The beginning years of instrumental music study are full on new experiences: making sounds, learning new skills, and playing a brand new instrument with a bow. In all the excitement, your string students will be tempted to do some strange things.
Here’s my list of 7 things they should never do with their bow.
1. Never use the bow as a sword or light saber.
As fun as it may look to fight like [insert your favorite Star Wars character here], the bow is made for playing on the string, not fighting battles. Unlike swords and light sabers, bows are made of wood, carbon fiber or fiberglass and are very fragile (and make poor weapons, anyway).
2. Don’t tighten the bow until the stick becomes straight.
The stick of the bow has a natural concave curvature called the camber, which gives the bow its flexibility and responsiveness. When tightening a bow, that downward curve always needs to be maintained, so don’t go too tight, especially to the point where the bow becomes straight. If you do so, the bow will eventually warp and no longer work properly.
3. Never put the bow on the floor.
If you put it on the floor, someone will step on it and break it. This is a given.
4. Don’t hold the bow too tight.
When holding the bow, keep your thumb and fingers slightly bent and flexible. Do not spread your fingers too wide or keep them too close together. A tight bow hold will prevent you from playing with nuance and can eventually cause hand pain.
5. Don’t put pressure on the bow, use your arm weight.
Drawing the bow across the string and producing a beautiful sound requires a lot of gross and fine motor coordination. Some students incorrectly assume that the more pressure they put down on their bow, the better the sound. Instead, it’s the natural weight of the arm, combined with the appropriate point of contact with the string (and the speed of the bow) that produce a beautiful sound; not downward pressure.
6. Don’t keep your elbow at the same level when changing strings.
No matter which string orchestra instrument you play, whenever you move from one string to another, your right arm needs to move to adjust to the curvature of the bridge. If you play cello or bass, your right elbow should be higher while playing on the higher strings and lower while playing on the lower strings. If you play violin or viola, your elbow height should be the opposite: higher elbow on lower strings, lower elbow while playing higher strings. Be sure to always keep your right shoulder relaxed, despite elbow height.
7. Don’t touch the hair.
Once kids learn that the bow has horse hair in it everyone wants to touch it; don’t allow it. The natural oils in the fingers will make dirt and oil stick and the bow will need a re-hair sooner than otherwise. Like Tony Manero says below: “Watch the hair!”
I hope these tips help your students avoid bad habits from the start.
Giovanna Cruz is a cellist and music educator with experience as an orchestral and chamber musician, college and private studio teacher, and public school teacher. As orchestra director at James Bowie High School in Austin, TX from 2007 to 2014, she taught more than 120 students annually in four orchestras. Her varsity group earned sweepstakes at UIL Concert and Sight-Reading contest in 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014 and performed in festivals across the country. Her other groups earned excellent ratings at the same competitions. She holds the degrees of Bachelor of Education from the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas, Venezuela, and Master and Doctor of Musical Arts in cello performance from the University of Iowa. Today she is an Education Services Specialist at MakeMusic, for whom she presents SmartMusic at clinics and training workshops across the U.S.
Special thanks to Anthony Arnone, Carrie Beaderstadt, Jennifer McKeeman, Ellen Lucko Frazier, and Mary Kelly who shared their ideas for this post!