Free up tension and let the bow sing!
We all know that the most important ingredient for good tone is beautiful right arm technique, yet so many of our students saw away at the fiddle with locked wrists, elbows and shoulders.
This has something I have struggled with time and time again. How can I get my students to open up and sign with their bows? I’ve drawn these solutions from my own experience, and from a bunch of people that are way smarter than me.
1. Show them what tension and relaxation feel like. Small children may not even know what these words mean! Have them mimic you as you raise your shoulders to your ears, and then drop them down to their natural relaxed positions. Adapt this to the other tension culprits in the arm. Soft thumb, relaxed wrist, loose elbow, etc.
2. Sometimes tension comes from efforts to make a strong sound. To remedy this issue, show the student how heavy the arm is, and that the weight of the arm is more than adequate to produce a good strong tone. Have the student support your completely relaxed arm, and then do the same to theirs. It is quite heavy!
3. The tension may be systemic. Tension in the feet, ankles and knees can spread into the arms and hands. Have them sway, bounce their knees, or wiggle their toes to introduce freedom and movement into their base.
4. Quite often tension can come from fear of disappointing the teacher or parent. Students will sometimes hold their breath because they are anxious about this. Try to create an environment where mistakes are not something to fear. Mimi Zweig always says, “Mistakes are merely information.” They aren’t good or bad.
5. Make sure their basic set-up is good. A poorly placed violin can wreak havoc on the bow arm. Check out Violinist in Balance for more information.
6. Remove extraneous tension in the bow hand, particularly in the pinky. Violinists may not realize that the effort expended in holding the bow horizontal in the air is much more than is required when the string is also supporting the bow. All Things Strings has some great tips for this!
7. Move the arm as if painting a fence. On the upward stroke the wrist leads and fingers follow with the brush, and on the downward stroke the hand pronates and the fingers and wrist fall together. It is fun to actually use a paintbrush on the wall for this exercise!
8. Practice a fluid whole arm movement by playing a “flying pizzicato.”
9. Sometimes all it takes for a student to fix awkward tension in the bow arm is to see how strange they actually look! Have them try playing in front of a mirror, or even better, watch a video of themselves performing.
10. Get rid of the violin. Have them practice shoulder bows, or shadow bows with a cardboard tube. You can also try the penny game! It’s a favorite in my studio! (I let them keep the penny, or a quarter if I’m feeling extra generous!)
If you would like to go even more in depth on this issue, I highly recommend this article.
How about you guys? How do you teach your students to play with a beautiful, relaxed bow arm? Let me know in the comments!