Bow Holds Revisited

In my previous post, I addressed the historical issue of varying bow holds during the Baroque period, most notably the so-called French and Italian holds. Interestingly, the so-called French grip was the manner in which I (and countless other young violin students) was initially instructed to hold the bow when I began Suzuki violin lessons as a six-year-old. I vividlydaniel_van_aken_playing_the_violin-400 remember as my teacher told me to put my thumb on the bottom of the frog while placing the rest of the right-hand fingers in regular bow hold position — very much in the spirit of the French bow hold of the Baroque period. I continued to play like this for the first half of Book 1 or so, when I was transferred to the more “grown-up” method of placing the thumb on the stick. My teacher back then told me specifically not to put my thumb on “the brown” of the stick between the frog and black gripper; however, when I was switched over to a different Suzuki school, placing the thumb on “the brown” was perfectly acceptable.

Then, going between various traditional teachers, I was constantly switched between placing the thumb “on the brown” and placing it on the leather gripper. Each teacher claimed that the opposing way was “incorrect”, proceeding to give lengthy lectures on why their designated bow hold was the “correct” position with advantages over the other. Over time, I became highly confused as to which was the “correct” bow hold. Furthermore, when I began serious classical guitar study and had to grow my right-hand fingernails out such that they extended slightly beyond the fingertips, my violin teachers insisted that such a system was incomperable with standard violin technique, including bow holds. I cannot possibly count how many times I was told to totally trim down my thumb and index nails, even when I had devised a compromise. In the end, I just learned to adapt with my longer fingernails, slightly separating the middle and ring fingers to make room for the thumbnail while tweaking the length (i.e. shorter) and shape differently from a standard classical guitarist to suit my violin needs. Eventually, my teachers stopped objecting when they saw that I could indeed play with these nails as if they were not there. As my mom had always said, the whole issue was about compromising based upon solid knowledge of both instruments’ technique and adapting as if I had grown a new limb.

Recently, in both getting into historically informed violin performance and in talking to Mrs. Wendy Harton Benner, Baroque/modern violinist and Baroque Band member, I was discussing the issue of both modern and historical bow holds with her. I especially mentioned to her the confusion I have often felt as a result of my various teachers’ diverse perspectives on bow holds and asked her how she holds the bow. She responded that she holds the bow on “the brown” between the frog and the stick, yet she mentioned how bow holds still vary today, even with the universal “standard” bow hold. Hand positions, finger positions — all can vary between individuals and schools of thought. Hence, neither system that I had been exposed to in all my years of violin study is “correct.” I further mentioned to Mrs. Benner how my traditional violin teachers refused to accommodate my longer right-hand nails and kept insisting that such a system was incomprable with proper technique. Chuckling, she deemed the incident another incident of teachers trying to impose their own bow holds/opinions on others out of teaching convenience. She conferred that I was not wrong in insisting that I could compromise and adapt to my longer nails; I was just finding my own bow hold.

So, even though many violinists may project “bow hold” as “standard” nowadays, slight variations do exist within the “standard”. Indeed, even though the variation may not be as drastic as it was in the 17th-18th century, it still exists and continues to be a subject of debate in modern violin pedagogy, as I have witnessed in my own personal study of the instrument. Yet reflecting upon my initial material mentioned at the beginning of this post, I still find it highly interesting about the so-called French bow hold being taught to me in my early stages of violin study. Hmmmm, maybe it has not quite vanished from the modern violin scene, as have the varying bow holds …..

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