Learn how to bow straight on the violin with my six easy tips!
Straight bowing is not as easy as it may sound. And before you try to put your bow onto the strings, it is important to practice how to hold the bow and make the hold feel comfortable.
If you don’t know how to do that or your bow hold feels very uncomfortable, first check out my article “How to Hold a Violin Bow: The 6 Steps to a Perfect Bow Hold.”
In this article, I focus on those aspects of bowing, which will help you produce a beautiful sound.
What is Straight Bowing?
Straight bowing is when the bow moves in a line parallel to the violin bridge, or perpendicular to the fingerboard and strings. Maintaining a straight bow throughout the play is a fundamental part of making a beautiful sound on the violin.
Your upper and lower arms, your wrist, and your fingers, and the rest of your body all have to work together in a complex and highly orchestrated movement.
How Do You Play with a Straight Bow on Violin?
To play with a straight bow, you should have the correct bow hold and adjust the shape of your fingers, wrist, elbow, and shoulder while bowing. Check if your bow is straight in a mirror or ask a friend/teacher. You may also use guides, keep the bow in the middle, relax your hand and focus on how your arm feels when the bow is straight.
Before you Bow
If you hold your arm out in front of you, holding the bow vertically, then move the bow up and down while keeping it vertical, you will notice that your hand and wrist have to adjust continuously to keep the bow aligned. The same adjustments will happen when bowing on the strings.
Practice doing this a few times before placing your bow on the violin.
How Can I Improve My Violin Bowing?
To improve your bowing there are several things you can do. Among the many different violin techniques that make your playing better, playing with a straight bow is just one, but a very important one. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to do all the more complex and difficult techniques.
To help you learn to bow straight, here are a few tips. I would suggest using them on open strings first, with slow and deliberate long bow strokes.
1. Use a Mirror
Stand in front of a mirror while playing, at least for a moment, and check whether your bow is straight, that is it is parallel to the bridge.
If you place your bow on the string in the middle of the bow, your upper arm and lower arm will make a right angle with each other.
Try moving your arm in such a way that the bow stays in the same line all the way. At first it is ok to do this just in the middle third of the bow, and later you can extend it to the whole length, or what is within your reach, depending on your arm length and overall size.
Keep checking back from time to time to see if your bow is still straight.
2. Ask a Friend or Teacher
If you can ask someone to watch you for a little while and help you correct any crooked bow stroke, this is invaluable help, and an opportunity to learn to use a straight bow. Play a long bow stroke on open strings, and learn how this movement feels.
An alternative here is to record yourself while playing and see for yourself whether you have a straight bow.
3. Use Bow Guides
There are some fancy contraptions on the market for this, but you really don’t need much. You can stick some rolled-up sheets of paper or a straw in the top ends of the f-holes, and this will provide a quick and easy guide for your bow.
Keep your eye on the bow and make sure it stays next to the guide without pushing it out of its place or moving too far away from it. As you do this, note the position of your upper arm, and learn to reproduce this by just the feel.
4. Stay in the Middle of the Bow
Keep the contact point, the place where the bow touches the string, halfway between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge. Watching this point is sometimes difficult and makes you feel cross-eyed, but as much as you can hold your gaze gently there.
Just by making sure your bow doesn’t stray from this place, it will automatically become straighter.
FREE Contact Point Guide
Improve Your Contact Points Technique
5. Learn the Feel of the Right Arm When Straight
As you practice the above techniques, feel into your right upper arm, and get a sense of how it is positioned. Then feel the relative positions of the upper and lower arms.
Remember this positioning, and when playing without any aids, try to replicate the movement. Then check again with a mirror or ask a friend to see if your body remembered it well. If it’s not straight, adjust, and notice the difference in feel. This muscle memory is what you will rely on in the long term, so developing it early is the best thing you can do!
6. Keep the Bow Hand Relaxed
As you move the bow, the wrist and hand don’t stay in the same relative position to each other. They adapt and bend so as to keep the bow flowing and straight. Just like with the vertical bow I explained above.
Don’t think about it too much at this point, as that would just make you tense up more, but see if you can relax your body, including the right arm and hand. Intend to move the bow and let your body do it. Same way you walk. You don’t think about how to move each part of your foot and leg, you just do it.
Next, focus on specific parts of your body, especially the right hand. Acknowledge the moments when your muscles are becoming tense.
In the video below you I analyze the thumb counter pressure and show you a quick exercise on how to relax the bow hand:
Why Do Violinists Tilt Their Bow?
Violinists tilt their bow for two reasons:
1. To compensate for the loud sound at the frog
Tilting the bow at the frog is to compensate for the louder sound the bow makes here, as opposed to the tip of the bow. By tilting the bow one reduces the contact surface area between the bow and the string, which reduces the sound.
2. To create a softer sound
Tilting the bow throughout one’s play creates a softer and warmer sound. So when this kind of sound is desired, it is helpful to tilt the bow. Most people nowadays tilt their bow away from the bridge, though some tilt it towards.
And of course, there are occasions when a louder, more articulated sound is needed, and then playing with flat hair may be better. It all comes down to what sort of outcome you want to achieve and the best way to get a feel of this is by trying things out and listening to the result.
As a beginner who is just learning the basics, I would advise you to keep the bow hair flat on the string for now. Play around and explore by all means, but when practicing, keep the bow flat. Once you feel more comfortable using the bow and in general find bowing easier, then you can adopt a more tilted position.
The reason I’m saying this is because it’s good practice to keep things simple as much as possible. That way you can focus on one thing at a time, and really improve it.
The correct straight bowing is very difficult but as you learn to play the violin, you will get better at using the bow. Remember to check yourself from time to time, no matter how advanced you are, play in front of a mirror or ask a friend/teacher to check if your bow is straight. To keep it simple, train your muscle memory on open strings.
I hope this article makes it a bit easier for you to play with a straight bow.
FREE Contact Point Guide
Improve Your Contact Points Technique