To Play Parallel or Not: A Controversy of Technique, Part 1


To play parallel or not? You might not realize it, but this is very controversial topic.

To play parallel to the bridge is an aspect of string playing that has often been misunderstood – one that results in some heated discussions among teachers and performers of stringed instruments even today.

Here at String Visions I would first like to write a series of articles about this topic from different perspectives, and then to open up a discussion forum. Please get involved and write comments about my articles and feel free to write a longer article yourself on this topic and let us know what you think. The factors involved in these issues relate to the biomechanics of the body, natural motion, and movement patterns of the bow arm and the physics of the vibrating string.

The human senses are amazing and how we each perceive and experience the world around us in each of our own unique ways is one of the wonders of being a human. When discussing sound production on the string instruments there is no question that there are many successful ways of playing. It is also important to note that we all have different ideas and images in our minds of the ideal sound on a violin, bass, viola and cello.

I am in no way trying to tell anybody what to like or not like, or what to do or not do. However, I am very eager to try to ignite some excitement into this topic and to get a dialog going involving a number of people. We are looking for different perspectives on this topic.

Perhaps we should first take a journey into the past to see what the great string minds of the past thought about this:

The Intention of Music is not only to please the ear, but to express sentiments, strike the imagination, affect the mind and command the passions. The art of playing the violin consists in giving that Instrument a tone that shall in a manner rival the most perfect human voice, and in executing every piece with exactness, propriety, and delicacy of expression according to the true intention of music. [1]

Francesco Geminiani wrote these inspiring words in the introduction to his Treatise The Art of Playing on the Violin. In the introduction Geminiani also said:

In playing long Notes, where the bow is drawn from one end of it to the other. The bow must always be drawn parallel to the bridge. [1]

36 years later Leopold Mozart said:

The student should not move the bow back and forth between the fingerboard and the bridge. Or use a crooked bowing. But should stay on the string not too far from the bridge, and there in a patient manner look to draw a good and pure tone from the violin. [2]

Other famous violin and cello pedagogues over the years (G. Loehlein-Baillot-J.L. Duport-Spoor-Joackim-Moser- Capet-Auer and Flesch) all agreed that the bow should move in a straight line parallel with the bridge. [3a] [3b]

The first person to challenge this concept was the German scientist, Dr. F. A Steinhausen, who wrote a book on the physiology of bowing that was published in 1903. [4] Steinhausen occupies a very important role in the history of instrumental playing because he was the first physician who investigated string playing from the viewpoint of motion-physiology and biomechanics. He pointed out in his book the lack of supporting evidence for the rules described in all the well known method books. He also clearly felt that the great players never truly follow or pay much attention to those rules.

Another important person in the history of science and string playing was Wilhelm Tredelenburg, who in his book published in 1925 commented on skewness in bowing in double bass playing. [5] He described the effect that skewness in bowing results in a drift of the bow-string contact point along the string under the influence of the stick-slip interaction. [6]

Later in 1934, Percival Hodgson did extensive observations by recording bow motions with cyclegraphs. Hodgson literally took thousands of cyclegraphs, from every conceivable aspect and of every kind of bowing: “In no case did the movement remain absolutely parallel with the bridge, and the crookedness always fell into definite types”. He also observed that bowing motions were generally curved and elliptical, which in his opinion was necessary for making smooth bow changes. [7] The publication of Hodgson’s book led to a fierce polemic in The Musical Times. [8]

At present most experts on string playing agree on the concept that bowing trajectories are very often curved. A number of method books advocate the slanted bow as a tool for changing the contact point. [9] [10] [11] [12]

When discussing the issues of the slanted bow or playing parallel to the bridge or not we need to look at the biomechanics of the bow arm and the physics of the vibrating string. As part of this series a number of articles about the biomechanics of the bow arm will be presented. In my opinion, it is very surprising that very few research experiments have been done on the topic of playing parallel to the bridge. However a brilliant young scientist Erwin Schoonderwaldt has done some ground breaking experiments on a number of topics related to string playing and the vibrating string including:

On the Use of Skewness in Violin Bowing: Should the Bow be Straight or Not?

In my second article in this series I introduce Erwin Schoonderwaldt to the readers of String Visions and will discuss his experiment on skewness in violin bowing.


[1] The Art of Playing on the Violin. Francesco Geminiani London 1751.

[2] Translated from German to English by Hans J. Jensen from: The Violin School by Leopold Mozart Published 1787.

[3a] Senso-Motor study and its application to violin playing. Dr. Frederick F. Polnauer and Dr. Morton Marks. American String Teachers Association, Urbana,Illinois 1964.

[3b] Essay on the Fingering of the Violoncello and on the conduct of the bow. Jean-Louis Duport, Augener & Co. London 1806.

[4] Die Physiologie der bogenführung auf den streichstrumenten, von dr. Friedrich Adolf Steinhausen. Leipzig Breitkopf & Härtel 1903.

[5] Die Natürlichen Grundlagen der Kunst Des Streichinstrumentspiel von Wilhelm Tredelenburg. Berlin Verlag Von Julius Springer 1925.

[6] Translated by Erwin Schoonderwaldt from Die Natürlichen Grundlagen der Kunst Des Streichinstrumentspiels. On the use of Skewness in Violin bowing: Should the bow be straight or not. Acta Acustica United with Acustica Vol. 96 (2010) 593-602

[7] Motion Study and Violin Bowing. Percival Hodgson. J.H. Lavender & CO.,London 1934.

[8] On the use of Skewness in Violin bowing: Should the bow be straight or not. Acta Acustica United with Acustica Vol. 96 (2010) 593-602

[9] Essay on the Craft of Cello-Playing Volume I. Christopher Bunting. Cambridge University Press 1982.

[10] A Guide to Advanced Modern Double Bass Playing. Knut Guettler. Yorke Edition Thornhill Square,London N1 1BQ, England 1990.

[11] The Art of Bowing Practise by Robert Gerle. Stainer & Bell, London 1990.

[12] Orchestral Bowing Style and Function. James Kjelland. Alfred Music Publishing 2004.

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24 Responses to To Play Parallel or Not: A Controversy of Technique, Part 1

  1. Amy Pasker June 16, 2011 at 8:35 am #

    Wow! Thanks for including me in this discussion! I will read the material as I can.

    Bridget is doing well–Juilliard concert tonight in Dubuque!

    Thanks again!

    Amy Pasker

  2. Matthew Peters June 16, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    This is a wonderful discussion to have – I hope many string players will participate in reading & writing about it.

    I have been considering it a lot lately – I tend to start my very beginning students focusing on a straight/parallel bow… and I do teach how angling the bow can make getting to the bridge or fingerboard much easier…

    But I know that I personally don’t always play with a straight bow myself… and I have been looking for a good way to put into words what I have been doing naturally as a cellist for decades.


  3. Brianna Richardson June 16, 2011 at 2:38 pm #

    Thank you for introducing this topic – I had no idea that it was such a debated issue! I’ve always taken it for granted that the bow should be parallel to the bridge, since that’s what I’ve read in all of the pedagogy books. However, in reality, it is very difficult – and fairly impractical – to keep the bow completely parallel throughout its trajectory. It seems to me that the chore of trying to keep it parallel may create more strain on the body, particularly at the ends of the bow stroke. I will be interested to see how the discussion of this topic develops!

  4. Cyrus Forough June 17, 2011 at 4:37 am #

    It is of utmost importance to learn to pull the bow straight. Parallel to the bridge. Once you know how to pull the bow straight, don’t.
    “Qui cherche, trouve”.


  5. michael soule June 17, 2011 at 11:13 am #

    it seems to me that in the summer which i spent only playing long bows on open strings (no kidding) i learned a few things:
    having control over the angle of the bow is a huge part of having control over the depth and intensity of the sound you are producing as time progresses and your bow moves across the string. the location of the contact point between the fingerboard and bridge is the other major factor. it seems agreed upon, and rightly, that having some variation from absolutely parallel bow trajectory is important in a number of instances. i agree and think that the enlightened view may be to see variation in bow angle as a tool for tone coloration to be used as the artist sees fit.

    • Flavioos October 26, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

      I agree very much with Michael Soule (Soulé?), To play paralell to the bridge probably made good sense at the time of “stif” sound, when vibrato wasn’t used yet.
      I would love to hear more from you, Michael, about the Summer you spent playing long bows on open strings. My sound on the Cello is very poor and I wonder if it would help me.

  6. michael soule June 17, 2011 at 11:14 am #

    i also have a few thoughts on the historical nature of the urging to draw the bow parallel to the bridge.
    in the renaissance and early romantic period, strings were made of gut, were thicker and harder to vibrate and so drawing an absolutely perpendicular bow might have been more important to sound generation. while in india, i took lessons on playing an instrument called the “sarengi” which has gut strings and a square bow course was indeed more important to getting any reasonable amount of sound out of the strings. with modern string construction, this is not as vital and so some of these old pedagogies may be out of date with regards to the absoluteness with which they should be regarded.
    it’s a bit of a stretch, but additionally, there were philosophies in art about classical (i.e. greco-roman) ideals and parallel lines were a part of classical structure and artwork. parallel might have been arbitrarily and subconsciously more valued aesthetically because of that. music was largely a courtly activity to be enjoyed by cultured aesthetes, and there may have been the urging to appear as visually pleasing as possible, by Renaissance standards, while performing.

  7. Cheri Collins June 19, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    Thank you for having this discussion Hans. I believe that a straight bow is an important technique for violinists to learn, however it can go a little too far. Please take a moment to observe this YouTube video. This is an invention that I saw many years ago at a Music Education event. I find it interesting that teachers feel that a straight bow is more important than asking their students to listen to their tone quality. Sometimes it is important to have a student learn ‘bow steering’ through the contact points, so dynamics can be choreographed prior to playing them.

    Take a moment to watch an open string vibrate while you play – if you want it to vibrate fully, then your bow will need to be straight. However, if you want to obtain the widest variation in your performance dynamics – then work on traveling between the five contact points through ‘bow steering.’

    I want to add that I had a violin student go on to study in France. She learned from a teacher who taught her the figure 8 bowing technique and loved it.

    I feel a straight bow is important to master, which will give students the control not to do it.

  8. Ji-Ye Kim June 23, 2011 at 8:18 am #

    It is quite surprising that I have never been told about playing skewed or acute bow in string instruments. As I try experiment how much it affects the sounds and observe my physical motion, it helps a lot. For instance, It requires less physical pressure in order to carry out musical dynamics because it uses natural weight of the bow and arm.
    It is very stunning discovering this pure nature of stringed instruments.

  9. Nicholas Photinos June 23, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I agree with other posters that it is very important to learn how to draw a straight bow, and in general be aware of how that relates to other aspects of bow technique, in particular the contact point, speed, weight, and muscular activity and placement involved to produce these techniques. All of this becomes even more important in teaching, when you have to succinctly convey these techniques to someone else.

    I also agree with other that once you learn to draw a straight bow, don’t worry about it so much. I find that the contact point is of much more importance, and so the point of being able to draw a straight, parallel-to-the-bridge/perpendicular-to-the-string bow stroke is to be able to maintain that contact point though the bow stroke without having to consciously concentrate on it.

    I’ll also add that in much new music, with often quick shifts in a single bow stroke between tasto and ponticello, it’s useful to develop a controlled, crooked bow stroke. This differs from the one often seen in beginners in that a beginner’s crooked bow stroke is often the result of maintaining a single angle with the bow to the string but having the natural curvature of the arm when bowing come into play, resulting in a continuously changing angle to the string. In a controlled crooked stroke, you are often trying to maintain a constant angle of the bow to the string (sometimes as much as 45 degrees off from parallel), and then draw a parallel bow stroke while maintaining that angle, which results in the contact point changing in a controlled way.

  10. Hans Jørgen Jensen June 24, 2011 at 6:42 am #

    I like all the above comments very much.
    Here is also a terrific video where Todd Ehle explains the figure eight bowing:

  11. Robert Suetholz July 3, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    This video ( actually makes alot of sense! As long as the contact point remains the same you can do pretty much anything you want to with the angle of the bow relative the bridge. I agree!

  12. Judex July 6, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    I am an adult learner without a Teacher.

    I bought a couple of introductory DVDs.

    Bowing in parallel to the Bridge is very difficult for me. So, I have to bow at an angle. I first put the bow on a string to make the contact point. When I put the bow in parallel to the string, I imagine the tip at the North and the Frog at the South. The contact point on the string is the centre of a circle. So, I allow myself to bow from North to North North East most of the time. Some of the time I have to bow from North to North North West. I feel the friction of the hair on the string, and could better drive the bow. If I try to bow in parallel to the bridge, it appears too soft, too buttery, I lose control too often.

    I am of the opinion that the length of the arms, size of the hand and length of fingers have a major role to play. The Teacher might tend to teach according to his or her own way, not considering the physic of the Learner. Of course, I may be wrong.

    Within 3 months, I taught myself to play a few slow songs such as Ode to Joy, La Golondrina, Greensleeves. Always bowing at an angle, never been able to bow for long in parallel to the Bridge ! .

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