Bowing smoothly and evenly is a skill students at all levels must conquer. Obviously this skill needs to be taught to beginning students, but I have also encountered intermediate and advanced students that lack the foundational knowledge of correct bow usage. I believe that tone production, specifically that of a smooth bow, is often what most separates string players at every level from those that impress and compel audiences to listen, from those that merely play what’s written on the page.
There are three important areas of consideration when teaching smooth bowing.
1) Body Alignment
Before attempting to deal with actually using the bow, the body posture of a student must be assessed, and addressed if necessary. Here are some things to check:
- Feet evenly spaced (about shoulder width apart)
- Weight even on both feet
- Weight evenly situated over hips (stomach tucked it, back straight, etc.)
- Shoulders relaxed down and back
- Neck straight
2) Bow Weight
Most students naturally try to put weight in their bow from above the string, using the shoulder, upper arm and/or elbow. This creates tension, which will not lend itself to playing comfortably and smoothly. In contrast, relaxed bowing will add weight to the bow by hanging from it. Weight should initially come from the back muscles with the shoulder and upper arm hanging from the bow, then weight can be added as needed on the stick with the index and middle fingers.
To assess what part of the body a student is using to put weight into the bow check the shoulder and elbow. Students using the arm to put weight in the string from above will most likely be raising the shoulder and/or elbow when trying to play forte.
3) Bow Usage
In addition to body alignment and bow weight, it is important to consider how much weight and speed a student is using, and in what part of the bow this weight and speed are applied. When playing long bows a student should get used to putting more weight and speed in the middle of the bow and slowing the bow down at the bow changes (they will mostly likely try to do the opposite, making the bow changes faster to get a smoother sound, which will result in an accented jerky sound and motion).
At the frog, students need to practice lightening the bow and almost floating through the bow change since the frog is heavier than the tip (students should not lighten the bow too much at the tip, only slightly). However, as soon as they get to the winding they should add the weight back into the bow to avoid the light airy tone that many beginning students get. While not offensive, this sound is not desirable as it never teaches the student how to connect with the full bodied sound that makes the instrument ring. Even though a light airy sound is more pleasant to listen to than scratchiness, some scratchiness may need to be “endured” for a short time while the student learns how to control a heavier bow.
By addressing body alignment, bow weight and bow usage, students of all levels can develop a smooth, full bodied tone, produced comfortably and in a relaxed fashion.