The bowing hand
Once you have a comfortable fiddle bow hold, what else do you need to master with the bowing hand? It’s important to understand the relationship between the bow and your hand/fingers. Often when people first learn to play, they develop a fixed bow hold, with the bow being kept in exactly the same relationship to the hand throughout the length of the bow stroke, and use the upper and lower arm to create the bow strokes.
This frequently creates some tension in the muscles of the hand (especially if playing for any length of time), which will have an impact on the tone when playing. The arm action is hard work, and makes it difficult to play with precision, especially when playing faster runs of notes.
Here’s Scottish fiddler Patsy Reid showing how she uses the fingers to move the bow around when she’s crossing strings
So it’s important to learn to relax the bowing hand, and learn to let it interact with the stick of the bow. Think of your hand as a guide for the bow. The hand can often also respond to the bow, letting it take the lead – your bowing hand doesn’t always have to be the boss! Have a look at Ian Walsh playing at the start of this video, and watch the fingers in his bowing hand. You’ll see that his right hand is very relaxed, and his fingers are moving around, interacting and responding to the stick of the bow.
As well as this relaxed and interactive hold, the fingers can also have a real impact on the detail of the sound we make. With an effective bow hold, you will be able to use the thumb as a ‘pivot’ for the bow. This pivoting action works in respect of keeping the bow perpendicular to the strings In this video, Zlata Brouwer shows the action of the first finger on the stick of the bow, being used here to create a run of staccato notes on an up bow:
How the fingers interact with the bow
The thumb is acting like a little hook, and the stick of the bow hangs on that hook. The fingers are slightly separated and drape over the bow to prevent the stick falling out from it’s position on the hook. They’re also in the right place to help keep the bow from straying off a straight line, perpendicular to the fiddle strings, when you start playing. By pulling slightly towards you with the tip of the first finger, you’ll pull the tip of the bow a little closer in to you. Pulling with the 3rd finger pulls the heel of the bow in. As the thumb acts as a pivot, pulling in with the 3rd finger will push the tip of the bow away from your body. Throughout the bow stroke, the aim is that the fingers are fluidly interacting with the stick of the bow all the time. The fingers will need to be bending and flexing independently as part of your bow hold, in response to the bow showing any sign of starting to stray from its path. Ultimately they will be intuitively guiding it and keeping it perpendicular to the strings throughout the length of the bow stroke. The pinkie is just resting on the back of the bow stick (and in fact many players play with the pinkie off the bow stick altogether for a lot of the time). It doesn’t have a lot to do until you lift the bow from the fiddle. If you try to pick the bow up from the fiddle strings, you’ll find that with the thumb acting as a pivot, it just takes a little pressure on the stick with the pinkie to prevent the tip of the bow from falling downwards. Pressure on the index finger can be used to help to ‘dig’ the bow into the string, to increase the volume at any point in a note.
Here’s a video of Scottish fiddler Bruce MacGregor demonstrating his fiddle bow hold and bowing action:
You can hear the dynamics he adds into individual notes through his control of the bow. Watch and listen from 5m 16s to how he adds really clear definition to the notes at the start of the march he’s playing.