Originally published 7 January 2008. The main takeaway I have, now that an additional 12 years have elapsed, is that while the larger aspects of this post hold true, bow hold is wildly variable. The video I posted about visualization addressed it a bit: the function must lead the form. As it turns out, chasing after the function tends to lead most hands and arms into very similar shapes, but I spend much less time talking about the fingers and thumb in great detail, unless they are in a position (or are held with such tension) that precludes the function from working.

[Edit: oh my lord how gross is that bow hair at the frog!]

A few things:

Superstar of the cello blogging world, Gottagopractice kicked off the Bow Month celebration with this post. Go. Read. If you are not a regular reader of hers, you should be! I have taught this stuff for over a decade and I learn every time she posts.

I posed this question to anyone who wanted to respond: Does your bow grip work?

I would say that her bow grip is working, and will work beautifully with the natural evolution that comes with dedication and the obviously good tuition she is receiving. One thing I would like to clarify is that my thumbnail is not, after looking at the photos, exactly parallel to the floor. An issue she has that every student of mine (and there have been hundreds by now) fights with is the temptation and sometimes the need, to grind one’s thumb into the frog. One way to alleviate this issue may seem like a good idea at first: increase the surface area of contact by either straightening the thumb, or rotate onto the broader, flat portion of the thumb tip. In the end, I find that this just sort of spreads the issue instead of resolves it. So here’s an exercise that I like to offer my students. As with most pillars of my teaching, it is what helped me break the painful habit of Thumb of Doom.

1) hold the stick of the bow with your left hand, with the bow resting on the string.

2) lightly, lightly barely assume your bow grip. Zero pressure. If your left hand were to let go of the stick, it would fall.

3) over the course of 30 seconds (which is longer than you might think) let the responsibility for the weight shift from your left to your right hand, until your left hand is able to fall by your side.

4) take one, slow, long down bow, maintaining that feather-light bow grip. Repeat on all 4 strings. I like to start on D or G, because they are wrist-neutral and don’t argue as much as the stubborn C and the reach of the A.

Once you are able to take multiple bows without any increase in thumb pressure, then try a scale, or portion of a scale this way. Think of the thumb as merely a gentle counterbalance to the front 4 fingers. All it does is keep the bow from folding into your palm. It’s your arm and wrist that do the labor. The hand just finesses it.

My favorite thing from her post was her teacher’s thought that, “hand motion is reactive, not generative”. Fantastic, and something to think about, all the way up your arm.

It’s hard to be at a fairly advanced level: the changes are subtle and laced with a mixture of habit and the fear that a fundamental change will move you backward. What’s good to keep in mind is that you can only move forward, even if that means trying something that doesn’t work. Being able to cross one more thing off of the “doesn’t work” list puts you further ahead than you might think.

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2 Responses

  1. This “Does Your Bow Grip Work” thing is so exciting!! I’ll have to get someone to take pictures once I get back to school next week & see what I can do!

    I find I actually end up developing a callous on my thumb, particularly from louder playing… seems right to me…

    I’ve also found what you’ve found about trying to increase the surface area – it’s generally a bad idea!!

    I’m gonna give your method a try soon… just wanted to let you know, that last bit about the difficulty of being at a fairly advanced level resonated with me quite a bit… I love your point about the “doesn’t work list” … but anyway, I’m always frustrated… b/c I feel like I’m at the lower area of advanced technique/playing, but I’ve never felt confident/proficient enough to really think of myself as advanced (and when comparing myself to others of my age/who are studying music, I generally feel quite behind…)

    Anyway, back to topic though, I’m loving this bwo grip analysis – can’t wait to see what else comes out of it.

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