FOR CELLISTS: AMATEUR, ASPIRING ............... AND CURIOUS

Bow Trajectory On The String

There are several main concepts that we can look at in a discussion of the bow’s trajectory on the string. Please note that bow changes are discussed on their own specific page (click on the highlighted link) and are not included in this section.

“UP” AND “DOWN” BOWS: THE CONFUSIONS OF LANGUAGE!!

The terms “up bow” and “down bow” represent quite a strange use of language, as the directions that the bow actually travels in have very little to do with the traditional concepts of “up” and “down”. Had Isaac Newton played the cello he might have been quite confused about the meaning of these words and might never have discovered gravity! If we however play the cello while lying down, on the edge of a bed or sofa, with the instrument rotated 90º clockwise, we will then understand perfectly why the terms “up” and “down” are used to describe the bow stroke directions!

These terms, of course, come directly from violin playing, and would indicate in fact that the violin used to be held in a position more rotated clockwise than nowadays (in the gypsy/country-fiddler posture). In this position, the violinist’s arm really does “push up” for the up-bow and “pull down” (or fall) for the down-bow. Certainly for the cello, the words “left” and “right” would be more appropriate descriptions of the bow directions than “up” and “down”.

The french however have an even better way of describing the two bow directions: they use the terminology of “push-pull” rather than “upbow-downbow”: the upbow is called “pushed” (poussé) while the downbow is called “pulled” (tiré). This also is a somewhat strange use of language because a push-pull movement usually refers to a movement that is made in an axis towards and away from the body, as if the bow were a saw (or a sword) pointing straight out in front of us. In spite of this directional confusion, “push” and “pull” are still a more helpful way of describing the bow-stroke directions than our english “up” and “down”, because “push” and “pull” both imply that we are working against a certain resistance in each direction rather than just going with gravity (down) or against gravity (up) which, as we have seen, is misleading. These terms are also better than “up” and “down” because they imply (correctly) that we are using different muscles in each direction, rather like a tennis player’s “forehand” and “backhand” strokes. And what’s more, these terms (push and pull) are as valid for violin and viola as they are for cello and bass.

The origin of the bowing symbols is both curious and revealing. The downbow sign evolved from the letter “n” while the upbow sign evolved from the letter “V”. These letters were the abbreviated forms of the latin words “nobilis” (meaning strong, noble) and “vilis” (meaning exactly the contrary).

STRAIGHT BOW

Nature is just not made of (or for) straight lines. This is unfortunate, because the most basic objective of our bow trajectory is that the bow must travel more or less in a straight line, perpendicular (at 90º) to the string axis. If it doesn’t, the string cannot vibrate freely, the sound will be bad and the bow changes can sound scratchy.

Using the bow is like driving a car: we have to direct the bow along the path that we want it to go along. Unfortunately there is one very important difference that makes steering a bow more difficult than steering a car. To drive a car in a straight line, you don’t need to “do” much because a straight line is the easiest, most natural trajectory for a car. But for a hand holding a bow, a straight line is the most difficult and unnatural trajectory. It requires us to “do” a lot with our right arm to avoid the bow trajectory being a natural wide arc around the axis of the body (as all beginners will discover).

So, how do we achieve this “straight” bowstroke ? We do this through a combination of finger, wrist and elbow compensations that could be likened to “folding” the right arm on the upbow, and “unfolding” it during the downbow. To complicate matters, we humans come in an enormous variety of body shapes and sizes. Some of us have long arms, others have short arms. The longer our arms are, the more we need to be use this folding and unfolding of the right arm in order to keep the bow’s trajectory at 90º to the string. Let’s look in more detail at this process.

CURVED, FLOWING, ARM MOVEMENTS

This folding and unfolding of the arm is much more gentle and discreet than origami. Our other main objective for the bow stroke, is to incorporate a maximum of circular, flowing, flexible “cushioning” movements into our bow strokes. As a general rule, we want to avoid both:

  • straight mechanical lines (in everything but the bow’s actual trajectory)
  • stiff, abrupt changes of direction.

It is curious, fortunate, funny – almost miraculous even – that it is only through the exploitation of the extreme flexibility of the right elbow and wrist that we are able to pull a “straight” bow. With a rigid stiff arm and wrist, the bow would automatically describe a perfect arc around our body. This movement is great for some athletics events (throwing the discus) but is totally disastrous for cello bowing because the bow would only be parallel to the string for a short time in its middle section. In other words, a straight arm gives an unwanted circular bow trajectory, while a rubber arm gives a nice straight bow.

With a flexible elbow and wrist, we will not only sound better but will also look better and feel better: music and musicality are, after all, more about dancing than about machine-robotics! And we will also enjoy ourselves more (dancing is more fun than being a sewing machine) and will avoid repetitive strain injuries. Wrist and elbow flexibility and mobilisation are like magic keys that unlock the door to a magic world of expressivity, flow and bowing freedom. Let’s look at these different components of the arm movements.

THE WRIST

The wrist joint is very complicated, as anyone who has ever broken their wrist will know (there are 8 bones in there) .  It is the most complicated joint in the human body. So why does it have so many bones?  Why is it so complicated ? ……………. to allow the enormous flexibility that the human hand needs in order to operate our sophisticated tools (of which the bow is perhaps the most ultra-sophisticated).

The wrist is such a hugely important topic that it has its own dedicted page here.

THE ELBOW

In order to keep the bow at 90º to the string (to avoid it making a wide arc around our body), we need to open out the elbow joint as we go out to the tip of the bow, and close the elbow joint as we come in towards the frog. This, we learn from the very beginning because it is absolutely essential.

There is however another elbow movement which , although not essential, can be very helpful, adding considerable flow and smoothness to a bow stroke. We are talking here about a vertical movement of the elbow in which the upper arm (from shoulder to elbow) comes (falls back) closer to the body on the up bow, and lifts up and away from the body on the down bow. This rise and fall of the elbow is a little like the flapping of a birds wing (in slow motion). It’s funny how, for the elbow at least, the names “down bow” and “up bow” are especially misleading. because the elbow moves in fact in the exact opposite direction.

This elbow movement goes hand in hand with the wrist movement described just above. Lowering the elbow on the upbow encourages (or even obliges) the hand to hang lower from the wrist as otherwise the bow would be lifted off the string. In fact this is what makes the lowering of the elbow on the upbow such an important component of those particularly difficult diminuendo-upbow strokes that end with the ever-so-gentle removal of the bow from the string. Lowering the elbow gently pushes the wrist higher, and ultimately “sweeps” the bow off the string in a beautiful smooth flowing movement.

CONCLUSION TO WRIST-ELBOW FLOW

These two vertical movements of the wrist and elbow are classic examples (illustrations) of the curved, open-ended, smooth, flowing, expansive, dancing movements that we are looking for in all areas of our playing – in contrast to mechanical, rectilinear, sewing machine movements. We can play a perfectly straight bow stroke without these vertical components ….. but encouraginging these movements gives us so much more lightness, flow, control, grace and beauty. I am convinced that these two movements are good repetitive injury prevention aids for the right arm.

CONTROL OF POINT OF CONTACT

The place where the bow hair touches the string, is called the Point of Contact. We need to control this point well because if we don’t, then the the bows uncontrolled movements, towards and away from the bridge, will not correspond to musical necessities and will cause problems of bad sound etc

THE UP BOW

Can you imagine being  scared of up-bows for 35 years? I was! To avoid slow up-bows, especially those with diminuendos, I would spend enormous amounts of time changing and rechanging my bowings. Orchestral playing was often very uncomfortable because I couldn’t change the bowings for the whole orchestra. Sometimes I would beg the group leader to change a bowing – just for me and my problematic up-bow. How embarrassing! That was until a cellist friend told me “raise your wrist on the up-bow”. Never have 6 words made such a difference ………

It can be a very useful idea in fact to think of the up bow as being led by the wrist. This means that the wrist not only raises up a little during the up bow stroke, but is also increasingly inclined to the left. It is as if it was being pushed along by the elbow against a certain resistance, rather like the front of a boat pushing through the water, with the driving force coming from the propellers at the back of the boat. See the page dedicated to the wrist.

Allowing  the elbow and upper arm to come lower and closer to the body (as discussed above) also helps with the up bow, especially on an up bow diminuendo to nothing. Here, if we think of  this elbow/arm movement as following through with a slight rising up at the end of the falling arc, this gives us the gentle lift that we need to take the bow off the string with the greatest delicacy (see “Bow Trajectory in the Air”). In fact, the long slow up bow diminuendo is one of the most delicate and difficult bowing manoeuvres. Slowing the bow down and simultaneously relaxing the pressure is so much easier and more natural to do on a down-bow than on an up-bow. Look, for example, at the Bach Sarabandes, with their characteristic “short – long” pulse:

upbowdimlongslow

It is so much more comfortable to play the shorter faster-bow-speed crescendo stroke of the first beat on an up-bow, with the longer slower diminuendo stroke on the down-bow. In fact the terms “upbeat” and “upbow” are very similair ……. they would seem to be made for each other!  In the Sarabande, the “upbeat” is simply displaced to the first beat of the bar.

Think how common it is for pieces of music to finish on a long, gentle fade-out, and yet how rare it is for string players to choose to do these endings on an up-bow: in fact we will usually go to great lengths to avoid this at all cost. However, as with extensions – and other unnatural but unavoidable components of cello technique – we need to be able to master this skill  …….. therefore we will probably need to practice it! Our objective is not to finish every fade-out-piece on an up-bow, but rather to be able to feel comfortable with the unavoidable slow up-bow diminuendos that will inevitably appear from time to time in the middle of our pieces. For practice and repertoire material for working on this skill (apart from the Bach Sarabandes with “reverse bowing”) click here.

USING THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF THE BOW

It is very easy to get into the habit of not making use of the entire length of the bow. This is because we seldom “need” the bow’s two extremities (tip and frog): we can usually manage OK without those few centimeters of bow hair at either end. But this doesn’t mean that using these extremities is not very useful at times, and certainly a good habit to get into.

It is especially easy to get into the habit of avoiding using the frog of the bow, probably because this is the most uncomfortable part of the bow to use. Bow changes, string crossings and weight control are all more difficult at the frog than in the middle and for this reason, we will often instinctively avoid going all the way to the frog, on even the longest up-bows. Unfortunately, this natural avoidance of the frog has the effect of making us increasingly uncomfortable there. If, on the contrary, we deliberately fight against this natural tendency, and insist on bowing all the way to the frog whenever possible and appropriate, then we will find ourselves becoming more and more comfortable at the frog. If we can become comfortable at the frog with our bow changes, string crossings and arm weight control, then playing in the middle of the bow seems even easier. Practicing at the frog is like doing gymnastics with heavy boots on: a wonderful preparatory exercise that makes everything that comes afterwards seem easy.

It is also easy to forget that the tip of the bow exists. This is a shame because playing at the point of the bow gives such a beautiful gentle sound, with an easily imperceptible start and finish to the stroke and an effortless seamless legato. Of course it does require a certain effort on the part of the arm: we really do need to reach the arm out far (especially for the “A” string) and this can be tiring if we need to stay in this position for a long time.

CONCLUSION

It is surprising how many factors are actually involved in what seems like such a simple task – just pulling a bow across the string from one end to the other. We need to be able to observe all of these factors and one of the best ways to do this is by playing in front of a mirror. We tend to watch our left hand instinctively but now we must make the effort to watch our bow and right arm. To see the bow angle and point of contact, it may help to turn our seat clockwise a little so that our left side is turned slightly towards the mirror. To watch our right arm however it is better to be facing the mirror or turned a little to the right.

Sometimes while playing, we may find that our attention is taken away from the bow by technical difficulties with the notes we are playing. It is precisely at THESE  moments when our bow might go crooked or our point of contact might go wandering. That’s why the best way to observe ourself is actually by recording ourself on video while in a performing situation. Here we will not normally be thinking about anything but musical communication so we will see our bowing in its authentic, unconscious, automatised, natural state.