Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Tipping Point: A bit about my learning curve with the bow

I never realized how many puns and clichés could be used in a post title about bowing! What will follow is fascinating to me, but will probably not be fascinating to anyone who doesn't draw his or her bow across a set of strings for pleasure or for profit, so I will not be offended if you look elsewhere for something to read.

Twenty-five years ago I began my second life as a string player, and my father gave me some serious advice. I remember when and where he said it: in the west pavilion in Morton Park, in my town of Charleston, Illinois. He told me never to play with flat hair. I didn't understand what he was talking about. He explained that playing with flat hair kills the overtones in the sound. I took him seriously (as I always have), and spent the next twenty-five years playing on the outer edge of the bow's hair, making sure not to kill any overtones.

This past January I was practicing my viola transcription of the Ravel Sonata. I was frustrated at the bumpiness of the phrases. I switched to my lighter bow, and I realized I had been using too much bow pressure and not enough bow speed. For some reason, while I was increasing speed and reducing pressure, I decided to try flattening the hair of my bow as I approached the tip. Suddenly I had control of the whole length of the bow, and the phrases lost their bumpiness. The "when" of the flattening became a tool, and the "where" became a fluid solution to make phrases go where I wanted them to go.

What goes down (as in a down-bow) must come up, so the act of moving toward the outer edge of the hair as I made my way through the middle of the bow was another adventure in possibilities.

I showed this discovery to my students, and they were all completely amazed at the results. I imagine that there are geometric equations concerning the hypotenuse that is created when you move diagonally across the ribbon of bow hair that confirm that the bow becomes effectively longer when you play this way. But the upshot of the story is that the extremes of the bow are now each treasured destinations rather than being the "end of the line."

I told my father about my discovery, and he knew all about it. He asked me whether I used my arm or wrist to make the motion (both work).

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