For years I’ve been teaching that the secret of the fiddler’s loose wrist is in the fingers. There are two exercises recommended by violin instructors for achieving this. That is, teachers use one or the other of the two, usually not both.
The one I use was promulgated by the great violin pedagogue, Carl Flesch. My teacher, when I was a teenager, had studied with him at the Leipzig Conservatory. He taught me this critical skill, which I practiced until I mastered it.
Before spilling all the beans, let me admit that not all fiddlers have this loose wrist. Some fiddlers play with a wrist that is locked, or a tense wrist. They still produce an excellent sound and move from one string to another quickly and effectively. My impression is that they have to work a little harder to get the same effects as us “loose wristees.”
There is a general rule we can invoke here: When you play the fiddle, let all your muscles relax as much as they can, especially those that are not involved in the production of sound.
In my early years of learning to fiddle, I played over simple tunes several times, just paying attention to how much I could relax and still play.
As I relaxed those muscles under tension acquired during years of learning to play the violin, my approach to the instrument changed. It became more fun.
This is the process I used.
Select a tune you can easily play, one that you need not give much attention to for a good performance. Choose an easy tune.
As you begin playing through it for the third time, (and be sure you don’t speed up as you go–that will spoil the process), just focus you attention on your legs, then your hips, buttocks, midsection, chest, shoulders, neck and head, especially your jaw. As you are aware of these areas, one by one, just ask if there is a muscle you can relax a little bit.
It may surprise you how many muscles are tense for no particular reason. It did me.
Flexibility and responsiveness is the key. How do you get it?
Suppose you are using the standard bow grip, and you extend the bow in front of you with the tip pointing straight up and your forearm parallel to the floor. The picture below should be a good representation of what you see.
The thumb should be flexed out, not concave with the joint locked.
Your task is to flex your fingers inward, drawing the bow towards your palm.
This is not easy to do at first. When you pull the bow into your hand, it should look like this.
This is not easy tp do. Simple, but not easy. The thumb is still flexed out, it’s just the foreshortening that makes it look funny. (The image indicates the tip of the thumb behind the hair, holding the stick.)
Now you flex your fingers out, so that they are almost straight. Now your hand looks like this.
Go through a good number of reps on this little exercise, five to ten. Rest and repeat as you can. You can do this from time to time in a normal practice session.
Remember to keep the bow balance with the point straight up. This makes the drill a little easier.
An even easier way to practice this ability is to use a pencil or pen. In my teen years, I did this at school during the boring moments, which were many. It got to be so easy that I simply stopped practicing this after a long time.
This movement of the fingers and the bow in and out of the hand is next transferred to a small movement of the bow on the strings.
You lay the bow on the strings past the half way point and flex the bow in and out of your hand to produce a small movement that actually makes a sound. You are not moving your arm, or flexing your wrist. Move only fingers and thumb.
Of course, you will not use this as a technique in performance. Here’s what Carl Flesch had to say about this.
The Fingerstroke. It is difficult to find out at which moment in time the awareness of the necessity of developing the flexibility of the finger joints as well, became recognized; in any case, this technique, like so much else that is valuable, originated in Belgium. If we realize that the independent use of the wrist, in substitution for elbow or shoulder motion, is only occasionally indicated, then it must be clear that the finger stroke should never be used by itself, since it hardly contributes to the tone production. Its importance resides primarily in its combination with the vertical hand movement from the wrist joint; this produces the most imperceptible bow change possible. The finger exercises involved in this, and which I consider the most important, can easily be learned at any age. They simply mean the stretching and bending of the five fingers, which without help from the writ, should be able to produce a short martele´ stroke.