The Bow, Its History, Manufacture and Use Part 9

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[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 44.]

The evidence of drawings, sculptures, etc., in the earliest days of rebecs and viols, if not reliable in the representation of the bow itself, are still less so when it comes to the question of handling the same. With the smaller viols, the thumb (such an important member) is naturally invisible, and the effect is usually that of a clenched fist. It seems to have been the general rule with all the viols of lower pitch that were held perpendicularly, to hold the bow underhand as described by Sympson in 1759 (Fig. 45). But the third drawing in Fig. 18 is remarkable alike for the modernness both of the bow and the posture of the hand holding it. This is on a par with the early bows with screw-nut and _cambre_ described in the first section of this work. I cannot think it likely that the sculptor saw anyone playing a ba.s.s viol in this manner. Whether this representation was the result of gross ignorance or prophetic inspiration I leave to the reader to decide.

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 45.]

Of course the manner of holding the bow for the smaller viols would have approximated more nearly to that which obtains on the violin at the present day, as the underhand position would have been extremely inconvenient, and even impossible.

The earliest English method for the violin known is that contained in the second book of "An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, in Three Books," published in 1654 by John Playford.

Here the violin is just tolerated in a sort of appendix to the more important subject of the "Treble, Tenor, and Ba.s.s Viols." It consists chiefly of various methods of ensuring accuracy in tuning the fifths, and the question of bowing is summarily treated as follows:--

"The _Bow_ is held in the right Hand, between the ends of the Thumb and the 3 Fingers, the Thumb being stay'd upon the Hair at the Nut, and the 3 Fingers resting upon the Wood. Your _Bow_ being thus fix'd, you are first to draw an _even Stroak_ over each _String_ severally, making each _String_ yield a clear and distinct sound."

Of the Treble Viols very little is said on the subject of bowing, the most complete instructions on that head being given for _the_ viol _par excellence_, the viola da gamba. In treating of this glorious instrument the older writers spared no pains to make their directions as complete as possible. Thus Sympson in his "Division Viol"--first published in 1659--says:--

"Hold the Bow betwixt the ends of your Thumb and two foremost fingers, near to the Nut. The Thumb and first finger fastened on the Stalk; and the second finger's end turned _in_ shorter, against the Hairs thereof; by which you may poize and keep up the point of the Bow. If the second finger have not strength enough, you may joyn the third finger in a.s.sistance to it; but in Playing Swift Division, two fingers and the Thumb is best.... When you see an even Number of Quavers or Semiquavers, as 2, 4, 6, 8, you must begin with your Bow forward; yea, though the Bow were imployed forward in the next Note before them. But if the number be odd, as 3, 5, 7 (which always happens by reason of some p.r.i.c.k-Note or odd Rest) the first of that odd number must be played with the Bow backward. This is the most proper motion of the Bow, though not absolutely without some exception; for sometimes the quickness of the Notes may force the contrary. Also quick Notes skipping from the Treble to the Ba.s.s, and so persued, are best express'd with contrary Bows."

All of which is very clear and logical. The way he balances up the relative claims of a stiff or loose elbow is, however, distinctly amusing, as witness the following:

"----you must stretch out your Arm streight, in which posture (playing long Notes) you will necessarily move your shoulder Joint; but if you stir that Joint in Quick Notes, it will cause the whole body to shake; which (by all means) must be avoyded; as also any other indecent Gesture. Quick Notes, therefore, must be expressed by moving some Joint near the Hand;[1] which is generally agreed upon to be the Wrist. The question then arising is about the menage of the Elbow Joint; concerning which there are two different opinions. Some will have it kept stiff; insomuch, that I have heard a judicious violist positively affirm, that if a Scholar can but attain to the playing of Quavers with his Wrist, keeping his Arm streight and stiff in the Elbow-Joint, he hath got the mastery of the Bow-Hand. Others contend that the motion of the Wrist must be strengthened and a.s.sisted by a compliance or yielding of the Elbow-Joint unto it; and they, to back their Argument, produce for instance a person famous for the excellency of his Bow-Hand using a free and loose Arm. To deliver my own opinion: I do much approve the streightness of the Arm, especially in Beginners, because it is a means to keep the Body upright, which is a commendable posture. I can also admit the stiffness of the Elbow, in smooth and Swift Division; for which it is most properly apt; but Cross and Skipping Divisions cannot (I think) be so well express'd without some consent or yielding of the Elbow-Joint unto the motion of the Wrist.... This motion or looseness of the Wrist I mention, is chiefly in _Demi-semiquavers_; for, in _Quavers_, and _Semiquavers_ too, we must allow so much stiffness to the wrist as may command the Bow _on_ and _off_ the String, at every Note, if occasion so require."

[Footnote 1: "_Some_ joint" is very good; it gives such liberty in the way of choice.]

This must have been rather a crude form of _spiccato_. It is, however, plainly evident that with heavy bows, dest.i.tute of elasticity, and held underhand, it was quite impossible to allow the bow to rebound naturally from the string for this effect.

Mace, whose book, "Musick's Monument," is one of the most amusing works extant, in speaking of the bowing of the viol, _i.e._, viola da gamba, or, as he calls it, "the generous viol," quotes Sympson's direction for holding the bow and then adds:--

"Yet I must confess, that for _my own Part_, I could never _Use it so well_ as when I held it 2 or 3 _Inches off the Nut_ (more or less) according to the _Length or Weight of the Bow_, for _Good Poyzing of It_: But 'tis possible, that by _Vse_ I might have made It _as Familiar to_ Myself, as It was to _Him_."

He, also, was greatly exercised in his mind as to the stiffness or the reverse of the elbow, and delivered himself thuswise thereon:--

"So likewise, for the _Exact Straitness of the Bow-Arm_, which some do _Contend for_, I could _never do so well_, as with my _Arm_ (_straight enough, yet_) _something Plying, or Yielding to an Agile Bending_: and which I do conceive most _Familiarly Natural_. (For I would have no _Posture, Vrged, Disputed_, or _Contended for_; that should _Cross_, or _Force Nature_.")

There is much to commend in the spirit of this last sentence. The hand and arm should never be made to do anything that is unnatural.

But herein must be exercised the greatest possible judgment that the unfamiliar be not mistaken for the unnatural.

Returning to the position of the thumb in violin playing we find nearly every teacher insisting on a different posture. In the "Methode de Violon," by Baillot, Rode and Kreutzer, it is set down as being correct to have the thumb opposite the middle finger. David, in his "Violin School," says that the thumb should be opposite the _first_ finger. This is to my mind most extraordinary, and I can hardly conceive it possible that so great a violinist and teacher could have maintained such an unscientific method to be correct. The loss of leverage resulting from the thumb being so far forward would be almost certain to cause the elbow to rise and give, by the dead weight of the arm, the pressure that should come from the sentient elasticity of the first and second fingers. De Beriot says the thumb should be between the second and third fingers, which is naturally the best position. Papini, with greater perception of the fact of anatomical difference in hands, says the thumb should be as near the centre of the four fingers as possible.

In all questions of technique it is possible to determine the exact best mode of procedure. But unless the hand be perfectly fitted thereto, the rule should be relaxed, for insisting on positions that are even slightly strained (though possibly, quite comfortable to a differently constructed hand) can only do harm.



The functions of the right hand fingers are twofold. At times they act in conjunction with each other and at others, in opposition. Some writers say that the two outer fingers are the holding fingers, and others contend that the two inner fingers are alone concerned in this service. This difference of opinion is to me just as absurd as the arguments anent the wrist and elbow of the old violists. As a matter of fact both theories are right. The difference being that, in the question of holding, the action of the outer fingers is pa.s.sive while that of the inner fingers is active. To go more into detail, in soft pa.s.sages the bow simply rests supported by the three points of contact with the thumb, first and fourth fingers. The inner fingers then taking little or no part in the matter. This action of the outer fingers I say is pa.s.sive as the bow is not actually _held_ but simply rests on the thumb, the two outer fingers merely preventing it from falling to one side or the other. Occasionally these two fingers will act in concert or opposition, according to the requirements of expression and phrasing. When playing loudly it becomes necessary that a more decided purchase of the bow be maintained, especially in rapid _forte_ pa.s.sages. Then the inner fingers come into play and hold the bow firmly against the thumb. The two outer fingers then are solely concerned with regulating the pressure and preserving the elasticity of the stroke, which is lost in a firm grip only.

These slight differences of action in my opinion can not be _practised_. They are the outcome of years of grind. They come, and when they are firmly established we can a.n.a.lyse them. To gain the mastery of the bow one must begin at the bottom and be content to work gradually up to the topmost rung (or thereabouts!) of the ladder. I often meet with amateur violinists who try to begin at the top. The consequences of this proceeding are distinctly more certain, for when starting at the bottom it is not always a.s.sured that much upward progress will be made, whereas, by the opposite method the descent will be certain and considerable!

Nothing is more hopeless than the attempts some amateur violinists make to acquire certain styles of bowing simply by mentally mastering the various actions by which it is produced.

_Sautille_, one of the easiest forms of bowing, suffers most from this sort of thing. It is no uncommon thing to see an amateur diligently practising the action of lifting the bow off the string and putting it on again after each note, thinking that if he keeps on long enough--say ten minutes a day for a fortnight--that he will acquire a perfect mastery of this much desired effect. To practice _Sautille_ in this manner is the way _not_ to gain it. It is the outcome of the perfect action of the entire arm. When that is attained you will have the _Sautille_. Then, and then only, will a little specialized practice help to perfect the movement. Some pupils I have had who possessed the _Sautille_ by nature and never understood the difficulty experienced by others who had to wait for it. The best way to acquire this as the result of a perfect bow arm is to practise the following:

[Ill.u.s.tration: Musical notes, etc.]

Try it first on the D string. Use whole bows, freely and firmly, for the semibreves, slightly less for the minims, the middle third for the crotchets, and an inch or two for the quavers, reducing it still further as the pace increases. The pupil must abandon all thought of _making_ the bow jump, also he must avoid pressing it on the string.

The whole action must be free and bold and the tempo for this exercise should be not slower than M.M. crotchet = 100. At first it will be found impossible to get as far as the semiquavers without some confusion. At the first sign of irregularity the pupil should stop, pause a moment, and then recommence with the semibreves. It should be seen that the bow is not gripped too tightly through over-anxiety or excitement. It will need patience on the part of teacher and pupil alike, but both will be gratified when suddenly the bow is seen to jump naturally and the _Sautille_ is won.

There is one phrase in connexion with bowing that irritates me greatly, and that is a "loose wrist." As a technicality it is of course all right, but the insisting on the literal application of the term has been a stumbling block to many violinists. Ladies have come to me saying, "Do you think my wrist loose enough for me to play the violin?" Accompanying the query with a violent flapping of the hand that would almost make one think they were desirous of emulating the lobster's ability to cast away a claw at will. Upon making such persons hold a pencil or penholder (I dared not let them handle a bow!) it was found that the wrist became stiff and unyielding. The wrist that was loose when all the muscles were flaccid became rigid when a few were exerted sufficiently to hold a light object.

Thus it will be seen that the apparent looseness of a violinist's wrist is not really such, but is the dominating of one set of muscles by another. Many teachers say that one should have the thumb tight and the wrist loose. A manifest absurdity when one considers that a most important thumb muscle extends right across the wrist. It should therefore be well understood that what is implied by the technical expression "loose," is, in reality, "control." If it were really looseness, it would present no difficulty to any one not afflicted with an ossification. It is to gain this extreme independence of each set of muscles that long years are taken up in monotonous exercises.

The arm of a violinist has to be trained in a manner directly opposite to that of an athlete. In the latter we find an exemplification of the saying, "Unity is Strength." All the muscles act in perfect accord to the same end. With the violinist, on the other hand, there is a constant opposition of forces; the larger muscles are kept down and many smaller muscles are developed that have lost all use in the arm of an athlete.

Concerning the fingers of the right hand I advocate holding them close together--not cramped, but just lightly touching. Some players recommend the parting of the first finger from the others as giving greater leverage over the bow. It certainly has that effect, but I advise it to be used very sparingly and in fortissimo pa.s.sages only.

It is a license one may admit in an artist, but to my pupils who are in the earlier stages I entirely forbid it. I should only permit it in the case of a thumb so short as not to reach far enough into the centre of the hand to give the right amount of control. If a pupil is taught from the first to use this extreme leverage he is likely to develop a rough tone. When he has attained the mastery of the bow he can use his own judgment as to the occasional employment of this reserve force. These remarks I apply also to violoncello bowing.

Unless the pupil's hand be weak the first finger should be held back until the whole art of bowing is mastered. All these observations are addressed to soloists: in orchestral work such retention of force is unnecessary. I notice that where players use up all the available leverage of the hand from the outset, they are compelled to employ the weight of the arm to reinforce it for special effects. Another reason--and an important one--for keeping the fingers together, is that of appearance. Nothing is more unsightly than to see the fingers of the right hand spread out claw fashion, and I quite concur with Sympson that no posture or movement should offend the eye.



Returning for a moment to the anxiety of the average fiddler to acquire a good _Sautille_, it seems to me absurd that such importance should be attached to it when, in reality, the test of a violinist's ability lies in his command of "slow bows." Too much attention cannot be paid to the study of sustained bowing which can be practised in a variety of ways. Firstly, long drawn semibreves--at one of the Continental Conservatoires they make the violin students play scales of two octaves, taking one bow to each note, the same to last _two minutes_, thus the whole scale, ascending and descending, occupies one hour! The command obtained by this sort of work is enormous. To vary the monotony of semibreves the student can then play scales in semiquavers, making one bow last out ten, twelve, or more scales in two octaves. Another useful variety of the same thing is to practise some succession of notes in which the bow requires to continually pa.s.s from one string to the next, such as:

[Ill.u.s.tration: Musical notes, _D.C. ad infinitum_.]

These should be played as many times as possible in one bow. Here the command of the bow on the string is not only greatly increased, but the wrist is well exercised at the same time.

The same thing should be carried out on the third and fourth strings thus:

[Ill.u.s.tration: Musical notes.]

It is a good thing to make the pupil (if endowed with sufficient intelligence) work out a series of such mechanical exercises, he will this way take a much greater interest in the work, a point to which I attach great importance, for I consider physical exercises, however conscientiously carried out, do little good if the mind is fatigued or absent.

Of scarcely less importance is the study of rapid whole bows. The pupil should be made to draw the bow from end to end as rapidly as he can without _losing control of the bow_, and it must be seen that the pressure does not vary in any way. The bow should be set on firmly at the heel, held there for, say, a crotchet, then drawn, without any swelling of the tone in the centre of the bow, smartly to the point where it must stop suddenly without any change of pressure. This is not found an easy thing to accomplish, but "perseverance overcometh all difficulties." The teacher must not be satisfied until the pupil can draw a rapid up or down stroke stopping so suddenly and firmly as to make the note sound as though cut off. In practising this, the bow should remain firmly on the string between each stroke; whether the bow travels or is stationary the pressure must be unchanged.

Staccato bowing is a much misunderstood branch of technics; I do not mean the detached staccato, but that form in which a series of notes is played in one bow yet have a detached effect on the ear. It is a pity that one word should have to stand for two totally different forms of bowing. I have heard and read many varying descriptions of the "bowed-staccato" and its method of production. Of course it is highly probable that some players attain it differently to others, but as I see no anatomical reason for such differences of action it seems a waste of energy to mechanically produce what already exists in nature. I have no doubt a great deal of this gratuitous variegation of staccato technique comes from teachers not fully understanding their own movements, or perceiving a portion of the action required and laying all stress on that one feature alone. But unless one goes to the prime source of the matter a perfect staccato cannot be attained.

This most important factor, as I should have thought everyone of common sense would at once perceive, is nothing less than the wrist.

Yet I have known some teachers who confine their attention to the action of the fingers, letting the wrist follow as best it can. It is from such teachers, usually, that we receive the preposterous statement that the upper half of the bow only should be used for this bowing; some, even, limiting it still further to the up-bow. Now if the wrist be first well exercised the co-operation of the fingers will come naturally, and a perfect staccato from end to end in either up or down stroke will be attained.

It should be practised slowly and firmly at first on one note thus:

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The Bow, Its History, Manufacture and Use Part 9 summary

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