Principles of the Violin Bow Arm
Updated: Feb 17
There are many approaches to bow arm posture and the bow hold, such as high elbow, low elbow, high wrist, low wrist. Growing up, I always struggled with tension in my bow arm and would get very tired very quickly.
When I began my undergraduate studies at Oberlin Conservatory with Violin Professor Sibbi Bernhardsson, he always told me, “Take care of the left hand first. The bow is the easy part.” While I always thought the left hand and right hand were equally challenging, my teacher had a point. The bow is not always as complex as it seems. He taught me three main principals of the bow arm:
1. Sit on the string
Very often, when we put our bow on the string, we do not allow our full arm weight to rest on the string. We should use gravity to our advantage to create a full sound, while also relaxing our shoulders and upper arm. Be aware that “sitting on the string” does not mean having a low elbow. Your elbow should be at the level of the D String, and your wrist should be parallel to the elbow.
2. Speak with the index finger
Articulation is a huge part of using the bow. Passages with accents can gain more clarity by engaging the index finger. A crucial component to using the index finger as a tool to articulate is releasing the sound. Once you nudge the string, release the bow to give the note room to breathe. If we stay into the string with too much weight, the string does not have room to vibrate. Speaking with your index finger at the start of the note allows better articulation, and releasing allows for a better sound quality.
3. Move from the elbow
The main motion of the bow is simply opening and closing from the elbow. Many violinists cannot produce a good sound because they play with too much tension. Tension in the bow arm often stems from us engaging unnecessary parts of our body, like the shoulders or upper arm. When we move solely from the elbow (not engaging our shoulders or our upper arm), we can have a more relaxed and controlled bow arm. This principal is always true, whether we are playing a spicatto (off the string and separated) or legato (on the string and connected) passage. If there is too much tension, the bow can't bounce nor can it produce a smooth sound.
Many students who start an instrument never learn these fundamental principles of the bow arm. As a result, they never get past the "squeaky phase" and quit out of frustration. At StringTime, we teach proper technique from the start to set up our students for a lifetime of music making.
Grace Collins and the StringTime Family