How to Have the Fiddler’s Loose Wrist
The secret of the fiddler’s loose wrist is…the fingers! When you gain flexibility in your fingers holding the bow, the wrist must also become flexible.
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. Recently, Lauren Rioux demonstrated the one I don’t teach at the Mike Block String Camp. It involves creeping the fingers along the bow stick up and down. She did it very well. I do the other one.
As Taught by Carl Flesch of the Leipzig Conservatory
The one I teach was promulgated by the great violin pedagogue, Carl Flesch. My teacher, when I was a teenager, taught me this. He had studied with this near legend 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.”
The Secret of the Loose Wrist is Now Revealed
Suppose you are using the standard bow grip, and you hold the bow in front of you with the tip pointing right and your forearm perpendicular 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 to 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.
You could do this with the bow balanced, pointing 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.
The Finger Stroke
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.
You won’t use this stroke when you play. It’s just a strategy to make the bow grip more flexible. The end result is what is called “The Fiddler’s Loose Wrist.” I hope you make it your own.