Old Time Bow Holds

In Playing Faster – Part 2, I wrote about the importance of having a loose and flexible bowing wrist as a key to playing Old Time tunes up to tempo. Today, I am writing about how the bow hold will help facilitate a loose and flexible wrist.

Watching many OT fiddlers both in person and in videos, one of the striking characteristics is that most do not hold the bow in a traditional manner. While violin beginners are most commonly taught and learn one of the classical bow holds, these holds can become a hindrance to playing OT tunes where a loose wrist and economy of bow movement is essential. Holding the bow further up and away from the frog, not so much griping with the fingertips, allows for more wrist action and economy of movement.

A look into the history of the violin bow reveals that the bow has changed shape and length over time. For instance, bows during the Baroque period were much shorter. Longer bows were created make it easier to play longer notes like in singing. Violinists in the 19th century generally played with their elbows and wrists prominently bent. Today, a classically trained violinist employs a more raised elbow, griping it more with the fingertips, which results in a flatter wrist. However, a modern classical bow hold stifles a loose, flexible wrist which often drives the economical and fast bow strokes necessary when playing OT tunes.

Let’s take a look at two videos I previously posted, but let’s look at them from different aspect. In this first video, watch how Bruce Molsky has slightly moved his grip up ahead of the frog and holds his elbow down and bent close to his side, holding the bow more with the flat parts of his fingers, allowing much more movement in his wrist.

And in this video, take a look at how far up the bow Rayna Gellert’s hold is, and like Bruce, how she keeps her elbow bent down and tucked closer to her side. She probably has one of the loosest bowing wrists I have ever seen.

Here is a new video I just came across. In this video Craig Judelman breaks down a variety of different bow holds for playing OT music and discusses their various merits.

Notice in his video the variety of bow holds that can be used in playing OT music. No one is right; no one is wrong. Holds may vary depending on the type of song being played. What is important is developing and modifying the bow hold that is most comfortable and allows the fiddler to produce that OT sound.

Two excellent articles addressing OT bow grip, the mechanics and the mentality, along with the unorthodox styles of OT fiddlers, are written by Stergios Luustas. Stergios grew up playing classical music but decided to change direction. He was introduced to old-time fiddling by Lucas Paisley, a fiddler from North Carolina, whose mentality and musicianship led Stergios to delve into the archaic and ritual beauty of old-time fiddling.

I am still very much experimenting with my bow hold and will continue to do so for a long while. The OT speed, flexibility and sound do not come overnight, but are a life long exploration.

  2 comments for “Old Time Bow Holds

  1. September 16, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    These are some neat observations! I’m currently in a spot where I’m having bow squeaking issues when I try to play a specific tune up to speed. I’ve tried a number of different approaches, and wondered if it might be a bow hold issue. I’ll experiment a bit and see if anything here helps out.

    • September 18, 2019 at 4:50 am

      I find when I try to play certain tunes up to speed, I have a tendency to let my bow slip back towards the bridge. EEKS! An awful sound!

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