Using the fiddle bow

It was lovely to have a fully booked event for the first one-day fiddle workshop in Portobello yesterday. The focus for this first day was using the bow, and exploring how the bow affects tone and pulse.

Fiddle bow hold

We started off by looking at the bow hold. We gave our hands a good shake out, and noticed how relaxed they felt – we’re aiming for this same relaxed feel in our bow hold.

A fiddle player's bow hold, seen from underneath
Photo ©Ros Gasson

The thumb is hooked under the stick at the frog end, acting like a hook to hang the bow on. The fingers are laid over the back of the stick, with the stick sitting in the 2nd joint from the tip of the index finger. This position gives the potential for easy control of any movement of the bow if it strays up or down the strings on the fiddle. We also ensured our fingers were spread out on the stick. Doing this enables the first finger and pinkie to pivot the bow around the thumb. This in turn gives the hand real control over how much of the weight of the bow is transferred to the fiddle strings, which is a major part of being able to control the volume and tone of a note. The pinkie is also used to take the full weight of the bow whenever we lift it clear of the strings – having the pinkie right at the end of the bow, as far from the thumb as possible, makes it as easy as it can be for the pinkie to take the weight of the bow.

We also rotated the bowing hand slightly anticlockwise, to allow us to use the natural flexion in the wrist throughout the bow stroke.

We talked about the relationship of the bow hand with the bow. When you’re first learning to play the fiddle, it’s easy to get int a habit of having a fixed hold on the bow, which never varies. As you gain confidence, and want to learn more techniques, such as being able to lift the bow from the fiddle strings cleanly, you’ll find that a fixed bow hold limits what’s possible. It also tends to lead to a certain amount of tension in the hand, which will affect your tone. We explored how the bow hand needs to respond to the stick of the bow, guiding it through the bow stroke, without preventing it from doing the work it’s designed to do.

The bow stroke

Have looked at our bow holds, we then went on to look at what happens when the bow goes through a single stroke. Learning how to keep the bow perpendicular to the fiddle strings is an important component of the tone created when playing. To keep the bow perpendicular, it’s essential to be able to bend the wrist as part of the bow stroke. If the wrist is tense and locked, the bow will follow an arc as it travels from the frog end to the tip, which results in a big loss of the fullness of the sound that’s possible. The tone of the note is also affected by where the bow is placed on the strings. It’s worth playing around with this when you’re practicing at home, to find the ‘sweet spot’ where your fiddle creates the sound you like. In general, you’ll find the fullest sound when the bow is about 1/3rd of the way down the space between the bridge and the end of the fingerboard. Because of the perspective you get on this when you’re playing, it’s hard to judge where this spot is for yourself, so it’s useful to get someone else to help you find this position initially, until you get used to the feel of it in your playing.

We split into pairs, and spent a while giving each other feedback on bow position.

Volume

We talked a little about how to increase the volume of a note. The obvious thing might be to push the bow into the strings a bit harder, but doing this is likely to create a very ‘scratchy’ tone. Increasing the speed of the bow will increase the volume – if you play a single note and move the bow faster, it will mean using more of the bow’s length. The volume of a note is always relative to the note before and after it – so another way to enhance the effect of increasing the volume of a note or phrase, is to also decrease the volume of notes/phrases before and after it.

We also looked at the role of the bowing arm in increasing volume. It’s possible to relax the bowing arm, and allow a lot of the weight of the arm to be transferred into the bow. We split into pairs again, and worked on this with a partner.

Later on in the day, we experimented with playing notes using different parts of the bow. The tip of the bow created a lovely ‘sweet’ sound. Using the heel of the bow creates a more ‘scrunchy’ and louder sound. Feeling confident with playing using any part of the bow will increase the options you have for adding expression to your playing.

Rhythm and pulse

We spent a while looking at the role of the bow in creating rhythm and pulse when we play. We started off by playing open Ds, with a reel rhythm imposed. We worked on tapping a foot along with our playing, to get an inner sense of where the beats were. What we’re aiming for is to have an inbuilt sense of the pulse in tunes we are playing, and for a basic beat to be in our playing without us having to think abut it. The more we can ‘delegate’ to the subconscious mind, the more we are freed up to start playing around with the rhythms in tunes, and add accents on other beats, to add interest and lift.

We started by tapping a foot on the on-beat (in a reel rhythm, this is the 1st and 5th quavers, in a bar of 8 quavers), and emphasising the bow stroke on those beats. We moved on to playing a D scale, starting on a down bow on the open D, and using single bow strokes for each note. You can increase the volume of an individual note by speeding up the bow, letting the weight of the arm transfer to the bow, paying attention to where the bow is on the string, playing towards the heel of the bow, using a down bow or adding a chord. There’s plenty of scope for doing any combination of these things as you like.

We tried playing and emphasising the off-beats in the bar instead (the 3rd and 7th quavers in the bar). We then split into 2 groups, and half of us emphasised the on-beat, while the other half emphasised the off-beat. We also tried playing and emphasisng the upbeat as well as the on beat (the up beat is the 8th quaver in the bar).

We looked at creating a basic bowing structure, when playing rhythmic tunes such as reels. It’s possible to works out patterns to ensure that you will naturally play a down bow on the beats in a tune. This is all part of the process of getting the subconscious mind to take responsibility for as much of our playing as possible. If you have a basic pattern, or habit, for bowing tunes in a way that will automatically emphasise the beat without you having to think about it, all you then need to focus on is where and how you will vary this to create interest or swing or lift, or whatever effect you’re after.

Tone

We tried out some of the tips from above to improve our tone, while playing the D scale. We split into 2 groups again, and half of the group played a harmony (still playing the D scale, but starting when the other group had reached the F# in their scale so the ‘harmony’ group were playing a third below the ‘tune’ group). We switched around so both groups had a go at playing the harmony, then tried the same thing, with alternate people around the room playing ‘tune’ or ‘harmony’. Then we moved on to playing different notes in the arpeggio of D (D, F#, A), so each person was playing a different note to the person either side of them.

We tried out playing without looking at our left hands, and paying more attention to the other players around us. Doing this helps to get a feel for playing ‘in the zone’ rather than in the more ‘thinking’ mode that we are used to using when we’re learning to play. There was definitely more energy in the sound we made when we did this.

Shetland reel

We learnt the Shetland reel Hamar Ower da Taing. The music is available to download from the written music page of the website. We looked at slurs we could add to keep the bow hitting a down bow on the beat. I’ll upload another copy of the music with the slurs included, sometime during this coming week.

We also looked at a number of chords we could add to the A and B parts.

Triplets

We started by looking at how to play triplets, as there’s one in the first bar of the tune. Again, it’s helpful to find one standard way that you can do this without thinking about it. Once it’s in your muscle memory as a habit, it will free you up to try out other ways of playing it, to vary what you’re doing. We looked at playing the triplet using a down-up-down bowing pattern.

Percussive and droning chords

In the A part we added a percussive style open D along with the D we play in the tune. We spent some time looking at how to achieve this effect. The note you wish to add the chord to is played on a down bow. In this instance, the percussive drone note we want to add is the open D string, played over the 3rd finger D played on the A string. So we’re aiming to get the bow to ‘drop’ onto the open D string, and immediately come off the string, to allow it to ring out. This is achieved by bringing the bow up towards the heel area as we play the preceding C# (2nd finger on the A string). The whole balance of the bow will be affected when we move away from the centre area of the bow. In order to stop the tip of the bow from dropping as we play the C#, the pinkie is called into action, taking some of the weight of the bow as we move towards the heel. So we approach the D with the pinkie bearing a fair bit of the weight of the tip of bow, which is now over to the left of the string we’re playing. It is then easy to release the pinkie, and the bow will automatically drop onto the open D string without us having to change the position of the arm at all. If you have a relaxed hold on the bow at this point, it will naturally hit the string and bounce off it. All you need to do is to then take the weight of the bow again to keep it clear of the ringing open D string as you finish playing the D note in the tune.

In the B part, you can add a ‘droning’ style open A along with the first phrase in the part, which is played on the E string. As you reach the end of the B part, you can also add this same drone on the A string to the last phrase in the B part, so the drone continues from the last phrase of the first B part into the first phrase of the 2nd B part.

We looked at how to achieve a ‘droning’ style chord, and be confident that it will happen when you intend to play it, by using a combination of the positioning of the bow in relation to the strings, along with a little pressure from the index finger on the stick of the bow.