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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to Start a Beginner, part 2: Holding the Bow

When I last wrote about starting a beginner, I did not discuss with any detail how I actually instruct students to hold the bow. This was not an oversight. I hesitated bringing up this subject because there are so many variations about the correct way to hold the bow, as indeed there are several historical schools about bow holds and usage. My way isn't the only way, but I'm willing to offer it up for an example of how I do it.

I believe in achieving balance in the bow hold, so everything I do with a student is done with an eye to ultimately achieving relaxation and balance. When I think about how I hold and use the bow, I think about what I need to do to feel comfortable holding the bow but still have the necessary control to play with a variety of tone colors and articulations.

In addition, I must state that I am a very small person in size, and so there are other difficulties that afflict me but that may have no bearing on another person. My discussion here is a simple one, as it is difficult to discuss such an advanced and complex topic with a young student. The bow topic -- how to hold it and how to use it -- is a process that grows in complexity as the student matures in technical prowess.

Simply put, I believe that every finger of our right hand has a specific job:

  • the thumb is largely responsible for the crispness of our articulation, or the "beginning" of our notes.
  • the pinkie is largely responsible for any pivoting involved with crossing the strings and for keeping gravity at bay and keeping the tip of the bow from crashing down to the floor.
  • the index finger is the steering wheel and acts as the guide to keep the bow stroke parallel to the bridge.
  • the middle finger is one of the balancing fingers and is responsible for "grounding" the right hand's hold and weight on the bow.
  • the ring finger is also one of the balancing fingers, but it can also work together with the pinkie to execute "finger motion" when changing the bow at the frog or performing spiccato bowing.
When I discuss the placement of the fingers on the bow, I give each finger a nickname to help the student remember where to place the fingers:

  • strong and bumpy thumb (thumb is curved outward, forming a "bump")
  • two best friends (middle and ring fingers) are across from their other best friend the thumb
  • Captain Hook (index finger) curls around the stick
  • pinkie sits in the nest
In terms of placement:
  • for the very youngest students, I still use the Dr. Scholl round corn cushions for the pinkie placement. For older students, I wrap a rubber band around the frog across the eyelet. The rubber band acts as a non-slip bath mat and provides a non-slip surface for the pinkie. The advantage of the rubber band is that the pinkie will not slip off the bow, and the student can feel the correct place for the pinkie without even looking. I happen to have very dry hands, and I use the rubber band myself to keep my bow hold feeling secure. Without it, my fingers often slip off the bow.
  • I place the thumb half on the ferrule and half on the hair underneath the frog per Dr. Suzuki's suggestion. I find that students need this under-frog placement for a time in order to keep the area between the thumb and index finger round and open. If I put a student's thumb "inside" the frog too soon, the student will likely bend the thumb inward like a banana, and I find it very difficult to undo that error once it has happened.
  • I put the two best friends (middle and ring fingers) across from the thumb in their first joints; the ring finger is on the frog right next to the eyelet, and the middle finger is off the frog and directly across from the thumb.
  • I curl Captain Hook (index finger) around the stick in the first joint. If the student drapes the index finger too far over the stick, he or she sacrifices control of the bow stick.
I move a student's thumb "inside" the frog somewhere around Perpetual Motion. I announce to the student that he or she is actually ready to learn the "book 2 bow hold," and I talk as if he or she were learning early how to do something from book 2. Most students are eager to learn the new bow hold when I present it in this way.

As students progress in technique, especially at the beginning of book 3, I introduce the slight adjustment needed for more advanced bowing, where the pinkie is on the back side of the top of the bow stick. Actually I always place the student's pinkie in this place (which is why I do not use ready made pinkie nests that sit the pinkie on the top of the stick rather than slightly to the rear), but at later stages, I need to kindly remind the student of the correct placement, and this is how I do that.

I notice somewhere in the middle of book 2, when the student is starting to use fuller, longer bows, that finger motion is starting to manifest itself. I watch very closely for this for two reasons. One reason is that some students actually fight to keep their bow hold from performing the finger motion, and then the bow hold and its usage tends to be stiff and rough.

The other reason is that some students tend to be too "flippy" and relaxed in their use of the finger motion, and these students tend to use finger motion at any time when changing the bow and not necessarily when changing the bow at the frog. In addition, this excessive flipping of the fingers interferes with good, crisp detache bowing, which should be performed more with a strong forearm movement.

How one holds the bow is personal to each student. My purpose is to introduce the basic form, and then to allow the student's personal maturation to guide me later in making adjustments that fit a student's needs in more advanced repertoire. But for now, this is the basic bow hold and how I introduce it to my beginning students.

I welcome any comments, additions, or suggestions. I'm particularly interested in how other teachers prefer to instruct their beginning students concerning proper bow hold posture.


  1. Hi Paula, first of all thanks for sharing your violin teaching experiences. I’ve been reading your posts whenever I need help and I’ve found many ideas that have been benefiting me and my daughter a great deal.

    My daughter has started holding her bow “thumb in” around the time she was learning Perpetual Motion which was about half a year ago. Her thumb has been nicely bent when she bows. However in the last lesson, her teacher was telling her to bow all the way to the tip, and her bow keeps going outwards, as it approaches the tip. I realised her right thumb actually flips (into a banana) as she bows low, especially when she was playing on E-string. I asked her teacher if there is something wrong with her bow hold, or bow grip, or she’s having a stiff wrist, or even if the bow is too long. She insisted her bow hold is correct just that her arm and elbow movement is not at the correct angles. I understand the arm angles, but thought there are basically only 4 angles – 1 for each string, and if the angle is wrong, the string/note played is wrong anyway. She kept telling my daughter to ”Look at where your bow is going”. I’ve been thinking about it over the weekend, and seriously suspect that it is her bow hold that needs to be worked on. I think I will just revert to sticking a corn cushion on her bow, to get her ‘thumb out’ bow hold. I feel bad that my 5 year old daughter seemed very stressed and discouraged in class when repeatedly told that her bowing was wrong, and she wasn’t able to get it right even though she was very attentive to her teacher. Wonder if you can give me your opinion on her bowing issue? Thank you.

    1. This is a constant issue when I teach. I have found that playing music by memory is crucial. I use the sharpie marker technique. I draw the road with the marker across the strings. This does not hurt the strings, but it has instant success in terms of straight bows (parallel to the bridge). As for banana thumbs, the practicing parent and I have to be very vigilant. I have sometimes found that for a brief time, pulling the two "hugger" fingers down a little bit lower will cause the pinkie and thumb to curve appropriately. Then after a few weeks, once the habit seems to be established, we move the fingers back to their usual places. I have also found that dog clickers are useful too.The goal though should be to have the student be mindful of this. We come up with games where the student is in charge of remembering. Those games work better than our being the one to point out the error.

      Officially there are 7 levels of string floors: G, G&D, D, D&A, A, A&E, and E. I tend to forget the in between "mezzanine" levels.

      One more thing, be sure to check out how your child's bow actually feels. I remember grinching constantly at one of my advanced university students for this same issue, and one day I happened to pick up her instrument and play it. Boy was I surprised to discover that the way she had lost hair on her bow actually caused her bow hold to slip in the direction of a banana thumb. We corrected that problem with a bow rehair.

  2. Hi Paula!
    I'm glad you use the corn cushions! I used them growing up as a Suzuki student, so I started using them with my students and it really helps. I was hoping I was doing something right.

    Also I have a question..a lot of students I have right now, are holding the bow with the thumb on the inside but all of their bow holds are.....spooky to say the least. Is it a good idea to move the thumb back to the outside until we get a solid relaxed bow hold that way and then bring it back inside?

    When I ask them which bow hold feels better to them they unanimously tell me thumb on the outside


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  4. Hi Paula
    I have recently started teaching a large number of toddlers aged 3,4,5,and so on.
    It's the first time I have such young kiddies. I follow the same bowhold method as yours. Been doing so for the last 3 years and it works so well on my other kids.

    But what I noticed was that it is a lot more difficult for my 3 and 4 year old kids to do the same.

    Do you use the same method for young ones too. if yes,, how do you get them to keep their fingers on.

    I have a student who keeps his thumb on, we struggle and get all the fingers on and then when I invert the bow to the shoulder, his fingers go flop!

    1. Sometimes the littlest ones have a bit of a hard time holding the bow with the precise bow hold that we expect of them later. When I see this happening, I do something that I learned years ago from Ronda Cole. I let them hang their pinkies over the front of the bow, like babies do when you offer them your finger. The thumb is in the right place, and the fingers too, but the pinky hangs over like a cellist bow hold. I let this be for a bit of time, and then one day I gradually begin having them start pulling the pinky back into the proper place on the back of the top of the bow. Corn pads (the small round kind) really help here. I have also used the fish part of the bow Buddies for the pinky also, although I have had some difficulties with the bow buddies sometimes. They work for some students, but not all of them. It's hard to explain, but the bow buddies actually permit a lot of students to completely relax everything about the bow hold, and the arms and wrists and hands completely sag down at awkward angles. The bow buddies work for some though, so I'm selective about who can use one and who I should stop from using it. Corn pads work easier, then later I use the rubber band.

      What happens when you ask him to invert his bow to his shoulder, when he takes on the action himself? I sometimes ask the students to lift their bows horizontally up above their heads ("helicopters up!") and then lower the bows to the violin ("down for a soft landing on the E string"). It's pretty hard to lift the bow up and down horizontally with the wrong bow hold, which is probably why Dr. Suzuki put all those downbow circles and pizzicato songs throughout the repertoire -- to check those bow holds!

  5. Paula, Do you feel with an older beginner (age 10) with the development of their hand coordination that an inside thumb position would work or is your experience still best starting on the outside? I've seen both and would value your insight. Thank you!

    1. Hi, Nancy, I start my students with the thumb outside. I have noticed that when I try to start them with the thumb inside, as my thumb is, the students collapse the thumb inward. So in the beginning, no matter the age, I will start them with the thumb outside. With older students or adults, I will adjust the thumb inside sooner.