In Playing Faster – Part 1, I listed and touched on six considerations necessary for playing tunes up to tempo. While not an exhaustive list, these six aspects get mentioned frequently and are the ones I will be concentrating on for now.
Number one on my list to work on is using my wrist to move the bow in short bow strokes. I can’t play fast with long bow strokes and it is much more economical and efficient to move the bow from the wrist than the arm. And, too much arm tends to produce longer bow strokes. So, it is important to have a loose wrist, especially for fiddling tunes. And, with practice, any fiddler who is willing can have a loose bowing wrist motion.
I found some good advice in an old, archived post in Fiddle Hangout from 2008.
How NOT to have a loose wrist: Hang your arm down by your side, then, by bending your elbow, hold your open flat right hand out in front of you, palm facing the floor and fingers outstretched. Now, moving the hand only from the wrist, wave your hand horizontally left and right, back and forth. Keep your arm still. See what that feels like and see how the motion is not relaxed and smooth.
How to have a loose wrist: Hold your flat hand out exactly as explained above, palm facing the floor. NOW, twist your hand counterclockwise so that your palm faces an imaginary wall to your right. The thumb will be closest to the ground and the pinkie will be closest to the sky. Your elbow will naturally move out some to the right. Now, moving only from the wrist, wave your hand left and right, back and forth. The movement will be much more relaxed and the movement much more free.
The wrist should always pull and never push the bow. The wrist leads the hand going up as well as down. With the palm facing the right wall, this move your wrist from the elbow to the left with the hand dragging behind it…wrist first and hand follows. Then change direction so the wrist moves to the right and the hand lags behind as if reluctant to move. Practice left and right…back and forth. The wrist and arm are briefly moving in opposite directions.
Read these last three paragraphs through again and again, because this is not so easy to do until you understand and practice it over and over.
In this video watch Rayna Gellert’s wrist very carefully and you will see the loose wrist, with the wrist always leading the hand.
And, here is Bruce Molsky and the Atlanta Oldtime Jammers playing Rock the Cradle Joe. You can see this same loose wrist movement in Bruce’s wrist.
Now, let me throw a little bit more into the mix! As I am practicing this loose wrist technique and watching these videos, I am clearly noticing another movement, independent of the wrist, which involves movement in the fingers. So, I began looking for information about loose fingers as well. I found an article by Elan Chalford who explains the secret of the fiddler’s loose wrist is…the fingers! When you gain flexibility in your fingers holding the bow, the wrist must also become flexible. (Hmmm…so what came first, the chicken or the egg?)
In his article, How to Have the Fiddler’s Loose Wrist, Elan writes about an exercise taught by Carl Flesch. In addition to the illustrations in his article, here is a video to help visualize this exercise.
Not easy stuff, but a loose wrist and flexible fingers are one of the keys for not only playing correctly, but being able to play up to tempo. Keep in mind, what I have written here is not the ultimate word on having a loose wrist and flexible fingers, (you can find more information by searching) only an attempt to synthesize what I have been learning, and as always, writing about it so it makes more sense to me.
As always, I welcome your feedback as well!