Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Quick Practice Tip: The Power of the Stopped Bow

Over the years of teaching the Suzuki method, I have come to appreciate the power of the stopped bow. The Twinkle Variations that Dr. Suzuki put together are brilliant in terms of what the pieces teach the student about impulse control and the proper use of kinesthetic energy. The more I teach, the more I discover or uncover all the gems that Dr. Suzuki has included in the Suzuki repertoire. Nothing is more powerful to me than the lessons learned concerning the stopped bow.

I teach many students who play other violin music, such as fiddling or mariachi. I frequently encounter students who literally cannot stop their bow. The bow dribbles from one note to the next without ever clearly defining the end of one note and the beginning of the next note. Wait! Who am I kidding? The bow is not dribbling, it is moving 100 m.p.h.! This constant movement issue results in several problems:
  • Messy bows and unclear articulation
  • Rushing tempo or a tempo that pushes the “toe-side” of the beat rather than the “heel-side” (the energy is forward directed rather than “sitting in the saddle”)
  • Inability to play staccato well
  • Tight joints, especially the right elbow
  • Squeezed back muscle, especially below the right shoulder
  • Poor tone production: either a pressed sound because the student is squeezing the notes or a wispy sound because the student is so tight in the right elbow and back muscles, that the bow can put little weight into the sound
  • Poor practice habits: inappropriate practice tempos and a failure to consider the actual sound made
Sometimes it may take me a few years to teach a student with the stopped bow problem how to get a good stopped bow staccato. If only I could take these students back to square one and the Twinkle Variations! The Twinkles are the foundation of all the necessary stopped bow combinations that the student will encounter in the later Suzuki repertoire.

Here are some beneficial uses of the stopped bow:
  • It gives the student an opportunity to consider whether the bow will make a good contact point with the string in order to produce the next note.
  • It gives the student a chance to place the bow properly on the appropriate string level (or string levels in the case of a double stop chord).
  • It allows the student to consider how his or her body should pivot the bow quietly from one string level to the next without lifting the bow off the string.
  • It allows the student an opportunity to “check in” with muscles and joints to unlock any unnecessary tension.
  • It allows the student to “ping” the beginning of the next note to start the vibration of the next note, which helps the student to generate good, strong tone.
  • Most of all, it allows the student to actually consider what sound the student makes when playing.
I also work with the student to uncover any unnecessary tension in the bow arm, right shoulder, or back. If I am working with a high energy level student, then this issue alone will take a long time to address. I may have to spend a considerable amount of time addressing posture issues, including how the student directs his or her physical energy in a playing stance.

If I work with an advanced student, I might ask them to play Perpetual Motion so that we can work on these issues, but anything will do, even a basic scale. My goal will be to get the student to slow down and actually stop playing after one note so that the student can prepare the next note. In some cases, I need to actually address the student's playing stance in order to encourage a more successful outcome.

I used several terms above that might require further explanation. When I talked about the "toe-side" and "heel-side" of the beat, I referred to the front side versus the back side of the beat. If you lean forward on your toes, you will feel the inevitable pull forward. Did you know that we walk by falling forward and then catching ourselves? This is how the front-side of the beat works. We fall forward when we play, so that the tempo surges forward and speeds up. When we put our weight in our heels, we add the sensation of grounding to our playing.

For anyone who is familiar with horses, the concept of toe-side and heel-side energy dissemination makes sense. Horses are very sensitive creatures. If you want to start moving, all you have to do is think about it. You bring your energy level "up" and "forward" and the horse starts moving. How much energy you send forward will direct how fast the horse will comply. When you want to slow the creature down to a stop, you turn your energy "off," let your breath out, and settle back into the saddle. The horse stops.

Students can relate to "toe-side" and "heel-side" as descriptions of playing stances. We experiment with both so that students understand how each stance feels. Then we practice "sitting back in the saddle" so that students learn the physical sensations of relaxing and grounding. The students learn how to shift their weight to the heels of their feet and to tilt their pelvises under so that the torso weight shifts backwards (they tuck their "kitty cat tails" under and between their legs). For good measure, I might suggest that they also practice letting all the air out of their lungs. Being the high energy person that I am, I often practice breathing out my air in a slow whoosh. I find that I can calm my energy level down to a stop when I practice this technique.

The most recent student that I worked with to learn how to play a stopped bow (it took us four semesters to master this skill at the university level), had to learn how to curb his energy level and his expression of energy while playing. In other words, he had to learn how to turn things "on" and "off." My long time readers know how much a fan I am of the "Dog Whisperer" show with Cesar Milan. I learned a lot about using energy properly from watching this show on the National Geographic channel. I have a dog pack of six adult dogs and one youngster. Currently I also have three puppies about 5 weeks old. Anyone who has that many dogs will know what I mean about how one uses one's physical energy. I can rile up or calm down my pack of sweethearts in two seconds just by how I turn my energy level "up" or "down." I have even taught this skill to several of my students in order to teach them how to improve their posture or to learn leadership skills. But this is another blog post for the future.

For now, look to yourself and your students. Observe how you and your students are doing with their stopped bows and staccatos. If you find problems, consider whether you or your students are too energetic in your playing and then work out a step-by-step program to "slow" things down.

This blog post began as a quick practice tip and quickly became a long discussion about the physical manifestation of energy while playing. No, I am not an alien. I really do think about these things -- a lot. I apologize that the "quick" practice tip was anything but quick. This week, think about the power of a stopped bow and check whether you are providing yourself and your students with the opportunities to create good stopped bows. If you or one of your students has difficulty in this area, consider whether the student is physically standing and playing in a way that would discourage or encourage a good stopped bow.

Happy practicing!


  1. I didn't know that about horses, but I've heard that's how the segway (new two-wheeled ransportation device which you stand on) works!

    I think this "quick" tip will be very helpful to me and a few of my students. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Barb! I think I spend more time on this issue than any other. And success reaps so many benefits! I wondered how the segway worked. Sometimes I think I need one!