The Dutch violinist and violist considers the many processes involved in keeping your bow hold tension-free

Isabelle van Keulen

Isabelle van Keulen

Photo: Maike Helbig

1. Think of fingers as individuals, not a crowd

A bow hold isn’t just a case of ‘thumb on the bottom, and the rest of the hand on top’: each finger has its own function, just as it would if you were holding a ball. So you have your thumb to support the other fingers from below, forming a circle with your middle finger. Then the little finger supports all the weight of the bow. The index finger is the captain on the ship, steering the bow in the right direction. As for the ring finger, you use it to knead the sound and give it warmth. It’s important to stay aware of this if you want to maintain a natural bow hold. 

 2. Build strength in your little finger

If you have a weak little finger, then your bow changes will be lumpy and bumpy because you won’t be able to support the weight. One way you can build strength is by putting the violin down and holding the bow horizontally, with the tip to the left, then whipping it over to the right using your little finger. Very soon you’ll feel how hard that finger is being made to work; it’s like doing abdominal exercises for the finger and you’ll start to feel the soreness in the palm of your hand. But very quickly you should start to feel an improvement. I always advise my students to do this exercise over a bed rather than a stone floor.

3. Practise holding the bow vertically

A key to a good bow hold is to reduce all unnecessary effort, and you can learn to do that by taking the weight out of the bow. I recommend holding the bow in a vertical position, where it feels very light, and where there’s no danger of squeezing or gripping. Then you gradually get used to transferring that same hand position to the bow when it’s lying horizontally.

4. Pay attention to order

You need to coordinate a lot of different movements to achieve smooth bowing technique. Always make sure that you’re beginning with the elbow, then following with the wrist, then the fingers, then the bow. Think of it this way: the elbow is the car and the fingers the suspension, keeping the movement smooth.  You can use your breathing to coordinate the chain of events, breathing with the elbow so that you’re always relaxed when doing a bow change.

5. Practise open string crossings

For this exercise I tell my students is to start on the top two strings, because that’s where they’ll feel the least weight. You play an up bow on the A string, followed by a down bow on the E string. Then, when you feel that’s going well, you move down to the D and the A string, and so forth, always starting with an up bow on the lower string, until you gradually build up a picture of exactly how much your little finger has to support the bow at every stage.

  • Read our review of Isabelle van Keulen’s CD of violin and viola works by Prokofiev, Walton and Vaughan Williams