Two Fiddle Bow Holds
There are two bow holds that I’m going to be writing about here. The beginner grip and the advanced grip. The beginner grip is easy to show, demonstrate and teach. Many Suzuki teachers rely on this grip for beginning students. It’s an easier grip for them. And although I call it a beginner grip, Mark O’Connor used this grip for years and years, playing very advanced fiddle music.
For this grip the fingers drape over the top of the stick and the thumb is placed on the bottom of the frog. One of the advantages of this hold is that you do not mash a groove into your thumb where it holds the stick like you do in the advanced grip. This is besides it just being easier and quicker to learn
Another benefit to this grip is it prevents you from choking up on the stick. I’ve seen fiddlers do this in videos and right in front of me, too. The choking up hold limits your dynamic range and variability of bowing severely.
I’m calling it the advanced grip in this post, but it’s really the standard violin bow grip that is taught to violinists. Lyman Bodman talks about how he teaches this grip in his book. To get started, he has the student hold the bow horizontally in the left hand. Then, he has the student put the index finger on the bow first, adjusting it so that it goes over the top of the stick between the first and second knuckles. Then the thumb is placed towards the bottom of the stick, behind the first finger. He’s a little vague about this part, in my opinion. He is specific about the pinkie resting the tip of the finger on top of the bow.
One of the best features of this instructional hit is holding the bow in the left hand so that the right hand has no stress on it whatsoever. I like starting that way, too. but for me the fickle digit is the thumb. So I have the student place the thumb first. Before I started getting super picky about this, my students invariably held the bottom of the stick with the ball of the thumb. That will not work out well in the long run. It’s the tip of the thumb that goes into the spot where the stick meets the frog. It’s the tip of the thumb that will get its deserved groove after a long session of playing and bearing down for serious volume.
For me, the thumb will end up opposite the middle finger. I can hold my bow vertically with just the thumb and the middle finger and I ask my students to do that, too. Just to show yourself you have that coordination. Regarding flexibility, I talked about the Carl Flesch exercise in a previous post about the Loose Wrist of fiddlers. Another hit on flexibility is the spider walk of the fingers and thumb up and down the stick. Lauren Rioux teaches that and times her students in the journey. She told me how fast she could do it, but the time was so short I immediately forgot what it was.
Accenting the Beat and/or Off Beat
Both the beginner grip and the standard grip allow you to make accents while you are playing. and that is super important. When I was at the Mike Block String Camp at one practice with a band I was standing right next to a woman named Bunny. She asked me about back up rhythm playing. She had been simply moving the bow back and forth in time with the music. I noticed immediately that she was using no accent at all. So that is what I showed her how to do. Right away her rhythm playing got more rhythmic.
You will also do the accents on the off beat for much of your fiddling. In a grooved shuffle you get it going and keep it going. In Irish fiddling it’s a bit different. They will make an accent while the bow is already in motion. But whether its at the beginning of a stroke or in the middle the accent is made by pressure from the index finger on top of the stick. It’s applied and released quickly.
There is another aspect of accents that I would call attack bowing. This is more common in violin music than fiddling. When you make a vigorous accent that is just short of a mighty crunch, that’s an attack. Hanneke Cassell does this frequently in her playing by lifting the bow and slamming it down. She may be unique in this technique. It works for her very well. For violinists the rule is to get the bow on the string before you totally dig in and rip off a brutal attack. The purpose of the attack bowing is different for violinists and fiddlers.
Another boweing technique that I used to think was limited to violin music is bouncing or sautille bowing. Then, I encountered a Darol Anger video about sautille bowing. I use that effect when I play Joys of Quebec. In the B part you normally have a stop bow moment. Sometimes I change things up by doing a bouncing bow moment.
Finally, let’s close this out with a comment on legato bowing and smooth bow changes. For your ballads, aires and waltzes you may want to have very smooth changes sometimes. This requires flexibilty in your bow hand fingers. Think of how a pant brush changes ther direction of the bristles when you move it back and forth. That’s how your fingers should move when you are making the bow change as smoothly as you can.
Let me know if you would like to see a video with all these bow holds and motions demonstrated.