then ‘releasing’ the string to let it vibrate. It is of course the same with anything else that involves contact. If you try pushing something without first contacting it you are merely hitting it. This is an important point to bear in mind with violin playing: even bow strokes referred to as ‘off the string’, are in fact bow strokes that are made with contact and subsequently lifted from the string.

Realising this can help with physical discomforts associated with bowing. If one practises any bow stroke with the thought that it comes from the string rather than being dropped or thrown at it from a height, then there can and should be a moment before each bow stroke is executed. Part of the practice can be to check that you are using the correct part of the bow, and that the hair is gripping the string, and importantly that you feel good doing it. We can all look like Zuckerman.

I am often asked about studies to aid with bowing and the different strokes required. There are, of course many wonderful and famous volumes of studies. It is important to me as a teacher that any student of mine understands why a particular study has been chosen and what is involved in each stroke. The tasks need to be manageable. I have too often seen negative reactions from students who hate practising long studies with huge numbers of notes. My teacher, Warren Jacobs gave me lots of studies to prepare, but always reassured me that he only required small chunks of each study to be prepared, as long as they were well done, and memorised. Memorising helps greatly, as the student can properly concentrate on the technical task at hand.

It is only relatively recently that I have come to appreciate the tremendous value of the volume of bowing studies by Ševčík – his op. 3, 40 variations. Unlike some of his drier study books, these are great fun and beautifully targeted. They are miniature, and thus manageable bowing exercises based on a simple melody. As they are variations, they feel quickly familiar, but are also different enough from each other not to be boring. There are wristy flicks at the heel and détaché or martelé strokes near the tip. There are also cantabile strokes to be practised with a long bow. Naturally, some students will find different variations harder than others, but generally they start simply and get harder. I have successfully used the first dozen or so with quite young students, and the latter ones are a real challenge that anyone would have to work hard to master. Ševčík gives detailed instructions on how to perform each one and at which parts of the bow so that each one presents a slightly different challenge. If you can play these 40 variations, there will be very little you cannot do with the bow. At every point in each stroke, it is important to remember that the bow must return to the string in order to start the next stroke. To sound like a top soloist, this needs to be done with crispness and clarity which will sound like a click from very close quarters. Ask yourself, does this feel easy, and am I making a good sound? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you will not be going far wrong.