“Irish” bow hold

“Irish” bow hold

I was (quite badly and drunkenly) playing a few tunes the other day, and one of my friends who is learning the fiddle asked me why do I hold the bow with my fingers up so high on it, with my pinky raised? I honestly had no idea what to tell her - I just do. When I first started two years ago I took some lessons from a French violinist who taught me the "standard" or classical way, with all fingers pinky included resting on the frog. However I stopped taking lessons and learned through books and watching/listening, and I have often seen and do see fiddlers who hold the bow about a third of the way up from the frog, and in some extreme cases half the way up! Raised pinky seems to be 50/50. One of the best fiddlers I know plays at my local and she always holds the bow about halfway up.

Honestly at first I just liked the way it looked so I started doing it, but now it just feels so much more normal and natural, lighter almost. When I try to play the standard way I can manage fine, but it just feels clumsier. Perhaps that’s just because I’m so used to the other way.

I’m sure other fiddlers here have noticed. Are there any tangible benefits to playing with your bow held like this? I have ever only seen Irish fiddlers do this.

Re: “Irish” bow hold

I holdmy bow at the frog but i only have my index finger actually touching the wood but it means i have a very high, loose and relaxed wrist

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Re: “Irish” bow hold

I have seen American old-time fiddlers using variation on the above hold. They are famous for short bowing so it works for them. It is not versatile though. You need a long bow for tunes of slower nature like the waltz, and any long up-bow finish. If you have your little finger raised, the tendon in tension, not good in the long term. This subject of variations on hold will come up from time to time. If it works, it works, but there are solid reasons for the standard hold, one of which is that it allows different attacks. The short bow is limiting your options.

Re: “Irish” bow hold

I agree that you get a much better response by holding the bow in the correct way (and as loosely as possible… Kevin Bourke says that your fiddle should actually stop you from dropping it). I can’t see any justification for calling this the "Irish" bow hold. In fact I’ve mainly seen it used by American old timey fiddlers, and i imagine (but don’t know) that maybe they do it to get more from all those double stops. personally if i saw somebody fiddling irish music and holding the bow half way up the stick I would think that they were pretty amateurish.

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Re: “Irish” bow hold

They are holding the bow on the point of balance. For some it assists in their playing. Just a different technique. No big deal. For such quick tunes. For slow more open tunes, a full long bow stroke is more appropriate and useful.

Re: “Irish” bow hold

I only said Irish because I’ve only seen Irish fiddlers do it. Admittedly the only other fiddle music I listen to is klezmer + Balkan and Scandinavian, and I have never seen a fiddler of either style hold the bow in such a way. Hence the air quotes.

Re: “Irish” bow hold

It’s my belief that oftentimes "folk performance practices" perpetuate performance practices once used generally, in Art Music as well as folk.

Not surprising that folk practice would retain the shorter bow, because the long bow is a fairly recent development, around 1800 as I recall. When you see people playing Baroque violin pieces with long bowing on modern bows, you’re seeing something that couldn’t have happened when that music was composed.

Another example is the hard tone many trad Irish fluteplayers use, which in the 19th century was used in Art Music.

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Occasionally you will see people using the shorter grip on a long modern bow to imitate the shorter baroque bow. I have a friend who uses the short grip when playing fast trad tunes, and the modern grip for classical music.

P.S. Those weren’t "air quotes". They were actual quotes, or quotes/quote marks. Air quotes is when you use your fingers in the air to imitate quote marks while you’re speaking.

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Re: “Irish” bow hold

I’ve always thought of this hold, which I use myself quite often, as an old-fashioned English hold. The little finger in the air, by the way, is not an affectation, but helps tension the fingers to go in the right place on the bow.

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It is crap for airs, no power, use a hold that enables a good length of bow and enables good wrist movement

Re: “Irish” bow hold

If a player is "knitting" a complex melody, the audience will sometimes notice the bow hand describing figures, sometimes even appearing to make circles. Those figures are like the yin to the yang of what is happening at the other end on the strings. The shorter the bow, the tighter the bow hand figure.

Re: “Irish” bow hold

I agree with you Richard, airs need longer bow strokes, as do waltzes, but the fiddle in the crook of your arm or just off your neck is fine for most playing. I particularly use it for anything needing staccato notes or chopping chords. Fine for English Morris or Irish Polkas!

Re: “Irish” bow hold

Getting a comfortable bow hold at the frog can take a bit of time if you want a flexible hold where the pinky curves and moves with the hand . Holding the bow a bit further up the stick gets away from this , the hand stays flexible really easily ( same as they do in baroque playing ) . Doesnt much matter if the pinky lifts on and off , but when it’s on the stick theres hardly any pressure on it , so it doesnt go straight ( which can make the hand get that ‘wooden ’ look and feel ) .
Maybe check out a baroque bow some time , they sometimes even have a pad for holding a bit further up . Whatever keeps the hand flexible sounds good

Re: “Irish” bow hold

This is an important conversation.

As the accompanying parent at my son’s Suzuki lessons some 40 years ago, I picked up the popular “Franco-Belgian” bow hold. As a bow maker, I have always used this hold when handling bows or setting up a fiddle. However, as a life-long folkie I had never endeavored to actually play the fiddle until perhaps three of four years ago, when I eventually got round to trying to learn to play Irish tunes on it. The fretless bit had me going for a while, but the bow hand has always felt natural and works well for me.

After some time at it, and out of curiosity over so many O/T & Irish fiddlers choking up on the bow, I tried it myself. It struck me that it took all the life and bounce from the bow – felt more like just a stick with hair on it. I think this is the reason for most of the alternative bow holds. Asking around quite a bit, the usual complaints are about bounciness and lack of control.

Of course, what works for one is the important answer. However, I would encourage players to try the classical bow hold. Itzhak Perlman offers a brilliant little three-minute YouTube on the subject. Here’s a copy/paste for your browser: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6r0WW-KN6VM. However, he does neglect to mention the importance of keeping the thumb more or less bent (see at 1:13). That’s the hidden bit we never get to see.


Concurrent with this is the need for drawing a straight bow, perpendicular to the strings, from the elbow – not so much from the shoulder. It should begin to feel okay after a few rounds at it. Watch Hayes, Burke, etc. A mirror is indispensable. For some, it may be like loosing the dog from the leash in terms of long bowing, string crossings. exploring tonalities, etc.

My dram’s worth.