Thoughts on Bowing by Ivo van der Werff


Thoughts on BOWING, from A Notebook for Viola Players by Ivo van der Werff

How do we create a good sound with the bow? There are certain aspects to using the bow that are prerequisite. To play one even, sustained tone, the bow should be straight; the pressure of the bow on the string should be constant throughout; the point of contact must remain the same; the bow speed must be even; and the angle of the bow hair to the string should be constant. Many might argue against some of these points. For example, some people think that flattening the hair toward the point of the bow is necessary to counteract the lessening weight of the stick or that increasing the speed of the bow toward the heel will make for a better bow change. (In fact, due to the nature of the movement of the wrist, there may be a natural flattening of the hair anyway.) The only way to find out is to try these things and decide if they really make a difference. In my experience, both as player and teacher, the points I have made lead to a simpler and more effective way of producing a good, resonant sound. Of course, we all develop our own styles and habits, but, if they are founded on a good, basic technique then many common problems will not appear and so will not interfere with what we are ultimately trying to do.

The following points can help to create a balanced, fluid, and powerful bow arm, which will create a clear, resonant tone:

(1) In general, the bow should approach the string from above. This may seem obvious, but many players start the arm movement from below string level and use more effort than is necessary to get the bow over the string. We need to utilize gravity so that the approach to the string is from above, downward. To this end it is worth considering the general shape of the arm and hand.

(2) Basically, the upper arm, forearm, and bow should be in a plane, i.e., the upper arm should be approximately parallel to the bow. This should be the case regardless of where in the bow you are and which string you are on. This requires the right shoulder to be flexible, and to be the source of string crossing.

(3) When resting the bow on a string in the middle, the bow should be slightly suspended from the wrist, i.e., the bow is below the level of the wrist, which is slightly rounded (in fact it will have the same shape as the general left-hand position).

Tudor Fieldhouse

A natural hand position

(4) The fingers must be slightly curved and rest lightly on the stick. The bow should rest between the thumb and string. The index finger adds weight, and the little finger takes weight away. For a secure 4th finger, make sure it rests against the ridge just behind the top face of the bow. To find a natural position for the hand, hold the arm up (without the bow) as if playing in the middle of the bow on the D or G string. Relax the shoulder and wrist, so that the hand is “suspended” from the arm. Move the wrist up and down and be aware of where the muscle tension is, and then find a natural balanced point between the two extremes. Gently close the thumb toward the fingers. You should find that the thumb makes contact somewhere between the 1stand 2nd fingers (this is reflected in the left hand shape and position). This is the optimum position of the hand. Experiment by first holding a pencil. Practise flexing the fingers and see how little effort is required. By tilting the hand toward the index finger, any flexing of the fingers should cause the pencil (bow) to move laterally, i.e., in the plane of the string. This is very important in helping create a smooth bow change. If the hand is too “upright” on the stick, any movement of the fingers will cause the bow to move vertically up and down, not in the lateral direction the bow needs to move.

Tudor Fieldhouse

Correct pronation of the hand

(5) Always make sure the thumb is curved and not tight. The curve of the thumb and the curve of the index finger should make a rough circle. Do not collapse the bottom (1st) joint of the index finger as this will create tension down the upper part of the hand and into the wrist. This joint should always be at, or above, the level of the bow. You will find that when playing fortissimo, the flexibility of the knuckle joints may cause the 1st joint of the index finger to drop slightly. This is perfectly natural. Nothing is fixed in place; from a relaxed starting point everything should be flexible.

(6) If your hand has a tendency to collapse, two things might help. The first is to use a ping pong ball (or, if your hands are very small, something smaller), placing it inside the hand as far as is comfortable while holding the bow. This method will stop the hand collapsing and also make you aware of how little your fingers need to move in order to create a smooth bow change. The second idea is to place the thumb underneath the frog rather than resting on the frog/stick. This might well restrict the movement of the wrist but serves to keep the hand open. This latter idea will only be suitable in short bursts due to the restriction of the wrist, but a whole practice session could be used with the ping pong ball.

(7) Once you have found a suitable hand shape, it does not need to change. If, toward the point, your fingers and arm seem to stretch too much, then perhaps the position of the viola needs to be looked at. The most important element now becomes the wrist. Essentially, the wrist “leads” the bow. The angle of the wrist at the point should be equal and opposite to the angle at the heel—neither too flat nor too bent. Extremes should be avoided; where can you go if you are already are at an extreme point.

The fingers will move on bow changes if they are relaxed and flexible. The movement does not need to be instilled by the player. The fingers move through the law of action and reaction; they act rather like shock absorbers to counter the change of direction of the bow.

(8) Power comes through using the weight of the arm through the hand (via the index finger) into the stick. Forcing the sound does not work, as this kills off the natural resonance of the instrument. By settling downward with both the viola and the bow you can use your natural weight (gravity again) to help create a bigger, more sonorous sound with less effort.

(9) A common fault is to move the viola to the right when approaching the heel of the bow. Always try to move only the bow. The viola should be still. If this movement persists, try moving the viola slightly to the left when approaching the heel. This actually has the effect of making the bow feel longer!


Comments from Students –

“How do we create a good sound with the bow?” This question caught my strong attention while I was reading Mr. Van Der Werff’s A Notebook For Viola Players. Most of us spend plenty of time practicing our left hand to achieve difficult techniques. But we don’t pay as much attention to our right hand, which is in charge of making our viola sound beautiful. Therefore, having a comfortable and good bow hand is really important.

In Mr. Van Der Werff’s book, he talks about the bow holding issues. Personally, I have a tight bow hand. I often find my right-hand thumb is tight and tense a lot when I am playing viola, and my fingers and hand are too flat. So I found out that his exercise “opening out the hand using a ping pong ball” is very useful for me.

When I started to loosen up my right thumb, the viola sounded more rounded and rich without any extra arm weight or hand pressure.

Also, I found out that I tend to expand my first finger and pinky too much when I am holding the bow. This habit is causing tension on my right hand and affecting the sound from the viola; this tightness and tension on my right hand also affects my playing of spiccato (making it much harder to play rhythmically and with a clear, even sound).

In conclusion, having a good bow hand is the key to making your viola sound beautiful. I encourage you to take a look at these suggestions, play some whole bow open strings every day, and pay attention to your right hand and shoulder.

-Chi Lee

These nine points all work together to create one natural, effective bow arm, free of unnecessary complications. My favorite points are No. 2 and No. 8. No. 2, keeping the arm and the bow on the same plane, helps us to know how high or low to bring our elbow depending on which string we are on. My own viola students like to play with quite a high elbow on the A string, but I remind them that if they keep the upper arm parallel to the bow, they’ll find that the arm can relax by their side. Keeping our arm and bow on the same plane puts us in optimum position to carry out point No. 8, letting the natural weight of our arm drop into the string to create resonance and sound. If you want to see just how much weight your viola can handle, try this exercise on an open string: play long, slow bows near the bridge, and imagine weight traveling from your back, through your arm, all the way into the bow. Take deep breaths, and with each breath, imagine more weight traveling into the bow, and let the bow sink even deeper into the string. (It’s like a relaxation exercise for your bow arm!) Ideally, you will begin to produce an incredibly resonant sound with very little effort. Try this exercise out in orchestra, too: at the end of a symphony, when you are playing fortissimo sixteenth notes, try to achieve a huge sound by dropping the weight of your arm into the string, rather than pressing. More sound and less effort—it’s a win-win!

Bailey Firszt

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