Fiddler Magazine has a new feature for providing short online fiddle lessons covering both tunes and techniques from a varied group of genres. They’ve asked me to provide some Cape Breton lessons. Visit Fiddler Magazine to check them out. In one, I cover the tune ‘Green Grow the Rashes O’ and in the other, I devote time to covering the bowing technique of the ‘cut’ common in Cape Breton music. There are a few other lessons already available, and many more planned to come. If you’re not familiar with Fiddler Magazine, it’s a great resource that covers a wide range of topics about many fiddle traditions.
The bow is such an awkward thing to hold. Developing a good bow hold and bowing efficiently are some of the most difficult skills to acquire. Here are of five tips to help you bow more efficiently and bring your tunes up to speed. They take some time to integrate, but are well worth the work.
1. Bend your thumb.
This is key to unlocking your wrist. The tendency of most beginners is to lock their thumb straight. This also tends to lock up your wrist and cause you to use more arm then necessary. I had to make this switch about three years after I started playing. I remember my hand feeling cramped from time to time while I adjusted to the new grip, but it began to feel much more comfortable and free after some work.
2. Think of resting your fingers on top of the bow rather than holding the bow.
You want your fingers to add weight and ‘lean’ into the strings rather then hold the bow tight. This will help improve the quality of tone that you produce out of the strings. When you do try and adjust your grip, rest the bow on the strings first so that you can relax your hand.
3. Unbend your elbow.
The shoulder and top part of the arm are very minimally involved in the bowing process. For efficient fiddling, most of the work is done with the wrist, fingers, thumb and forearm. When you draw the bow in a down stroke, make sure you unbend the elbow so that top part of the arm does not engage to draw the bow back and then push it up again. This also ensures that the bow draws parallel to the bridge. If the elbow is bent, the bow will draw more in a ‘U’ shape and most likely cut across the fingerboard.
4. Don’t tighten the bow too much.
If the bow is too taut (i.e. your stick is straight) it will be very bouncy and you will find difficult to control. You always want the stick to maintain a bend. In order to get the hair taught enough to play, if you have to tighten the bow so much that the stick is straight, it might be time to look at getting a new bow. There are plenty of cheap bows out there that actually work decently enough.
5. Don’t use too much rosin.
It takes a bit of time to get used to how much rosin you like to play with. Every player is different and the strings you use also play a role. You only need enough rosin to grip the strings. If you are getting a scratchy sound and are only applying a little pressure, you might have applied to much rosin. Conversely, if you are applying a lot of pressure and you have slippery spots on the hair, you need to apply more rosin. I don’t apply rosin every time I play, but some players do, so it is a personal thing. It’s just important to understand how it feels as you pull the bow across the string. Keep in mind that rosin does build up on the strings.
Practicing these techniques should be done in isolation of other practicing. When you try and incorporate these bowing techniques while also trying to incorporate fingering, it can be overwhelming and frustrating. I suggest trying these changes over open strings with some long bows first to see how they feel. Then maybe try some scales and other simple exercises.
Good bowing is difficult, and can definitely feel awkward at first. But it does get easier. The more you play and become familiar with the instrument, the less awkward it is going to feel.
In week two of the beginning lessons, I provide an in depth look at the bow hold if you’re interested.