Back to Bowing Basics

In a few days, I will be celebrating my one year anniversary as a fiddler, or should I more accurately say, a fiddle student. January has been a quiet month, blog-wise, with this being only my third post, probably because I have really stopped and focused my attention on one thing, my bowing.

While my bowing has definitely improved over this first year, there is room for much more improvement, and I think a lot of my enthusiasm to learn new songs has distracted me from improving beyond the rudiments of this skill. Let’s face it; it is much more fun to learn new songs than it is to work on basic skills which require concentrated practice and constant repetition. However, after a while, learning new songs is not satisfying if the same bowing mistakes keep cropping up and are repeated.

Sometimes I feel I pay lip service to technique. I do it, but I don’t embed it. I practice it, but not enough. I start off a song or tune using good technique, but soon, even if I know the piece by heart, I slide back making basic mistakes. I find my bow grip unconsciously changes; I start bowing from the shoulder; I lower my elbow too much; my wrist locks up; I concentrate too much on the next phrase rather than how I am playing it. The list goes on.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not beating myself up, although, like many of us, I can easily fall into this at times. I know what I am experiencing is pretty normal for a beginner, and perhaps more common for a beginner who doesn’t have a regular teacher to keep bringing them back to basics. Without this constant prompting, I think I often make the mistake of putting the horse before the cart, or what I call playing before practicing. So, as a former teacher, I put on my teaching hat and thought about what I would do with a student who is experiencing what I am at this point in my studies, and as a result, my concentration has turned to specific technique improvement rather than tune production.

This begins with my bow grip. I have watched countless videos explaining and demonstrating the bow grip. To me it seems very unnatural, and apparently this is the case for my body as well, because before long I wind up turning to a grip that feels more comfortable. I have experimented with many variations and positions. However, the standard bow grip, with little variation, is tried and true and taught for a reason. While it may not be the most comfortable, it produces the best sound. So, who am I to argue that! If I were a baseball player trying to learn how to hit to the opposite field, I wouldn’t tell my instructor I want to do it my way because it feels more comfortable, while not producing the desired result. I would adjust until it became comfortable and the desired result was achieved. And, a smart and competent instructor would be able to explain it in such a way that made sense to me.

I recently came across one such instructor. His name is James Burke, a fiddler from New Hampshire who once taught on the now defunct Fiddlehub.com site. I happened upon a video of his with a detailed explanation of how to form the grip for the fiddle bow – how to grip the bow for maximum control and tone. To date, his is the best explanation, demonstration and reasoning for using this grip that I have watched. And, I started watching it every day at the beginning of my practice.

Unlike the other videos I have watched, Jim’s video explains the bow grip very well, in a way that makes sense to me. For some reason, when I follow his video step-by-step, the standard bow grip feels comfortable to me. And, watching it every day at the beginning of my practice, and taking the time to place my fingers on my bow in this methodical way is helping me keep my grip constant for a longer period of time. It may sound a bit crazy, but if I find my bow grip devolving, I stop and watch the video again, slowly positioning my fingers as I watch. Eventually, I will not need to watch this video as much, and eventually I will not need to place my fingers one by one to create my grip, but until then, I will follow this pattern. Yup, not as much fun as belting out a song, but a necessary step that will be repeated over and over again until I can do it naturally.

With a good bow grip, I can move onto placing it on the strings, and here again, Jim provides a video about bowing on the sweet spot – where the fiddle bow should be touching the strings and how to keep it there. Even though I know this, I have started watching this often, too, as a review and constant reminder

Jim provides additional videos with information and exercises to help develop a bow stroke that will help keep the bow in the sweet spot.

In this video, I especially like the second exercise where he moves his arm up and down the the center of his body while concentrating on his wrist movement. It reminds me of the paint brush method I wrote about in Wax On, Wax Off.

I have been spending a lot of practice time playing open strings, twenty long bow strokes on each string as I watch in my practice mirror concentrating on bowing in straight strokes. In order to do this properly, I have to make sure I am bending my wrist properly (see Wax On, Wax Off). If I begin to stray, I start all over again. Believe me, having to start again certainly makes me focus my attention. What is it weight lifters say? No Pain, no gain!

So, just so you didn’t think I have run away or dropped off the side of the earth, I decided to write this update on what I have been working on lately. Once again, it ain’t pretty, and may not generate a lot of fodder for blog posts, but it what I am working on lately.

I hope your fiddling is going well, and I welcome your feedback and insights.

  12 comments for “Back to Bowing Basics

  1. January 29, 2020 at 10:27 am

    I’m a few days behind it seems, but I also want to thank you for sharing these videos. I’ve also noticed lately that I’ve been going back to focusing on things such as elbow placement, slow and clean string crossings and other technical basic things. Bow grip is also something I need to revisit.

    It’s no fun to play new music if it’s just going to have bad sound!

    • MoonShadows
      January 29, 2020 at 12:11 pm

      @Aywren Sojourner

      It’s no fun to play new music if it’s just going to have bad sound!

      You have that right! Funny how we are both at the one year mark, and we’re revisiting these areas.

  2. Rick M
    January 28, 2020 at 12:18 am

    Great videos, thanks for posting them.There were a couple of mentions of scales. When I get feeling like I can practice for improvement I go back to some early lesson material that my teacher gave me. It’s just simple scales where you skips notes up and down the scales, make patterns and work through the various scales. There are a few arpeggios that again just make you do patterns in various keys. As you folks have said, it seems to kind of bring back a focus on technique and hitting the right notes. My audience (my wife) always comments that she heard the scales and that the songs after were always much smoother. In fact when I was taking lessons, my teacher would call me out, “didn’t play scales this week did ya?!” 😉 

    • MoonShadows
      January 28, 2020 at 5:44 am

      @rick-m

      Glad you liked the videos and got something from them. I agree! Scales seem to be “grounding” when things are not going well.

  3. localJoe
    January 27, 2020 at 3:55 pm

    Wow, those Jim Burke videos are great. Thanks for posting them.

    He also had a blog which is still online. There are only a few posts from 2007.
    http://fiddle-blog.blogspot.com/

    • MoonShadows
      January 27, 2020 at 5:25 pm

      @localJoe

      Yeah. I thought they were good, too.  I did check out his blog this morning. Looks like it was short lived.

  4. Sandy Songer
    January 27, 2020 at 10:06 am

    Thank you for these video lessons. Very good information and instruction.

    • MoonShadows
      January 27, 2020 at 10:27 am

      @Sandy Songer

      My pleasure Sandy. Hope it is helpful. I like the Jim Burke videos. I just wish he had made more.

  5. January 27, 2020 at 7:55 am

    I had hoped to get my bowing under good control by now, just four months in with my fiddling experience. No chance. Every evening I find myself straying up onto the fingerboard, or leaving the last string ringing out from the nut, or sounding a half-hearted double-stop instead of a clear single tone. It’s going to take a long time, I guess; and I don’t have a teacher to clip me on the wrist when I start to lose it.

    Keep up the good work Jim, I’m right behind you!

    Blessings,

    Peter

    • January 27, 2020 at 8:34 am

      I think it is very common amongst beginners. I want to concentrate on it as I am doing now, so I can minimize the time it takes to sound better. It is a big source of frustration, but I also have to say it is a great source of satisfaction when I see myself making steps forward.

      • January 27, 2020 at 10:07 am

        Yes, those forward steps are important. I ought to video myself practising; that way I can see my progress and look for things I can’t watch while I’m looking at the sheet music or my left hand, both are which in line-of sight when I play, unlike my bowing hand. It’s also a consequence of being a guitarist: I never watched what I did with my right hand, I could always hear and feel where I was on the strings, especially since I fingerstyled everything. The bow uncouples you from the action a little, I find I often drift into the bridge or out over the fingerboard, and I guess only time and experience will get my ear in on it and I can hear the balance of overtones which tell me I’m in the good place. I do open-string bowing practice when I can remember to do so, and that’s when I see it all clearly, but as soon as I get back to scales and tunes, the watchful eye is at the other end of the ebony.

        • MoonShadows
          January 27, 2020 at 10:34 am

          @P. A. Morris

          “I find I often drift into the bridge or out over the fingerboard.”

          I can certainly relate to this, Peter. It is so much easier when practicing on open strings, but songs are another thing. I find if I don’t watch my left fingers and keep my eye on the bowing area of the strings or close my eyes, my bowing gets better, but then my intonation suffers. So many things to put together at once! My ear is getting better at getting my bow back on track when I hear a squeak, whistle or bad string crossing, but that still has a long way to go. I am seeing some improvement (baby steps) using the information in the Jim Burke videos and what I spoke about in my previous post “Wax On, Wax Off.”

          Just have to keep at it.

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