Wax On, Wax Off

Attaining flexible and loose bow fingers and wrist

It’s been over 35 years since the movie, The Karate Kid, was released. In the movie, Mr. Miyagi teaches young Daniel the art of Karate. When his training begins, Daniel doesn’t understand what he is being shown. Mr. Miyagi seems more interested in having Daniel paint fences, sand floors and wax cars than teaching him Karate. However, the painting, sanding and waxing techniques are secretly teaching his muscles Karate moves, and when the karate lessons actually begin, Daniel finds it relatively easy to learn this art.

I found out this past week that learning the art of fiddling can be similar. Not all techniques are best explained or learned with the fiddle and bow in hand. Take developing supple, loose and flexible bow fingers and wrist for instance. (I also wrote about this subject in a previous post, Playing Faster – Part 2.)

Now, before I move on, I know there are some top rate fiddlers that bow with relatively stiff wrists and fingers. They still produce some wonderful sounds, but I believe bowing in this manner takes a lot more effort and work to produce these wonderful sounds, and from what I have observed, these fiddlers are in the minority. If you really watch closely, most good fiddlers have a certain grace and smoothness in their bowing hands and wrists, and seem to play effortlessly. I have posted this video before, but just watch Rayna Gellert’s wrist and fingers in this short clip.

Up until this past week, I have always found it very difficult to even begin producing what I see in these good fiddlers when it comes to looseness and flexibility in this area. My bowing tended to look and sound like I wearing a cast on my hand and wrist, and if I did try to mimic their movements, it looked and felt anything but loose and smooth, sort of like dancing with two left feet! So, as a beginner who has limited access to a teacher, I decided to go on a mission to learn how to develop this skillful technique.

One of the first things that struck me was something I read saying I need to be pulling the bow, not just on a downbow but on the upbow as well. Now, this seemed strange to me. How do I pull the bow on the upbow when I am pushing it back up? Try as I might, I couldn’t do that with my bow until I read a comment by someone who wrote imagine using a brush painting your house. Depending on which direction you are painting, you pull the brush down or to the side, but you don’t push the brush up or to the other side. You bend your wrist and pull the brush in the other direction. Immediately I saw the connection!

I began motioning in the air, like I was painting a wall, first vertically, then horizontally. I noticed that just before my brush stopped, my wrist began to change direction and my fingers bent slightly and flexed to support my imaginary brush. I actually went down to my basement to get one of my paint brushes. Once back at my practice area, I repeated these motions with the actual brush for a while, noting the movement of my wrist and fingers. Anxious to try and apply this new knowledge, I picked up my bow and fiddle and imagined myself painting with my bow rather than just moving it back and forth. It felt so much smoother and easier.

This small discovery was definitely an “a ha” moment for me, and the beginning of something new. I began to feel that after many weeks and months of not being able to put looseness and flexibility into my bowing, I had finely put a crack in this nut that I found so hard to break into.

I have found myself the past few days actually doing a good amount of imaginary painting, just reaching out into the air and painting an imaginary wall. I call it my wax on, wax off exercise. I also have thought of another exercise as well. Taking a large sheet of paper and a pencil, I place the paper on a desk or table and very slowly draw lines back and forth paying close attention to how my wrist begins to bend just before a stroke ends in order to lead the pencil in a pulling motion in the other direction. It is subtle, but it is there.

Applying this to my fiddle, I find it is easiest to practice this on an open string. Once I feel comfortable, I move to another string. Next, I move to a scale. Only after I feel comfortable with a scale do I try it with a simple tune. Once I find I’m slipping away, I return to Square One, open strings and start the process again. Why? Like any new technique, in order to learn it so it becomes second nature, it is going to take a lot of practice, and it is best to start off this practice as simply as possible without trying to balance a lot of other factors my brain at the same time. I work to my overload point, and then start again. Each time my goal is to just get a little further

I have also discovered that in order to have a more fluid motion, I have needed to adjust my bow grip as well. The human wrist does not bend easily side to side, but more easily up and down. So, I have adjusted by focusing my grip more between the thumb and the index finger and rolling my wrist slightly (like the angle when I look at my watch) so it angles a bit more towards the front of my bow rather than having it parallel to my bow. It makes my wrist flexure more normal so my wrist can lead or pull the bow on the upstroke.

In his book, Playing the Hoedown Fiddle in America, North Carolina fiddler, Bill Cunningham wrote: You should never think that you are pushing the bow. Instead, think of the upbow and downbow being accomplished with a “pulling” action. So, when your wrist rotates on the upbow and the angle of the bow/bowhair changes, your wrist/hand is moving into a position where it can “pull” the bow.

This pulling motion, the wrist leading the movement of the bow, is common in the majority of great fiddlers, but it is not always so obvious as it is in the three clips I have posted above. It is not always so easy to spot, but it is there. If it were to be recorded and played back in slow motion, the wrist actually stops before the movement of the bow. It then begins to move in the other direction pulling the bow in the other direction a split second later. The wrist is always out ahead of the hand, regardless of direction. The wrist leads the hand going up as well as down. It doesn’t have to be obvious to the eye, but the ear knows! And, it is this fluid wrist action that helps produce the smooth sound and is the basis for developing other bowing techniques that produce that wonderful fiddling sound we all want.

Finally, here is a video I watch quite often and have posted previously. It is Bruce Molsky playing Rock the Cradle Joe. I think Bruce is the quintessential when it comes to a fluid motion when playing the fiddle.

That’s it for now! Remember, wax on, wax off!

  5 comments for “Wax On, Wax Off

  1. MoonShadows
    January 18, 2020 at 10:47 am

    Just watched this video of young Ridge Roberts. Watch this kid’s loose wrist.

  2. local Joe
    January 6, 2020 at 6:44 pm

    The analogy with the paintbrush was very helpful. Thank you.

  3. old cowboy
    January 6, 2020 at 12:33 pm

    thanks so much for this lesson! I got so much from it! So much of a good sound is in the bowing! I plan on reviewing this lesson a lot!

    • MoonShadows
      January 6, 2020 at 12:38 pm

      @old-cowboy

      You are most welcome! I got a lot out of it, too. It took me quite a bit of time to write it. I needed to get it right in my head. Grab your paint brush and start painting!

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