Learn to Develop a More Natural-feeling Bow Hold

A 5-step approach to finding the perfect grip for your violin or viola bow

Fig. 1

Fig. 1: Turn your hand over so the palm faces up. Let your thumb curl inward.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2: Turn your hand back over, but keep your thumb curling inward. That’s your natural hold.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3: Place your bent right thumb so that half of its tip rests on the lip of the frog and half of it rests on the bow stick.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4: Allow the part of the thumb above the nail to lean against the hair.

The Problem

You have difficulty getting a natural-feeling bow hold, one that produces the desired tone colors, strokes, and dynamics.

The Solution

As the foundation of your bow technique—literally how you and your bow connect—your bow hold can either support your technique or hinder it. Given the variety of bow holds demonstrated by talented artists throughout history, some argue that what you do with your bow is more important than how you hold it.

However, these variations exist because of anatomical differences between players, the musical tastes of the times, and misinterpretations, and not because it doesn’t matter.

A good bow hold feels so natural you hardly notice it and rarely think about it. It balances the elements of both flexibility and strength, facilitating complete command over the bow as a tool to produce a variety of tone colors, strokes, and dynamics. A troubled bow hold, on the other hand, has limitations in terms of flexibility and strength.

1. Rest your right arm at your side. Notice how your fingers curl slightly. Keeping this relaxation in your fingers, and your wrist floppy, bend your elbow and bring your hand up to shoulder height. Notice the spread of your top four fingers. Even if your thumb is already curling in toward the other fingers, turn your hand over so the palm faces up and let your thumb curl inward, most likely to touch the middle finger at the joint closest to the middle finger’s tip (Fig. 1).

2. Now turn your hand back over, but keep your thumb curling inward (Fig. 2). That’s your natural bow hold.

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3. Now add the bow. Hold the bow stick in the left hand, hair facing you. Place your bent right thumb so that half of its tip rests on the lip of the frog and half of it rests on the bow stick (Fig. 3).

4. The thumb should be slightly angled rather than vertical to the stick. Allow the part of the thumb above the nail to lean against the hair (Fig. 4). This provides support and security. The thumb will likely rest here except when playing near the tip of the bow.

5. Keeping this position, rest the upper half of the bow on your left shoulder, hair down, bow stick parallel to the floor. Balance the bow between your shoulder and the right thumb tip. Keep your thumb bent down to the hair or the bow might roll away from you. Without upsetting the balance, lightly lower your fingers to the stick as the fingers fall naturally—the first three over, the pinkie tip on top. Your forearm will likely rotate inward. That should be a light, relaxed bow hold.

 This is the first of a 12-part series on improving bowing fundamentals.

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*This article appeared in Strings November 2011
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