Grip of death on the fiddle bow

Grip of death on the fiddle bow

I was watching Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill in concert last night (from the front row, so I had a good clear view), and was struck at how loosely Hayes holds the bow. Most of the time his middle and ring fingers were barely touching the stick, and when he got to playing something fast and wild he was only using the thumb and forefinger; the other three were sticking out. Kevin Burke holds the bow with all five digits, but seems to hold it with a very light grip.
These are the only two ITM fiddlers I’ve seen live from close enough to see their grip. (I was in the second row for KB.) I’ve been struggling to break the classical grip habits I learned as a kid, and have been able to successfully learn to hold the bow further up the stick —- but I still hold it fairly tightly and use the middle and ring fingers as well as the others to control the motion. I’m wondering now if this is part of why I’m not getting as good a control over the bow as I’d like.
So I have 2 questions —- 1, how common is a light grip among ITM fiddlers? 2, can anyone among you good folk offer me any hints?
Thanks…
Sara

Re: Grip of death on the fiddle bow

Hi Sara,
I think you’ll find that any *good* fiddler or violinist will have a light grip—and none of them think of it as "gripping" the bow. Burke likens it to holding a small bird, or a fresh cigarette, and says "grip" is exactly the wrong word for the leather pad on the stick. The point is to let the bow do most of the work, while not letting it fall from your fingers. That takes very little pressure—really, just the weight of your index finger on top of the bow and the thumb supporting it underneath is all you need.

Many fiddlers let their ring and pinky fingers float off the stick most of the time, though even when these fingers are on the stick, they are relaxed and light. I find that my pinky reflexively comes back onto the stick when I use the bow up near the frog, or when I’m off the string and bringing the bow back onto the string.

I got over my death grip by consciously letting go with each finger—with my bow on the strings, not moving, and simply lifting each finger off until only my index and thumb were touching the bow. Then I tried some long, slow up and down bows, willing that hand to relax and stay off the stick. It took a fair amount of conscious effort before I could play tunes—my fingers wanted to revert to their old habits. But eventually it becomes second nature.

If it doesn’t come easy, try playing mostly near the tip of the bow (you’ll notice Martin Hayes does this a lot) until you get used to it.

Also, there’s nothing at all wrong with keeping all your fingers on the stick—as long as they’re relaxed and not actually gripping the stick.

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Thoughtful and thorough as usual, Will - can’t think of a thing to add.

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Oh, I bet we could write a book about how to hold the bow….

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My one lesson on bow holding was "keep your fingers all rounded like you’re holding an egg, then do whatever feels comfortable for you." Sounds pretty simple, but I’m still working out what feels "comfortable" to me six years later! My grip still changes all the time. Up the bow, down the bow, four fingers, three fingers, two, thumb a little forward, thumb a little back… Holding a bow is just plain uncomfortable. It’s one of the biggest riddles of my life.

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Thanks, Will! I think this is one place where dyspraxia/AS is biting me in the butt. I can *either* keep my wrist loose *or* pay attention to what my fingers are doing on the bow; not both, or I stop being able to follow the melody. I’ll try your suggestion about using just thumb and forefinger. I’ll also try to find a teacher who can deal with disability, although since I’m about to move to a small town in southern Oregon may be a no-go. :p
They used to make this nifty little jigger that was called a practice bow, lo these many years ago; a hollow tube the shape and size of the wrapping on a bow, with inside it floating loose a stick the length and weight of a bow stick. You were supposed to hold the tube and make bowing motions while the stick inside whizzed back and forth. The point of the exercise was to gain control of the bow. Worked great for me back then. Wish I still had mine, my Mom got rid of it years ago while I was at college.
So one more question for you, Mr Harmon sir —- why *don’t* you write a book? (Although couched as a smart remark, it’s a serious question…)
Sara

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Hi Kerri,
My problem is remembering how I ever got comfortable holding a bow when I was a kid! I did, eventually, but the intervening years have stripped all memory of what I was doing… If I ever get it back, I’ll let you know in case it helps you too!
Sara

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Heh, I _am_ writing a book, well, two books: one on the session life, and one on Irish fiddle. But other work (the kind that actually pays the bills πŸ™‚ keeps interfering. Some of which is finishing a book on natural resource management, due out from Island Press this summer. I’m a busy boy. πŸ™‚

I was taught Kerri’s egg analogy too, although another teacher told me to focus on the index finger. I drape my index finger over the stick so the stick rests against the crook of the first joint out from the big knuckle. From there, the index finger angles back toward the frog, with the tip of my index very close to or even touching the edge of the bow hair. This way, most of the index from mid joint to tip is in contact with the bow. Mind you, it’s not pressing on the bow, just resting against it.

My thumb is usually on the stick right between the frog and the leather pad, but sometimes I come up on the pad a bit. The thumb is bent at the mid joint on down bows and straightens out (but not stiffly) on up bows, with the other fingers flexing along. As I’m looking at my hand just now, bowing up and down, I notice that only the _pads_ of the middle and ring fingers are touching the stick, both mostly on the side of the frog, and it’s the lightest of touches. The tip of my pinky feels comfortable either lightly on top of the stick (on the silver screw end), or floating above it. The only place my hand puts ‘weight’ on the bow is from—of all places—the thumb! Bring your index tip down to touch your thumb to make a circle—where the index lands (on the side of the pad just below where the flesh of the thumb meets the nail) is where my thumb supports the bow, and as I’m playing, that’s where all the push and pull comes from, _not_ from the fingers above. Their job is to keep the bow steady just by their mere presence. If anything, I find myself lifting my fingers off the stick to lighten it and allow it to be more responsive.

That’s just how I do it, and there are lots of other good ways to hold a bow. I find this very comfortable and natural feeling, though I suspect after 25 years, almost anything would start to feel natural. The only discomfort I ever get is after many hours of continuous playing, that contact point on my thumb can be a little sore. The skin’s a bit calloused there.

To anyone hoping to improve their bow control and hold, I would recommend setting aside time to do just that—find a comfortable, relaxed hold and just play long bow strokes on a single note. Let all your attention go to the bow hand, and do this until it starts to feel familiar. Then try to maintain it while playing simple single string runs. You may have to go back to playing open strings just to focus on the bow to get the hold back. With time, you’ll ‘burn’ the feel into your hand, and you’ll be ready to start playing tunes with a nice, easy hold. It’s worth the work—all the fiddle technique in the world amounts to nothing without a strong, clear tone to start from. (Of course, this being the devil’s instrument, you’ll still have days where the thing sounds like souls howling from the brimstone pit, but they’ll be fewer and farther between with a relaxed bow hand.)

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One oft-quoted saw on the holding of plectrums (plectra?) is that if it doesn’t end up on the floor occasionally then you are holding it too tight. This is not a view I subscribe to personally, (but I respect the right of others to say it).

I was wondering if there is any such belief in the bow holding fraternity - or is it, as I suspect, tantamount to recklessness to drop your bow?

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I’ve never dropped a bow. Which is remarkable considering how frequently I drop the peanut butter jar, the milk carton, the car keys, the soap, my toothbrush, well…you get the idea.

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Yeah, sure you’re writing that book. Or books. I’ll believe it when I see it. *snort*

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You’ll be sorry when I leave your name out of the acknowledgments… *thmmmbbb* Not to mention the credits when Spielberg puts it on the silver screen….
πŸ™‚

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Oh fine, relegate me to "the little people" — just remember, you couldn’t have written the damn thing without me, wasn’t that what you said? LOL

Let’s see, anyone have any suggestions as to who should play Will when it’s made into a movie?!

Re: Grip of death on the fiddle bow

I hear Colin Farrell’s available….
πŸ™‚

Seriously, Ron Howard’s brother, whassis name, Clint? Might as well have a look-alike….

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Dave, there’s a darned good reason not to drop your bow —- they are more fragile than you might think, unless you’re using one of the carbon-fiber bows. (I want a Coda bow…) Drop uncomfortably often equals break! Years ago, I broke my good bow by accidentally tapping the tip of it against my violin case, and not terribly hard either. One little tap and *snap*. A break right below the tip, which is irreparable. And it was minutes before a concert, too.
Will, thanks for the additional tips. Believe me, I’m going to print a copy of this out and study it! Let me know when your book is due out —- I want a copy.
Since we’re on the topic of help from Will ;), I’ve been having another little problem. When I play Da Auld Restin Chair, I end up with a tender, slightly inflamed spot just below the lowest joint of the first finger of my left hand. I know that when I play the jump from the G on the D string to the G on the E string I’m pressing the fiddle neck too hard between my forefinger and my thumb, but I’ve had no luck getting a looser grip there even though I’ve tried to be mindful and relax as I approach that part of the tune. Any ideas? (Besides giving up playing the tune, that is. *Grin*)
Sara

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Sara, first, check to make sure the corner of the nut is rounded and smooth, not sharp and edgy. Nuts get replaced every so often, and some repair people don’t take the time to knock the corners down, as they should be.

Otherwise, take that G to g jump and slow it down. Isolate the phrase it’s in and play it over and over, nice and slow—*with your thumb off the neck.* Your intonation may wander at first, but that doesn’t matter. What you want to do is prove to yourself that you can hold those strings down and make the G to g jump without squeezing the neck at all. Once you can do that, then allow your thumb to lightly come in contact with the neck when you’re playing the G and g notes. Gradually come back to leaving the thumb in contact with the neck, but knowing that you don’t have to squeeze. Even if you do give it a little squeeze, it can be just a short, light one, only when you need it most.

Part of what this exercise teaches is that your hand will stay looser and your tone will improve if you focus your muscles to press down on the string, rather than sideways against the neck. Believe it or not, the neck isn’t going anywhere and doesn’t need to be held in place. πŸ™‚

Of course, that spot just below the index finger is a point of friction against the neck, so with enough playing (even relaxed) you’ll eventually build up tougher skin there. I like to tell students that they’ll know they’re making progress when the instrument begins to change their bodies in some way—callouses on the finger tips, greater reach in the fingering hand, even just clipping your fingernails closer—all these are signs that you’re playing enough to build the hidden neural pathways that let you improve.

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Thanks yet again, Will!
It’s a new fiddle and I’m the first owner, so the nut may simply never have been made smooth enough in the first place. I’ll check.
I’ll also do the no-thumbs exercise. Not without anxiety —- I live in fear of dropping or damaging Jade! Repairs would be beyond my present budget, with the move. —- but I’ll do it.
Good heavens. A teacher who encourages callouses! I was made to stop playing guitar i nschool by a teacher who insisted that callouses would ruin my violin playing. Obviously I’m in another world now. And that’s a good thing! ;)
Sara

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You can keep the fiddle neck above the crook between your thumb and index, just make sure the thumb isn’t touching the neck. That way, you can steady the neck if the fiddle starts to drop.

I’ve played various string instruments for 3/4 of my life now, and I can’t imagine not having callouses on my left fingertips. Yep, guitar makes for some hefty callouses, but they won’t hurt your fiddle playing. I keep an emory board in my fiddle case and routinely sand off the top layer of rough skin eacg time before I play…makes for a smoother contact with the string and prevents undue wear and tear on the string wrapping.

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Sara, I can confirm Will’s advice about the corner of the nut from my own experience. I got a new fiddle last year and it didn’t take long for that inflamed patch of skin to appear low down on my left index finger, whereas two years of playing with my old fiddle never caused it. Close examination of the nut on the new fiddle revealed the sharp(ish) edge which was causing the problem, and it took only a few minutes’ work to chamfer it smooth with very fine sand paper. BTW - take the E-string off before you do this! - and blow and carefully brush away all the fine sand dust from the instrument afterwards, otherwise it’ll get in the pegs and strings, and perhaps scratch the varnish.
Because my new fiddle, which I use mostly as a practice instrument, has a thicker neck than my old one, that inflamed area of skin on my index finger has now been replaced by a layer of tougher skin - like Will said.
Trevor

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Sara, an alternative to sandpapering the skin of the finger tips is to rub a small amount of fine talcum powder into the finger tips, just enough to imprenate the skin and make it really smooth but not enough to deposit any talc dust on the strings or the fiddle.
Trevor

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Sara, as you acquire the lightness of contact of the fingers with the bow that this thread is talking about (and it would be difficult to better Will’s advice) you can apply the same principles to the left hand hold (or rather "support") of the fiddle’s neck. If done properly there should be no sensation of gripping the neck - another infamous death-grip which I’m sure has been discussed before on TheSession. The left hand should be able to slide up and down the neck without really being aware that the neck is there.

Ok, so positions are rarely used in ITM fiddle playing, BUT, if you have the capability to move your hand easily up and down the fingerboard (even if you never actually have do it when playing The Music) your playing will be that much more relaxed and fluid. While I’m about it, and as a general musical point, I’d say that a musician should aim to acquire a solid level of technique some way above that which is actually needed for playing music on a day-to-day basis.

I’m not going to go into the pros and cons regarding shoulder-rests, but a relaxed left hand should render a shoulder-rest unnecessary for most people. I’ll just say that the shoulder-rest came into general use round about the middle of the 20th century, and for hundreds of years up to then everyone got on perfectly well without it - as many still do today.

Trevor

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1. i don’t use a bow
2. i am still reading this discussion

it must be the details and intimacy i am thriving on…..i feel like a wee fairy perched upon the emery board, helping to blow dust off the bowstrings with my wee fairy breath……..

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Go easy on that bongade won’t you pet ‘,πŸ™‚

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How in bloody hell did the bongade get in this thread?

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I’ve found that if my grip is too lignt my hand tends to slide up the bow. One thing I’ve noticed is the position of my index finger on the bow. I believe the bow should be between the 1st and 2nd joint, but I seem to play with the bow just about on the 2nd joint and sometimes more towards the knuckle. However I have noticed that even with classical players thare is a wide variety in which the bow is held. Some seem to hold the bow with the very end of their fingers, others curl their fingers around the bow. I think an individuals anatomy and bone structure must has an influence.

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a good joke dies hard…..

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I’ve dropped my bow a couple of times, but they were both when people accidentaly knocked into me. So I guess I must hold it pretty lightly, I’ve never really thought about it. Interesting though, how you can get such a noise out of such little pressure. I suppose it’s to do with the speed of the bow accross the strings, rather than the pressure

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Correct, Michael. Too much pressure and not enough speed will stifle the tone.
Trevor

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Trevor, thanks for your advice also! (Just as a quick comment, I really enjoy the freedom of being able to pop up into 3rd position to get the mellower tone that provides, especially when playing a lament or slow air. I don’t use it in ITM, though, except for certain Carolan pieces. But I love the fact that that aspect of my classical training survived the long hiatus in my playing.)
Daver, thanks for the comment, I’ll keep that in mind as I try to lighten my grip.
One of the most incredible things I’ve noticed about both MH and KB is that they use little light motions of the bow and get incredible tone. I wanna do that! Something to work toward…
Thanks, everybody!
Sara

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Sara, I saw Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill in concert at St George’s in Bristol last year, and noticed that MH was using a tiny pickup on his bridge wired to a RT on his belt. His sound could therefore be heard clearly throughout the hall.
From the acoustics point of view a pickup and amp probably wasn’t necessary since St George’s has one of the best medium-hall acoustics in Europe - if you’re playing there in an orchestra, as I have, you can not only hear exactly what you’re doing at all times but also what every member of the orchestra is doing as well (that can be a salutary lesson for one and all!) - but I expect MH and DC routinely record their concert performances.
Trevor

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I don’t know exactly what Martin uses, but when he comes to the Plough (I do the sound) he has his pick-up, and some kind of yoke with knobs and stuff that’s pre-set by himself. He gets the best sound off his fiddle… better than any other I’ve heard through a not-so-great sound system. I can imagine he uses it in every amplified setting.

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Trevor & Jack,
I saw Martin’s pickup. It looked like a weird mute at first, so I stared at it until I saw the thin little cord (dead giveaway). I was in the front row, though, so I could also simply hear the sound he was actually making. And I have 2 of his cds, the first one and then the Live In Seattle (which was recorded at the same venue I saw them in, and I think from the soft sound involved the same pickup). I was thinking less of the volume, though, than of the round, clear, bell-like quality.
Although that could be provided by an expensive instrument in addition to skill!
Sara

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I am a very new player (6 months) and I find that if I don’t relax the bow hand, I can’t relax my fingers on the left hand, and I end up pressing on the strings too hard and getting very stiff, sore and inflexible (not to mention the ugly grooves in my fingertips)

It also works the other way, if I don’t relax my left hand, I start holding the bow too tight and stiff and end up with something that feels quite a bit like carpal tunnel syndrome.

Maybe I need to do some right brain/left brain exercises to get my hands to work more independently.

~L

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I heard that MH acquired his current fiddle (mid-18c German?) not all that long before his Bristol concert last year. And a first class bow in the right hands will transform any fiddle from the average upwards into something astonishing.
Trevor

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Lisa, could your strings be set too high above the fingerboard (the "action")? It might be a good idea to have the action checked out by a competent repairer and the bridge reshaped as necessary. It’s not uncommon to find beginners struggling with an instrument so badly setup (solid wire strings set far too high, ‘orrible pegs etc) that it literally is painful to play. If you’ve got solid steel strings then the repairer would recommend something more suitable.
Trevor

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Lisa, you’ve got a huge insight there—tension anywhere affects the rest of your body (and mind). I would have saved myself years of work if I’d spent more time at the very beginning learning to play with as little effort as possible, all over. It’s not so much separating one hand from the other as it is relaxing both, and all the muscles and nerve synapses in between. Go for it!

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Thank Trevor.

In my case, I’m fine when I’m relaxed. I can play all day (well I could if I had that kind of time) it’s when I get tense that it hurts.

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hi ,Sara-you should have sacked any teacher who gets you to grip the bow tightly.as i’ve said elsewhere,’grip’ gives the wrong impression anyway.
in addition to some of the good advice above you could dip into ‘playing the viola’(david dalton talking to william primrose-isbn 0-19-816195-6)which has a lot of hard info about the bow arm-one of my favourite quotes :’…so more you press,so less comes out!’
but you’ve made a start by looking at what people do so that should help.you can learn such a lot by looking closely.two of the most relaxed holds i’ve seen in the flesh are perlman’s and kevin burke’s.like jelly but with deadly accurate intent.
by the way,the primrose book is also a good read and very droll with it.good luck

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Thanks, bigdave! I’ll check it out.
No teacher to blame for my grip, just me and a 25-year playing hiatus.
I love your description of KB’s hold. LOL! And just right, too.
Sara

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puff….puff……..blow.. whish
flap-flap.(my faerie wings)

Never even think about gripping

Sorry for bringing back this topic, but I had to witness!!!
Half an hour ago I experienced a moment of musical and physical extasis. I was playing a few reels along with a tape (on the tape my former teacher, Rob Stafford from Galway). All of I sudden I felt (and it was a strong feeling) that my arms were absolutely free, and for a moment I had the impression I was not holding a bow, I felt like I was spreding my wings and flying πŸ™‚
This probably sounds a bit odd (the blues brothers: "He’s seen the light"), but yes, it was a sudden intense feeling of, finally, having got the bow arm right.
Now, some background: a couple of years ago I decided I had to improve my technique, and above all to find a way to eliminate the tension that always caused my back to pain… I tried to switch my thecnique to Menuhin’s tecnnique, and browsing the internet I found the name of Kato Havas.
Luckily, a techer trained by KH was in my area. I took a few lesson, meybe 6 or 8, and a new world opened up. I suddendly discovered that playing was not necessarily painful, better, the more relaxed you are, the better your sound.
Then of course it takes a lot to "digest" KH technique (it is actually very idiosincratic, better, weird), and I have been struggling for months… Then, just 2hs ago, I saw, I literally saw I was flying like a dove, i felt I had wings….
Yes, I’ve probably studied to much these days.
Cheers,
Davide