How to keep the bow straight

How to keep the bow straight

Being able to keep the bow straight (perpendicular to the strings, and parallel to the bridge) throughout the full length of the bow stroke has a big impact on the tone of the notes we play on the fiddle. It’s one of the things many fiddle players struggle to master when they first start playing. Part of the difficulty with keeping the bow straight, and knowing that it’s straight,  is that from the player’s perspective, looking down on the bow from a slight angle, it will look straight when it’s not.

In this video of Bruce MacGregor playing Neil Gow’s Lament for the Death of his Second Wife, you can see that even when he is using the full length of his bow for a single note, the bow stays perpendicular to the strings for the full bow stroke:

Identifying if there’s a problem

So how can you be sure your bow is staying straight throughout the full length of the bow stroke?

  • find someone who can watch you playing and tell you if there’s a problem.
  • try playing and watching yourself in a mirror while you’re playing. This is great for identifying the problem, but trying to work out how to straighten the bow stroke while watching yourself in the mirror is tricky!
  • play long bow strokes (from the tip to the heel of the bow) and watch just the point where the bow is in contact with the strings. If you see the bow hairs moving closer and further away from you during the stroke (particularly towards either end of a stroke), it’s a sign that your bow is unlikely to be running in a completely straight line.

What the bowing arm and hand should be doing

Keeping the bow straight when you’re playing short bow strokes in the centre of the bow is much easier than keeping it straight throughout the full length of a bow stroke that runs from the heel to the tip of the bow. In this video, Jim Burke shows what often goes wrong in the early stages of learning to play the fiddle (from 45s). He demonstrates that if we use the shoulder to move the bow, and keep the elbow locked in one position, the bow will move in an arc rather than a straight line. From 2m 10s he shows how to correct this, so there is some movement in the elbow, and most of the action is coming from the forearm, wrist and hand. If you can master this, the shoulder barely needs to move at all.

If you’re having trouble keeping your bow straight throughout the bow stroke, you can begin to get a sense of the correct trajectory for the bow by placing the bow on the fiddle string at the heel (the part of the bow directly under the hand) and then lifting it, and placing it on the same string at the tip. Get someone to check (or check in the mirror) that the bow is perpendicular to the strings in both of these positions. Then,  lifting the bow each time, practice moving between the two. Focus on getting a feel for how your forearm, wrist and hand need to be placed to achieve both positions. You should avoid moving your shoulder when moving between these two positions. Once you feel confident that you have a feel for both positions, go back to trying a full bow stroke.