Bow Pressure Techniques



 

The Mozart Family - Watercolor drawing by Louis Garrogis deCarmontelle (1763-64)

For what can be more insipid than the playing of one who
has not confidence to attack the violin boldly, but scarce
touches the strings with the bow . . . and makes so artificial
and whispering a sound.  Their whisperings . . . are scarce heard; but
this is called by them ‘playing pleasantly’
.” [1]

A colleague of mine who teaches at a local strings camp each summer, asked if I would teach for him one day this week. When I greeted the first class of the morning — the “Blue Orchestra,” made up of 53 of the camp’s most advanced strings students — I asked the students to name their favorite piece, the one they played the best. And thus, we began with The Adventures of Stringman, by Richard Meyer. [2]  Their rhythm was great! Their pitch was terrific! My colleague had done a commendable job of teaching these very important musical qualities. However, something was unfortunately lacking in this ensemble’s playing: bow pressure. Despite the large number of students in the orchestra, there was very little sound projection and only a slight change in dynamic levels.

Why Do Teachers Often Ignore Right-Hand Techniques?

Currently, the principal focus of discussion within the classroom is often directed toward left-hand techniques, including vital concepts such as intonation and dexterity. One reason for this, according to master teacher Carl Flesch, is that left-hand technique is “more concrete and mechanical,” and therefore, straightforward and unambiguous adjustments can be made to fix these problems. [3] Unfortunately, when bow technique is ignored in the teaching of good tone-production, a string section’s maturity of sound is sacrificed, and instead, the sound achieved is “lukewarm, watery, uniform, and minus all characteristic shadings.” [4] I have worked with many school orchestras, and so often, the sound students perceive as “good” includes almost no bow pressure. Leopold Mozart referred to this as making an “artificial and whispering” sound because players do not have the confidence to attack the violin boldly. [5]

Are Classroom Teachers Afraid To Use The Word Pressure?

Simon Fischer understands that, “ teachers avoid using the word ‘pressure’ because they fear that it may lead to pressing the bow, [so] they use the word ‘weight’ instead, to encourage a feeling of sinking the weight of the bow into the string.” [6] Using terms such as “gravity” or “arm weight” to a group of young students may very well create more confusion than clarification; gravity and arm weight do not change. The term “pressure” is a more recognizable word, and it describes exactly what needs to happen for the bow to generate enough friction, to produce Helmholtz motion in the string.

Bow Pressure Exercises

Simon Fischer uses the natural spring of the bow to teach bow pressure. He states that, “one of the first things children must learn about the use of the bow is to play down into the springiness of the stick rather than only move the hair of the bow along the surface of the string.” [7]  Here’s how he describes the technique:

Feel the Springiness of Your Bow

1. Place the bow on the string without moving it, and push the stick towards the hair.

2. The bow will want to spring back to a relaxed state if a sustained pressure is not maintained.

3. By resisting the bow’s upwards push, and adjusting the speed and sounding point, students will learn the correct combination of speed and sounding point that will make the richest tone. [8]

Please take a moment to view a short video taken from Simon Fischer’s new DVD, The Secrets of Tone Production: On All Bowed String Instruments. [9] The bow pressure exercise he demonstrates towards the end of the video was built on the original bow pressure exercises in Leopold Mozart’s A Treatise. [10] Professor Fischer gave me permission to share his video with you, and he wishes you great success in mastering his tone production exercises. [11]

That morning at camp, I used the following exercises with the Blue Orchestra students. At the end of the day, a student came to me to say that students in the other orchestras had told her how great the Blue Orchestra sounded. With a big smile she added, “Wow, people could hear us play all over the school! I love Helmholtz!”

The Silent Push-Ups

1. Ask students to make a lever out of their bow using their bow-thumb and their bow first-finger. [12]

2. Have students put their bow on the D-string, placing it on the string at the middle area, or “springiness” section of the bow. [13]

3. Have students make “silent push-ups,” only using their bow-thumb and bow first-finger. Their bow becomes a lever. [14]

4. Ask students to feel the tension and resistance of the bow’s stick when it touches the horsehairs.

Move the String without Making a Sound

1. Ask students to touch the stick of their bow into the horsehair on their string.
There should be no sound and no bow movement.

2. While keeping “pressure” on their bow, ask students to move the string back and forth, without making any sound. There may be a few bow slips at first, creating a raucous or creaky sound.

3. Remind students to keep the bow on the string with enough pressure, so the string will rock back and forth underneath the weight. [15]

Please let me know how your students respond to these exercises. I look forward to your feedback.

Coming soon: Bow Speed Techniques

—————

[1] Leopold Mozart, A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing, 2nd ed., tran. Edith Knocker (London: Oxford University Press, 1948), 96. http://archermusic.synthasite.com/resources/Leopold%20Mozart-Treatsie%20on%20the%20Fundamentals%20of%20Violin%20Playing.pdf

[2] Richard Meyer, The Adventures of Stringman (Alfred Music Publisher, 2005), http://www.alfred.com/samplepages/00-23364.pdf

[3] Carl Flesch, Problems of Tone Production in Violin Playing (New York: Carl Fischer,
1934), 5.

[4] Flesch, Problems of Tone, 5.

[5] Knut Guettler, The Bowed String: On the Development of Helmholtz Motion and On the Creation of Anomalous Low Frequencies, (Diss. Speech, Music and Hearing, KTH, 2002), 3. http://kth.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:9153/FULLTEXT01

[6] Simon Fischer, “Tone Production,” The Strad 119, no. 1420 (2008):76.

[7] Simon Fischer, “Playing into the Wood of the Bow,” The Strad 118, no. 1401 (January 2007): 66.

[8] Fischer, “Playing into the Wood,” 66.

[9] Simon Fischer, The Secrets of Tone Production: On All Bowed String Instruments (Edition Peters, in Association with the Strad Magazine, 2011), taken from DVD disk 1 and 2.

[10] Mozart, A Treatise, 98-99.

[11] Here is the link if you are interested in purchasing his new DVD on tone production, http://www.simonfischeruk.com/page3.htm

[12] Robert Gerle, The Art of Bowing Practice: The Expressive Bow Technique (London: Stainer & Bell, 2004), 45.

[13] Fischer, Playing into the Wood,” 66.

[14] Ivan Galamian, Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 59.

[15] Samuel Applebaum and Sada Applebaum, The Way They Play, Book 3 (Neptune City, NJ: Paganiniana Publications, 1975), 169.




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4 Responses to Bow Pressure Techniques

  1. Terry July 18, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Even though I’m just an adult begun-ner (no longer a beginner, but not been playing since childhood, either), this post post brings up several points that are near and dear to my heart, especially regarding the confusion and lack of communication that arises from the word “weight.” A small person with light limbs can play with as much so-called “arm weight” as any heavier person.

    The other point I would bring up is, although gravity and arm weight do not change, the amount of player’s force necessary to keep a steady bow force constant changes as the bow travels. 2000+ years later, Archimedes’ Law of the Lever still applies.

  2. Alice July 19, 2011 at 7:37 am #

    This exercises make me want to try them out right away

  3. satisfied reader September 21, 2016 at 4:01 pm #

    that’s exactly what I recently discovered, a complete change in my concept about the bowing hand. I’m glad your claims confirms that I’m really on the right track. you rang many bells. Pain in the neck, stiff shoulders, unnecessary pressure, unstoppable shaking of the bow caused much frustration. But one day all these changed with this discovery of total relaxation.

    But in the Classroom, I kinda use the words “bite the strings with the bow hair” which is followed by silence and laughter but that has helped them in more ways than when I myself was still struggling. My own maestro guruji has been trying to help me with the same thing, I never tried to understand. Now I look back and all I see is how much I respect my tutor. and I respect you for sharing this information. you’re doing good. thank you.

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