I work on bow hold a LOT in lessons because it is foundational to producing a beautiful tone. But even when my students have learned a correct, relaxed bow hand posture, that ease doesn’t always translate into the bow arm. To get the maximum tone, the bow elbow should generally rest slightly below the wrist. If the elbow starts to go above the wrist, the student is not able to transfer the weight of their arm efficiently into the bow, and both tone and bow control suffer.
Some students may have heard that they need to “push” or “apply pressure” to the string to make a sound so they suspend their arm weight from lifting the elbow or shoulder, producing either a weak, unfocused tone, or they press downward to make a scratchy, unpleasant tone. It often takes a lot of repetition over many weeks and months to help a student learn to release their arm weight into the bow, but when they do, the professional-sounding tone is worth the wait. Here are some fun ways I help my students use their arm weight in producing a good tone:
Soft and Hard
Many students and particularly transfer students, are only focused on the end result, and not the process. And some are even able to get a very good sound with a high bow elbow. They have not developed a good awareness of their own muscle tension and position of their arms in space, and find it difficult to release that tension to produce a better tone. For such students, I will often start with having them simply raise and gently drop their shoulders, paying attention to how their raised shoulders feel hard, stiff, and inflexible, while their dropped shoulders are soft, comfortable, and able to move. I will also have the student practice raising their bow hand and letting the elbow follow. When raising the hand, I have them imagine they are picking something off a shelf and when lowering the hand, they are pulling it down from the shelf. This helps the student get a sense of the bow hand/elbow relationship when changing string levels.
Hang Like a Monkey
I do this exercise with my pre-twinklers to give them a sense of the hanging arm feeling. The teacher or parent holds the bow stick near the balance point so the student could make a bow hold from where they are standing. But instead of making a bow hand, the student just hangs the middle and ring fingers from the bow, letting their bow arm be totally heavy. They can imagine the middle two fingers as the arms of a monkey hanging from a tree.
Many students struggle to release all of their arm weight into the bow, and I tell them to imagine their arm is falling asleep or hanging from the couch as they relax after a long day. As I hold the bow, I will move it around a bit to encourage the student to release the arm muscles. The nice thing about this exercise is that the teacher or parent can instantly tell if the student is suspending their arm weight, pushing the bow downward, or releasing their arm weight into the bow. At home, I may ask the parent do monkey hangs with the student before each review piece. The parent can even transition from the monkey hang in the air to hanging with the bow placed on the string, so they can feel the weight transfer from arm to bow to string, then just add the rest of the bow fingers.
One caution: when hanging from the bow, the student will naturally let the wrist drop below the level of the fingers. When transferring the monkey hang to the bow on the string, they will need to adjust the wrist a bit higher, while still feeling the weight transfer from the arm.
A Real Hanging Monkey
I found this stuffed animal on Amazon and of course, I had to get it in purple, because purple is the viola color. It has Velcro on its hands so it can hang from the student’s elbow, encouraging them to relax the elbow and upper arm downward. If they are still keeping a high elbow, I can also pull gently on the monkey to encourage them to relax the elbow down. Once they have played a few songs with the monkey hanging from their elbow, I can take the monkey back. Throughout the lesson, if I see their elbow creeping back up, all I have to do is shake the monkey in their direction as a playful, non-verbal reminder.
Tone is the reason we play stringed instruments and my goal is for all my students to play with a beautiful, rich tone, in a comfortable position. Do you have other exercises to teach tone? Share them in the comments below!